David Patrick McKenzie

Historian working in academic, digital, and public forms

Category: Public History (page 2 of 2)

Tucson: Overreaction as protest?

The last few days, my Twitter stream has lit up with justified outrage about the banning of ethnic studies–and related books–in Arizona’s classrooms. What has especially made news is the Tucson Unified School District’s seizure of the banned books.

Opponents of ethnic studies in Arizona’s schools claim that such curricula “divide [students] by race and teach its group about its own background only,” as the state’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction put it. Yes, teaching ethnic history does have the chance of instilling chauvinism and triumphalism. But so does teaching national history. So does teaching “great white men” history. So does teaching religious history. So does teaching, really, any kind of history.

But ethnic history, and any kind of history of a group or individual, also allows one to see the bigger story through the lens of that particular group or individual. It brings to light past–and present–injustices and triumphs. It instills a sense of history in many students–helping students of that ethnicity understand from whence they came, and helping students of other ethnicities understand from whence their peers came.

Since Tucson originated the Mexican-American studies program that led to the state’s ban, I couldn’t help but wonder–is Tucson’s overreaction a form of protest by the district against the state? Rather than inconspicuously removing books during off-hours, the district removed them in plain sight of students–interestingly, around the time of a holiday celebrating a slain civil rights leader, a holiday that Arizona refused to celebrate for many years.

This is pure speculation on my part. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps, as this Public Radio International story says, the district is mainly worried about losing funding from the state if it doesn’t comply with the vaguely-worded ban. But it does seem something here is up, more than meets the eye. If the district is indeed trying to make a stand by demonstrating to all the fallacy of the state’s law, good for it. If that’s not the case, well, at least the district’s actions have called attention to this significant issue. Hopefully some good will come out of this.

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.

Opening up–or locking down–scholarly communication

This week’s readings (Week 13) focused on the interrelated, sometimes opposed, issues of copyright and open access in scholarly (and other) communication.

I greatly enjoyed all of the readings, but the one that resonated with me most was Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. This well-written book–so well-written that in spite of having plenty of other readings, I didn’t do the graduate student skim (much to my chagrin on Sunday night!)–discusses the formation of the United States’s scheme of copyright, its recent abuses, and presents a moderate, well-reasoned solution to recent issues. In keeping with the Constitution’s original intent (yes, that loaded term) of promoting creativity by both granting and limiting copyrights, Lessig suggests allowing one fifty-year copyright term, renewable. That way, non-commercially-viable works will lapse into the public domain–allowing them to be used and built upon–while forcing registration of still-commercially-viable works. In the meanwhile–particularly after his unfortunate loss in Eldred v. Ashcroft (discussed in-depth and well in this book)–Lessig has promoted the Creative Commons licenses that have recently taken off.

This book resonated with me because of my experiences as a public historian, particularly as a content developer sourcing images for several museum exhibitions while working for The Design Minds, Inc. Because of the current 95-year copyright term, many of these exhibitions took on added expenses–expenses that could be crippling for many of the small museums for which we worked. In a couple of instances, we (or the client, depending on the nature of the contract) coughed up four figures for images. Because we had used largely public-domain images, or images from the clients’ collections, otherwise, in these cases the clients were able and willing to pay those costs. But other times we found ourselves having to substitute inferior images.

This is to say nothing of cases where copyright is uncertain–an issue rearing its head lately in regards to Google Books and the Hathi Trust, or old recordings.

I got lucky the one time I tried to do track down copyright for an old recording. When I was working on the Gold Mining Camp Museum at Monroe Park, I emailed Dick Spottswood of WAMU’s Bluegrass Country (whose delightful show I’m listening to right now) to ask what sort of music might have been heard at a mining camp in Fauquier County, Virginia, in the 1930s–the time and place we were interpreting. He was nice enough to reply and suggest John Ashby, a musician performing around Fauquier at that time. Thankfully, I was able to track down the copyright holder for Ashby’s music after only going through a few people, and gain permission–the person was even happy to provide me a digital file. This worked well for him–it exposed new audiences to Ashby’s music–and worked well for the county’s park authority (owner of the museum), allowing the featuring of a local artist.

But what if I had not been able to track that rights holder down? Would the client and I have decided to take the risk of playing that recording? Or would we have lost that local connection, choosing to play, say, jazz from that period (which Spottswood said would have been heard in Fauquier from Washington radio stations)? I’m guessing the latter, since we would have feared the repercussions of someone coming after us for breach of copyright–that is, if we could have even found Ashby’s recordings.

