Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Are We Losing Our History in the Digital Age?

Time for a scare-report! British Library warns of 'black hole' in history if websites and digital files are not preserved: "Historians face a ‘black hole’ of lost information if we do not preserve websites and other digital records, the head of the British Library warned today. Chief executive Lynne Brindley said our cultural heritage is at risk as the internet evolves and technologies become obsolete."

Well, maybe. The article underestimates the efforts already underway to preserve at least some digital records. There is the Internet Archive (Wikipedia article) which maintains a huge cache of expired webpages. (The Wayback Machine is invaluable for recovering information when you hit an expired link.)

And of course there is the magnificent Washington State Digital Archives, my employer. We preserve the websites of former Washington governors Mike Lowery and Gary Locke among others.

The other problem with the "black hole" argument is that it compares the spotty preservation of digital records to an imaginary paper past where every record was lovingly archived and preserved in climate controlled isolation. But every historian learns soon enough that huge chunks of our historical record are missing. Twain's articles in the Territorial Enterprise are gone, burned up with the rest of the archives in an 1875 fire. A 1973 fire in Saint Louis destroyed 16-18 million military personnel files dating back to 1912. The Library at Alexandria was burned.

And yet we have histories of all these times and people. I would dearly love to be able to read all of Twain's articles as a fledgling journalist--but the handful that survive, Twain's own accounts of his Nevada years, and other primary sources from the period give us a pretty clear idea of what was happening in the to Virginia City and to Twain in those years. Future historians will find records enough for writing their histories of the early 2000s.

[Burning paper image from Flickr user The Shifted Librarian and used via a Creative Commons license. I added the wise-ass text using Picasa 3. This story is also being discussed over at Metafilter.]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Wikipedia War Over Obama's Inauguration

The Wikipedia War Over Obama's Inauguration: "Shortly before 11:00 a.m. EST on Tuesday, President-elect Barack Obama's motorcade sped along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, headed towards the Capitol. But Wikipedia couldn't wait." A fun article about a minor skirmish in the ongoing Wikipedia "edit wars," this one involving the status of Barack Obama. You can see the remains of the battle on the Wikipedia talk page for Barack Obama and the history page. This being Wikipedia, you can even view the very first Barack Obama page, created at 09:56 on July 28, 2004: "Barack Obama (born August 4, 1961) is a Democratic politician from Chicago, Illinois and only the third African-American to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. A state legislator and law professor, Obama is currently running for the United States Senate from the State of Illinois, which would be the highest elected office he would hold thus far. If successful, Obama would be only the third African-American senator since Reconstruction. In Swahili, the name Obama means 'one who is led by God.'" Our president has had a very swift ascent!

Wikipedia is the elephant in the room in most discussions of digital history. We all know it is there and important but as professional historians we try to ignore it. You know that opinionated 19-year-old in your survey class, the one who is speaking up all the time, the guy with the loud voice who is always correcting you with some wrong historical information he learned on the internet last night? Well he is editing Wikipedia right now. For most teaching historians our approach to Wikipedia is to hope it goes away. (This is also our approach to Rate My Professor.)

Yet our students turn to Wikipedia as the information source of first resort, and we need to understand how it works. In my Public History course we recently read "The Charms of Wikipedia" by Nicholson Baker, a good and amusing introduction to the online encyclopedia. Personally I have no objection to students using Wikipedia exactly as they would any other encyclopedia--as a handy place to check basic facts and to begin research, but absolutely not an acceptable source of research for a college-level paper.

I actually assign some Wikipedia articles from time to time, such as Land Ordinance of 1785 and the related articles Northwest Ordinance, Public Land Survey System, and Northwest Territory. These articles are Wikipedia at its best, giving simple explanations of how the public lands of the United States were divided. It is important basic information in a class on Western History, but too often neglected in textbooks.

More problematic are the articles on controversial topics--Robert E. Lee, Zionism, or Leon Trotsky. The talk page on Trotsky warns users that "This is a controversial topic that may be under dispute." You think? "Please discuss substantial changes here before making them, making sure to supply full citations when adding information, and consider tagging or removing uncited/unciteable information," the warning continues. The talk and history pages of all three articles bear the shrapnel and bomb craters of full-scale edit wars, complete with multiple reversions and accusations of vandalism, personal invective, and banning of troublesome editors. For example on March 19, 2008 an anonymous user replaced the entire text of the Lee article with "I HATE HISTORY SOOOOOOOOOOO I WONT TELL YOU ANYTHING MUAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

At the end of the day Wikipedia becomes what most of it's users want it to be. So the article on Lee is generally admiring and minimizes and excuses his life-long support of slavery in a way that makes this historian uncomfortable.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Time Warp Wives?

Time Warp Wives: Meet the women who really do live in the past: "Meet the 'Time Warp Wives', who believe that life, especially marriage, was far more straightforward in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties." This is a fun little article from the UK tabloid The Daily Mail about three women who supposedly live as if it were a different decade--the 1930s, the '40s and the 50s, respectively.

