What is Digital History?

Hello everybody, I want to talk to you about Digital History.  At the beginning of this semester, I was looking for an interesting history course.  I saw a class labeled “Intro to Digital History”.  This sounded very cool to me and I decided to sign up for it. Little did I know how different this course was from what I thought it would be.

When I saw the course title, I believed that this course would be about the history of the digital era.  I thought that I would learn about the first computers, when the internet was born and so on.  I mean come on, “Intro to Digital History”; does that not sound like an introductory course to the history of digitization?  I was wrong, but happily so!

I learnt that this class would be teaching me about new media and technology tools and how they helped, help, and will help history.  My professor, Professor Sibaja, defined the course as “analyzing the changes that new media and technology tools are bringing to the field of history”.

One of the first items of business was familiarizing myself with Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Introduction to Digital Media http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/introduction/.  Here I learnt that Digital History is always evolving.  I noticed similarities and differences from now and when the article was written (approximately late 2005-early 2006).  For example, the article tells of memory space and how cheap it is: “A 120-gigabyte hard drive that sells for $95 and weighs about a pound”.  Nowadays we have terabytes worth of information, weighing and costing less.

The most important lesson that stuck with me was regarding powerpoint.  In the book “Beautiful Evidence” by Edward Tufte, I learnt how distracting Powerpoint could be.  With all of its flourishes and its lack of space, one would be hard pressed to convey their message efficiently.  By reading his book, I realized that we are a quick and impatient society.  We need information immediately and it has to be to the point.  No flourishes and no fluff.

This idea resonated throughout the semester for me.  I realized that being an information based society, we need everything right now.  Digital Media tools are helping us get there quicker than ever before but I can’t help feeling that we are losing the enjoyment of the journey of getting to our destination.

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Have Professors missed the SS Web 2.0?

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There is no denying that we live in a digital age. So the question that begs asking is, why are our professors not in the same boat as us?  They came into this digital age the same time we did so how come we, students, are leaps and bounds ahead of them?

T. Mills Kelly in Chapter 5 of his book: “Teaching History in the Digital Age” discusses this exact problem.  He notes how less then 10% of faculty use Web 2.0 medias such as blogs, twitter etc.  As such, these professors are very much out of tune with their students and are likely teaching “their students about the past in ways that are very far removed from the reality of students lives”.  Kelly also notes that with Web 2.0 comes new ways to discover, teach, and learn history. Something that students have already discovered but professors of history are lacking in.

I agree and disagree with this part of the chapter.  First let us discuss what I agree on.

There definitely is a general disconnect between student and teacher when it comes to the digital realm.  This has nothing to do with students tweeting during class and making old jokes about the professor who thinks they are chirping like birds.  This has to do with the educational disconnect.  From emails to BlackBoard to really any digital tools.  Professors do not know what to make of them and therefore some ban the use from in their classes.  This puts a serious block to the students who can use these tools to their advantage and put out better work because of it.  This isnt even just regarding the students side.  The professor can use these tools also! The same tools that allow students to create wonderful work can help professors enhance their lectures and teachings.  If the professors can adapt to Web 2.0 then not only will they teach better but students will also learn better.

Now the negative about this section in the chapter.  T. Mills Kelly seems to label history professors as being completely stuck in the past (pun intended).  He notes how the professors are “watching from the dock as the ship called Web 2.0 sails away, carrying our students off to a distant shore that we almost never visit”.  But there are plenty of professors who are in the digital realm.  They know how to use BlackBoard and other digital tools.  There are professors who accentuate their teachings with uses of blogs, digital archives etc.  History professors aren’t all stodgy old bookends; many of them are happily embracing the digital age and taking full advantage of it much like their students are.

Does digital public history need objects?

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As we continue to cruise through the digital age, information continues to get faster and faster.  Nobody has the time or patience for books and articles, we need objects.  One of the most important of these objects are photographs. There used to be museums full of photographs.  These images could tell us so much information about the subject at hand.  Now though, digitization is challenging the way historians can use photographs.

Martha Sandweiss sees digitization as a bane to photographic history http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2013/material-culture-in-the-digital-frame/artifacts-as-pixels-pixels-as-artifacts.  Being posted online means that the picture and its information is at the mercy of the archiver/museum/library etc.  This means that ” some sites obscure the name of the photographer or the original size of the object, both vital bits of information for someone who wants to think about how the photograph circulated or what sort of impact it had”.  Without this vital information, how can a Public Historian or any historian for that matter, use these photos?  Another major problem stemming from digitization is brought up by Sheila Brennan http://www.lotfortynine.org/2012/11/getting-to-the-stuff-digital-cultural-heritage-collections-absence-and-memory/.  She notes that as more museums and collections get put online, whatever few photos are left in the “physical realm” “carry a huge interpretative weight, and that burden is unnecessarily heavy”.

We can see how digitization is actually a problem for public history and history in general through these two articles cited; but not all is bad.  Because of digitization, almost everybody can learn from photos that are stuck in a museum across the globe from them.  There is also so many things Public Historians can add to photos that can enhance their teachings. Dr. Meringolo shows us one way in her blog http://denisemeringolo.org/current-research/playing-with-thinglink/.  In her blog post, she experiments with a digital tool called “ThingLink”.  This tool “allows users to connect information to images”.  With this tool, Meringolo reasons that by “using this tool in the classroom might help students think concretely about the interpretive value of images”.  Not only does this combat the problem given by Martha Sandweiss re. vital information but it also answers the question of “does digital public history need objects”.

To me, the answer is a resounding yes but the profesif.  We live in a digital age where everything is happening lighting fast.  We no longer have the time and patience to learn through sitting down and reading and thus objects help us gain knowledge that we might have skipped over in a book or essay. One of, if not the most important aspect to Public History is how history gets applied to real life situations.  By combining Dr. Meringolo’s pros with Martha Sandweiss’ and Sheila Brennan’s cons, we can deduce that yes, digital public history does need objects but we still need to limit their “power” because of the chance of vast gaps of information in objects (as specifically noted by Martha Sandweiss above).

The Heroes of History

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Cohen & Rosenzweig (C&R), and Prom, both focus on the peculiar definition the world has regarding the word “archive”.  Most people think of archives as being dusty collections of vast information.  Most of it useless and unessential.  C&R and Prom see archives as something totally different.  Both see it as a means of gathering information and broadly delivering it.  Prom sees it as a “usable record of that messy human experience”.  C&R see the internet as more than just a shuttling of “information between and among people”.

Archives aren’t a stodgy, old way of showing information from the past! It is the ability to exchange and disseminate information the world over! Archivists are the private eyes and detectives of the world.  They piece together bits of information and weave from it a tapestry of history and knowledge.  With privacy getting more important and digital information somewhat able to easily disappear, archivists are having to work harder than ever.

Unfortunately, as Prom notes, “most archives have made little systematic progress in identifying, preserving, and providing access to electronic records”.  This means that as history is being created (every little bit of life is history) in the digital era, it is not being archived. Although it is tough right now because “digital preservation is hard”, there are still archivists out there trying to preserve the knowledge and history of humanity and in essence, humanity itself.

So if you ever meet someone who is an archivist, do not think of them as a stodgy old librarian who collects material.  They are men and women who scour the world over (both real and digital) for information and knowledge. It is these very men and women who might immortalize you someday by archiving your history. Every nugget that gets archived is due to the hard work of these private eyes and detectives, these saviors and heroes of history.

Digital Humanities for Dummies

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Digital Humanities is area of research devoted to digitized and “born digital” areas of humanities.  It is very important for our digital age due to it allowing a much larger access to material than we have ever had before.  One of the parts of Digital Humanities is blogging.  Now, being on this site and reading this article, you already know somewhat what a blog is and therefore one part of Digital Humanities. In her blog, Lisa Spiro gives a very nice list on how to get started in the Digital Humanities https://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/getting-started-in-the-digital-humanities/.

The first thing Spiro recommends you do is to “Determine what goals or questions motivate you”.  This will show you the direction you want to work in and give you a better idea on what you need to answer or complete your goals.  Another idea she lists is “Participate in the Digital Humanities (DH) community”.  The DH community is a great place to find help and learn more about the subject.  They have plenty to offer you and vice versa.  In my opinion, the most important idea she listed is “Where possible, adopt/adapt existing tools”.  Why create a new tool when someone has already created one before you.  As Lisa Spiro says so perfectly “too often projects re-invent the wheel rather than adopting or adapting existing tools”.

Personally, I would start at a digital archive.  This is where you get the best view of what Digital Humanities has contributed to society.  Here you will see articles/journals/pictures etc. that you could never have accessed before.  Not only do I enjoy looking around in these archives just for fun, it has also proven useful many times for research papers and just general knowledge questions.  I urge anybody and everybody to learn about Digital Humanities, not just for fun but because this is where we are heading and only Dummies stay behind the curve rather than ahead of it.

We live in a Digital Age, so why don’t our books?!

