Monday, April 28, 2008

Arizona Stories and a Rephotography Roundup

Arizona Stories: For his landmark book, "Arizona Then and Now," photographer Allen Dutton traveled across the state to recapture archival images from their exact original location. Watch as early century images transform into contemporary photography.

Arizona Stories is a fun "before and after" photography site, where modern photographers try to take a photograph at exactly the same spot as a historic photo. Sometimes called rephotography, the technique is fun and lends itself naturally to presentations on the web. Examples include Third View - A Rephotographic Survey of the American West; Urban Life through Two Lenses — a flash-heavy exhibit of Quebec rephotography, and Springfield Rewind - featuring rephotographs of Springfield, Illinois. The last site presents the before and after photographs in my favorite format: one sees the historic photograph, but rolling the mouse over it causes it to "flip" to the modern scene. It is a simple trick that packs a punch. I have played around with rephotography myself here in Carthage, Missouri (examples 1, 2, 3). There are also many books featuring rephotographs.

Rephotography is easy and fun, especially with the large and increasing number of historic photos online. I think it would make a great project for school students! Give them some copies of historic photographs of their own community and send them out to rephotograph the scenes. The before and after pictures could go on the web, or have an art show where students stand next to large prints of their photographs while parents and community members visit. If any Spokane area teachers are interested, drop me and email and let's see what we can do together.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Coeur d'Alene Native Names Project

"The Native Names Project: In September of 2005 the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) funded the Coeur d'Alene Tribe’s Cooperative Agreements Program (CAP) grant to supply Native American place names to the National Map . . . One of the most important things about this project is preserving the individual stories and pronunciations of the places. On many reservations across the United States it is the unfortunate truth that only a handful of the people know the native geographic names. The goal of this project is to collect these place names before they disappear forever." (Above is Hangman Creek, known to the Coeur d'Alenes as "Suckers in the Water.")

You can see the Coeur d'Alene names for many sites in Washington, Idaho and Montana on this flash based map. (Which actually is not loading for me this evening--check back.) Or more fun yet, download the Google Earth KMZ file. Here is what a section of the Google Earth file looks like:
Clicking on the icons brings a pop-up window with the native and Euroamerican names and a link to "site report" page with includes an MP3 of the native pronunciation and in some cases a streaming video of Couer d'Alene elder Felix Aripa explaining the meaning of the name and the location. Here is Aripa explaining how his people called the area around Sprague Lake "Smell smell." Here is another article on the names project.

This is a wonderful combination of native tradition and modern technology. And it points the way towards other neat things one might do with oral history and Google Earth, mapping peoples memories of one room school houses, or CC camps or the like.

(This post via Metafilter.)

National Geographic's TOPO! Explorer

National Geographic has just published on Contours, its official map blog, this breathless announcement: "Last night at midnight - the switch was thrown and National Geographic's national recreation data base was born." The new data base is called TOPO! Explorer, and it focuses on recreational trails. One of the goals of "Northwest History" is to track new developments in digital history, and one of the most intriguing areas for Larry and me has been in the realm of mapping and linking maps to photographs and other data.  So what does the Geographic site have to offer that Google Maps doesn't? Here are some first impressions of TOPO! Explorer.

The most obvious asset on the National Geographic site is their use of topographic maps. Google accesses satellite and highway map views.  The geographic gives you a choice of satellite and topogragraphical views. The contour lines in the topographic views are valuable, especially when trying to get a sense of the terrain underlying an historical story.  I was especially struck this morning by one of their "staff favorite" sites, Pisgah National Forest:

Clicking on the camera icon brings you to this image:

That image is a reminder to us living among the scenic wonders of the Northwest, that other parts of the country have their own scenic treasures. Visiting and mapping them, connecting the maps and images to history, finding the tools to do the job, and seeking the imagination to ask the right questions and find the right designs -- these are some of the enterprises the beckon us in the new technologies....

