Sunday, November 7, 2010


This blog has been continued at the Canada's History website, which can be found at

Please find other Public Historians under the "Young Historians" section. Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Some successes, a few frustrations

I've officially finished transcribing the letters from my Social Memory project. I still have quite a bit to do, but I thought I would take a moment to reflect on some great moments as well as a few of the frustrations I have encountered as I have worked through this project over the past few months.

I'll start with the frustrations, as they are (fortunately) not too extensive. The greatest would be the lack of information available on British soldiers who fought in World War One. As Gerald joined up with the British Expeditionary Force the majority of soldiers mentioned in the letters are British. This information is available only through the National Archives in London, where the records haven't been transcribed or digitized. holds some records but charges a fee for viewing. It seems odd to me that Canadian records are widely available online but that those of British soldiers are not so readily accessible. Fortunately, the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry war diary has helped me to discover the dates of birth and death for some of the men mentioned in the letters, but it is less easy to find out about those who survived the war.

Despite the limitations involved in researching on British soldiers of WWI, I have had some really great moments while putting together this small collection. Back in January my mom and I visited the U of T archives and were fortunate enough to talk to the archivist who had put together the Blake and Wrong family fonds. Talk about the benefits of having an archivist know his or her collections! He made some great suggestions and we saw photographs of my great-grandmother that neither I nor my mom had ever seen before.

We also took a drive over to the house that Gerald Blake grew up in on Jarvis Street, which is currently a historic site in downtown Toronto (see right).
Gerald's grandfather, former premier of Ontario Dominick Edward Blake, built the house in 1891 for his son, Ned. His own residence, known as Humewood, was next door, and is also still standing.

As we came up to the house we saw that it was being gutted and prepared for a new restaurant and bar called The Blake House (at least they're inspired by history!) which is set to open this Spring. We shyly sidled up to the door and explained to the builders that we had these letters and they told us to go on into the house and take a look. It was strange timing, because had we arrived even a week before or after, we might not have seen the original fireplace and wallpaper, the remnants of the staircase, and some beautiful old stained glass windows that were uncovered by the renovation. I'm going to be as corny as I like here and say that it was pretty special to be standing in his childhood home. It made him as a person more real, which is sometimes hard to envision when all I have of this individual are flat images and text.

That visit was definitely one of the highlights of this project, but I also have been able to apply a lot of the new technical skills I've learned from this program. Before Digital History I would not have been able to use the highly effective GIMP program to restore some old photographs that I plan to use. I have just finished scanning photographs from an album that is nearly a hundred years old. Since the book was a bound copy rather than sheets held together by string I had to be really careful, particularly since the leather cover had come off. When I looked at the results, though, a few of the images were poor at best. I could barely see a few of them they were so faded. Below I've included a sample of one picture I've been playing around with. The picture shows Gerald and his friends at the Blake family cottage at Lac Gravelle, Quebec. Gerald is the man at the front with his legs stretched out.

(Before editing on Left, After on Right)

As I said, there is still much to do, but I'm really looking forward to seeing it all come together. Until next time!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Timeless, epic, legendary: reading the past through fiction

We Public History students seem to be running on a similar track these days. It isn't surprising considering that most of my ideas for this blog come out of our class discussions or conversations with friends. At any rate I thought I'd echo the Perpetual Student and write on historical fiction this week. As many of my colleagues know, I am an avid reader, a long-time devotee, and sometimes (though embarrassingly so) dabbler in this area of literature.

Last week our Public History class discussed the role of history in film. We considered the fact that history is molded into a narrative, is told through the lens of epic characters, and is able to extract strong emotions from its viewers. Historical fiction is the same in these respects. But a film is the product of so many: it passes between writers, the director, producers, actors, cinematographers, etc. before being relayed to its audience. Fiction, on the other hand, is more direct and I think, more personal. Like academic history it is passed from writer to reader and depends on the craft of language to convey ideas, and to convince his or her audience- whether academic or layman- to believe in the narrative.

But like film, history is formed into a story with main characters that we sympathize with, hope for, or hate as the enemies of our strong protagonists. These stories can range in their dependence on history. History might merely serve as an inspiration for fantasy (say, for example, Lord of the Rings), or an author might attempt to recreate a time and place through the eyes and ears of its characters. Sometimes historical fiction serves as an excellent medium to explore the weaving of history and legend. But does the label of "fiction" allow authors to claim history and mould it into an appealing narrative? Should they be held to higher standards, considering they influence the popular consumption of history?

Mary Stewart, an author who wrote a series on the Arthurian legends, wrote that her book should not be considered "serious" history. Her books were based on extensive research, but play with what we know to be literature. But she was writing in the 60s. I wonder if nowadays we might call her works public history. Maybe not, considering that Arthur (at least to historians) is more of a literary figure. But other authors, like Elizabeth Chadwick (see her blog Living the History) and Philippa Gregory do practice a historical methodology and really seek to understand the history within which their characters live and breathe. In one of her books, Chadwick writes of her novels that "rather like a plait, there are three strands to the story: the facts that are verifiable history; the facts that are massaged by the 'tabloid journalist' skills of [the character's] chronicler; and my own interpretation of the two with a seasoning of personal imagination" [1]. To me, Chadwick is a public historian, or at least thinks like one. There must be imagination and creativity for it to be meaningful and engaging to the public without overshadowing the accuracy of the historical record.

At the end of her novels Chadwick includes a list of sources she used to write the novel with recommendations for further reading, a feature that I think should be part of any work that propounds to be "historical fiction". Readers have a right to know where the author got his or her grounding in history, even if half of them don't bother to read past the final page.

There will always be the question of what is 'real' or 'true' history. It all has an interpretation, a mediator. Perhaps historical fiction is simply taking it one step further. All historians must use their imaginations to some extent; to craft those arguments and see the links; use language to explain it in the most engaging way. The characters may be imagined but they have a base in what was real, or what we can only believe to be real from the pieces of the past we have. At the same time, I have had enough time in academia to believe that public history should still be accountable to its public. By maintaining that delicate balance we seek to achieve between academic and public worlds, historical fiction may allow us to step into the past and learn something of history based on the weaving of historical knowledge with the colour of an author's imagination.

[1] Elizabeth Chadwick, Lords of the White Castle (London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2000), 674.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Potential for Collaboration: The Lost Villages Project

I have been researching today for an essay that is coming up in my Archives class. It's on the relationship between public historians and archivists- the differences and similarities- but also where there is potential for increased interaction and collaboration. The structure of this Public History program teaches just how interrelated these disciplines are just by the fact that distinct fields of their own- Museology, Digital History, Archives, GIS- are courses we take under the heading of Public History. Witnessing that interaction in the real world, however, is really where you can see the role of public historians and their ability to act as interpreters between longstanding professions like Archives, government and academic bodies, and the public.

Not too long ago a relative introduced me to a project out of Eastern Ontario started by the Lost Villages Historical Society. This nonprofit group's mission is to educate the public about the loss of a number of communities that were displaced during the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project in the late 1950s. There is a museum on-site in Ault Park near Long Sault, Ontario, but their website is particularly interesting. It includes a detailed description of the project but also a history of the area with pictures of the towns before they were flooded. Detailed descriptions of specific buildings, such as the Mille Roches Powerhouse, are included as well as information on current archaeological and diving projects. There is "Mystery" page for people to post photographs that they are seeking information about, and links to the CBC Archives website where you can see and hear footage from the event.

I thought I would showcase this site because I think it really exhibits the potential for public historians, archivists, museum professionals, and the public to work together in the creation of a dynamic historical project. Drawing on a variety of resources, including archival images and footage, mapping, and community participation, the project educates the general public on a significant moment in Canadian history by focusing on a localized experience. So often we see the Seaway as a feat of engineering and progress but fail to acknowledge the broader implications. I admit that I had never heard of these 'lost villages' until a couple of months ago. Projects such as this one not only demonstrate the benefits of increased interaction amongst heritage professionals but also educate the wider public on the complexity of history; that one event may be viewed through the lenses of progress and industry, and on the other, a lost home and dramatically-altered geography. Landscapes are ever-changing, both physically and historically. Public historians can work with a variety of stakeholders to ensure that they are preserved for their history, acknowledged for their change over time, and appreciated for the complexity and dynamism that is the historical landscape.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Update on WWI Letters Project

I have bored my poor classmates enough this past month with details of my WWI letters project, but I think I should blog about my progress so far as it connects to a lot of themes we've talked about in recent classes. Back in November, I had written a post on my intentions to turn the collection into a blog. But following the suggestion of a fellow classmate (the infamous Perpetual Student) I went to talk to Dr. Jonathan Vance about the project. He has kindly agreed to allow me to compile and edit the letters for our Social Memory class and hopefully- funding permitting- there will be something concrete to show for it at the end. Those are the technicalities, but my intention here is to sort through the more abstract intentions of this project.