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Simply put, we live in a digital age.  I type this on my laptop which sits next to my Android smartphone.  Today I am reading chapters of a book that were posted online by my professor.  Everything is great… not.  See, the problem is the ominous pile behind me.  It is a large mountain of books I have had to purchase throughout my years in college. They have cost me possibly a thousand dollars and are an eyesore.  This is one of the many problems with having to buy print books.

In his book, Gary Hall believes that much could be accomplished if academic books could be put online.  Firstly, he negates the problem of copyright.  He reasons that copyright is not such an issue because most academic writers “tend not to be concerned about getting paid a fee for, or receiving royalties from their research publications” (Hall, 46).  Hall also proves how easily accessible digital copies of a book are versus the print one. He does this by noting that most cultural studies journals only have approximately 400 to 600 copies internationally.  Hall’s own co-founded Culture Machine which is an open-access online journal “was able to achieve a circulation of 6,500 in the first ten months of its existence” (Hall, 47). John Willinsky too notes that journal publishers are not out looking for profit and therefore should be willing to submit their work online where the masses can easily obtain it.

All in all, everyone would gain for academic books to be put online.  This would help not only help lower student debt but would also publicize the book more so than if it was kept in print.  We are in a digital age, there is no reason our books shouldn’t be here also!

Copyright, or CopyWRONG?

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Lessig defines free culture as a culture that supports and protects current creators and innovators but at the same time limits their rights thereby allowing future creators and innovators to remain as free as possible from the control of the past.      I completely agree with Lessig on this idea.  He defines free culture as being a balance of anarchy and control.  Free does not mean free like we think.  Free i.e. Freedom is never free; everything has a cost.  The fact that something is free whether in real life or on the internet is because someone somewhere had to sacrifice something.  If you create something now, our free culture protects your innovation but it also allows someone else to utilize your innovation and build upon it.  Don’t complain though, because most likely whatever you are working on now has some technology of a past creator in it and the same free culture that allowed you to “borrow” the technology from his allowing someone else to do the same from you.

The internet has ruined and at the same time rebuilt copyright laws.  The best example Lessig gives for this is the MPAA and specifically its president, Jack Valenti.  Valenti came to Washington to argue that creative property owners should have as much right to their property as any other property owner. Lessig believes that this idea would ruin the creative juices running through society.  The internet much like DDT created new rules for their respective fields.  The technology of the internet has protected copyright owners but if it continues down this path of pure protection than much like the Silent Spring caused by DDT, many new and future creators and innovators will be silenced by the poison spread by hardcore copyrighters.

Creative Property has been around for a long time but only now that the internet has blossomed do we see the full extent of what a creatively created property is and how copyrighting affects it.  We have been following a code regarding creative property long before the internet was born.  Only once the internet came around did people start making these codes into law.  Thinking of only themselves, they made friendly codes into law forever changing the playing field and unless it eventually reverts back to simple code, Lessig believes that we are heading for anarchy.

Digital Tool Review: WordPress

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Blogging is a new experience for me even though it has been around for some time.  Whereas in the beginning blogging was for the tech junkie many sites such as WordPress have made it easy enough for anyone to blog.  WordPress is a great blogging site.  It is one of the most popular online publishing platforms and has over 41.7 million posts a month.

When you start off creating a WordPress account, the first step to creating a WordPress account is choosing your blog’s name.  This will become your WordPress “website”; an example of this would be wordblog.wordpress.com. Once you choose one that is not already in their database, you are then asked for an email address and password.  That’s it! No hidden fees or charges; the only thing that could cost you is if you want to sign up for Premium or Business which gives you more storage, ad-free blogging and more themes.  If you are just starting out, the free version will do just fine.  When you finally sign in, you will be asked if you would like to post your first blog entry; go ahead and do it, you’ll enjoy it.

Creating a post is very simple in WordPress.  In the top right corner there will either be a “pencil with a plus sign”or a “new post” tabComputer screenshot 2Capture.  Select this option and you will be sent to a page where you can create your post.  Here, there will be separate boxes to create the title and your body.  WordPress has all the necessary tools to create a great post such as number lists, hyperlinking, and the option of adding mediaComputer screenshots.  The great thing about WordPress is its usability factor.  WordPress makes sure that the original settings are perfect if you do not feel like tinkering around.  If you do though, there is plenty to play around with such as font, color, and layout.  Blogging is a fun way to express yourself to the world, I started it for a class but I definitely can see myself continuing after the semester is over.

