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?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The liveliest 95-year old catalogue

Our Digital History class has recently been given a fun assignment involving the 1913-1914 Eaton's Catalogue. We were told to choose 5-6 books and see if we could find copies of it online. Around Christmastime I am used to walking through the Eaton's store rather than flipping through its literature for gift ideas (or in this case, clicking through), and I have to say I enjoy the absence of earworm-inducing Christmas music. It's also fun to see what people were buying in the early twentieth century. As we talked about in class, it's interesting to see how many books on Christianity there are, but perhaps not so surprising when we consider that it was published nearly a hundred years ago.

I was able to find the majority of titles I chose on Project Gutenberg, but several escaped my grasp. Google Books has nearly every title but it is hit or miss in finding a complete digitized copy free for viewing. I could not find Husband, Wife and Home which I thought was surprising considering people generally love that kind of stuff for the shocking and/or comical value. In my Gender and European History class last year my prof once mentioned that Isabella Beeton's Guide to Household Management is still being published even though it was originally written in the 19th century for Victorian housewives.

I was successful, however, in finding The White House Cook Book on Project Gutenberg. Old cookbooks are quite fun to look through. Even the titles can be hilarious- my sister and I were laughing recently at one of my mom's that was called something like Healthy Eating with Carbs or The High Carbohydrate Diet- I can't remember what exactly the title was but it was something you'd never see today (and yes, I tried Googling it but couldn't find it!) This one in particular was written in 1887 and has lots of traditional recipes that differ little from modern day cooking. At the back they even provide menu suggestions specific to the month and day of the week. So, for example, you might follow their luncheon menu for a Monday in November: Cold roast duck, welsh rarebit, fried sweet potatoes, cold pickled beets, french bread, cookies, gooseberry jam, and cocoa.

Not too tricky, right? At least it's more appetizing than the Tuesday option of "scalloped mutton," whatever that means. At any rate that's your cooking manual online for this holiday season. My next goal was to find another DIY book but for the home rather than the stomach. I searched the various online repositories for Cements, Mortars, Plasters, Stuccos, Concretes, etc. by Fred T. Hodgson and, as you can see, discovered it on the Internet Archive. It's actually quite interesting looking at the pages on cement and tiling, etc. because at first glance it doesn't seem all that different from present-day work. That being said, I'm sure much has changed in the way of home building materials since 1916.

With all my research on housekeeping I decided to take a break and relax with some fiction. I was intrigued by the title Pathfinder by James Fenimore Cooper. I found it once again on Project Gutenberg. At first it just seemed like a typical adventure story set in the early history of North America, but after reading the Preface it was clear that there is a strong bias to the book. Writing of how recently the region of Ontario had been settled by Europeans, Cooper states that "a just appreciation can be formed of the wonderful means by which Providence is clearing the way for the advancement of civilization across the whole American continent."

So maybe you should cross Pathfinder of your Christmas list. Searching for something more innocent, I took a browse through the titles under the children's section. The book Wee Macgregor Enlists by J.J. Bell sounded pretty fun (it reminded me of one of my favourite children's books Wee Gillis). I had some trouble finding this title at first. It came up on Google Books (again as a Snippet view) but when I opened up the link I discovered that the original spelling was "MacGreegor" rather than "Macgregor" as on the cover in the Eaton's Catalogue. I'm not sure why they changed the spelling but sure enough a search on Project Gutenberg with the added "e" provided results.

Another interesting feature of the Eaton's Catalogue was the division between girls' and boys' books. For girls, there was a section on "Elsie Books." Not having heard of them before I did a search and found that they were written by Martha Finley (1828-1909) and were based around a girl named Elsie Dinsmore. The titles of the series demonstrates the Victorian ideal of womanhood as revolving around the family: other titles include Elsie's Girlhood, Elsie's Womanhood, Elsie's Motherhood and Elsie's Widowhood.