As of now, the letters are sitting in a box intended for photographs, and are tied in bundles with the string that my great-grandmother wrapped around them nearly a hundred years ago. Still very much the same, folded, musty-smelling letters. I've been transcribing roughly 2 a day and have encountered the frustrations of cursive writing on worn paper- a feeling familiar to most historians I imagine. This is made worse by the fact that half of them were scrawled while the writer in question was either huddled in a field tent, camped out in an attic, or even, near the end, mired in a packed and muddy trench. But the more significant issue that I have encountered is that of perspective. As I've said before, I've had exposure to these letters since I was young and they have strongly influenced my feelings on war and loss. In the last couple of months I have been confronted with the task of approaching them as a student of history rather than a reader drawn in by his words and the sadness that surrounds the story.

I admit that it has taken me a while to realize that I am undergoing an adjustment. During the holidays a family friend asked me what I hoped to achieve from this project. After some hesitation I said that in a way I was doing it for him. He wrote in his letters of wanting to be a writer and produce something someday, and I figured that perhaps I was doing him a postmortem service in exposing the craft of his words. Well, I can admit now that my intentions have changed, and as so they should. History should be written for the present, not for the past. My romantic notions had affected the real purpose for compiling these letters.

I like James Loewen's discussion of eastern and central African societies' terms for the deceased, which include the sasha and zamani. According to Loewen, the sasha are the "recently departed", whereas the deceased become zamani with the death of the last individual who knew him or her in life. In Loewen's words, "as generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered." [1]

I think I have been seduced by this very thing. There is truth in his argument that history can be just as accurate when written in the time of the sasha. My great-grandmother wrote my mom a note when she passed on the letters, and told her that if she felt that they were a burden an Archive might be interested in them. She knew their value to history; I think that's why she kept them afterwards, even though she never visited Gerald's grave back in France.

I, however, never knew the protagonists of this story. My mom was pregnant when Kathleen died so these figures have more of a distance to me, and perhaps are in danger of being romanticized into characters rather than real people with their warts and all. In our Public History class last week we discussed the commemoration of WWI veterans in churches across Canada but in her letter to my mother Kathleen wrote, "so many thousands of young men were lost- for what?" Taking into account this was composed in the 1970s, and her feelings might have shifted over time, I still think it speaks true of Loewen's point that history written in the time of its happening can be just as accurate.

So as I transcribe and compile these letters I hope to take counsel from these historians and attempt to present history so that it may be used and appreciated for the living, and not simply as a commemoration of the dead.

That being said, I am still human, and remain touched. Though there are certainly issues concerning 'dark tourism', there is an important function to be served by commemoration. In this case, it is an act of remembrance, not only in the general sense that such an event should not be forgotten, but also an awareness that moments in time- relationships, feelings, words and thoughts- moments that seemed to have lost their future, still have their place in the web of history and glimmer just as bright.

I do hope one day that my mom and I will make the 'pilgrimage' to Gerald's grave at Pozieres cemetery. And we'll lay the flower of sweet peas on his grave, which were his favourite.

[1] James W. Loewen, Lies Across America: what our historic sites get wrong (New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1999), 37.
Photograph: Pozieres Cemetery, France. Taken by Calypso Orchid, Flickr.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Archive of Sound

Over the break I had an interesting conversation with a family friend about history and sound. It was very short, as we were standing in the crowded kitchen at a New Years party and between the sounds of the oven and the kids passing with coats and hors d'oeuvres there was hardly time for an in-depth discussion. But I did manage to catch his remark about the past's relationship to sound. "They went to a concert and listened to a song...and that was it." He said with a comical raise of his eyebrows.

Maybe if you went to see the concert more than once, or a few years later, or were able to play it yourself on a piano or single instrument...but I agree that history's relationship to sound differs much from our own. There are everyday sounds we are used to, like the constant hum of the refrigerator. They tend to blend into the background. I think there are timeless sounds, like a baby crying or waves crashing up against a shoreline. We can imagine that those have changed little throughout history, but would our ability to hear them change the way that history is studied?

As we talked about in class yesterday, there has always been and will continue to be missing evidence, and sound is one of those sensory experiences that has been lost in history. We can listen to a Bach cantata but it isn't necessarily the same; like any ancient text it has been copied and recopied and edited and transposed for modern instruments and ears. There always has to be a creative element to the practice of history, in that the imagination must fill in some of the gaps. Especially in Public History, where sound becomes a crucial part of the public's understanding of history through television, movies, museums and even historical fiction. Just because it is in a text doesn't mean the author cannot and should not attempt to evoke the sounds of the past.

