Monday, March 30, 2009

Encarta is So 1999

Microsoft Encarta Dies After Long Battle With Wikipedia: "Microsoft delivered the coup de grace Monday to its dying Encarta encyclopedia, acknowledging what everyone else realized long ago: it just couldn’t compete with Wikipedia, a free, collaborative project that has become the leading encyclopedia on the Web."

Heck, I thought Encarta had folded shop years ago. I can hardly remember my last computer to come with Encarta--perhaps it was 7 or 8 years back? Even then it was never very useful--dull text and some illustrations with occasional animations. And you had to insert the Encarta CD into your machine to use the encyclopedia--it was always easier to open a browser and search online. A friend of mine wrote a lot of the first edition of Encarta and I even helped him a bit with the research when I was his grad student. I wonder how many hours of work are being abandoned with Encarta?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Bill to Boost History Education, Reignite Culture Wars

Senators Robert Byrd, Edward Kennedy and Lamar Alexander have introduced a bill titled "Restoring American History and Civics to Classroom Prominence." Alexander (pictured here) described the bill in his floor speech, saying it "will help to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place, in our classrooms, so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American. The legislation which we have introduced would expand summer academies for outstanding teachers, authorize new teacher programs, require States to set standards for the teaching and learning of U.S. history, and create new opportunities to compare the tests that students take on U.S. history."

Alexander's office also issued a press release which boiled the legislation down to bullet points, stating that the legislation would:

• Authorize 100 summer academies for outstanding students and teachers of U.S. History and align those academies with locations in the national park system, such as the John Adams House or Independence Hall
• Double authorization for funding “Teaching American History” programs in local school districts, which today involve 20,000 students as a part of No Child Left Behind
• Require states to develop and implement standards for student assessments in U.S. History, although there would be no federal accountability requirement as there is for reading and mathematics
• Allow states to compare history and civics test scores of 8th- and 12th-grade students by establishing a 10-state pilot program that would expand the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)

The most exciting parts of the bill are the first two items. One hundred summer academies is a lot! Tying them to the National Park Service is an interesting idea, and a tribute the NPS lobbyists, who deserve a big raise. Summer academies or institutes have been among the most successful parts of many, many Teaching American History projects, and the model is also used by the NEH and Gilder-Lehrman Institute. If one goes to the NPS History pages, and begins exploring the many historic National Monuments, historic trails, and National Heritage Areas (and when were those created, anyway? I had not heard of them) you can see the many possibilities for these institutes. I am already thinking of the NPS historic sites in my region, and the possibilities of summer institutes.

The second item, doubling the funding for the TAH program, is wonderful news. The Teaching American History program is designed to improve the teaching of American history in the schools by bringing together teachers, historians, and enough resources (by which I mean funding) for them to do some interesting collaborations. I have been deeply involved in the TAH program from the beginning, writing grant proposals, teaching the teachers, and most recently as an evaluator and consultant.

I really dislike the third item. I can see the goal here, making states develop history standards will help to ensure that history is taught and valued in the public schools. But who writes the standards? I see these standards becoming a political football and reigniting the culture wars of the 80s and 90s on the state level. Remember the disastrous reception to the 1994 National History Standards? This was a top-down attempt by an idealistic but politically naive history profession to impose a new set of historically sound standards on the nation's schools. Denounced (unfairly, but predictably) by Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney as being politically correct, they were condemned by the U.S. Senate, 99 to 1. Lets pick that scab, shall we?

The last item, using NAEP to roll out a pilot project for standardized testing in history, also runs the risk of politicization. The great dilemma here is that in the era of NCLB high-stakes testing, that which is not tested does not get taught. And that which does get tested is "taught to the test"--stifling the teacher creativity that is one of the great strengths of our system.

Overall this bill is great news. Thank you, Senators!

Historians: Let's get out in front of this. Go to the NPS site and see what historic site matches your specialty and pick up the phone. But then make contact with your university School of Education (I know, I know) and find out how to get involved in the drafting of those state standards. This kind of bureaucratic work is time consuming and unrewarding. But not nearly so time consuming and unrewarding as teaching your survey classes in ten years if you do nothing and your class is full of young people who were taught all sorts of incorrect historical mischief in the public schools!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

History Bloggers at the OAH!