"Henty Books," on the other hand, were the option for boys and seem to include a much more exciting array of titles. Written by G.A. Henty (1832-1902), the series included At Agincourt and With Wolfe in Canada. Not surprisingly, he displays a clear bias towards the English and against the French in these works but if you get past that in our present day they look like they could be quite fun reads. I am biased myself towards history, of course.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that all these books could be found online, and yet still I remained awed by the powers of the internet. Just the fact that I could look at the Eaton's catalogue online enthralled me. I also liked how Project Gutenberg gave you the option of reading the document online or downloading it. I would say that the one downside with this site was the fact that the page numbers did not match up with the original document. Certainly this flaw would be corrected with the downloaded version but if they give you the option of searching by page number on the online document it should provide accurate results.

I had a lot of fun with this project, and it's certainly given me some ideas for gifts. Not to mention recipes; I'm already craving tomorrow's breakfast of musk melon and calf's liver.

Image Source: Internet Archive.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Now Far From Home

As historians, we are taught to be objective in our understanding and representation of the past. But today I can't be objective, because on Remembrance Day I always end up thinking about the various members of my family who served in the two world wars. I am sure that I am not alone in this feeling. And perhaps we're not meant to be objective today, or on any day that has particular significance for one's own sense of self. The reason I chose to pursue a degree in Public History has a lot to do with a box of letters written during World War One to my great-grandmother from her then-fiancee Gerald Blake. They are a piece of the past that, gradually, have become a piece of me. I can't separate my understanding of these two people from the words on the page, and the sad juxtaposition of love, battle tactics and war-weariness.

My mom and I have talked about doing something with these letters for a long time. As a history student I, of course, was a proponent for somehow making them available to the public. The letters are no doubt intensely personal and romantic but they are also (and here is a bit of a historian's objectivity coming into play) an amazing resource for students and scholars of World War One history. Our only question was how to put it together; what it should look like. And what would they, the protagonists of these letters, have wanted?

An idea has finally taken shape as I have spent these last nine weeks immersed in the Public History program at UWO, and I've decided to begin the project this June, 2010. I'm going to put the transcribed letters up in a blog format exactly 95 years to the day that Gerald wrote these letters. There are hundreds of them and it will take over a year to complete, but after all our discussions on open access content I'm pretty convinced that this is not only the best way to get this story out there, but also what Kathleen and Gerald would have approved of. Interestingly enough, I will also be the same age (22) as Kathleen when she received these letters. The tentative title of the project is "Now Far From Home" (more on that later).

A couple of weeks ago I performed a simple Google search to see if anything like this was out there already, and sure enough I was not disappointed. An English man did the exact same thing with his grandfather's letters a few years ago: check out WWI: Experiences of an English Soldier. If possible, I think it would be great to digitize the letters themselves and put them up alongside the transcribed blog posts. I would also include photographs and background information on the people and events described.

I'd love feedback from classmates and anyone who is interested. I think my mother and I know that these amazing pieces of history should be shared. Of course, I am biased in this respect. But like I said, I'm not being objective today.

Though the project would not officially begin until June, I thought that I would include the very first letter. It is written the day after Gerald leaves for France. He and Kathleen were engaged the previous night.

New York
June 19, 1915

Dear Kathleen,

I'm a pretty sad little devil today and philosophy doesn't help much. I hope you're all right my dear. I felt wretched leaving you looking so wretched and so we're pretty wretched all round. But some day if I hadn't gone we all would have been ashamed. I would have been a grouch for the rest of my days- and now perhaps I will be only half the time!

I am alternately proud and humble. I'm so proud of your really loving me that my head's nearly turned right around back to front- and I feel so weak and unworthy that it makes me very serious.

I'm afraid I'm a very poor sort of a lover my dear. I can't express all the beautiful things that are inside. I'm just struck dumb. I haven't an idea what I said to you- only I felt most immensely and I expect you know what I wanted to say.

I feel like a little lost child at one moment and the next like a King. You know I feel that I'll come through all right now that I managed to tell you before going. You know I'm a shy little coward and it took an awful effort.

Do take care of yourself, my dear, and don't get glum. Heaps of love to you,


PS: By the way, I didn't tell anybody anything- tho' I felt like shouting to everybody in the street the fact that you loved me. You tell anybody anything you like- or everybody everything you like. I'm your humble servant. Excuse my incoherence- I'm in a chaos.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Bounty of Information on the Mutiny

For our Digital History class we have been asked to write a blog entry on how to research a historical topic on the web. I deliberated over what to write on, but eventually I settled on the story of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty that took place in the late 18th century. Often lauded as the "most famous
mutiny in history," the tale of adventure on the high seas, exoticism, romance and treachery has certainly captured my imagination ever since I was a kid. After reading Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall I was, like so many others, captivated by the story.

