Databases (2/26)

(So sorry this is late – this morning got away from me!)


The article “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5,” by Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly, was a very practical guide to a project that seems similar to what I want to become of my final project for this class, in style if not in subject matter. They offer lessons from their mistakes and successes, which is helpful. I want my final project, in its best state (meaning, as it would succeed beyond the realm of this class) to be a sort of growing literary archive, almost an instant archive, of events and historical places and people’s experiences with them. I want it to focus on Atlanta, with a big, practical part of it being a calendar of all literary events in the city, that anybody can contribute to, and a sort of growing documentation of this list. I want to include an “On the Road” segment where people visit literary historical places and reflect on their experiences. My role in all of this would be as coordinator and sorter, and the things I learned the most from this article are the exact things I was a little afraid of: for this to be successful, I need to expand my understanding of how much work it’s going to take (especially if I am the only “staff member”), and if I want this to grow to other cities, which in my longterm plan, I do, I would need other, local support from those cities to really have the site be everything I want. I think I can do Atlanta well, because I’m local and can make/have connections to the right people here to help get this started, but researching other cities’ literary scenes and history would be more of a full-time job, so I’d need help, other people who cared about the project. Luckily my project isn’t dealing with tragedy or even recent history, and the group of people I’d be trying to attract to contribute or to read are a very niche community, so finding them may not be as difficult as it was for the national Katrina project.


In Lev Manovich’s article “Database as a Genre of New Media,” I found the discussion of narrative fascinating. He says, “As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.” I do believe this is true, that they’re natural enemies, but I think a large part of that has to do with control. The author of a narrative does not want to give up control over it; we have not even been taught how that’s possible. But approaching this lack-of-narrative structure as a new media can stretch us to find art in new places. I think the web’s method of organizing (and that of video games and other digital media) has started to trickle down into written forms, de-prioritize narrative, and I love to see this. Writers are challenging strict forms of plot and narrative, specially in Creative Nonfiction. Neil Patrick Harris wrote his autobiography as a choose your own adventure story. Christopher Ware’s Building Stories does away with the book format in lieu of something that physically looks more like a game. There are exciting things to come.


Here’s an interesting article on Ware’s work:

Databases that Speak

The birth and transformation of the internet over the last two decades has revealed that we can be very creative in the way that we store, use, and display information. Any range of topics can now be processed quickly and easily into a digital format and showcased on a webpage. The basis for this stored information is nothing more than a collection of information known as a database. Through databases we can present and preserve history in new and fascinating ways, add to the story overtime, and provide new story content to readers everyday depending on how often we are willing to update the database. It seems the avenues of storytelling are now endless. Our new stories are also easily accessed and can be viewed by millions if not billions of people.
However, as Lev Manovich’s article pointed out in Database as a Genre of New Media databases do not present a real narrative, and in fact are completely opposed to narratives because of their natural tendency to throw information together rather than create any sequence of events. Manovich basically says that since the end of the Enlightenment we can view the modern world as nothing more than an unorganized mass of information. The massing of information has led to a desire to order it just as narratives, but in a very different way. Databases are simply a way of collecting this information so that we can make sense of it. Simply put, a narrative lends itself to an order of events while a database orders itself to a collection. So there you have it, but where does this place us as historians? How are we to tell a story if a narrative and the database are so opposite of each other?
In Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5 by Sheila Brennan and T. Mills Kelly it appears that this may be one of the best ways to write history on the internet. Given the case studies of New York’s 911 and New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina the authors point out that the ordering of real-world historical information can be quickly compiled to create a database of history. With a lot of work and communities of people involved in the events contributing to the project the database of history can become a very useful and informative webpage. The pictures and stories can be added to the database nearly as quickly as they unfold and the historians can arrange these details as they come in. Stories, then, are provided by the community and indexing and order are created by historians. Before long an entire library of pictures and stories exists around a single event. This is quite the history project. Not only have the historians captured the real-time stories but they have managed to preserve the information for future generations.
Databases in this sense can tell real stories and bring about a level of detail unknown to past generations. Although they have a very different nature from narratives they can provide the historian with a very useful way of preserving information of an event or time period. Two decades into the internet age we can assume that we know everything there is to know about database collections and management. However, as only a few short years in this new era as taught us, things can change very quickly, and the nature of databases could witness more changes as the computerization of our lives become more apparent over the next ten to twenty years. The future for database storytelling is bright to be sure, but a few years down the road may bring even more interesting and fascinating storytelling creativity to the hands of historians any anyone else wanting to tell a story via the internet.