As Lessig brings up, digital technology is making copyright a bigger issue than before, as the technology allows for easier duplication and derivative works. As we have discussed through the semester, it also opens up new doors for scholarly communication. We can more easily find sources–presuming they are not locked down. Recently I followed a Twitter discussion suggesting that more historians will choose to study the 19th century, because so much 20th century material is locked down due to copyright, thus much harder to digitize and distribute–and not for technical reasons.

We also can disseminate our work in different ways, the subject of the Scholarly Communications Institute’s eighth session. The report–a nice summation of issues we have discussed during class–talked about different ways scholars can communicate using digital technology, going beyond the monograph-article model, and what the implications of those new means are. What of peer review? What of writing for a broader audience? Two lines about that subject particularly resonated with me:

To date, scholarly communication has privileged authors over audience, and many scholars carry this presumption of precedence into the digital realm (10). […] Which audience will take precedence–fellow specialists or the general public? Or if that dichotomy is itself a false distinction in the digital environment–as seems likely–what does it mean for scholarly communication? (11)

Indeed. Is it a false distinction in the digital environment? If it is–and I think it can be–that explains what attracted this public historian with academic leanings toward digital history–the ability to bridge that dichotomy, to fulfill my goal of having one foot in the academic history door, one in the public history door.

This and the other readings also raised the important issue of open access. Since we can, should we make our work readily available? I’m leaning toward yes. While some might worry about plagiarism, the technology makes plagiarism easier to detect. I’d like to hear what others think about this, though.

So digital technology has put us at a crossroads. Will our sources and the products we produce from those sources be locked down and controlled, or will they be open? What are the implications from each of those paths? Thoughts?

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 (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 López 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.

Visualization & Scholarship

Of this week’s readings, I found Martyn Jessop’s “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity” [PDF] particularly interesting, as it got me thinking about other class discussions we’ve had about the nature of scholarship, and particularly what counts as scholarship.

This article discusses visualization as scholarship. Similar to Jo Guldi‘s argument that spatialization has a long history in the humanities, Jessop argues that digital visualization is an extension of older forms of scholarly activity, not a radical, new thing. Importantly, he differentiates visualization from illustration:

an illustration is intended merely to support a rhetorical device (usually textual) whereas a visualization is intended either to be the primary rhetorical device or serve as an alternative but parallel (rather than subordinate) rhetorical device (283).

In other words, a visualization is the end in itself, the product, not just a means to an end, a part of a final product.

As I read through this article, I wondered about a visualization as a scholarly product containing an argument. Let’s use an example that Jessop cites (285), one that has continually come up (perhaps because it’s so dang neat and it tells us so much) through the semester: Charles Minard’s graphical representation of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, detailing the losses the Grande Armée suffered as it advanced and retreated. It certainly tells us a lot of information, in a powerful way–much more powerfully than pages of text could.

Minard's illustration of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia

However, what is its argument? That the Grande Armée lost most of its force? That it must have really sucked to be a French soldier during that invasion?

Similarly, looking at Shaping the West from Stanford’s Spatial History Project, I have the same question. The visualizations the project offers all illustrate key points, in a more impactful way than a text could. These, like other visualizations, are products of both analysis and synthesis of primary sources. But do they contain arguments in themselves, or are arguments derived from analyzing the visualizations? The arguments derived from these visualizations are still conveyed textually. White himself discusses spatialization as a tool to reach new conclusions.

Going back to Jessop’s distinction of illustration versus visualization, I wonder if I’m missing the point. Are the examples I’m citing here more illustrations used as evidence for broader points? In the case of Shaping the West, for example, can we say that Richard White’s arguments about the impact of the railroad are conveyed through his book, and the visualizations are parallel–but still not making an argument in themselves?

Spatial history will be a major part of my dissertation, as I’m looking at visitors between particular countries (the United States and Mexico), to particular places (in the “cores” versus “peripheries”) in those countries. For example, in the website I’m planning to accompany my dissertation, I will include maps showing places that visitors traveled. Minard’s graphic even inspired me to include, perhaps, a graphic showing how many visitors passed through certain areas during certain periods. Yet all of these examples would still complement my written argument, perhaps even parallel it, but not supplant it.

Thus, thinking of our discussions about promotion and tenure two weeks ago, should or would a visualization–whether recreating a city, creating maps, or whatever format–count toward tenure and promotion? Or would visualizations like those in Shaping the West count as complements to the argument contained in a traditional text–a text that would then be the basis for tenure and promotion?

