“I hope somehow to be able to speak what Manan Ahmed calls “future-ese,” to be able to learn (some of) the language of the programmer over the course of this year so that I can begin to “re-imagine“, as Ahmed has exhorted, the old in new ways. I’m excited, if duly daunted, by the prospects.” ~ Quoted from my first blog post, 10 September 2008.

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If I ever meet Manan Ahmed, whose Polyglot Manifestos I and II were two of the very first assigned readings for our Digital History class, I would let him know that, like any effective manifesto, his inspired me to take a certain course of action this year – to sign up for the role of Programmer for the digital exhibit that the class would be preparing on the work of Dr. William Harvey.

Incidentally, if I ever did meet Manan Ahmed, I would also casually let him know that I hold him entirely responsible for the sleepless nights I had, agonizing over the code for the program I was attempting to write for an interactive exhibit on Harvey.

I might add here that I knew as much about programming as I did about APIs and mashups prior to this year, which is to say, nada.

(Accusatory) jesting aside, I’ve been reflecting on what it has been like to learn programming from scratch over the course of this school year. I was inspired, as mentioned, by Ahmed’s call for the historian to be more than simply a scholar submerged in past-ese without regard for how their studies might be made relevant to a modern audience (i.e. in present-ese) or how it might be re-imagined in the age of mass-digitization (i.e. in future-ese). How compelling was his call for historians to be “socially-engaged scholar[s],” how apt his challenge for us to become polyglots – master “togglers,” if you will, between past-ese, present-ese, and future-ese – apt especially to those of us with public history ambitions, who had entered the program interested in communicating the past to a general audience in new (i.e. digital) ways. [1]

“All that is required,” Ahmed wrote simply (alas, too simply), as a directive for historians willing to venture into the programmer’s world, “is to expand our reading a bit.” [2]

After my eight-month foray into programming, the words “all” and “a bit” in Ahmed’s above statement strike me as just a tad bit understated. I agree that reading was certainly a major part of my process to learn how to program this year: I pored over, highlighted, marked up, and even wrote conversational notes to the authors of my text (such as the occasional “not clear!”). But I think Ahmed might have also mentioned that not only reading but practicing, experimenting, fumbling, failing, and, yes, even agonizing, are all part of the process of learning how to speak some of the programmer’s language.

Like immersion into any new language, programming has its own set of daunting rules to absorb; break any one of them and you won’t be understood – at all. The program simply won’t run. (I don’t know how many error messages I gnashed my teeth at.) As well, like any language, there is always more than one way to say the same thing – and some of them are more “logical,” “eloquent,” or just plain clearer than others; concision and verbosity, I’ve learned, apply equally in the programmer’s world as they do in the writer’s. (I’ve also observed that my tendency to be wordy applies equally too in the world of code. In fact, I was delighted to learn about the concept of iteration, where lines of repetitive code could be magically – well, okay, mathematically – reduced to a few simple lines, using variables and a certain formula. If only paring down written text were so easy!)

Needless to say, I found the immersion into the programmer’s language very challenging. It was challenging (and, I will admit, even harrowing at times) because not only was I trying to accumulate basic knowledge of the new language, I was also brainstorming ideas for an interactive exhibit on Harvey at the same time. In some ways, it felt like I was trying to devise a Shakespearean sonnet in Chinese or with the vocabulary of a second grader (which is pretty much the extent of my vocabulary in Chinese). All I could envision was something rudimentary at best.

It was challenging to design an exhibit as I was learning the new language simply because I did not know if the ideas that I or others had were actually possible, or, more precisely, would be actually possible for me to learn how to do within the time limit. (I also discovered a humorous difference between the kinds of ideas thrown out by those in Programming versus those in non-Programming roles; the “anything is possible” optimism that technology seems to inspire was not so readily exhibited by those of us who had confronted, and would still have to confront, the befuddling intricacies of code.)

Despite all the challenges, uncertainties, and yes, even secret fears that the particular interactive exhibit I was working on might not come to fruition, things worked out. We hosted our Digital Exhibit on Harvey in early April; all programs functioned; no computers crashed (thank goodness). Looking back to September and my reasons for deciding to learn how to program, I think I am glad, after all, that Ahmed had made it sound so simple. With just a bit of reading, he had written coaxingly, the socially-conscious scholar will be well on his or her way to programming, to filling that gap between the public and the past, and between computer scientists and the future of history. If he had spelled out all the emotions one was apt to go through when learning how to program, I’d probably not have taken it on and thus have missed out on learning to speak a new language, on learning to speak in code.

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[1] Manan Ahmed, “The Polyglot Manifesto I,” Chapati Mystery, http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/univercity/the_polyglot_manifesto_i.html.

[2] Manan Ahmed, “The Polyglot Manifesto II,” Chapati Mystery, http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/univercity/the_polyglot_manifesto_ii.html.

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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.