For those who do not know the history of the HMS Bounty and its voyage, Wikipedia is of course an option but a far better site is the site Fateful Voyage. This page is a fantastic resource as it includes an extensive history, biographies of the crew members, transcripts of the Bounty's logbook and other primary source documents relating to the voyage. As well, the author makes great use of tools like Google Earth to create maps that show the routes of both the HMS Bounty before and after the mutiny, as well as the voyage of Bligh and his faithful crewmembers in the ship's launch. There is also a rich timeline that is colour-coded and broken down by month and year detailing the major events of the story. For anyone wishing to start a similar site, the author includes the resources that he or she found helpful in constructing the more complex elements like the maps and charts. Other useful pages for an introduction to the topic include the site of the HMS Bounty, the reconstruction of the ship built for the 1962 movie starring Marlon Brando. It gives an introduction and information on the ship (you can also book a berth for its next voyage if you so desire). Finally, Paul J. Lareau's site includes a basic overview as well as links to other pages, photographs and articles that answer the question, "who was at fault?" You can even check to see if there is a 'Bounty organization' in your country, region or city.

For those looking to view primary sources there are a number of sites that provide digitized versions. The State Library of New South Wales website is one example. Specific pages include the papers of Sir Joseph Banks and a section of the ship's logbook from Tahiti to Jamaica. You can also see the account that Bligh himself wrote about the voyage in the Bounty's launch from modern Tonga to Kupang on East Timor. The British National Archives are another good resource for primary sources. Visitors to the site can view a couple of pages from the Bounty's logbook.

While Bligh and his faithful crew began their seemingly impossible sail to Timor, Fletcher Christian and the mutineers headed in the opposite direction. They eventually settled on the small island called Pitcairn east of Tahiti where they would live out the rest of their lives and create a settlement whose descendants still live there today. The National Maritime Museum in Britain website includes a digitized copy of the register of the mutineers who settled on the island. This document was written by a whaler who visited the island in 1823 and recorded the story told to him by the one surviving member of the crew and the descendants of his peers. The website for the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre is also a useful resource for those who wish to know more about the island's history. It also includes a cruise ship schedule for those with a mind to visiting the site itself. You can also take a look at the Pitcairn Island website for historical information as well as photographs and information on what the people of the island are up to today.

Now, I wouldn't be a Public Historian-in-training if I didn't mention the ways in which the Bounty story is alive today (aside from the proliferation of interest on the internet). Check out an article on the Pitcairn Project, the archeological expedition in 1999 that uncovered the wreck of the Bounty, or take a look at the Bounty Boat Expedition, a reenactment of Bligh's open-boat voyage by an Australian crew of four set to launch in 2010.

And finally, for those movie buffs out there, take a look at the YouTube trailers for movies on the Bounty story. The first, Mutiny on the Bounty, was filmed in 1935 and is based on Nordhoff and Hall's book. The 1962 remake stars Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian. It's interesting to notice the differences between these epic, swashbuckling accounts and the more angst-ridden trailer for The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in 1984. As we discussed in our Public History class recently, our interpretation of historical events changes over time, and these two trailers are an example of how we as interpreters of that history become part of the overall narrative of that event. It's interesting to think about how we would interpret the story of the Bounty in the 21st century. Perhaps there would be more of a focus on the Tahitian people as more than just an exotic playground for the European explorers?

The links I've provided here are really just an introduction, but show how much this story is still alive today, and changing once again with the possibilities of the web.

Painting: Gordon Miller, Bounty's Arrival at Tahiti, 1788. Source: Sailing into History

Monday, October 19, 2009

Landscapes: the real, the imagined, the digital

My high school Drama teacher once asked our class to describe our favourite place in the world. The technicalities of where it was or how you got there were to be avoided; she wanted us to give a feeling of the place itself. It wasn't easy. In describing my favourite place, a region called Go Home Bay in Southeastern Georgian Bay, I struggled to find words that would help others to understand why I loved it so much. I talked about how, to quote my mother, the place was "the Atlantic one day and the Greek islands the next". About the rocks, sloping and jagged pink and black formed by lava and glaciers.