Can we discern an argument from a visualization–or am I just not “visually literate,” to use Jessop’s term, enough to be able to do so? Can a visualization inherently be the vehicle for an argument? If so, has the technology not advanced enough yet to have digital visualizations contain discernable arguments in themselves? Or does a visualization merely “tell” something versus “argue” something?

On these questions, I’m not sure where I fall, although I–perhaps surprisingly for a public historian who has created exhibitions and walking tours–am leaning toward a privileging of words (whether written or spoken) as the vehicle for an argument, albeit with use of various forms of visualization to present supporting evidence. But perhaps I’m privileging the traditional scholarly notion of what an argument is, versus the telling or chronicling of something? For example, in creating exhibitions and even walking tours, we speak of “take-away messages.” Are those messages arguments, or simply messages/chroniclings? Perhaps deciding a distinction on that question would help us distinguish what we’re looking for in visualizations.

Perhaps the jury is still out on all of these questions–and perhaps it will always be…

Scholarship in the digital realm

This week’s readings concerned the question of scholarship in the digital realm. Specifically, what is digital scholarship, and how is it evaluated?

As the semester has gone on, we’ve learned how the digital makes a difference in format. As Lev Manovich discussed in last week’s reading, The Language of New Media, the rectangular computer screen forces a different language upon us. To make full use of the power of the digital, we must adapt our forms to its forms. This means that, while there is a place for the traditional monograph and article model of historical scholarship, we must think in new ways for the digital–not just replicating the old means on a screen.

What might digital scholarship consist of? The University of Nebraska’s Bill Thomas discusses one of the many possibilities in his article “Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account.” He discusses his experience with an article that he and Edward Ayers of the University of Virginia wrote. This article was published in the American Historical Review print edition, and also online. In the print edition the scholars followed the traditional format. In the online edition, though, they experimented with new ways of making their argument. As they detail, some of these ways worked, some did not–in part, depending upon the audience. For me, the most interesting part of this article was its conclusion–where Ayers and Thomas challenged us to think outside of our usual paradigms–breaking down categories of archives, exhibits, etc.

As it is becoming clear, “digital scholarship” can mean many things. The fascinating Our Cultural Commonwealth, produced by the American Council of Learned Societies, offered as its starting point five categories worth quoting in full:

a) Building a digital collection of information for further study and analysis
b) Creating appropriate tools for collection-building
c) Creating appropriate tools for the analysis and study of collections
d) Using digital collections and analytical tools to generate new intellectual products
e) Creating authoring tools for these new intellectual products, either in traditional forms or in digital
form

As the report notes, only category (d) has been considered scholarship. As we have discussed in class, though, there are currently debates about inclusion of those other activities as scholarship. I’d like to see this discussion continued and expanded.

I found the Council for Library and Information Resources’ “Working Together or Working Apart: Promoting the Next Generation of Digital Scholarship” particularly valuable for its argument in favor of including the other aforementioned categories in the realm of scholarship. The portion that resonated most with me was Caroline Levander’s “The Changing Landscape of American Studies in a Global Era” (pages 27-33). First of all, being someone who gets on my high horse about how small the Rio Grande is physically, and yet how there seems to be more scholarship about transoceanic connections than connections across that little desert stream, I found myself saying “amen” when she gave a hemispheric definition of American Studies (I also wished I had looked at this report and quoted parts in my project proposal!). More to the point, though, she argues that the very content of an archive, and how it is formed, helps shape the questions that can be asked of it. Thus, she and her colleagues creating the Our Americas Archive Project–a collaboration of Rice University, the University of Maryland, and the Instituto Mora in Mexico City–are bringing together primary sources from throughout the Americas, as a way to bring about new questions. In this case, the formation of the archive–what to include, what to exclude, and how to search it–is the argument.

So if digital scholarship can mean many things beyond producing the traditional article or monograph, how is it evaluated? The evaluation of history produced in formats beyond those is not a new question, as the report and white paper of the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship make clear. Both of these–it’s worth reading the white paper and not just the final report–discuss how history departments can evaluate public history work. Their recommendations–that public history work be valued not just as service or teaching but as scholarship–carry over into the digital realm. Most importantly, they see scholarship as a process, not just the end product.

So in the end, what is “digital scholarship”? As I wrote this post, I noted that I skirted actually defining it–the closest I got was quoting Our Cultural Commonwealth. Based on these readings, it seems we can define digital scholarship as peer-reviewed, intellectually rigorous research and dissemination of that research using digital means. In other words, it is scholarship whose form is specifically digital. For example, although one can more easily read a traditional article or monograph on an electronic device like a Kindle or iPad–and even produce a “Kindle single”–I would not classify those as digital formats because they do not depend on the existence of the digital for their format. One could print them out and have the same.

