David Patrick McKenzie

History Communicator

Category: Dissertation Topic

It’s 3 a.m. … Do you know where your CSV columns are?

Tomorrow, or technically today, I’m presenting in Clio 3 on Data Manipulation.

As Professor Gibbs and I defined it on Monday, my presentation on this potentially broad topic is twofold:

  • Using SQL commands in PHPMyAdmin to merge and split fields; e.g., merge or split names;
  • Using PHP to switch a CSV file’s date format into an acceptable one for input into a MySQL database.

The first is one with which I feel rather comfortable, and ready to present.

The second, on the other hand… I spent a few hours last night dealing with that (and a bad allergy attack), and I’ve spent all evening tonight on it. After a lot of trial and error, I have much of it working. I can get the file open, and even write back into it. The problem is the middle–switching the order of the dates.

Here is what I have:

The middle parts are the problem.

I am most thankful to this blog post by Evan Cordulack, an American Studies graduate student at William & Mary; after looking at many sites that gave me parts of what I needed, his helped me crystalize most of what I needed.

I tried a few different things: getting slightly familiar with PHP functions (via these two posts that gave functions for changing order of numbers), and using Sasha’s code for her form. The latest version (as posted below, next to the original) reflects Sasha’s code (thanks for going over it with Megan and me on Monday! Hey, look, alliteration!).

I get the feeling that part of my issue is trying to change the data in just one column. Here’s what arouses my suspicions: I get a variation of the jumbled data each time I try.

So… I’ve reached a point where I’m not sure what else to do. There’s something that I’m clearly missing here. Since I’m having too hard of a time figuring out what I’m doing wrong in that middle part, I’m writing this post. Any suggestions are most appreciated.

Dr. Gibbs–if I am able to get off work early (a big if), will you be around? Otherwise, may I make figuring this out part of my presentation? ­čÖé

This is what the CSV file originally looked like. I stripped out everything else except for the case number.

Eeep. Other times, it’s changing my initial numbers.

And now, it is done…

At least for now. At least for the sake of Dr. Petrik’s gradebook. You can see my final assignment, “Santa Anna Goes to Washington.”

There is still more that I would like to do. In spite of Geoff and Sheri’s helpful advice, I never got around to learning how to make an image map. So, my map is not clickable, as was my original plan. I simply ran out of time with the content. Nonetheless, it is here for all to see.

Overall, I’m happy that I worked with Omeka, as it will help me to build upon this site in the future. Part of me wished that I had worked with regular HTML and CSS for the sake of the class assignment, as I would have needed to do less tinkering, but in the end, I was happy with the flexibility to add more pages and objects. As I continue on my overall project, I will continue to add objects and information. I’m also excited to learn more about using PHP in Clio 3 this fall.

But for now, I am going to sleep.

To all of my classmates and Dr. Petrik, thank you for a great semester. I have learned a lot, and have particularly enjoyed getting to know a dynamic, intelligent, and nice bunch of fellow historians and art historians. Thanks to everyone for your help this semester. I will look forward to continuing to learn from, and with, all of you.

What a difference a detail can make…

Right now I’m sitting by a microfilm machine at George Mason University’s Arlington campus library, looking at a microfilm–retrieved via interlibrary loan–of the journal of Calista Cralle Long.┬áLong’s grandson published it in 1940, but it is hard to find–indeed, no Washington-area libraries, not even the Library of Congress, have it.

Long travelled with her husband and family from near Lynchburg, Virginia, to Union County, Kentucky, in late 1836 and early 1837. My reason for looking at her diary: On December 29, 1836, the party passed through Lexington, Kentucky. They stayed in the same place as Antonio López de Santa Anna, Juan Almonte, and three Texas Republic officials, who were traveling from toward Washington. Long described what happened:

We are now in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the handsomest places I was ever in. The surrounding country is highly cultivated and very neatly managed, the woodland enclosed and all the undergrowth cut down. This enclosure serves for stock. The grass, I am told, is nearly eighteen inches high on average.

Mr. Henry Clay has a most beautiful residence near town. We reached here about dark. The candles were burning on either side of the street and the reflection gave everything an added beauty.