But connecting with a landscape involves more than just visuals. Yes I love the rocks that retain the heat of the sun long after it has set, but would I love them as much had I not lain against them at night with my sisters and cousins? In my Drama class most of the students mentioned family as being a crucial feature of their favourite places. Landscapes are shaped by people and memories, even those that aren't our own. My family cottage has stood in the same location since the 1930s and while I've only lived through the last twenty-odd years of its history I've inherited memories that shape how I view the place. They kind of have a mythic quality, like the romance of the cold room, delicate china plates and curling nautical maps.

David Glassberg writes of the interaction between nature and culture in his article "Interpreting Landscapes" and how past generations affect the meaning of place (23). "Landscapes are not simply an arrangement of natural features, they are a language through which humans communicate with one another" (29). Communication, I think, is key in our understanding of landscapes, and in particular, how we claim ownership over them.

During my undergrad degree I took a course on the development of the Atlantic World and wrote a paper on British perceptions of the New World and how they claimed sovereignty over North American territory. Through mythic propaganda, including claims that King Arthur had already discovered it before (yeah, that surprised me too) and through careful use of maps and renaming places after British locations, ownership, in the European mindset, was established over the land.

In this example we can see both the cultural and natural elements that Glassberg speaks of. By painting flags and drawing maps that included ships and other symbols of British authority the imperial forces "staked their claim." But that, of course, was the European way of looking at land and it's clear that the Native Peoples of Canada had and continue to have a very different perspective of landscape and ownership. How can you own something that is used and shared by so many people? Land that changes from season to season in terms of its resources and climate? A place that is the "Atlantic" one season and the "Greek Islands" the next?

I'm not sure if you can. Though I call that little section of territory on Georgian Bay "mine" I know that before my great-grandfather bought the property there was another owner before him who purchased the land from the local Native population, a people whose history is largely unknown but is certainly as fluid and diverse as what followed it. Elizabeth Renzetti commented in her blog The London Eye that the city of London is a palimpsest, and I think that description is true of all landscapes. Public Historians can help to bridge the often controversial line between physical ownership and cultural ownership. Though the government or an individual may own the physical property we can still flesh out the meaning that lies within that land; that has existed there for centuries and that continues to shape the way that land is appreciated and used. As Glassberg says we are not only protecting the physical heritage but the less tangible rights to it; the right of association and memory that shapes the interaction between humans and our environment. To "help [people] to ordinarily see what cannot be seen" (33).

Is the internet a landscape? We have giants like Google and Amazon that own more "property" than others, but there is still a lot of traffic on the sites and individuals use their resources to profoundly shape their own experiences. We describe the internet as a physical place: pages and documents, sites and visitors. What is owned and what is free use is becoming increasingly difficult to determine as the internet challenges traditional copyright laws. Why do we need ownership? Does it give us a sense of security, just as ownership of land gives us security? The landscape of the internet is fluid and public and yet companies are setting restrictions on materials that others argue should be open to all.

On her blog The Wild Surmise Sue Thomas asks, "If the internet were a landscape, what kind of landscape would it be?" The responses include a jungle, the underwater world, the universe. One visitor, Martine, writes, "Boxes upon boxes, behind boxes, boxes within boxes. Boxes connected by silvery spider webs(unsticky)." Naturally, I had to quote that last comment.

Another visitor,
Paul B. Hartzog, says that "the landscape of the internet IS the landscape of the world. We return to being connected, to being landscape-literate. But this time around, instead of one landscape, we exist in many landscapes simultaneously". Perhaps we have always lived in many landscapes simultaneously, but the internet helps us to see the multiple levels of experience more clearly. Public Historians can help to chart the way through this new era of exploration and discovery so that we may protect the meaning and integrity of historical sources online. Everyone is an author and a creator within the landscape of the web. Here there is possibility for a truly public forum connecting past and present without the restrictions of ownership that have become a necessity on the face of our physical world.

