It’s a Trust Issue

Sheila Brennan and T. Mills Kelly give us invaluable information on collecting data on tragedy for the historical record.  The depth of the personal devastation and sorrow for those who experienced Hurricane Katrina is extreme.  Kelly and Brennan are undoubtedly correct when they suggest that we add 25 percent to any staff time estimates we would have for collection of information for any similar type of event for which we want to collect a digital history. In addition, their experience that applying for two year grants simply did not give them the time and resources they needed to complete the job before them is important for any of us concerned about raising money for a similar project.

For many families, Katrina cost them dearly.  They lost loved ones or were permanently displaced as all their family wealth was also lost.  This was especially true for many working class people whose total family wealth resided in the equity in their homes, which had been passed from generation to generation.  For many, rebuilding was out of the question and there still has not been adequate compensation and it is likely there never will be.  That fact alone makes collecting their oral histories of the event a delicate undertaking.   It may require years of grieving before they can talk about what happened to them.  Still, because of the difficulties Brennan and Kelly encountered, they have given future historians, political scientists and sociologists invaluable information on how to plan for and execute a project like their digital collection.  Their experience, which they outlined in this article, led them to believe that the digital history of tragedies needs to be collected through a more interactive web experience than 1.0, but less interactive than Web 2.0.  This is invaluable information for future historians.

IDespite the caveats on open tagging put forward by Brennan and Kelly (takes too much staff time to curate those tags), Nina Simon provides some exciting, interesting ideas in “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0.” She lays out a number of ways in which museums can move from flat websites to websites that use interaction between visitors and the museum and with each other to create a more engaging museum experience.  Her suggestions offer a series of ways to make the museum experience one of participation rather than passive looking – or as she put it “lurking.”   Simon would like to see museum websites become more like social media sites, creating space for comments, additions and new ideas.

While these ideas would most certainly increase visitors, even regular visitors to these sites, it should be noted that some of us are involved in interaction with websites through much of our day and might enjoy a little lurking, which could also be called watching and thinking about what one is seeing. There is something to be said for enjoying the work of artists or the artifacts that lend richness to historical exhibitions without having to make it about you.

In addition, she gave me pause when she started talking about perhaps curating, labeling and uploading information about our personal library or personal belongings. I agree this might be a great way to connect with like-minded book readers or even to find people who have libraries one hasn’t thought of, but might want to add to one’s learning and collecting.  However, in this particular time we know that everything we put up on the web is collected, curated and used to sell us endless products almost immediately upon our buying anything, indicating any interest in a subject or type of art or any other preference we might have that can be turned into a sales opportunity by any number of commercial interests.  There is no question that once you click onto a museum, that preference is immediately known and if you buy a ticket online or with a credit card, your known sales possibilities are enhanced for those commercial interests.  Getting it down to which exhibits you visit and which books you have in your personal library is a little too scary for this user.  In addition, some of us are concerned by government and quasi-government organizations that may be collecting information about us.  Too much is already known about my book preferences just through my purchases at Amazon.

Therefore, I think that it might be prudent to consider carefully whether what we put on the web regarding our museum preferences.  By all these interactions, are we just adding more information to unknown databases that can be searched and massaged through any number of algorithms to sell us more stuff or find out too much about our activities and inclinations.  It may be time to start thinking more carefully about what we put out there for everyone to see and use. (Hopefully, I have used those two correctly – databases vs. algorithms – I can’t say I understood what I was reading well enough to know if that is the case.)


Data Data Everywhere

We have spent a lot of time this semester talking about what “history” actually is. Part of the problem with determining an answer is that damn “narrative” thing that keeps getting in the way. Humans naturally seek a narrative in things. It might not be as flowery as a Jane Austen novel, but at the very least, we seek endgames.

Manovich discusses this in his article. Even something like Tetris has a type of narrative; get the blocks away or the game is over. Reach the last level. FInish the last page. The problem he sees with a database is a lack of such conclusions. To him a database is a static series of papers, nothing more. To his credit, when his article was written (1998) this might have been all the database could be, because that was available.

Regardless, Manovich’s problem is that he does not look beyond what a database is, to what a database can do. Nina Simon goes into this with her article. Her version of a database is a collective effort to sort out truth. A database can provide all the information one needs to construct a narrative. It just might require more effort on the part of the historian accessing the database.

One of the consistent issues presented in the readings for this week is the ever-changing internet itself. While Web 1.0 was just a place for stuff to go, Web 2.0 feels like the wild west. One of the problems Simon presents is the fact that some people would provide inaccurate information for a database. If the internet database is going to be used as history, more moderation is necessary.

But still, the question lingers; is the database history? It is an odd thing to figure out. On one hand, a piece of pottery in a museum is historical evidence. But the collection itself is a collection of historical evidence, in the same way that a monograph is a book about history, but not so much history.

The question becomes more complicated when you start to look at something like Social Explorer. Social Explorer is an incredibly thorough source of data and census records. But it is just that- numbers and percentages. There are no names, no stories to tell. Is this history?

I prefer to think of a database as a medium a historian can use. It is our job to pick the numbers out of the database and use them to tell a story. The same goes for a museum curator, who chooses works to present in a certain order to convey a message. That is where the history comes into play. Perhaps we as a discipline should focus less on semantics and more on collaboration; more could be accomplished that way.

Data Doesn’t Speak for Itself

Databases exist everywhere. In libraries, museums, businesses, government, our own personal records. The advent of the internet did not bring about their mass existence, but digitization brought them closer to the fingertips of the general (and sometimes random) user. Databases are the foundation of good non-fiction. If you want to tell a true story you base it on facts, which are collected by you from a database.You cull the databases to extract the work you had in mind. Of course, there are countless fragments of databases, countless databases in entirety you may ignore for your project, too. They may pertain to the same subject but don’t add to your narrative, or they don’t shape it the way you want. This is the manipulation of data. No matter how you access it, physically in a dusty basement or digitally across the internet, the result is the same. Databases do not stand as storytellers on their own – they require us to decide what within tells the story.

The difference is that with digital databases, the story may or may not be tidied up for  you. Digital databases can span multiple types of records – documents, photographs, audio and video recordings, models, all which have been collected and cataloged by someone with the interest.Not all digital databases are all-inclusive. Sometimes the data is raw. Sometimes it isn’t, and you find yourself exploring an “interactive” narrative. The user must navigate the collection on their own, build their own story line piece by piece. Manovich argues that interacting with data in such a way does not craft a true narrative – with which I agree, it is not a narrative by definition during the act of manipulating the database. You don’t often navigate through a linear story. Your trail may wander, backtrack, split multiple times or completely divert. However, in the end, one comes away with a collection of facts that can be compiled and organized. And, if we are working with the subject of history, I think it is natural for our brains to often arrange the facts in a linear progression. The end result, though personally crafted, is still a narrative.

It has become museum cannon that there is no “right way” to experience collections. That freedom of choice is imperative to learning. Even when a database has been brought to order under a digital curator who has picked and chosen for the user what they may click through, the bounded options still often allow freedom of movement within the interface. Two different visitors will not click through the same way. Simon argues that museums have a great deal to learn from the Web 2.0 model that allows open, two-way conversation across the internet. This dialogue removes the authority of the museum and acknowledges the contributions of the visitors. In many ways, digital collections can mirror their older sibling’s change of heart about how audiences can best experience and interact with their collections. Museums are making the shift of placing the power of knowing in the visitor’s hands. Rigid instruction is out. Linear navigation of the collections is not as popular. To present your digital collection in such a way that assumes users know what they are looking at without any sort of guidance, or as such that isolates users who are not professional researchers does your collection a disservice. Kirchenbaum expresses the sentiment that the Blake Archive was always meant to be for the serious researcher. But with a little more effort put into the interface and design, could it not be for both? The database is already there, online, waiting for the PhD student to query it. Make an interactive collection for the layman to click around in, too.


Pam Enlow

Databases as Foundation for Narrative and Engagement

For this week’s post, I chose to focus on Les Manovich’s “Database as a Genre of New Media” work that discusses the underlying structure of media and on Nina Simon’s article “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0” that provides ways in which cultural institutions can use these underlying structures to engage users.

Les Manovich states that the database is the dominant structure of all digital media. He also argues that databases themselves cannot constitute narratives, because they are simply collections that give all included items an equal significance. Often these databases have search functionalities or other features that allow users to search for or access the included items, but he argues that those actions by the user do not themselves tell a story or create a narrative because it is ultimately random. Manovich also addresses the Internet’s openness and iterative nature as part of its inability to be a narrative. He argues that websites are constantly changing and therefore cannot make up a cohesive or consistent narrative, simply because of the nature of the medium, and rather, it is simply a collection, or database. But what is a narrative? Manovich infers in the first paragraph that a narrative would tell a story, include some kind of development, and have a sequence, such a beginning and end, all of which is not possible with the database format. However, he does say that databases can support linear or interactive narratives, but that “there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself which would foster its generation.” He mentions that cultural institutions and digital works that include cultural content often utilize the database form, through things like virtual museum experiences and collection databases with various search functionalities and facets.