Is that a satisfactory definition, or am I excluding too much by arguing that the form needs to be digital? Do we even want to define the term, or would that preclude too much? As my colleague Megan points out, public history doesn’t have a rigorous definition. What do others think?

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.

Virginia: Farming only since 1614?

The other night on my way to class, I found myself behind a truck with one of Virginia’s many custom license plates. But this one’s tagline intrigued me: “Farming since 1614.” As the pickup and I crawled down Lee Highway, I started to wonder, “Why 1614?”–particularly in light of Jamestown’s founding seven years before.

As it turns out, the Commonwealth chose 1614 because that was the date Virginia colonists first exported tobacco across the Atlantic. Being that Virginia’s economy depended upon the export of tobacco throughout the colonial period, I suppose I could see that logic.

But it still begs the question. Surely the Jamestown colonists at least practiced some subsistence agriculture before that time? Indeed they did–but even if they hadn’t, where would they have gotten their food?

Oh yes. From the Powhatans. Where did the Powhatans get that food? They farmed.

And there I exposed my Eurocentric bias. Virginia has not only been farming since 1614. In fact, agriculture in the present-day state goes back at least four or five centuries further.

While I’m in favor of the cause the license plate fees support–the Virginia Office of Farmland Preservation–I’m not such a fan of the plate’s message. It promotes the idea that Europeans brought civilization, including advanced arts like agriculture, to this continent. More importantly, it perpetuates the myth that Native Americans were uncivilized and not making full use of the land–the same myth European colonists would tell themselves after walking through miles of cornfields.

The Commonwealth should not be perpetuating such myths through its license plates. Many more people will see that license plate than, say, this blog post (not that exceeding my numbers would be difficult), or works about Native American agriculture.

As such, the Commonwealth should teach a lesson, and in the process boost state pride. How about a new message: “Farming for 1000 years”?

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.

Remembering the Alamo… Education Department

During an unexpected trip to San Antonio this past week, I made a couple of pilgrimages to visit my former colleagues at the Alamo. I began my public history career there–indeed, discovered public history–when I was hired as a history interpreter during the summer of 2000. I repeated that role after I graduated from Pitt in 2002, and again after I left Peace Corps in late 2003.

When I worked there, those of us wearing red vests (pictured) were stationed at different points in the shrine and Long Barrack, answering questions. We also gave twice-daily history talks.

I went for the Alamo’s monthly First Saturday event, a new addition since I left in 2004. First Saturday is only one of many new things the Alamo Education Department has introduced. While being stationed at the various locations and giving history talks is still the bread and butter–as it should be for a site that often gets above 10,000 visitors per day–the Alamo has begun other programs, including an audio tour (originally outsourced, now produced by the Education Department), a new exhibition in the Long Barrack Museum, a summer camp, and a battlefield tour.

All of these programs have involved a great deal of personal interaction at the actual site, helping visitors understand the seminal, and often misunderstood, battle. Indeed, that is one of the site’s strengths–that visitors can have in-depth conversations with knowledgeable interpreters, not only read text panels.

Another of the site’s strengths–what drives the other strengths–is the fact that the Curator/Historian, Richard Bruce Winders, heads the Education Department. Wait, a curator, leading an education department in a museum? Indeed. The education department is merged with the curatorial staff. Dr. Winders himself is often out in full gear at living history programs, leading teacher workshops, and interacting with the public. In fact, until I came to Washington to begin my Museum Studies M.A., I didn’t realize that education departments and curatorial departments were often separate–and sometimes not collaborative.

This versatility does not make Dr. Winders any less of a scholar. He has published four books–his dissertation book on the U.S. Army during the U.S.-Mexican War, books for general audiences about the leadup to the U.S.-Mexican War and about the Battle of the Alamo, and a kids’ book on David Crockett.

From my time working with Dr. Winders and the other education staff, I learned that being a top-notch interpreter does not preclude being a top-notch scholar, and vice-versa.

Long and short, the Alamo Education Department is doing a lot of phenomenal programs. Having spent a bit more time in the museum field, I keep on returning to lessons I learned during my time at the Alamo. I learned that you can, and should, communicate the latest scholarly understanding–the key is not “dumbing down,” but rather communicating well.

As the Texas General Land Office prepares to assume control of the Alamo, it would be well-advised to remember how much the Education Department does for public understanding of a major event in North American history–and how that department touches visitors at the state’s most-visited site.

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