David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Clio 1 Fall 2011 (page 2 of 2)

Week 6: Digital Collections and Digital Preservation

This week’s readings focused on efforts to preserve and collect the past online, and assessments of those efforts. As the readings make clear, digitization of primary sources–and creation of new ones in the digital medium–has been one of the main ways that digital technology has affected history research. As Alison Babeu’s Rome Wasn’t Digitized in a Day noted (and I alluded to in my Week 3 post), thus far it seems many have simply incorporated the ability to search and find documents into their already-established techniques for dealing with “analog” documents. But these articles also allude to other ways that scholars can more specifically use the power of computing in exciting ways, to mine these primary sources. Babeu, in particular, gives an excellent analysis of the challenges and accomplishments of digital technology for the classics.

Another major focus of the readings–and what I found most interesting–was what it takes to build such online archives. While I knew that building online archives was complicated, I didn’t realize just how much so until these readings–and indeed, I gained a new appreciation for the complexity. This applies both to digitization of extant texts, and online collecting efforts. T. Mills Kelly and Sheila Brennan discuss difficulties–such as soliciting contributions–in creating the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, and suggest that creating an online archive for even major events like the 2005 hurricanes is more difficult than they anticipated. It makes me feel better that some of my work’s online solicitations of material–about things nowhere near as significant as the hurricanes–have not worked so well! This article and Dan Cohen’s comparison of collecting efforts after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks of September 11, 2001 also showed the importance of leaping into action to collect right after major events, and indeed of having an infrastructure in place.

One question I wonder, though: in this age of social media, might it be easier to get people to share for a project like the HDMB? Might it be easier now than even 6 years ago? Or might there be a barrier for many people in sharing for an archive versus on a largely public forum like Facebook or a completely public (and now even archived!) forum like Twitter?

All in all, this week’s readings gave me a greater appreciation of efforts to collect and preserve the past online. With the increased research power that digital technology provides comes increased effort to get extant material online, to collect new material online, and to preserve what is already online. Kudos to those making these efforts!

Draft: Project #1

See the attachment. Fellow students and Sharon: I’ve left the criteria in for now–hence why the narrative extends beyond six pages. I plan to remove for the final. Will look forward to your comments!

NEH-ODH grant draft

The Deerfield Raid, in Multiple Forms

I looked forward to this week’s reading, about creating the websiteRaid on Deerfield: the Many Stories of 1704,” because it connected the strands of my career to-date in academic, digital, and public history.

When I took David Silverman’s Colonial North America seminar (syllabus in Microsoft Word format) in spring 2005, we read a scholarly monograph on the same subject: Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney‘s masterful Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield. As I read the article and explored the website, I thought back to that book and the resultant class discussion, particularly what the differences in format say about history in digital versus book form.

One of the similarities that struck me was the quest of Haefeli and Sweeney–both involved in producing the website–and the creators of the website to tell the story from multiple perspectives. This reflects a positive trend in recent historiography on Colonial North America. Richard Melvoin followed a similar path in his 1992 New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield, which differed from traditional New England town studies in that it begins with a Native American settlement, then the succeeding English settlement.

The website and Captors and Captives, due to their technology, approach this quest for multiple perspectives in different ways. The book follows a more traditional narrative strategy. With chapters on New England towns, New France, mission Indians, and independent Indians between New France and New England, it brings the reader to the time of the raid by discussing the development of the societies that clashed on that fateful day in February 1704. Then it interweaves the stories of the multiple groups into a cohesive narrative of the leadup to the raid, the raid itself, and its aftermath.

The website, meanwhile, allows visitors to explore the different perspectives separately. Instead of the multiple perspectives being narrated together, as in the book, the site provides the multiple perspectives through tabs, combined with an overview of each vignette.

Each approach, besides being suited for its technology, offers certain advantages and disadvantages instructive for any public digital history project.

The separation of the perspectives in the website can be both an advantage and a handicap. An advantage, in that each site visitor can more thoroughly “immerse” himself or herself in each side of the story. Indeed, one could follow the entire story from one perspective, then shift over to another perspective.

Or the person could follow the story from just one perspective–and leave it at that. As we discussed in class recently, such a layout makes it easier both to present and ignore multiple perspectives. When a visitor videotaping my history talk at the Alamo wanted to ignore the Mexican government side of my interwoven narrative, he had to make the effort to turn off the camera. Presumably his video appeared choppy.

A visitor to the “Raid on Deerfield” website does not need to make such an effort to ignore the other perspectives presented, whereas a reader of the book would have to make an effort similar to Jefferson’s with the Bible to do the same.

These caveats not meant to disparage the effort made on the website. They should only serve to remind us of an issue that we as digital historians should address; that said, we may just need to “let go” and allow visitors to do what they will with the content we put out there.

Thus, I concur with my classmate and fellow public historian Chris that “Raid on Deerfield” is what digital public history should be. As he notes, the website erases some of the issues that we public historians face with limited space for exhibitions: the Web allows us to go in-depth, as we would in a book, while presenting the story graphically and in digestible chunks, as we would in an exhibition. Rather than the “taste” that history exhibitions are supposed to provide (hoping visitors will then go buy the book in the gift shop), the website allows both for tastes and for in-depth looking.

The website also brings this story to many more people. The book, while widely available, has presumably not reached a large audience. It is not available online through the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association–creator of the website–nor Historic Deerfield (although a companion book is), and it ranks number 896,523 on Amazon.com. I was unable to find visitation numbers for the website, but I think I’m safe in assuming many more people have seen it than have read the book. Even if visitors to the website chose to ignore other perspectives, they were at least presented with them–and with a memorable, educational, generally neat website, at that.

Thinking about design… For those who haven’t needed to

This week’s readings for Clio I got into basic nuts and bolts of disseminating history on the Web, particularly planning and design of websites. For me, they were quite useful as I think about putting my own projects on the Web.

Some of the design principles discussed in the readings were familiar to me from taking an exhibition design class and working at an exhibition design firm–rules about contrast, length and width of text, etc., hold consistently true for both Web sites and exhibitions, since both are means of conveying content beyond the medium of black text on paper.

Others are quite different, owing to the different nature of the media. The information architecture of a museum exhibition differs from that of a Web site, and that of course influences how one goes about designing. In the museum world, one must plan for conveying content in a three-dimensional way, leading to a different user experience and different impact (as my classmate Claire points out in her insightful post).

Before going into the museum exhibition world, I had not thought much about design principles. Indeed, I probably would not have thought as much about design without that experience and without diving into digital history, as I am now. While reading this week’s selections from A List Apart and Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History, it struck me how thinking of information architecture and design is, in some ways, a revolution for many historians.

Since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press (and one could argue before that time, taking into account scribes), historians have relied upon others to design our means of knowledge dissemination. As Cohen and Rosenzweig correctly note, citing Mike O’Malley, the typically black written word, whether in article or book form, has been the traditional way of disseminating historical knowledge for centuries.

We submit the our text–using a general information architecture that has been relatively unchanged–and someone from the publisher lays it out on the page. If we’re lucky, we get to include images. From my time at the Alamo I remember the day the curator’s galleys for his latest book came back. The only revelatory part of that experience was the cover. The medium simply did not permit much variation in the text, and the information conveyed remained the same as when the curator had handed printed Word documents to reviewers and others.

Even in museum exhibitions, the design is often outsourced to specialty firms. While those working on the content side are taught to think about design (although others discourage such thinking, saying it’s not the content person’s job), the designers actually execute it. They think about color, font, the space, and even the the information architecture. The content person works with the designer–perhaps more closely than the author of a book–and perhaps suggests tweaks, but is in the end not the person responsible for the design.

In other words, traditionally historians have been responsible for the information architecture of their dissemination of knowledge, if even that. In this digital age, we also need to think about the design of that means of dissemination. Not only that, we are presented with more means of information architecture.

On top of that, we’re dealing with Metadata, traditionally the realm of museum collections managers, librarians, and archivists, more first-hand now. This is probably why, for me, this week’s readings on metadata were a greater challenge than those on design. Whenever we place primary sources on our sites–whether they be museum objects, archival documents, references to books–we are creating the metadata appropriate for our websites, or at least figuring out how to convey the standard metadata. Thus, knowledge about that realm is important as well.

I see all of this as both empowering and scary (update: I see I’m not the only one). Empowering because it gives historians full control–in some ways, more than a profession that has typically worked solo is used to.