Nina Simon’s “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0” looks more closely at specific ways in which cultural institutions can build upon and use the databases and digital mediums discussed in “Database as a Genre of New Media” to engage users and visitors. Simon asserts that museums can use the web to to create spaces that allow users engage with one another, through curating, generating, and sharing content. Users can participate by doing things like tagging resources, collaboratively authoring information, and even having web profiles. She also talks of the web as a democratic platform that allows for users to have authority and ownership, and she describes Web 2.0 as being much more interactive than Web 1.0 by stating “Web 2.0 transforms Web visitors into Web users.” She also argues for the use and adaptation of some of these approaches to be used in the physical space of the museum as well and argues that many of them can be transferable.

Both authors touch on the changing, impermanent nature of the Web. Manovich seemed to be pointing it out as a flaw, while Simon is more interested in using the fluidity of the medium to engage users. One of the biggest takeaways from these readings for me was the idea of trusting users and contributors and ultimately making museums and cultural institutions more community-based. Simon discusses the pros and cons of engaging with users, especially online, and comes up with two models: inconsistent quality is an inevitable results of increased participation, while more substantive content will results in restricted or limited participation. I like the idea of trusting users but also having checks with things like enforced ground rules for online discussion boards and clear guidelines and requirements for user-submitted content to ensure unique and worthwhile additions to the collection. This reminded me of Documenting Ferguson by Washington University that actively solicits input from its community (with some terms and conditions) and even provides ways in which users can submit content anonymously.

-Sarah Kirkley

Week Four: History and New Media

This week’s readings focus on the subject of new media and various ways they manifest themselves in our everyday lives.

The first reading “Database as a Genre of New Media” discusses the various ways that new media has reused the methods of databases and how databases are used as a structured collection of data. Databases allow users to view, navigate, and search collections of items; many digital history collections use this method of storing images, data, etc., for public consumption. Other examples of databases are multimedia encyclopedia’s CD-ROM’s, web databases and even video games (pg. 7). According to author Lev Manovich, databases “occupy a significant, if not the largest, territory of the new media landscape,” but also questions why narratives still exist in new media if databases are more useful.

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media continues the discussion of history and uses of new media in his article “Essays on History and New Media.” Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig discuss how the humanities has accepted using digital forms of new media to collect history through digital archives. By using digital means of displaying archives, historians are able to use a less inexpensive, more diverse type of archive. The most important thing to remember is that economical forms of digital history does not compromise the integrity of the historical collection. Another aspect of digital new media is the method of historians seeking input from the public. Requesting the public to share their stories of a historical event (ex: Hurricane Katrina) in an effort to collect as much history surrounding the event as possible. After the disappoint of collecting digital input from the public relating Hurricane Katrina, historians began to study what could cause a request for public input to be unsuccessful. Historians came to the conclusion that you must allow enough time to pass (especially if it surrounds a tragic, or traumatizing event) before requesting that the public revisit a traumatic moment in their lives. Also, don’t underestimate the sheer amount of manpower digital history collections may need. Additionally, when requesting input from the public, make the methods of contribution quick, simple and easy. Create an interface that allows for public input via blog postings, uploading images, recording videos, etc. This not only makes the method of collecting public personal input easy on the contributor, but it also makes the method of archiving, storing, and sorting contributions, easier on the historian as well.

The term “Web 2.0” appears in both the “Essays on History and New Media,” and in the article “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums can Learn from Web 2.0” by Nina Simon. Web 2.0 refers to “web-based applications of which users generate, share, and curate the content” (pg 257). The article focuses on the ways in which Web 2.0 promotes user interactions, and how museums can apply peer-to-peer interaction to encourage visitor interaction with the museums they visit.  Some historians argue that utilizing Web 2.0 with museum visitor interactions may result in repeat visitation from visitors, more engagement from visitor, and a more personalized and meaningful experience for visitors. Disadvantages of using Web 2.0 interactions with museum visitors would involve the fact that most museums do not change in design and content, at least not as frequently as web content does. Attempting to keep up with the constant changes of Web 2.0 could result in an unnecessary burden upon museums. Perhaps the most obvious disadvantage is the fact that Web 2.0 platforms are open territory, allowing access to some of the most uncivilized, hateful, and vile content. Would museums want to allow users to contribute offensive materials to their institutions? This is a dilemma that museums will have to decide whether the pros out weight the cons; either way, it is worth a try.


50 Shades of Academia: Blogs and Social Media

By: Evan Meehan

Question: Are blogs scholarly?

Answer: No.*

Question: Why not?

Answer: Because they are not peer reviewed.

Question: Why are peer reviewed writings regarded as scholarly?

Answer: Because the peer reviewers themselves are credible, and they have deemed the work being reviewed as credible.

Question: Why are peer reviewers credible?

Answer: Because they have had their work peer reviewed and it was deemed to be credible.

*by certain definitions of scholarly.

Perhaps this question and answer dialogue represents an oversimplification of the process of peer review – but in a nutshell this is why blogs are typically regarded as not being scholarly.

So, why then don’t bloggers simply get together and establish their own peer review system? Continue reading

Week 3: The problem may also be the positive

Marginalization in historic and academic writings is near commonplace. The misogynistic overtures and extreme racial undertones found in some of the most celebrated writings from the past couple hundred years are telling of the culture we find ourselves a part of. Creating one’s own way and defining the self in academic writings as a purpose has found a home in the blogosphere—the Internet journal.

The Blogosphere has created a safe haven for the wildly fanatic and young scholar alike. Each hoping to get their ideas out on their own time and without the over zealous red pens of copy editors. The blog is the ultimate publisher and the ultimate peer review system—if those reading are in fact peers of course.

The study of history in tradition is near tedium and comprises a litany of facts and ideas to memorize and regurgitate later. What the blog has allowed is a place of analysis and a place to “introduce some unexpected influence and ideas” into ones own professional work according to Tim Burke in Ralph Luke’s “Were There Blog Enough and Time”.

The conversation is what gives the blog its modernity. The blog as the classroom of the future creates a space for intellectual practice and diversity of theory. Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett mention the “semi-permanence” of online material and the issue that arises from the rapid innovations technology and therefore the web undergoes. These

“Living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps and eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye and nothing we do is truthful”
-Milan Kundera “The Incredible Lightness of Being”

Should we then take this online material with a grain of salt? Can we be none to sure that the content is not solely written for the purpose of the potential reader but for true and uninhibited scholarship? This is an argument against the blog but also an argument against the traditional subject journal. All scholarship is for public consumption and will always have the reader in mind. The journal does not rid that problem but it may mitigate it as most often online scholarship is written in an effort to spark conversation and therefore may be a bit more raw and welcome to review.

We must choose for ourselves not to look and think of history and the study of it as a precast fabrication we must strictly adhere to. The amateur historian and the thought provoking academic can meet and shed the insignificance created by traditional modes of study and bounce ideas, theories, intuitive remarks in a free and open environment. The modern blog can be understood as an instrument, a tool, in the breaking of the chains of old scholarship.

-Lynn Robinson

Blogs, Journalism, and History’s View: Week 4

E.H. Carr wrote a book called “What is History?” in 1961. The book questions what it means to be a historian. Carr wrote this work in a time when history was moving from Great Men and the Long Duree to the addition of cultural studies and anthropology to the discipline. Many did not know what history would become. Just last week, we read as Hayden White questioned the idea of narrative and its place in history.

I do not mean to make the advent of blogs to be as dramatic a change as the Cultural Turn or Postmodernism. But I did find myself asking Carr’s question as I went through the blogs for this week’s discussion. History as a field is often held back by its archaic nature. We look at old things, we use old media to talk about said old things. But this approach means that when we are presented with historical work that uses new technology, we question it.

Take “A Christmas Abortion.” Gillian Frank’s article about the murder of Jacqueline Smith is heartbreaking. It uses her murder to highlight the cultural stigmas surrounding unmarried pregnant women, and the lack of access to contraceptives that inevitably led to her illegal abortion. It uses hyperlinks to connect the reader to related sources and information.

But is it history? In Cold Blood is a fascinating true crime novel, and it, too, was well researched by its author. But it is not seen as history. The difference between Gillian Frank and Truman Capote is that Frank has a position at Princeton. I do not doubt the validity of the post. But i wonder about what category it belongs in.

If Cummings and Jarrett are to be trusted (which I by all means do,) then the crucial difference between what the man in the Ivory Tower and Joe Historian call history is peer review. A piece of historical research must be read by other historians, and they must give approval and opinions. But I do not believe blogs are free of such. Look at any article or blog ever written. There are comments. There are edits, some of which the author uses after the fact. Most certainly there are opinions. Moderators might be necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that technology exists, and if I can watch someone play League of Legends without someone calling me an inappropriate name, then Frank can write “A Christmas Abortion” without being called “tasteless.”

Will blogs ever be placed in the same prestige as a monograph? I do not think we can answer that question yet. Again, I find the example blogs from this week more as pieces of journalism than history, but that could just be bias talking. I would certainly rather read an article than a book for research. I also would rather write an article instead of a book. Does that make me a journalist, a historian, or lazy?