Sources: Glassberg, David. "Interpreting Landscapes." Public History and the Environment. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino. Florida: Krieger, 2004, 23-36.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Adjustment to the Culture of Abundance

As you may have noted from one of my earlier posts, I recently finished reading A.S. Byatt's novel Possession. The book is set in Britain during the 1980s and centers on the escapades of Victorian Literature academics Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell. As I was reading lengthy descriptions of their card catalogues and restricted-access reading rooms I kept thinking, wow, this is dated. For one thing how many historians do you know who carry around index cards as a method of subject searching? When Google is a click away it seems like so much time and paper and sheer effort wasted (the possibility for paper cuts is endless).

Over the last couple of weeks our Digital History classes have focused on the idea of abundance in the digital age and what this means to the future of History. I think of poor Maud and Roland slaving away with their pens and pocketbooks and wonder how different that story would be if situated in the present day. Perhaps the London Library where Roland found the mystery letters would have digitized the documents already and discovered them first. Failing that, a security camera could have picked up on his theft before he even left the building. And even if he did succeed in getting the letters off the premises, he would hardly have to make the slog to Yorkshire or the Breton coast to make his discoveries. A simple image search on Google would have revealed the famed fountain he finds in the North.

Has the romance completely gone from History? Can we imagine the possibility of undiscovered knowledge in this age of abundance? It is certainly true that the
internet is changing the practice of the discipline; not only is the tweed jacket a little outdated but how we understand our subjects must be re-evaluated. For one, I think that ownership is going to be a major issue. Traditionally, a historian writes a book and gets a copyright. But as Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig demonstrate in their chapter "Owning the Past" in Digital History, such laws become more complicated when faced with a world of hyperlinks, digital media and rapid rates of change. In order to safeguard intellectual property many journals are hidden behind what Rosenzweig describes as the "private web" and demand access fees from their readers. Such a system, they argue, has created a division between public and private that is reflected in the quality of the two. At the same time, however, he does not see the public web as a garbage heap with no use to historians. Individuals are digitizing massive amounts of documents without any personal gain other than to serve their own classrooms or interests. Genealogy has boomed on the internet (I myself witnessed this phenomenon when working at the Ontario Genealogical Society this past summer). But is it that simple for professionals? Wikipedia is filled with information but it lacks the depth of a historian's background and prose[1]. Should professionals make their work available to the public? Rosenzweig certainly thinks so: "perhaps we should even insist that the intellectual property we create (often with considerable public funding) should be freely available to all"[2].

The open source movement certainly has potential but it requires a shift in mindset. What is "ownership" if anyone can go online and access your work for free? Intellectual property takes on a new meaning when posted freely on the web. Doesn't it fly in the face of the concept that we need a middleman to negotiate the returns from our writing? In his article "Post-Medium Publishing," Paul Graham writes, "now that the medium is evaporating, publishers have nothing left to sell. Some seem to think they're going to sell content- that they were always in the content business, really. But they weren't, and it's unclear whether anyone could be." If the decision to make public our intellectual property rests in the hands of historians themselves, where then is the money made? Someone has to be paid and historians need to publish in order to get jobs in the present system. There is also the problem of authority, as anyone can put up a website and claim to be an expert. Scholarly journals still need to make money and Rosenzweig suggests a number of solutions to combat the problem including charging the authors and delayed access to journals.

While there are issues with all of them the self-archiving option does have potential. The grassroots approach is what historians need to take an active role in fostering. By making their work available to the public, they not only broaden their readership but become agents of change in the world of online education. Instead of allowing large corporations to dominate the field it is possible to reclaim ownership of material that really belongs to everyone- the public for funding it and the historian for broadening the world's knowledge of history (and, therefore, themselves).

Historians can also help to prevent the decay of online materials. As we talked about in a previous class, the roles of historian and archivist were once one and the same. In the digital age we should see the benefits of this model. Projects like the Internet Archive are attempting to save and catalogue all the material to be found on the web before it disappears but their task is ambitious. Ivor Tossell recently reported on the loss of Geocities in his article "On the Web, Forever has a Due Date"
and mentions that the Internet Archive is trying to salvage Geocities material before the sites are permanently erased from the internet. "Companies can promise a great many thing, and I'm willing to believe most of them," he writes. "But they can't promise to be there forever."