Because our discussion involved sound (specifically the Murmur project in Toronto) I mentioned an interview that I heard on CBC's radio program Spark a few months ago about a BBC project called Save Our Sounds. It is an online project that allows anyone in the world to upload a recorded sound on to an interactive map. When I visited the site I was surprised that there were so few recordings, though some of the selections were really interesting, such as the sound of dial-up internet. Kate Arkless Gray, the leader of the project, remarked that "acoustic ecology is all about preserving these sounds for future generations". This collection will eventually be given over to the British Library to do just that.

So people in the future will be able to listen to the sound of horse's hooves in Kyrgyzstan, or a tug of war competition at the 146th Antigonish Highland Games in Nova Scotia. I think that the most valuable sounds on here will be those that are already beginning to disappear, such as the dial-up recording. Hopefully, horses will not go extinct any time soon. Now that it's easier than ever to record sounds, anywhere and anytime, we are creating a huge digital archive of soundscapes. Will it change the study of history? It might. But perhaps more importantly it will affect our relationship to history in adding another sensory exposure to the past. We could recreate it, as we do with drawings or images in photoshop, but I think that when you know it is the real thing your connection with the past becomes more intimate.

It comes back to the question of what to preserve and what to keep, but I believe that there is value in capturing sounds of activity that may be lost in official records, and will be valued by future generations. The world of pre-twentieth century? Well, I think it's just another case of the missing record, and our own acknowledgment that some history will always remain mysterious; like a song itself, it is never played the same twice as we translate from author to interpreter to listener.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Reflection on Digital History

As our Digital History class comes to a close we have been asked to reflect on the course as a whole. I have to admit, had someone told me in August that I would come to see the benefits of Twitter, understand basic HTML code, write in a blog every couple of weeks and talk about tagging and data mining like I knew what I was saying, I would have raised an eyebrow or two. I guess that's why I would say the greatest thing I have learned from this course is to finally come to understand the potential of the web. It's easy to dismiss it; I think why I did, and why most people sneer at these social networking tools and web 2.0 gadgets is because they lack an understanding of what it can do.

Take Twitter, for example. While I am still adjusting to my own presence online, I have discovered its benefits. I actually use Twitter more than I use Facebook, though I have to admit I never really warmed to Facebook. Throughout our class discussions we debated the use of different applications like Twitter or Google Earth or Amazon and how they may be manipulated to generate personalized queries. While we considered its applications for history, I began to think about how it could be applied to business as well. When I visited home during October I started talking to my Dad about how he could use Twitter in his small business that manufactures promotional products. I got a less than responsive reply (admittedly, our family still had a rotary phone system until two years ago), but I think it is where business, and the humanities, and pretty much anyone that can make use of vast amounts of data is going. For me, this course helped me to understand how that data may be first extracted and then manipulated rather than being lost in a sea of endless information and ignorance.

I think there is a lot of fear surrounding the internet. Not as in fear-for-my life type scenarios but the fear that something posted will be used in negative ways, or manipulated to bring down a career or steal one's hard work. Again I count myself among the many who felt this way before Digital History. But really what I've learned is that the internet facilitates complex connections and interactions between people, information, and machines. Take for example our recent assignment which was to do some text mining with the TAPoR project. I decided to go back to my second year English class and do some analysis on Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market and other poems. I first typed in the word 'dark,' thinking that for such a chilling poem the word would appear quite a bit. When I compared these results to the number of hits for 'light,' however, I was surprised that the latter appeared twice as much as the former. Clearly this sort of tool is useful for poetry analysis as well as history. In less than a minute I learned something new that would have taken me hours of tedious work.

Aside from these more theoretical discoveries, I have also been exposed to the many practical applications of the internet. I made my own website, manipulated digital images through a program called the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) and learned how basic databases work and major search engines like Google.

I won't deny that I have had moments of frustration where I wanted to throw my computer across the room, but I think that's part of any learning process (the frustration, hopefully not the throwing). At times we were thrown an assignment with little instruction on how to do it, but as Prof. Turkel says, that's often the best way to learn. Because when I did finally manage to change the resolution of a photograph after many frustrating attempts, it felt utterly fantastic.

As I said before, more than anything this course has changed the way that I think. About the internet, about information, and even history. I suppose this was just the beginning; who knows what I'll be doing and thinking in another four months?