The article is a spinoff from a BBC 4 program Time Warp Wives. You can watch excerpts here. "And it's not just about vintage clothes and vintage decor," the BBC tells us, "they have vintage values!" Such as? "We've been married for 13 years and we're extremely happy because we both know our roles," says faux-50s housewife Joanne Massey (pictured here), who met her husband at a Fifties convention: "There is none of the battling for equality that I see in so many marriages today." The other women are also living in imagined pasts. "Back then, the world just seemed a sunnier place," says Diane Rowlands of the 1930s, a decade that saw an economic depression and the spread of fascism. She does confess that it was "an austere time between the wars."

These women fall under the broad category of historical reenactment--or as I prefer to call it, playing dress-up. Like Civil War or other historical reenactors they project into the past what they want to find there.

Unless of course the whole thing is a media hoax--which it may well be!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Call for a New Federal Writer's Project

[This is my first-ever advocacy post! Update: I posted this at Change.gov, the Obama transition team website where they are soliciting ideas. Vote it up!]

As the country slides further into recession, the word from Washington is that President-Elect Obama is thinking historically as he crafts his response to the crisis: "His aides said Mr. Obama had studied the way Franklin D. Roosevelt approached the first 100 days of his presidency, and in particular had seized on the notion of Roosevelt having a 'conversation with the American public' to try to prepare it for a difficult time. He has, aides said, even looked at the words Roosevelt used and the tone he struck."

Obama, of course, will be borrowing more than speeches from FDR and the New Deal. He has unveiled the broad outlines of an $800 billion economic recovery plan, a plan which includes such New Deal favorites as massive public works and aid to state governments. Many of the details of the plan are being worked out, and perhaps it is not too late to add one more item--a new initiative to preserve and make accessible our history and heritage. A new Federal Writer's Project, if you will, but with a 21st century digital edge.

Among the greatest legacies of the New Deal was how it preserved so much of our American history and heritage. The first New Deal built more than roads and bridges. A number of New Deal initiatives created jobs while collecting and preserving American history. Interviewers from the Federal Writer's Project (FWP) fanned out across the American South and interviewed former slaves. The FWP collected life histories of thousands of other Americans as well. FSA photographers such as Dorthea Lange produced memorable portraits of the Dust Bowl migrants and other Americans struggling to survive. Other government-funded historians produced the WPA guides to the individual states that are still important sources for local history. WPA artists created murals of local history in public places such as post offices and courthouses, many of which survive today.

There is scarcely a historian or public school teacher in the United States who does not use Depression-era historical resources every week. We enjoy the fruits of the New Deal efforts to preserve American history every bit as much as we enjoy the parks, forests, and dams that were created. So as Barack Obama prepares a new New Deal, how will history be included?

The historical community needs to push to be included in the stimulus plan. There is so much that we could do. A 21st century Federal Writers Project could do oral interviews on a massive scale. American veterans could be interviewed in an expansion of the Veterans History Project. Other subject for oral history projects might include America's new immigrants, people whose lives have been disrupted by Hurrican Katrina, or state-by-state cross sections of typical Americans. Oral histories would be collected on inexpensive digital recorders and preserved online. New technology developed by Microsoft and the Washington State Digital Archive would make the collections keyword searchable, creating a tremendous historical resource for future generations.

Digitization would be another important initiative for the New Federal Writers Project. As Americans newspapers fail at an alarming rate there is the danger that their archives of past issues, some going back over a century, will be lost. Google has already begun working with some newspapers to digitize their archives, an infusion of federal cash could greatly accelerate the process and make sure that nothing is lost. Federal aid could help states, counties, and private and public museums to digitize their archival holdings and put them online, opening up our cultural heritage to new audiences.

A third initiative of the New Federal Writers Project could be to record our built landscape. Urban decline in the rustbelt and suburban expansion everywhere else are profoundly changing our patterns of settlment and commerce. A lot of new business construction (such as big box stores and strip malls) is intended for a fairly short lifespan, to be torn down and replaced in a few decades. Meanwhile important historic sites from battlefields to cemeteries are threatened by new development. We could take this moment to record as much of the build landscape as possible, using digital photography and GPS technology to create a visual map of historic and other sites around the country.

Economists emphasize that successful economic stimulus must be fast. Thus the emphasis on projects that are "shovel ready," projects for which the plans and permits are already in place but that have simply lacked the money. A New Federal Writers Project is shovel ready. We already have national, state, and local organizations with the skills, models, and the history of coorperation to succeed. The National Archives and the Library of Congress could lead the effort. State archives and historic societies could link the national partners to the local governments, museums and historic societies where the work would happen. We have digital repositories to preserve the work, organizations such as the Washington State Digital Archives and the American Memory project at the Library of Congress.