This is an interesting take on storys in the business world

Meaning & Trust: Scholarship in Web 2.0

By Steven R. Garcia

Of the many themes discussed in our course, the subject of effectively using the digital medium has shared center stage with arguments on credibility and accessibility. What exactly ‘qualifies’ as digital history? How does the scholar combine academically-rigorous research, compelling narratives, and theses with a digital archive, podcast, or web blog? In short, how is that data interpreted or experienced differently online as opposed to, say, having been read in a book or a traditional print article? And, furthermore, is it worth investing in these new mediums? While my personal answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ that’s not the case entirely in some of our readings this week. Two in particular, Lev Manovich’s article “Database as a Genre of New Media” and Nina Simon’s “Discourse in the Blogosphere,” show varying degrees of excitement and trepidation at the thought of structuring vast quantities of data into meaningful narratives on the web. Initially, I thought, why is this a problem? The internet provides (and has provided over the course of its existence) a great many tools and resources for educators and scholars to share or access new knowledge. From the snobbiest subscriber-model journal to your every-day high school teacher, both ends of the academic spectrum make use of the web for scholastic purposes on a regular basis.

Then, I remembered a brief discussion about digital history and hyperlinks.

I think, in great part, our discipline’s engagement with digital media has moved past (although not entirely) from labeling a list of links or some articles posted online as ‘digital history.’ I realize then that this simplistic use of the web as storage and as repository, the same mode of thinking that Manovich writes about when he debates the duality between data and algorithm or database and narrative, is still pertinent as a standard today. By standard, I refer to the metrics by which we judge ourselves and other academic content creators on the web today. Hypothetically speaking, can we as a scholars give praise to a website that only collates information and presents it as a series of blue, underlined links, albeit well organized? Obviously, the answer is no — but it then begs the question of creating narrative, of giving meaning to chunks of data. Nowadays, the means to do so are much more readily available. From WordPress to Omeka, the ability to easily start-up a website, online exhibit, archive, etc. has, compared to the past, never been easier. Furthermore, weaving in a narrative (especially with a program like Omeka) to a large body of pictures, videos, documents, and links too has never been easier.

Still, there are other valid concerns. We can talk all we want about accessible programs to create compelling scholarship that combines a wealth of academic research with easy-to-use and navigate web tools, but both Manovich and Simon (to a greater degree) caution against loose definitions of the user and user input. Manovich questions the user’s ability to appreciate or interpret narrative through the database, stating that users can just as easily “[access] different elements, one after another, in a usually random order,” meaning then that “there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all.” Put another way, Simon warns against “the troll, the spammer, the grump who enjoys abusing other users and embarrasses the host institution” of online databases, archives, or museums. In both cases, Manovich and Simon question the productiveness of producing databases or archives and opening them up to the online populace. The range, they may rightly fear, is too great to create any one cohesive narrative — to generate meaning. But, it is here where I disagree and echo Simon’s sentiments. Much like she argues in her piece, I think that we’ve moved past fears of online backlash from trolls or haters — there are systems in place to mitigate that. Instead, there’s a sort of relationship between the content creator and the user, where both equally contribute to the creation of narrative and meaning in online databases and archives. In the end, by allowing this back-and-forth to occur do we as scholars arrive at creating any sort of meaningful narratives as a means of organizing our scholarly data via digital mediums.