There is a little confusion in town tonight on account of the heartless cruel Santa Anna’s arrival here. There is some little talk of a mob tonight. He has two gentlemen with him, his aide-de-camp and Major Somebody, I have forgotten his name. We are all lodged under the same roof. We took tea with the latter gentlemen at the same table.

The Mexican is a very genteel looking man, of low stature, dark hair and eyes, and rather sallow complexion. They are on their way to Washington, as they say, to see the President of the United States, (Jackson). I did not learn their business, neither did I see the General as he was ill and did not leave his room.

Santa Anna kept his room closely and very much wrapped and muffled up to prevent the effect of the keen air. His aide says he longs very much for his lost Paradise, Mexico.

Image of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte

Likely Long took tea with Juan Almonte, a Mexican army colonel who served as Santa Anna's translator during the journey to Washington.

I found this diary through serendipity when searching on ArchiveGrid for references to Santa Anna a while back. In the libraries that hold the published version of this diary, most catalog entries for this diary (at least not the ones I have seen) do not mention Santa Anna.

However, the catalog, uploaded to ArchiveGrid, from┬áMadisonville Community College in Kentucky does. I haven’t seen this diary cited anywhere in accounts of Santa Anna’s voyage to Washington, and might not have known of its relevance otherwise. This diary entry will be a great source for my upcoming class project site about Santa Anna’s trip to Washington, and will eventually roll into my dissertation.

So to whoever that cataloger was, I say, thank you for adding that little detail! You never know what may help a future researcher.

Fun with fonts and styles

As I’ve read the book and watched the video for this week’s assignment (scroll to February 13), I’ve been dividing my attention: I’ve succumbed to the temptation of continually modifying my portfolio site, based on the inspiration and new skills that the video and book have afforded me.

This shows one of the many ways that doing history on the web is different, and raises a question for students in digital history classes. For last week’s assignment I sent Dr. Petrik a link to my portfolio homepage. If this were a paper, I may have done as I have in other classes: when I came up with another idea, thinking, “I should have done that! Too bad it’s too late,” during the following week. But unlike with a paper, I’m actually doing something: modifying the CSS for the overall site–at this point, I’m using the same CSS for the start page and for each of the assignment pages. But I’m not sure if I should be doing that, or if I should just leave it as-was. For example, last semester, after our proof-of-concept assignment was due, I had ideas for things to add to it. But I held off until I was sure that Dr. Leon had graded it (granted, I wound up simply holding off, period. Eventually I’ll get back to it!).

So I suppose I’ll be asking Dr. Petrik a question on Monday (unless she is reading this before class and wants to comment :)): Should I leave the portfolio homepage as-was (i.e., separate the CSS for that page from that of the rest of the site), or is it okay to keep modifying the style as I modify the rest of my portfolio site?

Through this exercise, I’m learning just how great CSS is. I can modify the one file, and it’s reflected on all of the different pages of my site. Nice.

Meanwhile, as I moved through the font video, I also began to switch around the fonts in my CSS and think about the type assignment for next week. In searching for an appropriate font, I came upon one called “Texas Hero.” Curious, I checked out the backstory: the font designer’s mother was a volunteer at the University of Texas Center for American History (where I once conducted some research for what will likely be my final class project and eventually part of my dissertation). He designed fonts based on letters in CAH’s collections. As it turns out, he based the Texas Hero font on the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson Rusk–recipient of a letter I included in my final project last semester.

So, I had to have this font (yes, such things are the objects of this history nerd’s coveting). I downloaded it. Then I got to the part in the video about how not all fonts are licensed for web use. So I read the end-user license agreement. Just to be sure, I emailed the creator. He kindly emailed me right back (on a late Saturday afternoon, at that!) and clarified the agreement, which indeed does not allow me to use the font in the text of the site. This makes sense; if I uploaded the font to my server to use with the @font-face command, someone could easily download the font and not pay him for his hard work.

