Digital History in the Ever Growing Field of Social History

In the last 10 years, the fields of digital history and social history have exhibited explosive parallel growth as significant fields of historical study, largely in part to the growing influence of the internet.  With social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, historians now have the digital tools to record social histories like never before.  Following the occurrence of an important historical event, millions of responses are instantly posted to the internet, allowing historians to gauge a cultural or social reaction to an event that has never been previously possible.  Furthermore, with sites like Youtube or Ustream, people can post videos live to the internet as events transpire, giving us the chance to witness historical events secondhand through the eyes of those that film them.  It becomes important than, given the noise generated by the sheer volume of internet communications for Historians to develop the skills to sift through the mountain of superfluous information, and get to the meat of the topic or event they are researching.  This becomes even more urgent when the issue of server life is considered.  Large amounts of information are stored on servers for extended periods of time, but they are not kept around forever.  Unlike physical sources, which persist regardless of their relevance at any given time, the ephemeral nature of sever storage means that once a server goes down, the information it contains is likely lost forever.  This creates an impetus on historians to find and curate important digital and social sources responding to an event before the information they need becomes difficult or impossible to find.  This was particularly true following the events of September 11, 2001, which shocked the nation, and changed life in the country forever.  Given that the internet was just emerging as the place for cultural exchange, and social media was not yet in full swing, finding and saving information detailing the reaction to the attack was more difficult than it would be now.  Understanding the incredible tools becoming available to document the social and cultural history of the world, Historians made a focused effort to find and save important sources that reacted to the event, such as newspapers, blogs, and forums.  This became known as the September 11th Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org/) which chronicles the response of the world to perhaps the most significant terrorism attacks in modern history.  Additionally, historians have used the site to record the accounts of eyewitnesses of the event, making even more valuable information available to future generations.

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The events set underway by the acts of September 11th have had a profound impact on the United States as well as the rest of the world.  Widespread changes have been enacted as to how security and intelligence are operated, an multiple wars have been fought due to the events of one single day.  Cataloging the responses individuals to that day was an extremely important undertaking which will prove useful to historians researching the event for decades to come.  Years later, with the rise of social media, digital history has become even more pervasive and accessible.  Twitter has has both an active role in the active in its use as a historical actor and as a catalog of the responses of millions of people to an event.  Following the events of September 11th, Osama Bin Laden become the number 1 enemy of the United States.  Following a manhunt that stretched countries and decades, in 2011 the United States of America was able to locate and eliminate Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  Despite the highly clandestine nature of the mission, and its execution in the dark of night, it did not go unnoticed.  One of Bin Laden’s unknowing neighbors, hearing a commotion in the night, actually live tweeted the raid from his home without realizing.  Reporting the noise and gunfire he was hearing, the individual went from relative obscurity to world famous overnight.

                                           

This shows the relevance of Twitter as a historical platform, as one individual was able to tweet a major world event, an act which was reported on by news agency around the globe.  From now on, the casual postings of a previously anonymous twitter user will forever be linked with the most significant missions to eliminate a terrorist to date.  Even more recently, cultural uprisings in countries like Egypt or Lebanon of been cataloged on twitter.  Oppressed peoples have used it as a tool to not only organize in ways that governments can’t prevent, but in to inform the world around them of what is happening, so that injustice and mistreatment can’t be swept under the rug by despotic leader.  During the revolution in Libya, rebels even used twitter to help coordinate airstrikes with NATO.   This makes sites like twitter not only catalogs of social history, but at times an active agent in shaping it.

This is an incredible development for historians in the cataloging of history.  Now, instead of gathering sources ancillary to an event, historian at times will be able to follow events exactly as they happened, thereby granting them unprecedented access to historical information.  Additionally, through studying the use of twitter as a social an political tool, Historians will be able to learn a tremendous amount about how these movements work, where previously their isolated nature may have prevented such study.  The application of twitter as an agent of social change, compared with the ease of accessing information relevant to the process, will continue to keep twitter relevant for years to come.  Another important aspect of social media than just the tracking of responses to a tragedy or in social movements, is helping to catalog events in which a nation s particularly divisive.  Recent events in Ferguson Missouri have become a hotbed issue across the nation, with people vehemently disagreeing with one another and speculating on the guilt of Officer Darren Wilson.

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Saturday. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, is experiencing its fourth day of violent protests since the killing.