Here are a few other interesting features on the National Geographic web site: 1) the home page for maps begins with MapMachine, which provides a variety of resources including locations of major droughts and earthquakes; choose the "physical" tab and you see the contours of the earth from seemingly hundreds of miles up -- no closer shots, but useful for the big picture, say, of the break between plateau and mountains in eastern Washington; 2) from the same page click on "Map of the Day" for a map connected to a particular event for the day -- today's was a map Martin Waldseemuller published on April 25, 1507, the first map to use the word "America" in connection with the New World; 3) click on "Interactive History Globe" for a variety of historical entries organized by locale.

Last but not least, National Geographic's TOPO! Explorer home page provides access to topographic maps around the country and is beginning to post data on trails and journeys, including the Pisgah entry mentioned above.

More on Flash and Substance

In his post (proceeding this one) about the National Archives site "the National Archives Experience" Larry raises an important point about substance, or lack thereof, in Web presentations. His comment toward the end of his post is hugely important. He says, "designers apparently became enamored of all the pretty things they could do with their documents and flash, and forgot to make the site useful or to give it a purpose." I decided to check out the site, and I had exactly the same reaction. The site is glitzy, yes, and glitz can be grand, yes, but alas the archives site is completely random. I can envision an audience seeing the site demoed and going "oooh" and "ahhh" about what new technologies can do on screen. But as for teaching anything substantive about the past, it's as if a teacher took a stack of 1,200 history-based index cards and threw them over the classroom, and called it a lesson. 


How do we learn from the National Archives site, build on it, do it better? I immediately thought of one of my favorite sites, "Echoes from the Past: Prehistoric Archaeology in Quebec," produced by the University of Montreal and folded into the Virtual Museum of Canada web site.

The introduction to this site is one of the most elegant evocations of history I have encountered anywhere on the Internet.  With music and images it tugs at the heart strings, and of course, that "tug" is just the impulse that brought many of us to the study of  history. The introduction to this Quebec site tells us that by entering we will be able to explore: "Places of Discovery," "The Voices of Objects," "A Science and its Concepts," and "Travel Through Time."

The careful arranging of the site helps us along by providing a good concise navigation scheme and good honest prose like this: 

Prehistoric archaeology in Quebec offers a way of uncovering traces of the past that are often hidden beneath the surface.  Researchers seek to to understand the customs and lifeways of the men, women and children who once lived in this territory and adapted to various natural surroundings and social contexts in order to survive.  Discovering the roots of these early populations means travelling back in time and being attentive to the stories recounted by the landscape.

The topics indicated in the navigation scheme make sense and build carefully to a thoughtful presentation of the multi-faceted prehistory of Quebec. (Click "skip the introduction" to go directly to the navigation scheme.) Subjects include: concepts, places, words, and objects. Click on any one of these, and the subsequent choices make sense. In the case of "words," for example, we have a choice of legends, including "Iroquois Creation Story." (Click "skip the introduction" and then "words" to get to the legends.)

I could envision using this site along with the National Archives site in a course on History and New Media, with the archives site, unfortunately, showing the pitfalls of a site that is strong on new media wizardry, but weak on historical content.  We then look at the Quebec site.  It's a lot better, we agree.  But how could we improve on even this admirable site? We go to the words section and look at the Iroquois Creation Story. (Click "skip the introduction" and then "Words" and choose "Iroquois Creation Story.") Good content, agreed, and we can read from the text the actual legend, agreed, but how could we make it better?  What if we had an Indian's voice on the page speaking the legend.... And what if we had the sound of a fire crackling in the background for atmosphere?

What if? What if?  The tools of new media call to us to exercise our imaginations and our intellects and so create new and exciting ways of evoking the past.  

What if? What if?

It's a grand adventure!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Flash Over Substance: The National Archives Experience

As deep databases of primary sources become more common, the traditional public providers of online historical content (the Library of Congress, various universities and historical societies) are being challenged by commercial newcomers such as and Google Book Search. Commercial developers seem to have more resources for site design and have produced databases that are often more attractive than their public counterparts. Also the commercial sites tend to be more interactive, allowing users to save, annotate, manipulate and share what they find online. The older public sites are far more static, based on a 19th century museum model of look, don't touch.