There are a few cautions to be aware of with WordPress.  One of them is the “home” button on your personal blog’s website {Insert Screenshot here?}.  It is a small, stylized W in a circle.  This is the tab that allows you to post, check settings and a few selections that are not so simple to understand such as “freshly pressed”, “reader” and “stats” (WordPress).  There is already a tab for “new post”, so it is a bit odd that WordPress has an additional optionComputer screenshot 2.  Another problem is customizing your WordPress account.  If you want to change themes from the default, one would think to look in the “settings” tab; it is not there.  If you want to customize your account, do not look under the “customize tab either.  “Dashboard” is where all the customization is at.  Here you will find all the options you want to change the appearance of your blogwordpress dashboard.

All in all, WordPress is a great blogging site.  It has all the ease needed for an amateur yet also has the customizability for the professional blogger as well.  It is open-source and therefore always being updated.  This means it is always getting easier and more fun to use.  Coming from someone who never blogged before, WordPress is very easy to grasp and is quite enjoyable once you get the hang of it.  It is simple to create a blog site and create posts here. Blogging is a fun way to express yourself to the world; I may have only started it due to a class but I definitely can see myself continuing after the semester is over.

You, you, you. It’s all about You!

It is always about the consumer.  From the largest stores to the simple blog page, it is always about the end user.  In order for people to enjoy using your site and wanting to come back again, the website/blog has to be easy to use and enjoyable.  In Jeremy Boggs’ blog titled: Part Three: Design Process, he details the necessary enhancements to please the end user http://clioweb.org/2008/06/04/part-three-design-process/.

The cardinal sin when creating a website or in my case, blog, is designing the blog how I want it to look.  The first question Boggs asks is “what kind of mood or atmosphere” should the site be.  This is most important because the theme needs to match the information contained in it.  Brian Miller believes that the intricate details of web design such as “space usage, typography…” are also integral to grabbing the audience captive and not letting go https://docs.google.com/a/umbc.edu/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=dW1iYy5lZHV8aW50cm9kaC1mYWxsMjAxNHxneDo3ZTQ1MDJlN2Q3MmQwYzNj.

Humans are selfish.  We want everything to look how we want it.  This is a problem because it usually isolates the end user/desired audience.  Using Boggs’ and Miller’s advice, I can better customize my blog thereby possibly increasing visits.  The first thing I would do is follow Boggs’ advice and get a group of people together.  This group would be my “design team”.  I would relay over what my blog is supposed to do and ask them what kind of mood or atmosphere the blog would contain.  After I have this idea down, I will utilize Miller’s advice and focus on the layout of the monitor screen.  Two examples given by Miller are space usage and typography.  Both of these are important because they are the first two things someone sees on a website or blog.  Using this information, I would make sure I have the correct font for blogging (yes, these types of fonts really exist).

To sum it all up, since my blog is about digital history i would theme it that way.  As such, my blog would maybe have the yellowed color of old paper i.e. history but also have gears and different computers a la the digital era.  I would also follow Miller and make sure I have my most important information above the fold and make sure I have the right font.

Powerpoints *next slide* Are *next slide* Ruining *next slide* Their Content *next slide*

In “Beautiful Evidence”, Edward Tuft strongly dislikes Powerpoint due to its power of detraction.  When information is needed to be given over in a succinct manner, businesses usually utilize Powerpoints.  Tuft points out that Powerpoints actually detract from the necessary information for multiple reasons.  One reason is that information that should be linked together can end up being on different powerpoint slides.  Another problem is that Powerpoints “promote a cognitive style that disrupts and trivializes evidence” (Tuft, 184).  The different flourishes and tools that make up Powerpoint (Tuft calls them “Powerpoint Phluff”) create a mental block and thereby not allowing the necessary information to be absorbed.  I completely agree.

Just like Steve Krug, I believe that Edward Tuft is trying to simplify things all while increasing the absorption of the message.  With its fun animations, bullets, and most importantly, slides, Powerpoint dilutes the intended message and actually distracts the viewer.  We discussed in class regarding online articles vs. print, how sometimes the old way is the best way. This applies to Powerpoints just as much.  Imagine being handed a printout of a Powerpoint presentation; ten pages of squares with bullets and words filling it.  Where is the necessary information, what is the correct layout, am i reading it properly?  It would be much simpler reading sentences than trying to decipher “computer code” as Tuft puts it (Tuft, 170).

This all melts down to “what tools/ideas should historians employ to better represent their data”?  We now know that Powerpoints are not very good at presenting information and are therefore ruled out.  I personally believe that the best tools to use currently are visual.  Interactive websites, videos, pictures, and even charts can help better give over the intended message to its audience.  These tools/ideas challenge the brain to accept the information in a different way than we are used to and therefore creates a more “memorable” experience.