In searching for a counter to Manovich, I found a blog on this debate between storytelling and databases. Although I already stated that I concur with Simon’s approach to ‘user-generated narrative,’ guided by the hand of a scholar (i.e. the digital historian), this piece suggests something similar. Link:

Storytelling with Databases

There are strong connections between the technical and storytelling sides of databases. In his article, Lev Manovich describes databases in the computer science context as “a structured collection of data” that can take on different types, such as relational, network or object-related. He uses the example of CD-ROMS where a “virtual museum” could take a user on a tour of a museum’s collection. In another example, computer games are a “narrative” database- the player needs to beat the level to move the story forward. This ties into the computer’s algorithmic side, where learning the program’s formula will make the game easier. However, Manovich still argues that because the ideas behind narratives and databases are so different, they are “enemies” of each other. In emerging technologies and internet trends, however, these “enemies” could work in concert to tell a story, if done right. An example of this that he notes is David Blair’s Wax Web and Moscow WWW Art Centre, two websites where different media types can form interfaces for databases.

In the early years of the internet, historians thought that creating these databases would be a good way to collect stories. Although some databases have helped to make narratives easier to tell, they can still have their challenges. As Brennan and Kelly note, the “digital memory banks” started to collect stories from those who survived natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Working with the University of New Orleans and using Google Maps, they recorded and categorized stories from survivors and volunteers by location, noting in the database that the storm led to the forced relocation of residents. However, the project was not seen as successful as an earlier project that focused on 9/11. This may have been because, not only was 9/11 a “unique” event in history, but the launch of websites and technologies between 2001 and 2005 show how information got promoted or left behind. Both authors note that the lessons learned include: using websites and interfaces that make it easier for individuals to post their stories and configuring ways to prevent spam.

For my article this week, a database by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice release a database containing more than 35,000 records relating to slaves, their slaveowners, and slave ships that entered New York from 1525 to 1865. The database will not only scholars and those who run historic homes with slave owning pasts, but it will also help the public understand more about New York’s slave-owning past.

Finally, a question to fellow bloggers: What databases have you used in the past? Did you grow up with CD-ROMS that you may have used in work or school?


The logic behind a database system is not that a story is being told. Databases purpose is not to tell a story or lead you towards some significant solution; its sole purpose is to provide the viewer with information. This information however has an equal amount of significance and importance throughout. In Lev Manovichs article, he discusses the different types of databases, and how questions are answered differently depending on which realm. For example in scientific databases, the information is formulated to be accessed in a certain order. With new media forms constantly on the horizon there is an influx of different databases that occur with them. Some of these new forms have been CD-roms and DVD-roms which was a way to store the aforementioned databases. This article also discusses different narrative platforms. Such as with the use of video games; its users experience a narrative. A story is being told with a set beginning, middle and end. In the article written by Nina Simon, it discusses museum discourse with its viewers and how using the internet could help reach its viewers/visitors. The author feels that in order to create a better discourse, should better develop relationship with use of the internet. For many places a way to distribute information to current visitors and potential visitors is by supplying the information on the web. At the time of this article the most visited sites were Myspace and Facebook. The correlation between these sites and a museum were that these sites became so popular and received repeat visitors due to the personalization that is given to each visitor. Being able to gear information and exhibits to visitors based off of their likes and tastes would create a better opportunity for the museum to become a venue for discourse. Simon does list several drawbacks to placing museum in a 2.0 status: 1. a museum exhibit is given to the public view once it is in a completed state; in 2.0 it would be forever changing 2.museums are designed spaces; placing it in 2.0 opens it up to all designers and interfaces 3. Museums rely on authorities: curators, researchers, designers, educators. Web 2.0 relies on users, who grant each other authority at will. Simon offers an excellent example of how 2.0 can create a relationship with a museum. The Brooklyn Museum of Art, uses several different type of media to interact with visitors such as; hosting its own blogs, podcasts, photo and video streams on their community site. They also maintain an active presence on MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr, where tens of thousands of people have accessed and interacted with museum content. In the spring of 2007, Google Earth released a new layer (interactive 3D map), “Crisis in Darfur” (www., using content from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to allow Google Earth users to explore first-hand accounts, photos, and other resources regarding the genocide in Sudan.