It can also be scary. The responsibility for conveying the content in an attractive, logical way (barring a budget for outsourcing design) is now on the historian’s shoulders. The metadata is no longer the realm of the museum collections manager, archivist, or librarian. It is now our realm, at least for our own work.

Overall, I find this change positive. Knowing about design, information architecture, and metadata can only enhance our work, whether for the Web or not. So all in all, the turn toward the digital, and the attendant new skills historians must learn (and that I am grateful to learn), will facilitate our interactions with the professionals who are part of our work otherwise, whether librarians, archivists, museum collections managers, publishers, or designers of all stripes.

Diving into digital history

What is digital history, and how did it evolve? The readings for this week’s Clio Wired I addressed those issues in a broad way, providing a running start for the semester. Per the ethos of digital humanities, this week’s readings are available, ungated, to everyone–and also available in printed format.

Susan Hockey’s “History of Humanities Computing” does what its title says–lays out the longer-than-I-realized history of digital humanities. Coming into digital humanities, I thought the field dated from the advent of the World Wide Web. This perhaps reflects my a priori conception of digital humanities being largely about the dissemination of humanities knowledge, rather than the production thereof.

That preconception likely comes from my background. Off and on since 2000, I’ve worked largely in the dissemination of humanities knowledge. For me, the main promise of the digital–indeed, what initially attracted me to this field–has been its ability to disseminate knowledge easily to wide audiences.

What interested, and surprised, me the most from Hockey’s piece was learning how computers initially primarily impacted the production of knowledge, beginning with the recently-deceased Father Roberto Busa using punchcards to index the corpus of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1949. Computers first made an impact in textual studies, and later–with the advent of personal computers, CD-ROMs, and the Web–also made an impact in dissemination of humanities knowledge.

Perhaps my association of digital history’s promise with dissemination also exposes me as a product of my time–I have taken its use for production of knowledge for granted. Since I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis in 2001-02, I have used the increasing array of online sources in my own research.

Yet at times those uses have amazed me. As my academic career has evolved, so has the use of digital techniques for research:

  • For my senior thesis I used legal documents, Upstate New York newspapers, and the websites of the Oneida Nation and its opponents to research the Oneidas’ lawsuit against New York State, all without leaving Pittsburgh.
  • At an exhibition design firm I used online image repositories for several exhibitions (most notably the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy), not even having to visit the physical repositories. This experience also shows a peril of the digital, as I saw many of the same images used in other exhibitions. There are probably many undigitized, and thus underutilized, images that would have worked as well if not better.
  • For my own research on Antonio L√≥pez de Santa Anna’s journey to Washington in 1836-37, I thought I would need to go to the Library of Congress Rare Books room to access a pamphlet refuting one written by Mexico’s ambassador to the United States in 1837. Instead I downloaded it from Google Books and read it on my iPhone.

The impact of digital technology in both production and dissemination of knowledge is the major concern of the other three readings: Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen’s Digital History, Rob Townsend’s “How is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?,” and the Journal of American History‘s 2008 forum, “The Promise of Digital History.”

As these readings note, the main transformation wrought by digital technology is in the dissemination of humanities knowledge. Digital technology is disruptive because it calls into question traditional ways of dissemination, and particularly gatekeeping. These questions remain unresolved, if today’s Twitter posts about a meeting on the future of peer review is any indication.

This may also explain why I mainly thought of digital technology’s impact on dissemination–its impact on production of humanities knowledge, particularly research, has fit into traditional paradigms. As the JAH forum notes, it de-privileges the text–but nonetheless expedites access to and searching of sources. Indeed, all of my aforementioned examples of using digital technology for research required no specialized training–I used the techniques I already was learning and applied them in a digital environment.

Using these technologies for research was taught in traditional history programs, whereas technology’s use in dissemination was not. Although I also hope to improve my digital research techniques, I am taking the Clio sequence, and chose GMU, in part to learn how to use of digital technology in dissemination. What about others in the class? Was that a prime consideration?


Welcome to my site. This site belongs to David McKenzie, a public historian. I’ve begun it for Sharon Leon’s Clio Wired I course, part of the History Ph.D. program at George Mason University. However, I plan to write beyond what I’m doing for class. I will offer commentary (warranted or not, your choice) on a variety of subjects, but mostly focusing on history in its academic, digital, and public formats–particularly where those various formats intersect. That intersection is where I am working to situate my career.

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