With such a divisive issue dominating national headlines, twitter becomes an important source for recording the varying opinions of the general public.  People argued non stop about the issue, and following the decision by a grand jury not to indict, twitter ignited with positive and negative responses to the decision.  This sparked outrage by some, and sparked rioting in Ferguson and other cities across the nation.  Seeing these events unfold, many individuals rushed to the scene, and recorded or live streamed events on the ground as they happened.

This live recording of the event was an unprecedented documenting of a major event.  Never before have events been recorded this extensively, and it is hugely significant for historical study.  Access to multiple personal recordings of an event, largely free of institutional bias, is extraordinary in the context of historical study.  This will allow historians studying the event to understand it to a degree that has not been possible in the past, as they will be able to watch it and peoples reactions unfold simultaneously.  In the increasingly digital age, we’ve seen the rise of social media as a huge influence in our daily lives.  While some resist its popularity, it has undoubtedly become a large part of social culture.  Because these sites exist in the online realm, they have unlocked incredible new avenues in the pursuit of social history.  From the reactions of the general public, to primary source evidence, to live interaction, online resources are becoming increasingly relevant to modern history.  As they grow more pervasive, the internet is going to be an absolutely dominate force in the study of both social and digital history, much to the benefit of Historians and students alike.

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Baltimore Museum Of Industry

This past Friday, I went with my girlfriend and her son to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, located off key highway near Fort McHenry.  I’ll admit I was excited to go to the museum as its been a significant amount of time since my last visit and I’ll admit my memories were a bit hazy.  I was also interested in looking at the museum with a slightly more analytical perspective than I normally might.  An added advantage is that we had a child with us, allowing me to examine the museum from multiple perspectives.  I will admit, with a two year old in tow, we didn’t examine every aspect of the museum.  However I think that just strengthens my analysis, as it forced me to see how the museum is engaging the average visitor, rather than a historian, and see if it was effective in doing so.  Upon arriving at the museum, we were greeted with a fairly standard set-up, a front information desk, with branching exhibits.  Without any particular focus, we gravitated immediately toward the left, which led towards the canning exhibits and Mrs. Farthing’s Shop exhibit.

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(From Left) Me, Paris, and Lukas posing with some of the machinery

With the parameters of Digital History in mind, I tried to evaluate the exhibits from a digital history perspective.  As anyone who has visited the BMI can attest, the Museum is almost entirely analog.  Most of the exhibits consist of information partnered with relevant artifacts.  However, it was not analog in a traditional sense, in that it did not consist of informational displays.  Rather, it seemed to attempt to try and recreate the environments that it was examining.  (http://thebmi.org/exhibitscollections/)  For example, in the area that explained the canning factories, all the of tools were present, and arranged in a way that they might have been in a real factory, rather than being tiredly mounted on a wall.  In fact, most of the exhibits seemed to have a “lived in feel” that suggested to the observer that they were either in use or accurate replicated what they were trying to recreate, which made for a very cool experience.  In Debbie’s exhibit, it really felt like you were in a real version of which ever shop you were in, and most of them appeared to be very much functional. (http://thebmi.org/exhibitscollections/temporary-exhibits/) This made the exhibits more engaging, and my Paris (my girlfriend) even remarked how some of the shops reminded her of stories her mother had told her of her childhood, which added a nice emotional connection.

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Paris Examining one of the Displays

We all enjoyed the shops exhibit because it really did feel like you were seeing the old school shops as they would of been.  As we are both fans of the aesthetic of this era, we both joked that the museum could seriously increase its profits if it added a restaurant in the style of the era, which would be a fun dining experience for diners and museum goers alike.  The fact that museum appears to be actively using some of the shops, like the printing and sewing shops, makes things even cooler.  The shops that Debbie focused on were interesting as well.  As a native Marylander, I am immensely proud of where I am from, so seeing the shop exhibits on things like Esskay Oriole hot dogs and Domino’s sugar was really interesting, and definitely created an emotional appeal for me.  Another aspect of this that increased the appeal was that because the exhibits felt very real, you didn’t experience the “hands off, don’t touch” atmosphere that makes a lot of museums difficult for children.  I think its a lot better for kids to experience and learn if they can get hands on with exhibits, as they otherwise often can become bored.  Lukas, my girlfriends son, has an interest in machinery, so he really enjoyed a lot of the exhibits.  Being able to touch and examine some of the objects himself (where appropriate) really increased his enjoyment of the Museum.

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Lukas attempting to drive a printing press.

I think what the museum attempted to do with this section was really engaging, and I commend Debbie on her role in its creation.  I may be biased, because as I said I really like the aesthetic of this era, but I thought the exhibits were engaging and we weren’t forced to read walls of text.  (Difficult at best with a two year old)  I believe that our impression of the exhibits was what the curators were trying to present, so I think they are effective in engaging the audience.  From a digital perspective, the exhibits didn’t really cater to that aspect of history.  Ultimately, I think that’s okay however.  I was reminded of our class discussion about digital data bases and what is gained and lost through their use.  (See Cohen and Rozenweig’s “Collecting History Online” and Christopher Prom’s “Re-imagining Academic Archives) The BMI seems to cater more towards the “physical history” side of things, allowing visitors to experience its message first person.  This of course comes at the cost of accessibility as we discussed in class, since you have to physically attend the museum to experience the content.  The Museum has an image database (http://thebmi.org/bge-image-database/) that depicts many scenes of industry in Baltimore that is widely accessible online.  While it may not be as extensive as other institutions, it does appear to have a nice collection of interesting photographs, which does establish a digital presence for the museum.  As is explained in the reading I cited, collecting photos and other artifacts online is a newer science.  While this isn’t exactly analogous to the September 11th project, I do think these photos represent a sort of “social history”.  The photos show the people and scenes of the growth of industry in Baltimore, and puts a really nice face on what we are learning about.  Just like the September 11th project in the reading, I think curating appropriately is important, to present an accurate portrayal of history without over saturating people.   I think the database complements what the museum is trying to do nicely, making the history real for people. The database is a nice tie-in that serves as extra information for anyone that’s interested.  Unfortunately, for a lot these types of resources, I think it goes largely unnoticed by the general public.  I only found it because I was looking for it on my own, which is mostly due to my predilections for historical research.  Nothing at the museum led me to it, and i think your average person is unlikely to stumble upon.  To that end, I think the museum has a really cool opportunity for a digital tie-in.  If they included kiosks where the photos were view able for visitors, they could could tie in a digital component that would enhance the exhibit and wouldn’t clash with its physical history presentation.  This way visitors could enjoy that aspect of the museum with out doing any extra work later (which lets face it they aren’t going to do.) and it could move the museum away from the strictly analog model in a less obtrusive manner,  For the majority of the physical museum, digital history wasn’t a huge focus, and trying to make it one wouldn’t really have worked.  The museum in my opinion would be much better served using digital history in a supporting role as I described.  However, there are digital history components to the museum that can’t be ignored. I tried to focus more on the visit itself however, as most people who go to the museum likely have no idea that the database even exists.  One exhibit that did engage almost totally in a digital sense was the Video Game Wizards exhibit, which attempted to teach the process through which video games are made.  It had multiple stations for each of the stages of making a game, which allowed visitors to watch a video then do a hands on activity to help “create a game.” The exhibit was very digitized, and stood in stark contrast with the rest of the museum.  While we thought it was an interesting exhibit, my girlfriend and I both commented that it felt very out of place with the rest of the museum.  It kind of felt tacked on, and didn’t fit with the museum as a whole.  I sort of decided that this was probably an attempt to modernize and attract more visitors, who may not be as historically inclined (i.e. not me).  In that sense it does make slightly more sense.  The exhibit is kind of a weird contrast however,  It clearly is aimed towards kids, and promises them to help create their own game.  However, the process of ding so was fairly complicated, and I felt would probably be beyond the scope of most children.  Even if they were able to grasp the concepts, it also took a long time to create something you will likely never touch again, so I though it was a bit odd.  However, Lukas did enjoy playing at each of the stations, and while we didn’t quite follow the directions, we were able to make our own fun.

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Making a Video Game! (Maybe/not really)

Therefore, while this exhibit did use technology to really engage the observer (Lukas was hooked), it failed to use the hard earned attention to really teach anything.  It was overly complicated, and I felt as a whole it didn’t really belong.  This conclusion raised some interesting ideas for me relative to some of the things we discussed in class.  Digital History is new, and undoubtedly exciting, but it still very much vulnerable to the same downfalls as other areas of history.  I think often people are so awed by technology that they believe that technology itself can carry a medium.  However, in History as well as other areas of popular culture, it becomes apparent that technology is not enough on its own, you still have to use it effectively.  (See modern films that use special effects to the detriment of the rest of the story).  I think Historians will need to learn how to use technology how to enhance an experience, rather than carry.  A lot of the rules still apply, exhibits need to be engaging, informational, and above all, succinct.  A boring exhibit will be just as boring on an ipad as it is in physical form.  I will definitely keep an eye on this trend as I visit museums moving forward.  In conclusion, I think the museum did its job effectively, and we all enjoyed our visit.  However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that can be done better.  As Shelia Brennen explains in her article: Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage, Collections, Absence, and Memory, “Collections are useless unless they are used.”  This simple statement summarizes one of the most essential problem we face as historians, getting the information out there and making it accessible to the general public, without undercutting its value or its message.  As Brennen describes, a lot of museums are missing great opportunities to engage their visitors online, which would increase foot traffic and overall productivity greatly.  According to her nearly 70% of historical museums don’t have an online presence.  I think this is a shame and a huge missed opportunity.  While the BMI has an online presence, I think it is likely going unnoticed, and the exhibit they have focused on digital presentation largely misses the mark.  However, as I said, we still enjoyed the exhibit somewhat, just not in its intended fashion, so the potential is their.  I think if museums can find ways to utilize digital history subtly to improve their exhibits, they can enhance the overall experience of the museum.  Small things like the kiosks I described can enhance the experience, the museums resources are actually being used (the photos), and not take away from the “physical history” theme.  However, they have to be careful not to overshadow the experience through the use of technology.  One example I’ve seen that I really enjoyed was at the D-Day Museum in Normandy, France.  They had stations where you could look up any participant in the landings and read biological information about them.  As someone with a relative who died on Omaha beach, this was a really cool way to personalize the experience with minimal effort.  I think museums that can use digital history as a tool rather than a medium will flourish, while others fall behind.  I certainly enjoyed my visit to the BMI and I look forward to see how it an other museums digitize in the future.

Twitter in the Academic World

For the final blog posting, i decided to take a closer look at the reading about twitter as an academic tool.  I personally am not a fan of twitter, as I often find it to be inane and lacking meaningful depth when it comes to day to day use.  I don’t have a twitter account, although I admit I do visit the site from time to time to read the offerings of others.  This is because for certain purposes, Twitter can really shine.  As the article mentions, Twitter can have many uses in the academic realm.  The author focused specifically on twitters use in an academic teaching environment.  Teachers can use twitter in a myriad of ways such as: class discussion, feedback, research, etc.  I think these are all valid uses of twitter.  However, I believe twitter will shine in academia not as a teaching tool, but as an incredible and unprecedented source of social history.  Twitter allows all of its users to react instantly to events in the world, and all of these responses are saved.  This can be helpful to provide more insight into local events, such as the individual who tweeted his experiences during the night US Navy Seals raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound.  It can also be used to document the reactions of average people to events that transpire in the world, such as the massive outpouring of grief and rage that followed the Boston marathon attack.  Years from now, historians will be able to go back through twitter with specialized and focused searches, and gain a large amount of sources on the social reaction to events.  I believe that twitter will be immensely helpful for the cataloging of social history.  Finally, Id like to comment on this experience as a whole.  It was really eye opening for me, as i have never blogged before, and it was far out of my comfort zone.  This experience certainly increased my awareness of the power of the internet as a social tool, and I look forward yo using that knowledge in my studies moving forward.

Online Education

For todays blog post I decided to respond to the article about online education.  The post by Alex Tabbarok, argues in favor of online education in the increasingly expensive field of education.  What was interesting about the article is he examines the issue not as much from a historical point of view as an economic one.  He points out that as the number of students and the cost of education increases, the productivity level of teachers remains about the same.  This means that the opportunity cost of teaching is continuing to rise, leading to the further inflation of education.  Tabbarok doesn’t understand why in light of this evidence, why most institutions have failed to adopt more contemporary teaching methods, particularly of the online variety.  As he points out, most class sizes are limited to a few students, with larger lecture halls seating a few hundred.  This is dwarfed by the amount of students that can take an online class.  A teacher can give a lecture digitally, then use automatically graded tests to gauge his or her students on their learning.  This method can be used to teach thousands of students at a time, dramatically lowering the opportunity cost of teaching.  He admits that the quality of education may dip slightly, but the loss of quality is more than compensated for by the overhead that would be saved.  He points out that a few years ago, he did a TED talks.  This 15 minute lecture has to date garnered 700,000 views, a number which grows every day.  If you extrapolate the amount of teaching in man hours done in that 15 minute lecture, it exceeds the amount of time hes spent teaching in the entire rest of his career.  When you consider the implications of such a thing, it is staggering what it could mean for education.  By using digital methods, higher education could be cheaply and efficiently brought to much larger audiences.  This can have a snowballing effect in which in a situation where more people have access to higher education, the various academic fields will grow larger, leading to quicker advances in scholarship and technology.  The effects of digital teaching seem to be profoundly beneficial when considered against the current model.  Hopefully by more closely examining online instruction, more institutions can reap the potential benefits it has to offer.

Sharing in the Digital Age

The readings for this week really focused on the concept of sharing content in the digital age.  Of the thousands of historical collections that exist in the world, many neglect to share resources with on another, or the public at large.  This becomes a problem for historians because this secrecy undermines historical research.  When researchers cant find what they need, it hampers the field, and causes their to be a perceived lack of information where that might not necessarily be the case.  Furthermore, by no sharing these resources, institutions undermine the value of the resources themselves.  If they aren’t being used or viewed, they serve very little purpose.  As the article states “Collections are useless unless they are used.”  This is undoubtedly true, because the value of sources in information in the field of history lies not in their existence, but in the information they can provide to practitioners and researchers toward the advancement of the field.  Sources serve as building blocks to expanding our understanding of the past, and withholding them makes it harder to understand where we came from.  This is a hard problem to solve because many institutions feel they are competing, and are very protective of the information they have in their collections.  However, in order for the field to advance these groups must be more open in providing information.  The best way to do this is through the tools offered by the sub-field of digital history.  By creating online platforms to share sources and interface, researchers will have a much easier time building toward their goals, and the field will flourish as a result.

Re Imagining Academic Archives

After reading the article on Re Imagining Academic Archives, I wanted to respond to some of the points it made.  In today’s society, much of social interaction happens on the internet.  Whether its Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, or any other of the thousands of ways in which people interact online, our society has become digital.  This will forever change the way in which we examine history.  In the past, History lived in a physical realm.  Whether it is artifact or writings, history could be deciphered through the evidence left to us by previous generations.  Even if an item becomes temporarily lost, it can be found years later and included in the historical narrative.  This is no longer the case.  In a digital format, the cataloging of history is far more comprehensive, yet also fleeting.  Once a server goes down, everything it contains is lost.  This means that moving forward, historians will have to be decisive in their cataloging of History.  Instead of merely gather relevant information, it becomes the job of the historian to track down and preserve information for future generations.  This presents a bit of an issue.  Given the incredible volume of information that exists in the digital realm, it is an overwhelming task to try to decipher information and find what needs to be saved before it is too late.  Programs like the recent library of congress program collaborating with Twitter can help with this issue, but it is probably not enough.  Instead a new generation of historians will have to rise up to take over the field  Rather than using microfilm and archives, these new historians will need to become adept at examining forums, blogs, websites, etc, to find what needs to be saved.  This will revolutionize the field, as it will require a new set of skills and a particular savvy.  It will in a way be a new frontier of exploration, as these individuals will have to traverse the immense range of the human experience cataloged on the internet in order to save our history for future generations,

Digital History

The readings for this week concerned the nuances of digital history.  One of the things that really struck me about the readings was the digitization of history, or the process of converting analog historical data into digital formats.  This is often a slow process, and is a topic that has remained relevant to historical dialogue for some time now.  We live in the heyday of digitization.  As the internet becomes more profoundly linked to our daily lives, its uses become more diverse.  Recently’ there have been concentrated efforts by many historical institutions to convert sources into electronic sources.  This allows for their easy access and examination from around the world.  I can certainly say that my generation of history students prefers researching in the digital landscape, often valuing digital access over analog.  Before long, microfilm and analog archives will become outdated modes of research, when they were once critical to the field.  One of the interesting things the readings brought up however, was the cost of digitization, both in time and money.  Converting an archive to a digital format can be a painstaking process, as it can talk thousands of hours to scan documents into a system, and organize them in digital folders.  Additionally, it is costly to assemble and curate the sources for a digital library, and trying to decide what to include can be a lengthy process.  There is also a historical cost.  Analog sources exist as they are.  They can be collected in various groups by institutions, but a source always speaks for itself.  Digital history is different.  Each digital source that one encounters represents a conscious decision by a human being.  Someone made the decision that the source was important, and spent the time and effort to upload it to the internet.  This means that things can become lost in translation.  Sources considered unimportant fade in an era of digital history.  As digital history becomes more the focus of research, sources that did not make it into a digital format fade from the narrative.  Additionally, losing the ability to examine a source in a physical space can have negative effects, as it can be difficult to decipher handwriting or drawings from a pdf.  However, despite the drawbacks, digital history is already having a profound effect on historical scholarship.  The ability to access documents around the world is monumental, and it gives access to information on a much wider basis.  This allows researches without the funding to travel to locations enhance their research.  As a whole, the digitization of history is an immensely positive trend that will improve the quality of historical scholarship immensely over time.