2/19 Advantages/disadvantages of podcasts

The podcast Serial has several seasons thus far. The show follows one case over the course of a season. The first episode introduces a story from 1999, in Baltimore; a high school senior disappears after school one day. Six weeks later the police arrest her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. There is no evidence linking Adnan to the case asid from the testimony from one of his former friends. The consensus is that no one thought Adnan was capable of murder he seemed like an all around good kid. Someone in this case is lying, and there is an eyewitness who says that she knows where Adnan was the day of the murder. Using podcasts as a way to engage listeners to topics, cases (whatever their topic may be) is the content finds its audience. With stories that were assigned this week to listen to, from a crime podcast to one that is about human curiosity. Most podcasts have a niche audience that they are targeting, sometimes this audience is forever changing to a variety of reasons. Podcasting does not only encompass audio to reach out to their target audience. Many podcasts include audio, video,and PDF files. This is a new digital media outlet that can be used as a tool in a variety of different realms. It can be used in academia to communicate with parents/teachers/students, to help convey information and as an instructional tool. Like with any media there are advantages and disadvantages: some people take podcasts and expound up on them. Creating social media posts, blogs etc. Podcasts allow for them to be portable and episodes can be skipped, FF, rewind, etc. Some disadvantages is that, podcasts can get you into legal trouble with infringement laws. FCC laws regulate radio, but there are currently no laws to regulate podcasts.  As far as bringing the general public to your podcasts is a different issue altogether. If your podcast is being used to bring attention to your business, it will be difficult to bring attention to your podcast/business, as podcasts as a stand alone don’t generate in a google search. Podcasts need to be limited in regards to time constraints. When podcast episodes exceed a certain time frame, and this isn’t a requirement, but a majority of the time listeners may lose interest. I personally like podcast to learn about different niche areas that I normally don’t have time to read about or separately research. You are able to listen to a vast variety of topics and you are then introduced to a number of people who are interested in the same things you are. Being able to correlate the podcasts to a visual media is sometimes beneficial in creating a solid foundation. Some topics require a visual representation in order for the topic at hand to be thoroughly discussed. That is one of the major drawbacks from working primarily in only audio format.

The Future of Public History

The 99% Invisible podcast featured an interesting story on the Octothorpe, also known as a pound sign and more recently as the hashtag. The podcasters gave a brief history of the sign and the way in which it has come to be used since the 1970s. While this does not seem like normal scholarly history it certainly did seem to have an air of good research behind it and a striving to bring about the solid micro-history. Radio Lab, with their story on Fu-Go, was done very well also. Their story was more of a mystery history dating back a little further than 99% Invisible’s story. The story opened up in the 1940s during World War II. The first thing that caught my attention was that most of the history of this period is almost exclusively or directly related to the war and more specifically military history. However, this story was not in the same way and again like the Octothrope story was a micro-history, falling outside the regular genre of historical scholarship. In both stories the podcasters seemed to use interviews from real people that were either directly or indirectly involved in the history of these events. Their stories provided narrative for the whole story and gave the podcasters enough information to form a solid historical investigation.

If this is the future of podcasting or if that era of time is already upon us than I think the study of history has a bright future. Of course these are not the first radio-type shows to do this. NPR has featured stories somewhat like this for many years but the podcasters gave these stories a slightly different feel. Their stories seem to be a mix of both history and pop-culture at the same time whereas NPR never felt like that. However, the stories still seemed truthful and real, dedicated to good scholarship, and projecting a sense of quality. Is this the future of public history? It seems like it could be. If these podcasters continue to air these types of stories and listeners continue to listen they may find a full-time audience, many of whom do not have any background in academic history, but simply like and appreciate good historical investigation. This audience is in many ways who public history aims reach. The public outside of the academy and a public that looks forward to learning and growing in their knowledge of the past and how the past informs the present.

These two stories give new life to public history and to the academic nature of history in general. As with all good stories the podcasters will find themselves walking a tightrope at times in an effort to hold their audience while presenting unbiased history, but this is the art of delivering history to the public. Podcasting seems to have come a long ways in recent years and looks to be well adapted to take on the delivery of history to the masses. This era is certainly an exciting time for history with so many new ways to distribute knowledge of the past. The key will be to work hard at presenting true history as best as possible. A podcast, just like any other form of media, can easily fall victim to the “fake news” problem that has so quickly ensnared the American media in recent years and the public is quite susceptible to this type of quagmire. Hopefully podcasting websites can gain good reputations for solid delivery of history and scholarship short of full peer review status. This may be difficult but it’s possible that these two websites and their podcasters may already be on their way to doing just this. Quality research balanced with quality presentation seem to have produced an excellent product for these podcasters and is doing nothing but good things for the field of history and for public history in particular.