I am packing right now for the Organization of American Historians annual conference. This year it is in Seattle and I am on a panel. (Two panels, actually, more on that later.)

On Friday, March 27, at 1:45 I will be on a roundtable titled Blogging History: Explorations in a New Medium. Here is our abstract:

One of the most active new avenues of digital history is the history blog. At their best, history blogs can present new research and ideas to a larger and more diverse audience than most scholarship ever reaches, can foster extended conversations, can rally support for important initiatives, and form an extended and diverse historical community where academics exchange ideas with teachers, archivists, and the general public. This round table will explore some of the possibilities of history blogging by way of examples from six well-established and popular blogs. The diverse panel includes academic historians, public historians, archivists and an independent scholar, each of whom will demonstrate a unique approach to history blogging.

The panelists are J. L. Bell, whose institutional affiliation is Friends of the Longfellow House and whose blog is Boston 1775; Mary Schaff, who runs the Washington State Library blog; William Turkel of the University of Western Ontario who recently retired his blog Digital History Hacks; and Ari Kelman from the University of California-Davis who is one of the bloggers at Edge of the American West. Our chair, the man trying to organize five bloggers, is J. William T. Youngs of Eastern Washington University. (Our proposal included T. Mills Kelly of the George Mason Center for History and New Media and the blog EdWired, but he can't make it.)

We will be keeping our presentations short to allow lots of audience participation. So please come on by and say hello and add your two digital cents to the conversation.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Congressional Globe and other U.S. Congressional Documents

Congressional Globe Home Page: U.S. Congressional Documents: "The Globe, as it is usually called, contains the congressional debates of the 23rd through 42nd Congresses (1833-73) . . . The Globe is the third of the four series of publications containing the debates of Congress. It was preceded by the Annals of Congress and the Register of Debates and succeeded by the Congressional Record . . . Initially the Globe contained a 'condensed report' or abstract rather than a verbatim report of the debates and proceedings. With the 32nd Congress (1851), however, the Globe began to provide something approaching verbatim transcription . . . The contents of the appendix of each volume vary from Congress to Congress, but appendixes typically contain presidential messages, reports of the heads of departments and cabinet officers, texts of laws, and appropriations."

This is an enormously useful set of resources, with the full text of these important congressional records. The northwest was much on the mind of 19th- and 20th-century legislators. Some quick searches for northwest topics produce this Bill To provide for suppressing Indian hostilities in the territory of Oregon (passed in the wake of the killing of the Whitmans); An Act For the relief of Mrs. Mary Harris, of Oregon (to pay her money owed for "supplies furnished and services rendered in the Oregon Indian War of eighteen hundred and fifty-six"); and "The petition of five hundred and fifteen citizens of Washington Territory, for aid to the Seattle and Walla-Walla Railroad."

This resource opens up new avenues of research. I am particularly intrigued by the petitions to Congress, which might yeild new primary source descriptions of the Indian Wars of the northwest. Unfortunately the search function, though otherwise robust, searches only the indexes of the Globe, at least for some volumes.

Interestingly, Google Book Search seems to have most or all of the Congressional Globe as well. The disadvantage (and this is a repeated problem in using Google Book Search) is that the individual volumes are not linked in any way. On the other hand they are fully digitized and you can use Google's powerful search features to mine the text.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person

Here is a great little animation from Michael Edson at the Smithsonian who posted it on his blog Smithsonian 2.0. I present Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person.

It's funny 'cause its true.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Robert Owens in Town for Two Lectures this Week

Teaching American History Lecture Presentations

story_imageThanks to a Teaching American History grant administered by Educational Service District 101 and Eastern Washington University, Dr. Robert Owens will be in town this week to give two important lectures about Indians and the Early Republic.

Dr. Owens, assistant professor of history at Wichita State University presents Pan-Indianism and Panic: How Great Indian Confederacies Shaped Anglo-America at 11 a.m., Wednesday, March 11, in Tawanka 215 A-B [map]. Admission is free.
Owens will present, William Henry Harrison and the Continuing American Revolution at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, March 12 at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture [map], 2316 W. First, Spokane. The lecture is free to MAC members, students and teachers. Regular museum admission to the general public.