It is the not-for-profits and committed individuals who will need to pick up the information that companies leave behind as refuse. The practice of History has already changed; our research has been profoundly altered by the availability of primary and secondary source material online. But historians must see that they provide a public service, and in doing that, they must not only take from the web but give to it as well. In practicing and advocating for open access historians can make that connection between past and present all the more meaningful. And in seeing the benefits of the web we may be more aware of the need to preserve the online materials that the corporations like Yahoo! are failing to protect.

While the days of card catalogues are gone, the excitement and mystery of the chase has by no means evaporated. For instead of navigating gloomy stacks and hunting down that rare manuscript we are truly weaving a web: making connections to the public and to other scholars, to the primary sources we are working each day to save, to the past that we are seeking to interpret. How we think about ourselves is going to change, as it has changed throughout history with each wave of technical development. Nicholas Carr explains how we use new metaphors to talk about ourselves with the invention of technologies like the clock[3]. It is that shift in thinking that is slowly taking place.

At one point in Possession, Roland says to Maud, "Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects- all the time- and I suppose one studies- I study- literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful- as though we held a clue to the true nature of things?"[4]

The internet may seem like the answer to everything but it is only really the beginning of an endless search. We should not fear the loss of authority, for no one historian can have all the answers in light of so much discovery from age to age. The medium will change and so will the metaphors we use to make sense of our place in the world; the internet will be a key player in this shift. But rather than letting it "eat us up" it is possible for historians to take hold of it and use it as sustenance for a long future of endless archives and limitless opportunities.

[1] Roy Rosenzweig, "Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past," Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (Jun 2006): 117-146.
[2] Roy Rosenzweig, "The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,"
Journal of American History 88, no. 2 (Sep 2001): 548-579.
[3] Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,"
The Atlantic (July/Aug 2008).
[4] A.S.
Byatt, Possession (London: Vintage Books, 1990), 253.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Another point

Funny how once you get onto a theme you start to see it everywhere. This morning I came across an article on the Globe and Mail website entitled, "A house becomes a museum of missed hopes" by Ian Brown. While this is just an excerpt of his book, in it Brown describes the challenges of being a parent of a child with a rare genetic disorder. He writes about keeping every object that he and his wife were given for their son, including toys, clothes and therapy tools. I thought his description of why they saved everything was very telling: he calls the collection "the archaeological history of our futile belief that this or that plaything would pull him out of his closed-off world, into our own more public space."

We collect and save for very different reasons, some more frivolous than others. But I think Brown's article is another example of how we use objects to sustain hope for what's ahead; they aren't just relics but items that potentially make it easier to cope with the daunting and uncertain future.

See Brown's article here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Collecting as a Means of Survival

I've recently been mulling over the issue of collections and collecting in our society. In part this is brought on by class discussions, including the role collections play within the material realm of the museum as well as that of the digital archive. In this entry I will attempt to sort out the jumble of thoughts that have been spinning round my head this week- thoughts that fly into my brain even when I least expect them to, like in the midst of watching a Polish documentary on a Saturday afternoon.

Last weekend I visited the London Museum of Archaeology and came across an interesting display. A collection of animal skulls sat within a glass case and above it was mounted an explanation of the artifacts as well as an interesting comment about collections as a whole. It explained that humans began collecting in earliest times as a means of survival. A store of food was a safety net in case the hunters and gatherers weren't so successful in ticking items off their grocery list that week.

It gave me something to think about, this idea of collecting as a means of survival. As I left the museum, I wondered if we were the same today. In this information age we are amassing a digital collection so vast and so public that it is nearly impossible to contain and quantify it. It is also, as we have discussed in our Digital History class, in danger of disappearing altogether. Are we in danger of binging on our ability to collect? Are we simply turning into hoarders who collect just because we can, and consume what we want while allowing the rest of our collection to decay into garbage? You'd like to think that the earliest humans ate everything they saved.

There's a psychological study here somewhere, and I'm sure someone has looked into the motivations behind our individual and collective need to possess and store. I do not pretend to be an expert here; what I am interested in exploring is how we as public historians can make sense of this pressing issue of the digital archive by perhaps understanding something about the role of collections to the human experience.