The new National Archives Experience attempts to bring the National Archives into the Web 2.0 world. When you arrive at the site you are met with a flash animation of dancing words, inviting us to "Unlock the Digital Vault!" and that the National Archives has selected 1,200 records for us to explore online.

1200? Did they forget a couple of zeros? Alas, they did not.

The default interface is similarly designed to impress rather than educate. A set of eight icons twirl around a bit then settle down in an oval around a text box that invites us to "Select a starting point to begin exploring." But the images are not labeled--you will be exploring on your own. What does that picture of some geometric shapes stand for? Hovering the cursor over the images produces a box with a cryptic bit of text meant I suppose to intrigue, in this case "Claim Rejected." Ah, so that is what this is about! Some sort of claim by some person or person for something during some period of time that was rejected. I clicked on the icon for more information. Here is the next screen:

What the hell is this? The avocado colored navigation aid on the left offers us a choice of six "tags": Families, Fraktur (?), Illustrated Family Record, Pennsylvania, Revolutionary War, or Soldiers. It is by no means clear what any of these have to do with our document--since we still don't know a single fact about the "Claim Rejected." And clicking on the tags just makes the background dance around some more and the icons to change. This, my friends, is horrible, arrogant web design.

It turns out that you click on the little unlabeled plus sign to see the document. At which point I discover that the claim rejected was a claim for a widow's pension from Margaret Schwartz, whose late husband had served in a unit of Pennsylvania Artillery during the revolution. I would quote directly from the document description, but the flash interface prevents me from copying and pasting from the site. Grrrr. Here is a screenshot:

As you can see, the document itself appears in a frame on the left. We can zoom in on the document and even print it out, but cannot copy it (except with a screenshot as I have done here). We still do not know the date of the document, or the place where it was written, or any other basic bibliographic information. And in fact, the document is in German, and no translation is provided.

The search function is primitive, non-intuitive and allows only basic keyword searching. And the results are displayed in a long band of unlabeled icons along the bottom of the screen. Below are the results for a search for "revolution." What are these documents? You tell me:

In fairness, there are a couple of neat features at the National Archives Experience that I have not seen anywhere else. The "Create" tab takes us to screens where we may create posters and movies from items in the collection. The movie maker is like a stripped-down online version of Microsoft's free Photostory software, which is very popular with educators. But you cannot add sound, or text beyond a title page, or a thousand and one other things you could do with some free software on your own computer if only you could save the darned images from the National Archives site. Also you can create a "Pathway Challenge," a sort of web quest through the documents.

The National Archives Experience is what can happen when digitization projects go bad. The designers apparently became enamored of all the pretty things they could do with their documents and flash, and forgot to make the site useful or to give it a purpose. You can't do historical research on the site, it is not useful for teaching, and you can't grab the images and documents to use in a presentation.

Amazingly, the National Archives Experience has won a “Best of the Web” award from the Museums and the Web conference, recognizing “the best work in museum web design and development.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

More on Mapping Photos with GPS

In earlier blog entries Larry has mentioned the value to historians of being able to record latitude and longitude with digital photos. A product called PhotoGPS by a German company, Jobo, is due for release this summer. ( It will attach to the hot shoe at the top of a camera and record metadata indicating the location for each shot. It may be the most useful solution yet to the location challenge.

In the mean time, a program called GPSPhotoLinker [Mac only] provides a good approach to linking location-tagged photos to a map. In the example above Jeffrey Early, a graduate student studying physical oceanography at Oregon State University, has linked location data to a photo taken in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Early, who created GPSPhotoLinker, has put some slide shows on line linking his photographs to maps. His home page lists several of these sites including, "Las Vegas and Zion," "Oregon Coast," and "Glacier Bay."