Owens is the author of Mr. Jefferson's Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy (review here) and scholarly articles on Native Americans and the Old Northwest. He received a PhD in history from the University of Illinois.

(The painting is of Harrison, not Owens.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

"OK, you got chops, now get out of the way of the content... "

Brooklyn Revealed is an innovative history website that uses Flash to allow visitors to interactively explore a collection of historic photos on an attractive map interface. Which is why some people hate it.

The Metafilter discussion is really valuable in pointing out some of the big problems with Flash presentations, which boil down to the ways that Flash defines the user experience and limits true interactivity with a site. On Flash sites it can be difficult to download or make direct links to individual items. On the other hand you can get an exciting site with dancing colors and so on, so long as you do not try to actually do anything with those dancing images. As one Metafilter commenter wrote: "All of the natural web browser functions -- text searching, bookmarking, stepped navigation -- are essentially turned off in a Flash environment and must be either re-engaged or accounted for in other ways." To be fair Brooklyn Revealed does restore some functions. The Flash popups of the images include a link to static URL for each picture, and you can browse sequentially with the arrow keys, But it is still a crippled presentation compared to many other sites on the web.

See also my post, Flash Over Content: The National Archives Experience.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

OHS Research Library to Close!

Update: It turns out that the situation is not quite as bad as I thought. On another blog George L. Vogt, the Oregon Historical Society’s Executive Director, made this statement: "Please note that, contrary to many statements on blogs and in emails, the library is not closing forever. At the request of the staff, we closed it for a few weeks so that the departing staff could finish various projects and clear backlogs. We are reopening soon . . . "

We knew things were bad at the Oregon Historical Society with the state slashing the budget, but it is worse than I thought. This message went out over an archives listserv today. It is from Megan K. Friedel an archivist at the Oregon Historical Society Research Library:

It is with great sadness that I write to share the news with you that, due to severe budget reductions, the Oregon Historical Society will be closing its Research Library beginning this Saturday, February 28th. The collections will no longer be open to the public, and all library positions will be eliminated beginning March 13th. A few positions will remain to handle orders for photo and film reproduction. It is not known at this time if or when the library will re-open and at what capacity. As many of you know, the OHS Research Library has the largest collection of archival documents relating to the history of Oregon, including its nationally-renowned photograph collection containing over 2.5 million historical photographs, more than 32,000 books, 25,000 maps, 12,000 linear feet of manuscripts, 3,000 serials titles, 16,000 reels of newspaper microfilm, 8.5 million feet of film and videotape, and 10,000 oral history tapes. I feel this not only as a very personal loss but as a great loss to all Oregonians. If you have questions or concerns about the OHS Research Library closure, I strongly recommend that you contact our Executive Director, George Vogt, at Please continue to check our website at for any future news about the status of the library . . . I have enjoyed working with all of you over the years and will greatly miss the experience of sharing our beautiful photo collections with so many appreciative colleagues and researchers.

I don't know what to say about this horrible news. It is truly a loss not just to Oregonians but to anyone interested in the history and culture of the Pacific Northwest. My heart goes out to those who are losing their jobs and to their families.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Smart Review of a Book on the Civilian Conservation Corps at New West Network

Here is a book review worth noting: With Picks, Shovels, and Hope by Dr. Wayne Hinton with Elizabeth A. Green. The review quotes from the authors' introduction:

"Virtually every visitor to national parks and monuments, national forests, and other public lands on the Colorado Plateau benefits from a program instituted in 1933 to put young men to work. They became stewards of the land and builders of the facilities we enjoy to this day. Many of the roads we travel, the paths we walk, the visitor centers we explore, the campgrounds we stay in, and so much more, are the results of the most successful New Deal work program, the Civilian Conservation Corps."

History largely missed out on the economic recovery package passed last month. But with talk of a second recovery package in the air the history community needs to advocate for our share next time around.

[Photograph of Vista House on Mount Spokane from the Washington State Digital Archives. Vista House was completed by the CCC in 1933 and is one of many federal projects from the Depression Era still enjoyed today.]