Thousands of jobs could be created overnight. And teachers and school children could work in the effort as well. This initiative that could find broad bipartisan support. Every politician loves American history and heritage projects, as we see in the popularity of programs such as Teaching American History. And the jobs would be temporary, just as in the first New Deal. This would mollify Republicans worried about a permanent expansion of government under the guise of stimulus. And it is a project that could take place not just in every state but in every city and county in the nation.

Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff has said: "Never let a crisis go to waste." For the historical and archival community, this economic crisis is an unprecedented opportunity. If we seize the moment, we can create a rich historical record that will be a national treasure for future generations of Americans.

So how do we get started?

[Note: Author Mark Pinsky has been floating this idea as well, in this New Republic piece and this NPR interview. Thank you, Mark.]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Quick Question for My Visitors

I just put an image in my blog header. Can you tell what it is? Do you like it?

Sometimes History Finds You

My wife and I were in the Florida Keys last week, where we have the privilege of working with the Monroe County School District implementing a Teaching American History grant-funded project. Of course all work and no play makes a history professor even more boring than he already is. So one afternoon we joined a snorkeling excursion that took us to a coral reef a few miles straight south.

We had a nice few hours of paddling around the reef and looking at the pretty fish with our 9-year-old son, Wonderboy, and headed back to shore. On the way back the captain spotted something odd in the water. "We have to check this out," he said. (If you click on the image below it will take you to a Picasa web album with larger, geotagged images.)

What we found was an ancient wooden boat slowly sinking into the water. It was obviously a boat that Cuban refugees had used to try it make it to the United States. It was a ramshackle thing, with an engine from some Soviet-era car, five gallon jugs leaking diesel fuel into the water, and a tiller made from pieces of threaded pipe. The blue bumpers you see along the gunwale are apparently for added flotation, they are made from spray-on insulating foam with pieces of blue tarp tacked over them for protection. The boat spoke of ingenuity and desperation, and is perhaps the saddest thing I have seen..

The captain called in our discovery to the Coast Guard. After a few minutes of exchanging information the Coast Guard said that they were aware of the boat, that the refugees on it had been intercepted by the Coast Guard the day before, and was there anything else they could do for us?

I could not find a news report about this particular group of refugees (I will add a link if I do) so I don't know what happened to them. (Here is a video of perhaps a similar set of Cubans being arrested byt he Coast Guard). But I have been to Cuba twice and I can understand the forces that would drive people to risk their lives in a boat like for this for the opportunity to clean hotel rooms or mow lawns in Miami or Orlando.

I have spent my life studying history, usually as if it were something dead, to be dissected and analyzed with dispassion and objectivity. Last week history reached out and hit me up the side of the head.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

London V2 Rocket Sites...Mapped in Google Maps

Here is a really neat history project on Google Maps, an interactive map of London showing where each V-2 rocket landed during the war. London V2 Rocket Sites...Mapped: "Autumn 1944, and London was under attack from space. Hitler's 'vengeance' rocket, the V-2, was the world's first ballistic missile, and the first man-made object to make a sub-orbital spaceflight. Over 1400 were launched at Britain, with more than 500 striking London. Each hit caused devastation. The 13 tonne rocket impacted at over 3000 miles per hour. There was no warning; the missile descended faster than the speed of sound and survivors would only hear the approach and sonic booms after the blast . . . ."

"These famous tragedies are well documented, but over 500 rocket strikes, many with significant death toll, remain obscure. We've mapped out some of the impact sites above, with more to follow when we can access further information. Make sure you zoom in and check satellite view. Commonly, an area hit by a V-2 is now covered with a car park or 1960s housing estate. These areas are usually devoid of mature trees, and still stand out over 60 years on."

Here is a direct link to the map. This sort of project is not that difficult to do. A teacher and students would create a Google Map of any sort of historical event that lends itself to a geographic presentation. Journeys of famous explorers, the locations of cemeteries and historic sites, battles in a particular war, the life journey of an individual, or historic photos of your own community can become a Google map!

Via Metafilter, as so often is the case here!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Woo-Hoo! Northwest History Wins a Clio!

Check this Out!

In conjunction with the AHA annual meeting in New York, here are the fourth annual Cliopatria Awards for History Blogging. Thanks to the judges this year, who made the difficult decisions necessary to pick the best work from strong fields: Manan Ahmed, Another Damned Medievalist, Rebecca Goetz, William Turkel, Jeremy Boggs, Lisa Spiro, Jonathan Dresner, Elle, Ph.D., Jeremy Young. They have done a fine job. Thanks also to Jonathan Dresner for creating the 2008 logos. Here, then, are the winners and brief explanations of the judges' rationale for their decisions:

Best Individual Blog: Northwest History

In addition to a strong focus on the historical materials and historiography of the American Northwest, Prof. Cebula introduces and explains digital resources and techniques with great range and depth. The writing is engaging and incisive and the result both entertaining and very useful.

This is a wonderful and unexpected honor. I feel like Rudolf when Clarisse bats her eyelashes at him: