Data without Context

The debate on whether databases should contain narrative or just raw data cannot be easily answered without some type of existing context or narrative. Manovich questions why an arbitrary sequence of database records should result in a series of connected events, and argues that while database can support narrative, there is nothing inherent in raw data that fosters narrative’s generation. Kirschenbaum makes the point that a user interface cannot be necessarily separated from its end use and describes that the function of an interface is built in layers that are inseparable. In a sense, the existence of raw data cannot be divorced of its social and cultural context or for its end purpose. While the consumption and acquisition of narrative free data is possible, it is hard to imagine a way in which data serves a function that is free of narrative or not tightly intertwined with multiple layers of interaction.

I found Manovich’s piece on narrative free databases difficult to digest. Perhaps because it is a concept so foreign to my own academic training, it is hard to imagine a scenario where data can be divorced from narrative completely even if the narrative isn’t imbued on the data while it is being consumed or recorded. There are additional layers beyond data’s existence. Under what conditions were these data recorded or produced? What is their purpose in being collected in to one space? How can we separate the information available to us from some type of narrative? Manovich used the example of a cultural object as a narrative, but argues that not all cultural objects are narratives. This concept is difficult to comprehend as an archaeologist because our entire body of theory relies on the argument that no cultural object exists separate from a human actor, and that looking at an object without context or narrative is detrimental to our field.

In the same group of readings, Simon, Brennan, and Kelly present differing opinions on how many voices should have authority over the way historical data is presented. Simon’s idea of a physical realm of feedback, multivocal dialogue, and interaction is fascinating, but it also highlights that human actors and voices are the root of data collection, organization, and presentation. While I personally end up agreeing with Brennan and Kelly’s idea of Web 1.5 – a perspective that allows for more interaction but imposes limits – the idea that museums can benefit from more consumer and human feedback supports the argument that historic data cannot necessarily be divorced from human voices. When dealing with a subject that is the product of human actors, how can we compile data without a narrative voice?

-Sarah Love

Web 2.0 and the Digital Humanities

In “Discourse in the Blogosphere”, Nina Simon believes that museums, and by extension the digital humanities, can learn a lot from Web 2.0, the user-driven, democratic incarnation of the internet. First off, Simon observes that “Web 2.0 has cracked open the potential for strangers to interact with each other in meaningful ways.” Specifically, Web 2.0 enables people from diverse backgrounds to discuss difficult, controversial topics, what she calls “the big untouchables.”

Simon recognizes that not all of this talk is productive. Anyone vaguely familiar with the internet knows it has its share of trolls, but Simon is confident that the fear of their impact often outweighs their actual harm. For the most part, she is right. Websites with substantial user input are rarely unmoderated. Wikipedia closely monitors its content and’s editors have strict policies that ban hostile users from their forums.

Yet trolls are not the biggest challenge that museums, and digital humanities in general, face if they are to adapt to a Web 2.0 world. Collections, be they in a museum or some digital equivalent, require curation. In this regard, Simon feels that museums have a choice between allowing visitors to participate in a conversation or contribute to an exhibition. Doing the former needs little curation. Users could comment on an exhibition as they would a video on YouTube or a news article. Moderators would only have to worry about the most noxious of trolls. But posting comments to a forum doesn’t take the most advantage of what Web 2.0 offers to the digital humanities.

Take, for instance, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB). After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University partnered with University of New Orleans to “collect and preserve as much of the ‘instant history’ of these events as possible–history that was being created and published by thousands of average people in their personal blogs, on photosharing websites, and YouTube.” So they created a website that enabled people to easily upload digital records of their experiences (audio files, videos, photographs, etc.), partnered with local organizations to promote their effort, and even offered prepaid postcards and a phone number to reach out to people who were not connected to the internet.

As of March 2009, the project collected roughly 25,000 digital objects, though this was not as successful as hoped. HDMB was by no means a failure. On one hand, the CHNM—perhaps unrealistically—measured it against their hugely successful September 11 Digital Archive. On the other, much of the digital media we take for granted today, such as blogs and camera phones, were not as commonly available in 2001 as they were in 2005. “Surely, we thought,” wrote Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly, two of the project’s founders, “with all that digital content floating around out there, with a well-coordinated publicity campaign, and with a great set of local partners, we would be building a much larger archive.”

Brennan and Kelly’s experience offer some thoughtful lessons for the aspiring practitioner of digital humanities, especially in regards to curation. When creating a user-driven collection, time is of the essence. If the project examines a tragic event, its creators should take care to realize that participants might not be ready to share their experience for a while. When they do share, they might also need some guiding question to help organize their thoughts. As with all websites, the HDMB also had to contend with a lot of spam, and sifting through entries to determine each one’s legitimacy was very time consuming.

To them, the digital humanities can not live in a strictly Web 2.0 world. Instead it requires a partnership that they call Web 1.5. Users are free to contribute their experiences, but curating the input still requires people with unique training. As Brennan and Kelly see it, “for all the potentialities of online collecting and democratizing the past, remember that any project still requires a great deal of analog hands-on history work.”

–Will Greer


Crowd Sourcing

The Internet has evolved dramatically in the last decades. When the Internet first emerged, the content was solely for consumption. Users could view websites, read material, and learn/buy things. This has changed with Web 2.0 and even Web 1.5, as Sheila Brennan and Mills Kelly call it. As a result of new tools online, users have gained the ability to create content. The opportunities offered are endless but also unexplored. After all offering stranger a chance to interact can be both meaningful and democratic, but also create spam. Especially museums can use these options to place content, offer blog interaction with the community, place videos, podcasts, or photos online so users can add their own metadata, share material, or explore history. Tagging material can create new information and help other users locate images with tags the museum/collection staff would have never thought about. Even more as material is digitized and freely available online, the museums can reach a broader audience than would otherwise be able to visit the brick and mortar (probably more accurate steel, glass, and concrete) locations. In many ways, the online material/options, including tagging or timeline making, have their precedents in the non-digital board or post-it notes used in museums to create interaction among patrons. A digitized museum offers options for all types of digital literacy from those who want to contribute to those who only with to watch and explore passively.

There is also much opportunity for social interaction. A scholar can create digital library databases, which does not have to be the old style database that only contains information, but can be an interactive tool. Here friends can share information and thoughts about a book. There is a chance to even interact with strangers who might use ones library to create their own by finding books of similar topics.

The other possibility offered by the web is to respond quickly to natural or human disasters to make a record for posterity. The work by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in the post-Katrina era comes to mind here. When the storm hit, not only was a large number of archives destroyed, there was a need to record the suffering among the people. Working with the local and displaced universities, an effort was made to approach people and get stories, photographs, with needed metadata, including geographic locations. However, a poor and displaced population had a difficult time to respond to Internet requests for information. More important was even in this digital age an old fashion mailing campaign with card and stamped return mail to obtain information. The authors were disappointed that they only accumulated 25,000 objects for their database. The database has been assembled quickly, leaving the authors to delete spam. The project was well intended but failed to take into consideration many of the problems faced by the population in the disaster-hit areas, especially such a poverty stricken region like Louisiana.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson incident, Washington University in St. Louis created a similar project to collect material and data to document the event for history. Like in all cased, the university collected metadata besides the file. However, the collection remains with just around 860 objects relatively small. The intention of these group sourced collections is good and in an increasingly digital age, they are a way to preserve digital created material that archives would otherwise not be able to have or get access to. However, there is still a heavy reliance on people having access to technology and being technology literate. There are still, as both the Ferguson and New Orleans examples indicate, many who have not yet the access to make meaningful contributions. Even more there is a need for intellectually valuable contributions. One of the articles mentioned that only a fraction of the contributions made the cut because they were too short or lacked meaningful contribution. Use of technology as great and beneficial as it can be, still requires literacy both technological and writing.


Niels Eichhorn

Intellectual Thought in the Public Arena

I have, for a long time now, been a proponent of relating academic thought to a broader audience. From my perspective, the most significant aim of that goal is to educate the public on social constructs. In many regards, racism, classism, misogyny, and other forms of prejudice are not an overt display. Sometimes the most dangerous prejudices that permeate our society are covert prejudices because they manifest themselves in decisions and transgressions that we cannot immediately identify.

Remarkable work has been published that has set a stage for historical contexts. To reference an example of a man whose photo is shown in Thin is In, the introductory chapters of Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish describes, in painful detail, the historical contexts of criminal punishment. By including a narrative of Damiens the Regicide, a man who was drawn and quartered for his crimes against King Louis XV, Foucault launches into a historical context of punishment in different cultures and how we have come to regard criminal punishment in our own societies.

The fundamental message of Foucault’s publication is not that much different than the goal of Fulton and Frank’s discussions on the historical development of how our society has practiced misogyny through narratives of abortion. In each example, there is a person who is portrayed to be a villain or a lamb depending on which side of the atrocious “crime” she was positioned. By understanding these ideas within historic contexts, the reader can identify how the prejudice was manifested and possibly even begin to identify similar problems in our society today.

There are a number of academics who stress to their peers and students that academics need to come out of the ivory tower and make their work accessible by the public. I can guarantee that for each time I have heard this sentiment in my academic career, there is most likely a blog that takes intellectual thought, historic research, or social theory, and transforms it into an easily readable piece available in the public arena.

It is almost absurd that I, a proponent of public interaction and bridging the gap between sectors, did not realize that some of the most relatable information was already available outside of the peer reviewed journal.


-Sarah Love

Blogging: Challenge to the “Elders”

The readings were divided between abstract material about scholarly benefits for blogging and specific uses of blog by different historians. Ralph Luker, Jonathan Jarrett, and Alex Cummings provide an insight into the world of blogging with the history profession in mind. Luker in particular provided some important point how largely the younger generation of historians embraces the new technology of blogging to reach a wider audience. There was a certain level of strangeness when the author talks about a significantly younger, both academically and personally, person attaining a higher proficiency in web publishing. Obviously, many of the problems that are common remain an issue in the web-based world. Female bloggers, just like their historian counterparts received less respect for their work. Even more, highly qualified individuals are forced out of the profession by the dubiousness of the academic market. There certainly is a serious professional adjustment needed when the graduate student or post doctoral fellow outdoes their professors in web-based publishing. This raises a point made by the other two authors about the uses and possibilities within the often-narrow confines of the academic world.

As Jarrett and Cummings show, there is a constant evolution of the digital world, which means something written a few years ago will no longer be in the same place or look the same or work the same as when first created. What is most important is that the blog is a medium that needs constant attention and allows the historian to engage in a conversation with a wider and broader audience. The blog does not require the same high standards or peer-review that a journal article or book does. The blog can generate a whole set of new readers who would not read an article or book. However, the lack of peer-review makes blogs dubious to tenure committees. The authors make the arguments, that I would have liked more elaboration on, that the internet reviews posted publications instead of pre-publication. Therefore, the blog provides many opportunities that however still need further evaluation and understanding before they will become a daily part of academic life.

Besides these theoretically works, the blogs by Jude Webre and Gillian Frank give a glimpse at the opportunities of blogging. The abortion blog was a wonderful piece of scholarship. The piece would likely not have made a peer review process and the contemporary agenda infused in the piece gives off a political demand rather than the objectiveness of scholarship. Nevertheless, this is where the blog excels as a means to educate the public about how history can inform modern debates. Considering the heated issue that abortions remain, the piece is a good reminder what the lack of access could mean to women’s health and survival. People like to say one has to learn from history to not repeat it, which I find always a problematic concept, because we never seem to learn from history and the blog was a good example.

The other blog on the Age of Fracture was of much more interest to me because I have loved Daniel Rodger’s Atlantic Crossings since I first picked up the book in a graduate school class. Compared with the counterpart books, by James Kloppenberg, Rodger’s is able to provide an easily accessible narrative. I can only image how well done his Age of Fracture must be. This blog is very different from Frank’s work. Where Frank presented a historical episode with a contemporary political agenda in mind, Webre uses the blog as a tool of historic debate and review. Not sure whether this is a review, roundtable, or conference panel report, the material speaks to the debate surrounding Rodger’s newest book and the question the work has raised among intellectual historians. The blog’s statement regarding Rodger’s “ambivalent and indeed rueful reflection” of his place within the narrative is a good summary of the issue with blogs. Historians operate in a world where they are to educate people about the historical context of modern debates but as mediators between past and present, between archive and legislature, historians occupy an unenviable position of being hated and loved by many.

Niels Eichhorn

Read This and the War Is Won: Can Blogs Save History?

History is a slow moving discipline. A historian’s gravitas among peers usually starts with a dissertation, which in itself starts only after grueling qualifying exams and the inner soul struggles of a prospectus. Then, in many cases, comes the sisyphean-feeling experience of applying for money to get to an archive. Primary sources are painstakingly assembled, a draft is written, and rewritten, and then a committee reviews it to decide if the work merits a Ph.D. After that comes the often lengthy process of revising the dissertation to turn it into a book. If this abridged summary of the road to being a serious scholar makes for dull reading, well, that’s kind of the point. This lumbering, deliberate process shapes how historians think, which is why it is easy for them to dismiss the faster pace and improvisational nature of digital media. But in doing so, they do nothing to make history more engaging to the general public.

For one, digital media challenges a time-tested approach to scholarship, which David Parry describes as “filter-then-publish.” Such gate keeping exists for good reason. Ideally,  modern historians are trained to be skeptical of their own biases, or at least cautious in their assumptions. Developing that kind of critical thinking, alongside the mastery of voluminous historiographies, takes a lot of time. Most consumers of history don’t have that kind of time, and are often content to rest on their own, comfortable assumptions about the past. Several years ago, for example, I taught an upper-level history class on World War II in Europe, where I took pains to illuminate the complex circumstances that led to the German defeat of France in 1940. I showed evidence that most French soldiers—contrary to popular belief—did not surrender en masse, and generally fought quite valiantly, and I gave a detailed account of the long-simmering political turmoil that ultimately manifested in the divide between Vichy and Free France. My lectures drew from well-documented sources by esteemed historians like Richard Overy, Ernest May, and Omer Bartov. After all that work, several of my students still joked that the French army asked Hitler if he preferred red or white wine with the Rhine Valley.

And now, any of these people can start a blog. . . and there is a good chance their readership could easily outstrip that of Bartov’s insightfully researched in Mirrors of Destruction.

But there is good news. Historians can start blogs too, and use them to reach a wider audience. Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett argue that “blogs can help keep an interested audience informed where history would otherwise lose them because of the commitments required by dedicated study and reading.” This may not give historians the magical power to change people’s most stubborn assumptions, but blogs’ shorter length and faster turnaround time can give historians new tools to engage readers. Most importantly, historians can apply their knowledge in something closer to real time. Eric Rauchway, for instance, recently called out Hillary Clinton’s strangely white-washed view of Reconstruction in The Edge of the American West, a blog he co-founded with Kathy Olmstead. A more traditional, peer reviewed method of publication would render the point moot, whereas Rauchway’s timely post discusses the 2016 presidential campaign in a new light.  

Blogs are also an opportunity for historians to flesh out ideas with a new, less formal, “quick and dirty” approach to scholarship. Take, for example, R.E. Fulton’s piece, “She Looks the Abortionist and the Bad Woman.” This brief article explores the links between abortion, physiognomy, and the social conventions of “good” and “bad” women. In all, Fulton’s piece is more of a shot across a topic’s bow than a fully developed argument, but this is also seems to be by design. Through blogs, scholars can posit new ideas and initial research, and develop them through a dialogue with their peers. Jude Webre does something similar in his review of Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, where he addresses other scholars by first name and links his text to their own works.

Cummings and Jarrett point at that such work will not necessary earn anyone tenure or a promotion. The day in which the blog topples the monograph may never come, but history blogs may very well do something more important: make scholarly history interesting.

–Will Greer

Who is History For?

Blog articles such as “A Christmas Abortion” and “She Looks the Abortionist” deal not just in historic subject matter, but in relevant contemporary issues as well. As abortion—its safe, legal access and the rights of women to their own bodies—continues to be a hot topic today among the public, media, and legislators, blogs such as these stand as a reminder of what’s really at stake. In following the narrative of how women were perceived and what perils they faced due to attitudes of the time, we can see our own society and its progress, or lack thereof. Likewise, these authors discuss matters such as historical representations of race, gender, and class in the media, which haven’t changed much over time, placing them squarely within a modern framework.

Gillian Frank asks and then answers how we can best remember Jacqueline Smith’s life and death with, “to dignify her life and her choices, is to highlight the silences surrounding her death and mark the contexts that endangered her as surely as her encounter with an unskilled abortionist.”[1] These silences exist everywhere and who is responding to them? Surely, we are not reading about the horrors of illegal and unsafe abortions in public school textbooks. Outside of the Internet, with its blogs, independent news, and social media, we are not learning about how the biased language of race in America affects our legal system or politics. Bloggers (if not attached to an institution), have more freedom to discuss certain matters that other outlets do not afford.