See one of my favorite podcasters at

Of Twitter and Podcasts

Social media sites and emerging technologies have changed the way information is discussed and shared. In Vanessa Varin’s article, she discusses the ways that historians have come together on Twitter. With the help of maps made by the Pew Research Center and NodeXL, they discovered that with the help of the #Twitterhistorians hashtag, historians were more likely to use the hashtag for help or advice, rather than initiate conversations. The maps show the many, interesting ways that certain hashtags, such as #PublicHistory or #history, evolve and are used for information rather than communication.

In addition to social media sites, podcasts have become a unique and important way to discuss historical events. In one episode of 99% Invisible, the history of water fountains in London are discussed. It also tracks the social movements behind drinking fountains and water. These included the early temperance movements and an on-campus movement for drinking water at a college stadium that became known as, yes, “water-gate”. It comes full circle! Podcasts have also become a tool for conversation; the podcast Serial gained popularity for exploring the complex case behind the murder of a high school student from Baltimore.

Finally, in an episode from the Radiolab podcast, a mysterious balloon with Japanese origins was discussed in a larger context, discussing the connections between World War Two, the government, and small-town America. This episode effectively explains the science behind the balloon bombs, and how the government researched and reacted to them. Most notably, the podcast explores how the U.S. government sought to censor reports on the balloons and telling news organizations that there was to be no reporting of the balloons, to prevent helping the Japanese and avoiding scaring the American public.

For my article this week, Eric Zorn from the Chicago Tribune discusses the way Serial and other nonfiction podcasts have found popularity in recent years, with Serial being downloaded over 175 million times. Other podcasts, such as 2 Dope Queens, have been so successful that the creators haven been approached to make comedy sketches based on podcast episodes. Zorn pushes back against the notion that podcasts have peaked, saying that not everyone has heard of a podcast before, let alone subscribed to one regularly, so there is still room for podcasts to grow.

Finally, a question-are there any podcasts that fellow readers/bloggers recommend? I’m personally a fan of two podcasts from the Washington Post-Presidential and Constitutional.

Background Learning with Podcasts

By Steven R. Garcia

Although I am not a stranger to podcasts, I admit that the two I choose to write about here — Radiolab‘s “Fu-Go” and 99% Invisible‘s “Fountain Drinks” — were, in a way, a first for me. My initial impression of both was that it ‘felt’ like a VICE documentary. Informative, playful, and teetering on the fine line of professional and hipster. It was, to me, this interesting combination of part-documentary, part-talk show, part-sensory experience. I highlight the latter point first, since I found it to be the most interesting. I am always curious about how popular shows edit and compile audio and video to create addictive formulas that make the audience come back for more. It is certainly both an art and a science, involving a willingness to play line delivery, pacing, background audio, and so forth. Radiolab, being the first podcast I listened to on the list, struck me as the most ‘jarring.’ That is the best word I can use for the sort of pacing they used in their “Fu-Go” episode, especially regarding the timing and mixing of people’s speech. Where one presenter would begin talking, the editor quickly cuts to another so as to finish their sentence. It is then that I noticed that, although I was working on other things physically and letting the podcast run in the background, the show never became ‘white noise.’ That is, I never really ‘tuned out’ for any given moment. I think the audio editing had a great deal to do with that.

But, editing aside, what about the educational value?

