When I was studying history as an undergraduate student, I was particularly fascinated by discussions about historiography. Perhaps it was the influence of my English Lit background, but I tended to do close readings of historical accounts, approaching them almost as literary texts that reflected much about the assumptions and attitudes, biases and values of the writer. It was therefore interesting to be asked in certain history classes to analyse the works of historians not primarily for what they revealed about the past, but for what insights they provided about the particular way of doing history that was “in vogue” at the time.

Over the course of this year, I’ve seen how the idea of the present’s imposition on the past is as applicable to public history as it is to traditional, scholarly history. History in the public realm is certainly as much (or perhaps even more) about the present — that is, the “present” of whoever is, or was, writing the history, composing the plaque text, or curating the exhibit, for instance — as it is about the past.

Museums, for example, as Helen Knibb’s article, “ ‘Present but not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections,” suggests, do not necessarily present information, in the context of women’s history, about the actual lives and experiences of women from a particular time period. Instead, the artifacts may reveal more about the preoccupations and personal tastes of curators, or about the collecting or donating impulses of those whose items are on display. With regards to the latter, Knibb suggests that women may have simply donated items they thought were important from the standpoint of the museum or of society, rather than in relation to their own experiences. She raises the interesting question of whether “museum collections tell us more about how women collect than how they lived their lives.” [1] Knibb’s article reminds me that museums themselves are constructed sites that are very much influenced by contemporary concerns.

The idea that public history is as much about the time period of the people presenting the history as it is about the history being presented is, I’m sure, hardly startling. But it does remind me of the need which underlies the rationale for these blogs – the need for self-reflexivity. As history students, my peers and I have been trained to read historical accounts critically, with an eye open to its constructed nature, to the ways in which the account reflects the biases of the historian and the preoccupations of his or her time. As public history practitioners, we will have to direct that critical gaze inwards, to assess how our own assumptions and biases are shaping the histories we will help to produce. Moreover, we will also have to negotiate our way through the assumptions and biases of others, who, in the collaborative realm of public history, will also have a stake – sometimes a very substantial one – in the history-making process. Given how contentious history in the public realm can be, not only the need for critical self-reflection but also the ability to practice what Rebecca Conard has called the “art of mediation” [2] are crucial requirements for the practicing public historian.

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[1] Helen Knibb, “‘Present But Not Visible’: Searching For Women’s History in Museum Collections,” Gender & History 6 (1994): 355, 361-362. The quote is from page 362.

[2] Rebecca Conard, “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection,” The Public Historian 25, no. 4 (2003): 16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/.

Intricacy

In my archives class this past term, I had the opportunity to learn more about the possibility and potential of the Web for the promotion of history. Throughout the course, our professor, Dr. Don Spanner, introduced us to many interesting archival and historical resources freely available online, such as a database that provides access to late-19th century Canadian county atlases, so useful for genealogical research, as well as a terrific “meta” site that sums up the “Best of the Web” in terms of heritage-related web design.

As well, each student in the class was required to analyze an effective website created by, or exhibiting a collection from, an archival institution and prepare a 20-minute presentation on it, discussing such aspects as design, usability, content, and intended audience. I have to confess that although I have known, in an ideas-sense, that the Web offers new and exciting possibilities for the presentation of the past, I have not, in fact, plumbed its depths. I’ve only really skimmed its virtual surface, having been inclined to delve into history books more often than the History Web. Consequently, listening to the presentations of my peers, as well as learning about new sites from Don’s lectures, was a truly eye-opening experience.

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I did not know, for example, that humour was something that archives preserve. Yet Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a unique collection entitled The Weird and Wacky in their wonderful online photography exhibit, Framing Canada, which Dave presented on. The collection certainly captures, as LAC’s introduction points out, some of the more quirky and humorous moments in history. (I particularly liked the rather incongruent photo of a very young boy posing with his rooster while smoking a cigarette!)

Not only the whimsical quality, but the richness and abundance of historical images, photographs, and artwork available on the Web are also astonishing. Sophie introduced us to a fascinating and colourful website created by La Bibliothèque nationale de France that delves into the allegorical world of medieval bestiaries. At this site, explanatory text is kept to a minimum. What takes centre stage are the colourful, interpretive images of animals as conceived of, and understood by, those living in the medieval age. In a pre-literate society, images must have played an important didactic role and I think such medieval artwork lend themselves perfectly to the environment of the Web, where the visual requires more emphasis than the textual. (We’ve all groaned, I’m sure, at text-heavy sites which show little regard for the audience’s needs and expectations.) Also, as Sophie discussed, this digital exhibit presents a completely different side to medieval history – it is history realized through pictures, one that is much more palatable and compelling to a general audience.

Melissa too selected an interesting website focusing on images. She presented on the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, an extensive and searchable online resource that contains an astonishing number of freely accessible images – more than 640,000, all of which have been digitized from the library’s vast and diverse collections. As Don had commented, such abundance and access could not even have been dreamed of a short time ago. As part of her presentation, Melissa showed us the photographs taken by Lewis Hine, a late-19th/early 20th-century American photographer, available on the NYPL’s Digital Gallery. Having just discovered Hine’s work myself in connection with the website I presented on, I was thrilled to see more of his captivating photographs, poignant picture-stories that revealed the starkness of child labour (such as this unforgettable image of a young girl in a factory).

In addition to the plethora of images available online, databases containing all sorts of interesting historical information abound on the Web. Suppose you would like to look at service records of those who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in World War One – LAC, as I’ve learned from one of my archives reference assignments, has already anticipated this interest and created a searchable database providing access to these records as well as scanned images of actual Attestation papers of CEF soldiers. Or suppose you are interested in the grittiness of social history, say, the history of crime – several universities in the UK have joined forces to develop a website that provides access to the court proceedings of men and women who were tried in London’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey. This website, presented by Angela, contains records for close to 200,000 criminal trials held between 1674 all the way to 1913. Such easy access to such interesting and extensive records of everyday history hardly seems possible without the age of digitized and networked data.

Some other websites that my peers presented on have also convinced me that there has likely been no better time to be a History or Social Studies teacher than the present. The kinds of resources that have been made available online for elementary and secondary teachers in the humanities are remarkable. Once again LAC’s efforts are to be commended: as Sarah has shown, LAC has created an online Learning Centre geared for teachers and students, complete with educational resources and tools, like lesson plans, activities, quizzes, games, and research skills development guides, as well as providing access to primary source documents reflecting Canadian history and culture.

Tom also explored the potential of the Web for educational purposes by examining the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website, a creative site that connects history with detective work. Its creators have identified various mysteries in Canadian History that were never resolved, have pulled together primary source documents about these cases, and urge the user to come up with his or her own conclusions in a “who dunnit?” fashion. The motivation behind the site is the perceptive idea, as stated on their “About Us” page, that “students can be drawn into Canadian history and archival research through the enticement of solving historical cold crimes.”

What is particularly wonderful about such educational websites like the Learning Centre and the Unsolved Mysteries site is the ways in which they are teaching students not only certain aspects of Canadian History but also about how good history is done.

“Original documents,” states the “Introduction” page on the Learning Centre, “bring Canadian history and culture directly to students, allowing them to examine evidence from the past and decide for themselves what really happened.”

In a similar vein, the creators of the Unsolved Mysteries site, in upbeat language addressed directly to the student-user, introduce the idea of doing history, right from the outset. They state on the homepage:

Please check your preconceptions about “History” at the door. “Doing History” is not memorizing dates, politicians and wars. That is all just context. “Doing History” is the work of the detective, the gumshoe, the private eye — and we need you to take on this job. All we are left with are traces, artifacts, clues, hints and allegations. Putting those together, weighing the evidence, assessing the credibility of witness accounts, sorting out contradictions, and showing how your solution to the mysteries is the best of all the alternatives — that is “Doing History”.

As someone whose interest in the past arose only in university, after I learned that there was more to history than just the straightforward, textbook versions offered in highschool (which reduced the past to dry summaries of factual information, devoid of the colour, controversy, and contestation that are the stuff of history), I am amazed at the sophistication of current educational websites that seek to teach students early on how to think critically about the past. The potential of the Web for the promotion not only of history – i.e. the details about past events, people, ideas, etc. – but of historiography – i.e. the ways in which histories are constructed and contested; the process of how we come to understand and re-construct a past that is only ever available to us in fragments – is truly exciting.

In learning about the different sites available on the web, I’ve seen firsthand how effective design – one which attracts the user; presents information in a colourful, consistent, and accessible way; is easy to navigate; and includes interactive elements – is crucial in enticing the visitor to explore and to return to the site. In the virtual world, form is certainly just as crucial as content. Links to the many colourful and effective sites that Don introduced us to can be found on his course website (under “Calendar of Topics”, then “Lecture Outline” for whichever topic chosen). In particular, Don’s lecture on Digital Outreach contains links to exhibits that display the ingenuity and creativity flourishing on the web. The Digital Vaults website, created by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), especially had all of the students exclaiming over its attractive and interactive Flash component.

Primary source documents, removed from their traditional archival setting and reconfigured in a slick digital environment, have never appeared more compelling.

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For my own presentation, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a terrific digital exhibit, also created by NARA (in conjunction with the Foundation for the National Archives), entitled “Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives.” This online exhibit presents twenty-six first-hand accounts of dramatic moments in history, from 1775 to 1979, that were in some way connected to Americans, usually notable ones like Thomas Jefferson, Lady Bird Johnson, and President John F. Kennedy. The exhibit features diverse archival materials held by NARA and its Presidential Libraries, ranging from diaries, letters, memos, and transcripts to photographs and audio and visual recordings. Developed as an extension of a physical exhibit that was on display in the National Archives library in June 2006, the digital exhibit exists in both Flash and HTML formats.

The Flash version of the website, upon which I based my presentation, is very compelling. Before I even read the accompanying text, I was drawn to its visual design. The creators of the site have selected excellent photographs and artwork for the Introduction page and for each of the eyewitness accounts. They have also taken care to integrate explanatory text with the images in a way that does not detract from the picture on display (see, for example, the John Lewis account). From the modern colour scheme with its use of negative (in this case, black) space to the simple navigation and self-explanatory icons to the consistent and balanced layout of visual and textual items, the design makes the exploration of the website’s content irresistible. Add to that the ability to zoom in on primary source documents for enhanced clarity, to read transcriptions of audio and visual recordings as they play, and to access the site in HTML (for older browser formats), and we have a site that is accessible to a very wide audience.

If the website is visually compelling, it is also textually so. The introduction to each of the eyewitness accounts is very well-written, at times including the kind of vivid, sensory details that one might find in a work of fiction. The quotes that are excerpted, often appearing on the left hand panel within each account, are also well-selected, often dramatic, exciting, or tense in tone. They compel the visitor to explore the archival materials further, to read the document containing the quoted words in full. The explanatory captions are also well-composed, informative without ever descending into the “dry-history-textbook” tone.

In revisiting the Eyewitness site, it strikes me how much the development of history-related websites requires a truly conceptual, non-linear approach. Unlike an article or a book, a documentary or a film, the content on history websites can be viewed in countless configurations. This means that every section of the site – perhaps even every page – needs to be self-explanatory and self-contained to a certain extent. It also means that editing online content cannot simply consist of moving orderly through the site to make sure the information makes sense in a linear fashion. Although creators of a site may have a certain order in mind, there is no guarantee that it will be adhered to by postmodern users (with our compulsive clicking/browsing habits and short attention span!). Also writing history for an online environment poses new challenges, especially if text is overlaid on images to create visual interest (as it is in the Eyewitness site) or if it is limited to the size of the screen (for instance, there is no need to scroll in the Eyewitness site, which is a great design feature but poses stricter limits to how much can be written in the introduction to each account).

The need to consider a multitude of factors in website development – such as the choice of colours, fonts, and layout, the selection of archival materials that must be not only historically but also visually compelling, the requirement to write in an engaging manner within the limits of the design, the recognition that users do not acquire content in a linear fashion – makes the presentation of history on the Web extremely challenging. Yet, its multifaceted character is also what makes it so very interesting – and reminds me about why I decided to pursue Public History in the first place.

Personalized Utopia or Orwellian Dystopia?

“Search engines will become more pervasive than they already are, but paradoxically less visible, if you allow them to personalise increasingly your own search experience.” [1]

“If you’re really concerned about technology, however, remember that it has the most potential to be dangerous when you stop seeing it.” [2]

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In my last Digital History class, I (very casually) threw out the term “Orwellian dystopia” into the pool of ideas and concepts for potential discussion. I threw it out a bit in jest (because I have a declared weakness for polysyllabic words), but mostly in earnest (because, as indicated in my last post, I have had cause to think about Orwell and 1984 lately). The term isn’t mine of course, but comes out of one of the readings for the week: Phil Bradley’s “Search Engines: Where We Were, Are Now, and Will Ever Be.”

As its title clearly suggests, Bradley’s article traces the evolution of search engines, from their rather crude beginnings when web design wasn’t yet a consideration to their present-day, sophisticated forms, which promise to make our searches more personally relevant than ever before. Ruminating on the potential for search engines to get to know us individually – to the point of recommending events that we (as in you specifically, or me specifically) might wish to attend when visiting a new city or whether the supermarket down the road has the same item you or I want, only cheaper – Bradley makes the point about the pervasity and increasing invisibility of search engines which forms the first of the two opening quotes above. He then wonders if the ways in which users are sitting back, letting the alerting services of search engines bring custom-made information to them – “since the engines can monitor what you do and where you go” – will lead to an “Orwellian dystopia” of sorts. Bradley’s advice for avoiding such a dystopia? “Users will need to consider very carefully,” he writes, “exactly to what extent they let search engines into their lives.”

Bradley’s point about the expansive, yet increasingly invisible, nature of search engines fits nicely with some of the ideas articulated in a blog post of my Digital History prof, Dr. William Turkel (or Bill, as he would wish us to call him). In this post, entitled “Luddism is a Luxury You Can’t Afford” (which, I might add, graciously avoids lambasting latter day Luddites but seeks instead to understand them), Bill considers what it is exactly that neo-Luddites are objecting to when they consider technology. Drawing on Heidegger’s distinction between ready-at-hand and present-at-hand objects, Bill points out that it is the second group that poses problems for those uncomfortable with technology. This is simply because these objects are always visible and mostly intrusive – “something you have to deal with.”

Meanwhile, ready-at-hand things are invisible, unnoticed, and therefore accepted as a natural – rather than a technological – part of existence (the coffee cup, electricity, the iPod even). However, “these invisible and pervasive technologies,” Bill notes, in the same vein as Bradley, “are exactly the ones that humanists should be thinking about…because they have the deepest implications for who and what we are.” The post ends with the words I quoted above, about invisibility being the most potentially “dangerous” aspect of technology.

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I have been ruminating lately on the idea of transparency on the Web, and it seems to me that there is a strange sort of tension that exists.

On the one hand, as Kevin Kelly’s talk has shown (discussed in the previous post), users are required to be transparent in cyberspace, if they wish to have any sort of personalization. The Web can’t make recommendations if it doesn’t know you, if your searching patterns, socializing patterns, buying patterns, browsing patterns are not visible.

On the other hand, its very collection of this information and the ways in which it presents you with a set of personalized results are becoming less visible, as Bradley has argued. One might actually put this another way, and say that the Web, search engines included, is becoming more transparent, not in making itself visible, but in making itself invisible. It is becoming so transparent that, like spotlessly clear glass, users cannot see that there is something mediating between them and the information world out there, and so they might be tempted to conclude that the search results they’ve gotten are natural and obvious results showing the most naturally important and self-evident links.

In our last Digital History class, it was Rob, I believe, who brought up the issue of Google search results and the problem that they can be very limiting – without the user realizing that they are limiting. Since, as Dan Cohen has said, Google is the first resource that most students go to for research (at least, the graduate students he polled do), [3] the results it presents may very well define how a subject is understood. The danger, then, is that users won’t be critical of their search results, and how they may be tailored or skewed based on numerous factors, because they don’t even realize that such mediation mechanisms are taking place. Thus, invisibility, as Bill has noted, is a definite problem. And, I have to wonder as well, in terms of research, if personalization is too. Will one’s understanding of World War One, say, or of John A. McDonald, or Joseph Stalin, or Mary Wollstonecraft be influenced by one’s buying patterns? Music interests? Socializing habits? If it’s to be accepted that students start their research using Google, and they are signing into Google’s services when conducting such research, what implications does this have on their understanding of history? On the writing of history?

So to try to tie together the strands of these last two posts: it seems that transparency on the Web, in the search engines that exist, is rooted in their invisibility – such engines are a window to the information world that’s easily mistaken for an unmediated glimpse of the real world itself – while transparency of users means their utter visibility and machine-readability. I agree with Bradley and Bill that we shouldn’t take invisible technologies for granted – they need to be explored, critiqued, and discussed; made visible, in other words – so that users can decide for themselves how far they want to go in the age of personalization.

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P.S.

I feel compelled to add that to approach these issues from a questioning stance is not to reject the benefits of search engines, or of personalization, or of the Web, or of technology at all. (I, for one, recently ordered a book from Amazon based on its recommendation – or, more precisely, because its very first recommendation was a book that a friend had already suggested I read; that Amazon was in line with someone who knows me well amazed me enough to purchase the book!) The issue is never simply, I think, technology in and of itself. It is the uses of technology, how new capabilities, especially in the digital age, is going to be employed and what their developments and effects might mean (and have already meant) for individuals and groups in society that is the crucial issue at hand.

To conclude, I think Marshall McLuhan’s classic metaphor about the dual nature of technology – how it both “extends” and “amputates” – is still relevant and instructive today. It seems that in most discussions about technological innovation, we nearly always hear about “extensions” (Kelly did the same thing; though interestingly, he went so far as to reverse McLuhan’s idea, calling humans the extension of the machine) but we rarely hear about “amputations.” Perhaps a balanced approach – one that keeps visible both the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies, that considers their impact in a broad sense, neither blindly fearing them because they are new nor unreservedly embracing them for the same reason – is the way to ensure that we remain critical in the digital age.

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[1] Phil Bradley, “Search Engines: Where We Were, Are Now, and Will Ever Be,” Ariadne Magazine 47 (2006), http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue47/search-engines/.

[2] William J. Turkel, “Luddism is a Luxury You Can’t Afford,” Digital History Hacks, http://digitalhistoryhacks.blogspot.com/2007/04/luddism-is-luxury-you-cant-afford.html.

[3] Daniel J. Cohen, “The Single Box Humanities Search,” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, http://www.dancohen.org/2006/04/17/the-single-box-humanities-search/.