But are bloggers such as these historical journalists or historians? Is there a difference and does it matter? Blogging can serve a need by giving valid, relevant, and sourced information to the public for discussion. And historian bloggers have the ability to shine a light on society’s shortcomings and show us where we have historically gone wrong or where we have yet to evolve. Our society has lost faith in the media to tell us the truth or even to cover pertinent issues of the day, and so often the scholarly works of free thinkers in academia are inaccessible to the general public because of journal paywalls. Similarly, we are coming to notice silences in our textbooks and to question bias or misrepresentation in books. Are bloggers any more or less trustworthy as sources of information than many of our traditional channels?

And I wonder why we cling so tightly to peer review for everything. Indeed, “Why do academics argue for small panel anonymous peer review?”[2] If “diversity of perspective enriches discourse,”[3] what is accomplished by closing off the interactivity of ideas to the public? It would be inaccurate and unfair to dismiss the critical thinking, knowledge, and familiarity with subject matter that comes from years of dedicated scholarship in an academic setting. These skills are valuable and, while many who don’t hold degrees can certainly educate themselves outside of the Ivory Tower, academia still holds a constructive and theoretically responsible role in training historians and disseminating information responsibly. But who would we consider peers and do we have the right to disqualify the public from the peer review process simply because it lacks degrees and letters?

We are trained to be inclusive and to share authority, and to give voice to silences when we find them. In holding fast to tradition we may be ourselves creating silences. If we can’t offer validity to blogs written by our own scholars, then what respect does that show for the public itself; do we feel that the public is too dumb to engage in conversations about its own history and therefore not “peers”? And if so, is the conclusive message that “history is for scholars, not the people”? We can’t say that we are trying to serve humanity through historical scholarship while locking the public out from discursive interaction with our findings. And if we disregard the abilities of historians to perform their duties outside of the traditional walls of scholarship, we are not showing very much faith in our own training and methodologies. So who is history for?

– Laurel Wilson

[1] Gillian Frank, “A Christmas Abortion,” Notches Blog, December 15, 2015

[2] Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

Blogging: scholarly love

What blogging allows that no other forms of historical scholarship does is an ability to focus on narrowed scholarship and dig in deep. The ability to focus in on random events in time allows for the scholar to really focus on their love and passion in history.  Key examples of this are both of the blogs on abortion. Yes, in a book, one can write anecdotes about events that occur that push the thesis of the scholarship, but they have to fit within that framework. Whereas, blogs can focus on the story and write scholarship surrounding that story.

         As I have said and written a million times, online history is the new frontier and an important aspect of history now. Blogging will be the place that the ideas of rewards and peer review can be implemented. While blogging can allow for the traditional prose scholarly writing, it also allows for access to other sources of media, such as photographs, videos, news clips, sound bites, and newspaper articles. This ability to merge scholarly interpretation and primary sources that the research comes from is a huge strength in blogging.  As mentioned in “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogs, and the Academy,” the ability to hyperlink to other articles allows for writers to attach articles that in a book may have been a tangent in the footnotes. Another strength of blogging is the ability to spread word of an article faster and more broadly with the use of social media sharing than say a book, which often cost money to view and cannot be shared between people so easily. A final strength of blogging is that it is one of the easiest forms of digital technology to learn.

      Blogs also allow for brief amounts of information. The Oral History Association allows for committee chairs to post blogs monthly. Some committee chairs are very resistant to the blogging, therefore only one committee actually utilizes this, but every month they write about an interesting event or information that they need to spread about their committee. For two months the international committee shared stories from award winners on their trip to the OHA conference. Blogs can be a safe place to play out your possible thesis, thoughts, or research with the ability to receive comments and support in gathering some information.

The downside of blogging is that anything can be written by anyone. There is no peer review aspect of blogging. Although one for professors could easily be developed. Along with that as mentioned in the essays, it can be difficult to gather a following.

If one wants to use blogging as another form of academic writing, it should 1. be used as a new media 2. Be highly researched, just as any other scholarly paper 3. Use online-open access materials, so that if a non-professor or someone who does not have access to closed online archives could still interact with the sources and finally be written in an academic, yet public friendly tone.

Shawn Clements