That is, at the end of the day, our main objective as digital historians: how can we get an audience to listen to a podcast and come away from it knowing something new? 99% Invisible‘s “Fountain Drinks” is the more straightforward in delivery of the two podcasts. It begins with a hook, taking advantage of what the listener already knows and playing off that. ‘Of course everyone knows what a water fountain is,’ asks 99% Invisible, ‘but did you know? . . .’ And it goes from there. Suddenly, the listener becomes engrossed in this story about the history of water fountains, filled with stories of disease, legislation, and even a shameless Game of Thrones reference. It is an engaging formula, so much so that I barely noticed the sudden switch in topics at the half-way point of the show. From literal water fountains to music about ‘fountains’ (in a sense), 99% Invisible plays off the theme of the show in creative ways. In its own way, it keeps the audio too from becoming ‘white noise.’ Although its editing is more straightforward, its presentation is not. It keeps the listener engaged, working off basic premises and presenting new information while also surprising the audience with a more ‘liberal’ interpretation of theme. In short, neither Radiolab or 99% Invisible treat their content dryly, as if it were some spoken essay.

To conclude, I ask whether or not these shows are credible. That has been, after all, one of the main topics in our course thus far. For Radiolab, they certainly went the extra step in bringing on academics (two historians and a geologist!) and doing on-site research. This gives them credibility, as they show they are willing to engage with academic ‘authorities’ but, at the same time, keep the tone casual but still educational. The same goes for 99% Invisible. My main take-away has been a newfound respect for these shows. If there is a digital medium dedicated to encouraging discussion between the public and the academy, bridging both together into a shared literal conversation, then podcasts are it.

On my search for more ‘history-oriented’ podcasts, I found one last detail that was most interesting. The more ‘compelling’ shows tend to be outwardly about history and more about public knowledge in general. Food for thought, in my opinion. Still, I found this one titled Stuff You Missed in History Class. I am a bit of a sucker for ‘fun fact’ style presentation! Here’s the link to it.

#tweetsandtalks #octothorpe

Podcasts are an incredibly innovative form of storytelling, and I love listening to them. Somehow they make bits of history more interesting to me than simply reading about them does, so it seems like they are a great tool for historians. Perhaps this is because we can hear the more casual voice of the historian, instead of only reading their stuffy academic voice, and historians are (typically) nothing if not passionate about their interests. Passion makes for great listening. There’s also the ability to bring in music and interviews to deepen and excite whatever the story is, such as with the very catchy water fountain song in 99% Invisible’s “Fountain Drinks” that has been stuck in my head for several days now, or the moving interview with the woman who witnessed the people throwing rocks at the Japanese mother and child who needed water, and were headed for an interment camp, after the Japanese bomb killed so many people. She was emotional and hearing that in her voice heightened the impact of the whole episode. So there’s definitely more pathos in listening to this sort of history-telling than in simply reading a nonfiction book or textbook. Podcasts can do almost all of the things documentaries or documentary series can do (often with a more relaxed feel), and you can listen to them on your commute.

Podcasts also require the creators to chop their history lesson into a small, digestible chunk that keeps readers engaged. The way Serial does this is particularly interesting to me. There is a story arc for the whole season, but each episode delves into one aspect of the crime, such as the episode on cell phone records, or the one where they try to recreate the state’s timeline. There is a mystery to the way the story is presented overall, and within the episodes, and history is used as a sort of evidence or means of explaining the details of the case, not as the defining quality. Thus while the show focuses on a historical case, in that it happened in the past, it feels very present, and we learn a good deal about the changes in technology and whatnot since the crime took place and find ourselves invested in the old-fashioned workings of cell towers.

Now, when Serial came out, people were able to listen to it week by week and talk about it via Twitter. They could put Adnan on social-media trial as often as they wanted, simply through the use of a hashtag. I cannot imagine how hard it must be be to find an un-influenced jury in cases with a lot of press these days. Twitter can connect people from all of the world who share similar interests, and what I use Twitter for the most is gauging people’s reactions to things like award shows. I definitely think it has the potential for more substantial conversations, like the “Twitterstorians” seem to use it for. I cannot imagine Twitter would have taken off in the same way without the hashtag (I really enjoyed the podcast on the octothorpe, and now fully plan on calling hashtags by that name in conversation), because hashtags are how we connect, how we feel a part of some bigger conversation, and for better or for worse, it makes that conversation, and all the ones under it, feel important.

Here is an article (that’s rather funny) about the important role historians can play on Twitter: Also, here is an article about the history of Twitter. : And here is one about historians that are apparently great to follow on Twitter: