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/.

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“Would a complete chronicle of everything that ever happened eliminate the need to write history?” — St Andrews final exam question in mediaeval history, 1981

“To give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine” — Max Beerbohm

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About a year ago, I took a short creative non-fiction course on the topic of writing historical narratives for a general audience. The instructor, Dr. Richard Mackie, emailed the class the above quotes, to stimulate thoughtful reflection about the nature of history and historical writing. (The first quote was actually a question that Dr. Mackie himself encountered as a History student at St. Andrews in the 80s.) These quotes have come to mind lately as I’ve been ruminating about the implications of doing history in a digital age.

The era of the Internet has, I think, made the idea of a “complete chronicle” of our current times more conceivable than ever before. The Web has certainly made it possible for virtually anyone, irrespective of gender, class, ethnicity, etc., to share their thoughts, ideas, photos, videos, even “statuses” (i.e. what one is doing at a precise moment in time) continuously. Provided that all of this electronic data is adequately preserved, there is going to be a vast abundance of information available for anyone a generation or two (or more) down the road who is curious about the interests, opinions, tastes, preoccupations, etc. of ordinary people in our time.

Yet, such information, no matter how detailed, is not the same as history. The chronicling of people’s lives, even on as minute a level as that expressed in an article about “lifelogging” by New Yorker writer, Alec Wilkinson, [1] results only in the production of information. It is the interpretation of that information, the piecing together of disparate parts into a coherent and (hopefully) elegant narrative which pulls out (or, more accurately, constructs) themes and patterns, that transforms it into history, into a meaningful story about the past.

What’s interesting, of course, is that although no historian (I think) would ever claim to write the history on any subject, discussions about the potential of history in the digital age has sometimes suggested the ability for history to be more complete than ever before. The idea of hypertextual history, for instance, where readers of a historical account can click on links leading them to pertinent primary source documents on the topic, say, or to other similar or divergent viewpoints about the particular subject they’re examining, has almost a decentring impact at the same time that it provides more information. It can be easy for readers, I think, to be overwhelmed by the profusion of hyperlinks within a text, and perhaps to never finish reading the actual article to learn the historian’s particular approach to the past.

The beauty of history, I think, is not that it claims to be a complete, exhaustive chronicle that leaves no stone unturned in its examination, but that it presents one angle on the past, a new way of understanding something that is extraordinarily complex and, for that reason, is open to — and I’d even say requires — multiple interpretations. History is, after all, a story as opposed to a record book, a narrative as opposed to mere facts.
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[1] Wilkinson’s interesting article recounts how computer guru Gordon Bell has been involved in a “lifelogging” experiment, in which he wears a Microsoft-developed device called a SenseCam around his neck that takes continual pictures of his day-to-day experience and allows him to record his thoughts at any given point in time if he so wishes. According to Wilkinson, Bell “collects the daily minutiae of his life so emphatically that he owns the most extensive and unwieldy personal archive of its kind in the world.” Alec Wilkinson, “Remember This? A Project to Record Everything We Do in Life,” The New Yorker.com, May 28, 2007, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/05/28/070528fa_fact_wilkinson.

dream

Steveston, British Columbia

Photography is one of those activities that I can lose myself completely in. The hours I spend on it is time freely given (and hardly felt). Although I’ve been lucky enough to capture a few photographs that I’m pleased with (including the one above, which was modestly granted an honorable mention in the Geography Department’s fundraising contest for United Way), I’ve always considered myself just a tinkerer of sorts. A dabbler, if you will, whose yearning to be “artistic” has been mostly helped by technology. (I credit my Nikon camera completely for any good shots.)

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As it turns out, the digital age is apparently very amenable to those with tinkering and dabbling tendencies.

That, at least, was the (hopeful) sense that I got from reading Jeff Howe’s article on “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” In it, Howe traces the ways in which companies are tapping into “the latent talent of the crowd.” He brings up the example of iStockphoto, a company that sells images shot by amateur photographers – those who do not mind (who, in fact, I’m guessing, would be thrilled about) making a little bit of money doing what they already do in their spare time: take pictures.

According to Howe, the increasing affordability of professional-grade cameras and the assistance of powerful editing software like Photoshop means that the line between professional and amateur work is no longer so clear-cut. Add to that the sharing mechanisms of the Internet, and the fact that photographs taken by amateurs sell for a much lower price than those of professionals, and it seems inevitable that some ingenious person would have thought up a way to apply crowdsourcing to stock photography sooner or later.

Howe provides an even more striking example of how the expertise of the crowd is being plumbed these days. Corporations like Procter and Gamble are turning to science-minded hobbyists and tinkerers to help them solve problems that are stumping their R&D departments. Howe mentions the website InnoCentive as one example of the ways in which companies with a problem and potential problem-solvers are finding each other on the web: the former post their most perplexing scientific hurdles on the site and anyone who is part of the network can then take a stab at solving the problem. If they do, they are finely compensated. And a good number, in fact, do. According to InnoCentive’s chief scientific officer, Jill Panetta, 30% of all problems posted on their website have been solved. That is, to quote Panetta’s words, “30 percent more than would have been solved using a traditional, in-house approach.”

What’s intriguing about all of this is the fact that the solvers, as Howe says, “are not who you might expect.” They may not necessarily have formal training in the particular field in which the problem arises; their specialty may lie in another area altogether. Yet, it is this very diversity of expertise within the crowd of hobbyists that contributes to the success of such networks as InnoCentive. As Howe puts it, “the most efficient networks are those that link to the broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience.” The more disparate the crowd, in other words, the stronger the network. [1] I love the ironies of the digital age.

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I’ve been wondering lately about whether history could benefit at all from the diverse knowledge and background of the crowd, whether crowdsourcing – posting a problem or request out in the virtual world in the hopes that someone might have the expertise to be able to fulfill it – could apply to a non-scientific discipline.

In other words, would a History version of InnoCentive work? A network where historical researchers could poll the crowd for information or materials or insight to help fill research gaps…where they could tap into the memories, artifacts, anecdotes, records, ephemera, (and even the ways people understand the past) of a diverse group and thereby possibly access information that might have never made it into the archives for formal preservation? How would the writing and construction of history change if, instead of primarily drawing upon the 5 to 10% of all records that ever make their way into an archives, researchers could tap into the personal archives of a disparate crowd made up of the “broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience”? (Let us put aside, for the moment, the issues of the integrity of the record and its provenance when we talk about “personal archives.” I realize that the shoebox in the attic is not nearly as reassuring a sight as the Hollinger box of the archives.) It seems probable to me that some of the 90 to 95% of records that never make their way into an archival institution are still extant, and that there could be valuable research material in them that could very well change one’s argument about the past. Would crowdsourcing be one way to get at that material?

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P.S. Of course, I just realized that I’m raising the above questions without considering a crucial aspect in all the examples of crowdsourcing that Howe mentioned: money. Those who answered the call – whether the amateur photographer or the scientific tinkerer – were paid for their services (ranging from a dollar all the way to an impressive $25,000). To pay someone for a piece of history raises a whole other set of questions…

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[1] Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html.

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.