One important factor, I think, is the feeling of possession. To be able to own an object and say that it represents you or someone you love is an empowering experience. In the documentary Katyn the young soldier begs that an officer's personal effects be returned to his bereaved wife because to her they were treasured "relics." Her husband, or part of him at least, is immortalized through the meaning she gives to those pieces of his life that have remained. Similarly, in the film Amelie, the Parisian Nino collects abandoned pictures from photo booths, piecing them together in a large book and making meaning out of objects that others see as garbage. But as we discussed in our class last week, one person's refuse is another's treasure- or relic, or art project.

Ownership is comfort and empowerment, but at what point does the scale tip in the other direction and the possessor discovers that he or she has become the possessed? Collections give us meaning and identity but only so long as we remain in control. In A.S. Byatt's Possession (aptly titled for this blog entry) the academic Mortimer Cropper is so determined to obtain the material artifacts of a poet's life that he sacrifices his own professional integrity in his quest to do so. It is the act of collecting- the chase- that takes precedence over the value of the objects themselves. This, I think, is the danger we are facing in the digital age.

Is the internet turning into a tool for society's collective hunger to know more, have more at our fingertips? I think the London Museum of Archaeology's statement can still be applied here. There is a feeling of safety in the internet; that anything you need to know is there, just in case. It's the modern version of food storing to last the winter. The difference is that it is changing so quickly and accumulating so much information that we are struggling to keep up with it.

I am not suggesting here that the web is an evil swelling mass that is dwarfing our little spider of humanity- a spider overwhelmed at the structure it created. What I think is that meaning is necessary. The internet is a fantastic resource for the sharing of information, ideas, and culture across a global network. But it has become such a large collection that it is up to historians, archivists and librarians to collectively make meaning out of. Otherwise our collective histories are amassed and thrown out like last season's rotten harvest. We have to choose what to collect on the basis of what will be consumed; who will use this information and how it will be stored. As I mentioned earlier, it is not easy to decide what is trash and what is treasure, but it is necessary if we are going to be able to preserve everything. Let's possess the information rather than have it possess us, and be aware that our innate need to collect is both problematic as well as empowering in our relationship with the past.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The first post about the past

It is a Friday evening and I currently have a cold, but beginning this blog seems like a much better option than lying in bed with a box of tissues, feeling sorry for myself. At any rate, that is besides the point because this blog is not about my poor immune system or even the inane thoughts that pass through my head each day but about my year in the Public History program at the University of Western Ontario.

I used to keep a journal. Technically, I still do, but it spends more time collecting dust in my desk drawer now than it does as a confidante of my day-to-day thoughts. But blogging, I think, is going to be different for a few reasons. First of all, I'm writing on this specific subject rather than the fact that my cat used my bathtub as a litter box for the third time this week.

Secondly, people are going to be reading this (unless, of course, I am that boring, to which case I will revert back to said griping and self-pitying).

Much of my inspiration for this first entry comes from a book I just read- Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. While her blog focused on her attempt to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking within a year, her book and the resulting movie is an interesting example of the intersection between history, social memory, and blogging. As Powell progresses through the book, she finds that her life is transformed by a woman that lived and worked in a world fifty years ago. Child becomes her companion and mentor, taking on life in a modern, New York kitchen and helping a young woman turn her life around. At the end of the book, Julie hears that Child commented negatively on her blog and is, naturally, a little disappointed. But after some reflection she writes that "maybe if I met that Julia I wouldn't even like her. But I liked the Julia in my head- the only one I really knew, after all- just fine." She and her husband even end the project with a visit to the Julia Child exhibition in Washington, DC.

As a new student of Public History I of course got excited that the final touch to the Julie/Julia project was a visit to a museum. But I think for many, museums and other heritage sites are places of tribute where we can attach something tangible to the feeling that history has inspired or changed us in some way. History had lived within Julie's kitchen and in visiting Julia Child's own, she was reaching back.

This, to me, is Public History: it does not necessarily need to be read, or listened to, or watched, but it does, I think, require an experience. A connection with the past that may be as unique as hearing the voice of Julia Child as you cook; as profound as standing at the Vimy Ridge memorial and tasting the mud and sweat and fear; as lighthearted as watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and thinking, hey, I wonder if they have something with that witch scene...

You know this is where history happened and that you, somehow, have become a part of it and it you.