If we are being honest with ourselves, probably all 3.

-Jacob Dent

Blogs and Public Perception

This week we focus on the media’s portrayal of events and how it can potentially shape the public’s opinion. The two articles that perfectly explain this phenomenon are “Christmas Abortion,” and “She Looks the Abortionist and the Bad Woman”: Sensation, Physiognomy, and Misogyny in Abortion Discourse.” Both articles focus on the controversial subject of abortion and how the media has portrayed abortion and how that perception has changed over time.

The subject of abortion has always been a very controversial subject and has remain such, even in modern times. While public opinions have evolved over the years regarding abortion, it still remains controversial. Abortion is more often portrayed currently as a women’s right to choose, but detractors focus on abortion being a deplorable act of ending the life of an innocent, unborn child. Perhaps the change in the public’s perception to abortion could be attributed to the media’s portrayal of abortion, a portrayal that has softened over the years. While abortion is still viewed negatively in the public eye, it isn’t nearly as negative as past media portrayal.

According to the article “Christmas Abortion,” in the 19th century, abortion was mostly discussed in terms of the mysterious abortionist, who was typically portrayed as the silent” evil villain.” In contemporary media, the mysterious abortionist isn’t mysterious, with anti-abortion hatred focused upon Planned Parenthood. The media did not publicly name the abortionist by name, but mostly wrote about the evils of the mysterious abortionist, allowing them to retain some form of anonymity. The public expressed anger about the abortionists performing abortions, but since they could not place a face to the accused, the anger was more than likely placed upon the woman who sought out the services of an abortionists.

Decades later, the media went from focuses on abortionists to the women who sought those services, portraying them loose and lacking in moral integrity. This caused the public to view abortion as an act of promiscuity, and poor morals. One can assume the shame women endured when having an abortion, which of course led to dangerous, back alley abortions. The story of a botched abortion that led to murder in the article “She Looks the Abortionist and the Bad Woman”: Sensation, Physiognomy, and Misogyny in Abortion Discourse,” set in the 1950’s, was a testament to how the media can shape public opinion. Rather than focusing on the horrors of the botched abortion, and murder of an innocent young woman named Jacqueline, the media focused on the salacious details of her murder. According to the article, by focusing on Jacqueline’s murder and abortion, the reader is distracted by hard facts that should concern them regarding abortion. The fact that births from unwed mothers had increased, and more importantly, the fact that botched abortions occurred due to public stigma against abortion and how difficult it was to obtain a safe abortion due to harsh, anti-abortion legislation. Journalists  would later bring attention to the criminalization of abortion, which possibly changed the public’s view of abortions why legalized abortions are so important to reproductive rights of women.

Blogs and the Public’s Perception

As Cummings and Jarrett note, blogging and academia still have a rather rocky relationship.  Admitting that you have a blog as a historian could very well help secure a new position or disqualify you all together, a conundrum making finding employment even more daunting than it already is.  The biggest problem that bloggers face is the prevailing public perception of what a blog is.  “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”  A common warning that seems to only become truer by the day with even the current political administration touting things such as “alternative facts.”  Generations are taught from an early age to be skeptical of everything you see on the internet, especially things like blogs.  But one has to wonder why, as they are often written by actual professional historians, historical blogs, or even other professional blogs as well, do not gain confidence boosts from the museum effect.

As many have written about in the museum field, public perception trusts museums and historians above all else for historical narratives.  As soon as a museum places an object under a plexiglass bonnet and shines a light on it, it becomes historically important.  For this point, I often reference the History Center’s newest exhibit Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta.  For that exhibit, many items went “under the bonnet” so to speak, but the most striking was a MARTA token machine from the 1990’s.  A large, black, almost lumbering rectangular cube of metal.  But, as soon as it was in the case with focused gallery and case lighting, it suddenly looked rather dignified.  An important relic of a bygone era, not a frustrating machine that many have kicked in anger throughout its short stint of service.  The public has given museums and historians the power to choose what is important and relevant to the study of history.

So why, then, does all of this change as soon as this choice passes into the digital arena?  Is it the democratizing agency of the internet?  Or, is it the consistently waning trust the public has due to so called “alternative facts” and the rampant spreading of fake news during the most recent election?  Part of the problem, at least, rests with the Universities themselves.  The haphazard acceptance or denial of professional blogging by their current and prospective staff only serves to erode further the state of trust.  Accepting, and even promoting, professional blogging among historians, universities could go a long way in fostering this avenues of scholarly dissemination.  For surely the need for public awareness of history is greater now than any time in recent memory.