Therefore, although I may pay the extra fee for web use in the future, for now I will just use the font in my header graphic (which the creator said was fine, as the font is not actually uploaded to the server). Indeed, in the end the header will probably look much better than it does with the convoluted way I centered my name on top of the map. Don’t ask me how I did that, as I’m not sure I could tell you!

I should add, the site where I bought Texas Hero has some other great fonts for historians. Check it out.

What Difference Does New Media Make to Doing History?

It makes me sad to say that this is my last blog post for Clio Wired I. I have learned a great deal, and really enjoyed learning both the bigger picture of digital history, and some hands-on skills with it.

So, we come to the final post for class. What difference does new media make to doing history? The short answer: a great deal.

As I reflected in my first blog post, written at Charlotte airport on a hot day as I came back from an unexpected trip to Texas (and was stewing over my Steelers’ opening-day loss), coming into the class I thought that the main difference new media made to history was in its dissemination. New media makes it possible to reach broader audiences with the results of one’s historical research.

Now, as I sit under a blanket by my newly-decorated Christmas tree and the TV flashes NFL playoff scenarios (thankfully including the Steelers), I know that new media makes all the more difference to doing history. As Lev Manovich argued in The Language of New Media, new media, unlike previous technological advances, changes everything.

In the dissemination realm – the realm that previously concerned me more as a public historian – new media allows us to reach broader audiences. But the nature of the digital medium also forces us to conceive how we reach those audiences differently. As Sheri eloquently states in her post for this week, “Learning how to think in multiple formats and to structure information so viewers can navigate through information forwards, backwards, sideways, and otherways requires vision and planning similar, but also quite unlike the standard two-dimensional outline.”

For public historians perhaps that isn’t so much of a leap, since we already need to think of structuring information differently if we are presenting it in an exhibition, walking tour, brochure, lecture, film, interview, podcast, article, or book. Yet, as we discovered in week 9, all but two those types of products don’t often get one tenure in the academic world. Many of those outputs don’t leave much room for long-form argument or in-depth analysis. New media does, but just structured in a different way. What that way is, as we learned, is yet to be determined.

So, the main difference that new media makes for historians of all stripes output-wise is learning to think in different ways about how we structure our work. An exhibit is not a book, and a digital history project is neither.

For me, the most enlightening part of this semester has been learning more how digital media changes the process of producing history – not just the quantity of primary source material now available, but the means we have of approaching that material. As I mentioned in my post for week 10, we still need to rely on the oldest tool in our arsenal, the human brain, to come up with our questions and make sense of what the tools tell us. Yet, various tools and technologies allow us to ask and answer different questions than we could before.

As someone who has long desired to keep one foot in the academic history door and one foot in the public history door, but has been more in the public history realm the last several years, this class has been a great start to my Ph.D. Indeed, as this semester concludes, I find the main appeal of the digital for me is that it helps me straddle the (unfortunate) divide between academic and public history. It has helped me bridge the divide I was feeling between my academic and public history interests, particularly in the structuring of my career.

At this point I’m not sure if I will try for a digital dissertation, but I am more open to the idea than I was previously. At the very least, I plan to have an online archive to accompany my written dissertation – an archive I have begun for my final project in this class. I will look forward to learning more hands-on technological skills – many of which I lack beyond a rudimentary level (and some not even that advanced) – in Clio 2. In the meanwhile, I am thankful to Sharon and my classmates for great discussions and the new things I have learned, and the new tools and ways of thinking now in my arsenal as I proceed in my historical career.

Popularizing the Historical Process

This week’s readings (Week 12) focused on what can broadly be called “citizen history” or “crowdsourcing”–inviting public participation in the process of creating knowledge, not just waiting to receive the end product.

The four articles, Roy Rosenzweig on Wikipedia, Jeff Howe’s Wired piece on crowdsourcing, a Smithsonian report [PDF] on the Institution’s collaboration with the Flickr Commons project, and a History News forum, all discuss issues with various aspects of crowdsourcing, but ultimately come to the right conclusion: the positives outweigh the negatives.