Note from Larry: I purchased a similar program named RoboGeo a few months ago but haven't fooled around enough to get it to work. It seems averse to Magellan GPS units, which is what I have.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The New Media - and the Old

Larry and I are attending the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History in Louisville. New Media demonstrations abound - web sites, movies, digital programs. But for me one of the most intriguing sights was a media marvel crafted more than a half century ago: a series of moving displays of historical figures and artifacts housed at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Indiana. Known as the Yenawine Dioramas, they were carved by Merle Yenawine, a retired railway man. They depict small town life in Southern Indiana, citca 1900. The subjects include "Main Street," "Wheat Threshing," "Shotgun Wedding," and "School House." The attention to detail and ingenious motion is apparent in this display, which I posted on Youtube.

This thought: the new media is indeed new and marvelous in many ways -- as witness the fine art of blogging and some of the wonders described on this site. But the urge to find new ways to portray the past has its own history. Merle Yenawine's work is a reminder that new media tools are only as good at presenting history as the imagination of the person using them.

Friday, April 11, 2008

NCPH Screening: The Last Conquistador

Today at the NCPH Conference I saw a terrific new film: The Last Conquistador by John Valdez. The film told the story of the decision by the town of El Paso, Texas to erect what became a 36-foot-high statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate. New Mexican Indians, reflecting on the fact that Oñate had murdered no small number of native men women and children, did not think highly of the plan. The resulting controversy ripped the town apart--and made for a powerful film.

The Last Conquistador will air on PBS this summer.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cave Hill Cemetery

This afternoon I enjoyed a fascinating tour of Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. This cemetery was established in the 1840s and enjoyed its greatest popularity after the Civil War. Cave Hill is special in that it is an active cemetery still, and has a staff of groundskeepers but also guards and watchmen. There has been relatively little vandalism over the years and one can experience the full effect of a (largely) Victorian park cemetery. Below are a few of the better photos I took, the rest may be found here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

NCPH Conference in Louisville

I am in Louisville at the National Council on Public History conference. I was supposed to arrive yesterday for the two-day workshop on digitizing history, but Northwest Airlines had other ideas. Here are a couple of pictures I took on a late afternoon walk:

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Seriously Ancient Sh*t

Evidence Supports Earlier Date for People in North America - New York Times: "Exploring Paisley Caves in the Cascade Range of Oregon, archaeologists have found a scattering of human coprolites, or fossil feces. The specimens preserved 14,000-year-old human protein and DNA, which the discoverers said was the strongest evidence yet of the earliest people living in North America." See also this Paisley Caves description from University of Oregon.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Estimable Blogs #3: Outposts: Timothy Egan's NY Times Blog

Outposts is the intermittently updated blog of reporter/columnist/historian Timothy Egan. "Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times," according to his introduction, "first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter. In 2006, Mr. Egan won the National Book Award for his history of people who lived through the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time. In 2001, he won the Pulitzer Prize as part of a team of reporters who wrote the series How Race Is Lived in America. Mr. Egan is the author of five books, including 'The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest,' and 'Lasso the Wind, Away to the New West.' He lives in Seattle."

Spokanites will be quick to add Breaking Blue, Egan's masterful telling of a 1935 murder case where corrupt Spokane cops murdered a Pend Oreille County town marshal.

Outposts is a collection of Egan's often historically-themed dispatches from various locations in the American West. His latest entry is a masterful and evocative description of the Irish in Butte, Montana:

Butte was a hard-edged, dirty, dangerous town on the crest of the Continental Divide, and if a single man lived to his 30th birthday he was considered lucky. Yet entire parishes left the emerald desperation of County Cork for the copper mines of Butte, fleeing a land where British occupiers had once refused to let mothers educate their children, and where famine had killed a million people in seven years’ time.

I want to be Timothy Egan when I grow up.

Early Washington Maps: A Digital Collection

Early Washington Maps: A Digital Collection is a featured online resource at Washington State University's Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections department. The Early Washington Maps Timeline is a handy finding aid. They also have topographic maps of the state via the USGS Topos Index. You can download the standard display images with the ol' right click, but to use the high definition versions you will need a browser plug-in. A useful site for any northwest teacher or historian.