Crowdsourcing–whether a transcription project (like Papers of the War Department and the New York Public Library menus project), a research project (like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Children of the Lodz Ghetto or the National Postal Museum’s Arago portal), or a collaborative project (like Wikipedia)–can certainly have inaccuracies. But you don’t have to crowdsource for inaccurate information to get out there–even scholars, not to mention firebrand political commentators (couldn’t resist…) or textbook writers, can get history wrong.

But the above projects have tapped into the passion and knowledge that we can find dispersed in the public, and have used it to answer questions and, more broadly, produce knowledge. In 2008 I attended a session on crowdsourcing projects at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference. The two projects discussed, NPM’s Arago (presented by my friend Christine Hill Mereand) and the Library of Congress’s participation in Flickr Commons, took different approaches. Arago relied on a registration system before a researcher could begin contributing. LOC, by contrast, opened up the photos to all sorts of comments on the Flickr Commons.

Both projects relied on staff interaction, to filter comments and provide resources–indeed, if I remember correctly, that was Christine’s main job. Nonetheless, both projects greatly stretched the capabilities of the institutions, answering research questions much more quickly than they would have been answered by staff members or other researchers. The example I remember best from that presentation was a LOC photo of a tea house in an unknown town: someone recognized his/her hometown in Massachusetts. Now that information is available to researchers–someone researching the history of that town would never have found that photo, because it would not come up in searches for that town on LOC’s catalog. From what I remember of this presentation, they had to deal with little in the way of inaccurate information.

Perhaps more importantly, crowdsourcing projects are not only building on the knowledge of the public, they are inviting public participation. As my friend and former colleague Elissa Frankle, who works on the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project, stressed in her Ignite Smithsonian presentation, museums (and probably even more so academics) too often assume people will, and must, be passive consumers of information–and in the end, will get turned off by history. But as all of these projects show, there is a way to harness this passion. The Papers of the War Department reports 356 registered users in the past seven months–some (like me) who have done one or two documents, others who have done many more. Now all of these people have a connection to history.

So, then, what of expertise in a crowdsourced world? Why are all of us in this class pursuing this advanced degree? If anyone can do history, what is our role?

This not an either-or proposition. What we, as professionals, must do is provide the context, provide the guidance. We are the ones whose jobs┬á(at least when we can get them!) include keeping the bigger picture in mind. As Rosenzweig noted, many Wikipedia articles focus on the minutiae–questions that we often deem to “small” to research. The Smithsonian report notes a seemingly low participation rate–one comment per 2,089 views. This raises the point that for us, being a historian is a job, not just a hobby on the side to juggle while we otherwise work, have family and social lives, etc.

We are the ones who have the time and the obligation to keep the bigger picture in mind, and to convey it. As I’ve found in working at museums and historic sites, questions from visitors have helped me hone my own interpretation, tested my own knowledge, and even helped lead me to new questions to research. Visitors at the Alamo asked me about Antonio L├│pez de Santa Anna’s visit to Washington in 1837. When I decided, several years later, to research just that, I stumbled upon a dissertation topic–and here I am, pursuing it.

It can be much the same with crowdsourcing. Seemingly inaccurate information or questions, whether they’re said online, in a classroom, or at a historic site, can provide “teachable moments.”

At the same time, opening our process up for scrutiny and participation brings a wider understanding of what we do. Crowdsourcing is no panacea for the troubles that ail history in the United States today. But even with its drawbacks, it offers a glimmer of hope, and can be part of the cure.

Presentation: “Familiar Strangers”

Here is my presentation for class on October 11.

The serendipity of history

When poking around on the Library of Congress Map Collections to find a header image the other day, I stumbled upon Dr. John H. Robinson’s 1819 map of the southern United States and what was then northern New Spain. Being that my research interests focus on the United States and Mexico, I chose this map. On this map Dr. Robinson is identified as a “Member of the Western Museum Society of Cincinnati and Brig. General in the Republican armies of Mexico.” With my research interests, I was intrigued. Doing a bit more digging, I stumbled upon a page in the Atlas of Historic New Mexico Maps, which includes more information about Dr. Robinson’s activities for Mexican independence.

Thus, through looking for a header image, I found a new story to include potentially in my dissertation. The serendipity of historical research.