Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Would You Save This Building?

Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation

This crumbling WW2 era hanger at Wendover Air Force base is where a select group of B-29 pilots trained for a top secret mission--to drop atomic bombs on Japan. The base retains much of the original historic fabric of that era, not just the Enola Gay hanger but bomb storage facilities, barracks, a period control tower, and today a small museum dedicated to the atomic mission and the larger history of the base. Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named this hanger one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. (You can read a story and see a nice video about the hanger here.)

Should we care? There is tension in historic preservation between preserving places where historic events happened and preserving buildings that are themselves historic (it helps if they are architecturally impressive or quaint as well). Over the years preservation efforts have very much tended to preserve the later--the homes of presidents, historic sites of government, exemplary architecture, etc. Undistinguished-looking but important places have fared less well--the great exception being the historic battle fields that are preserved by both federal and state agencies. But there has to have been a battle! Something like the Fishkill Encampment and Supply Depot, "a sprawling military city that became the most important northern supply center during the Revolutionary War," becomes the site of a shopping mall.

So where does this put the Enola Gay hanger? The Wendover site is the scene of historically important events, but is neither impressive nor pretty. Also working against its preservation is that it represents a chapter in American history about which we have at best ambivalent feelings. How would we interpret Wendover Atomic Historical Monument? The current interpretation at the small museum there tends to stay close to the facts and events that led up to and took place at the base, without asking too many uncomfortable questions about the bombing itself. In the post Enola Gay controversy public history world, that is probably the best we can do.

And if we are trying to memorialize the atomic effort, where do we put those memorials? The Manhattan Project and the bombing of Japan has many geographic focuses, and the story changes depending on where you choose to tell it. It is a different story at Wendover than it is at Hiroshima, and still a different story at the University of Chicago where Enrico Fermi worked or at Los Alamos. Add to these places Oak Ridge where the nuclear material was processed, Trinity where the first test bomb was detonated, Tinian Island where the pilots took off to drop the bombs on Japan, or any of the dozens of other sites relevant to the story. Which sites do we interpret? Most of these sites are interpreted right now, from a Henry Moore sculpture in Chicago to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

I could go either way on the Enola Gay hangar. The hangar is huge, and the rest of the site even larger, and it would take millions of dollars just to stabilize, never mind properly interpret, the site. And would anyone visit after all that investment? Located on the Arizona-Utah line, Wendover is far from modern population centers. On the other hand it is along a busy interstate highway, so if you used the hanger to house some of the cool objects that people like to see--some restored a period planes, uniforms and other military objects--it might be fairly popular. If history hadn't missed out on the stimulus money, I would say to go for it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Estimable Blogs #4: A Compendium of Digital Collections

A Compendium of Digital Collections: "The goal of this project is to connect researchers with digital collections on topics of interest to them. The guide includes brief descriptions of and links to digital collections (digital projects, digital initiatives, digital libraries, etc.) created by libraries, archives, government agencies, and other institutions. Projects included cover a wide variety of subjects and digital formats, but collections that are search-able, easy to navigate, contain primary sources, and allow unrestricted use of materials are given first consideration..."

This highly useful and focused blog from the UNH Library Digital Collections Initiative is devoted to highlighting the latest digital collections. Every week sees a new historic digital collection launched somewhere, and no one can keep track of them. This blog began as my own attempt to keep abreast of digital history efforts that relate to the Pacific Northwest, but even with that narrow focus I don't feel that I am keeping up.

A Compendium of Digital Collections features a clean design and a simple formula. The title of each post is the name of the featured collection. This is followed by the URL and a one paragraph description of the collection. That is it--no commentary or editorializing, on to the next post. Right now the blog features Sheet Music from Indiana, the Mountain West Digital Library (from which the image of the petroglyphs here is borrowed), and the Digital Library of the Caribbean. The site makes limited use of tags, but they are tags across a variety of blogs--so for example clicking on the native-american-history tag brings you a results page with a lot of content from other blogs that is not very good. Fortunately you can also sort the Compendium of Digital Collections archive by clicking on the box on the left that reads "Select Category." Choosing Native American History from the drop down list gets you only the relevant posts on the Compendium of Digital Collections blog.

This is really a useful site--I've added it to my RSS reader and will exploring it at length.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

YouTube EDU--Where is the Good Stuff?

This useful post over at the estimable AHA Today blog highlights a resource that sounds far more useful than it actually is: YouTube - EDU Directory. The EDU Directory brings together all of the programs and channels posted to YouTube from universities. Great, right?

Well, maybe. The content is a mixed bag. A look through the thumbnails and titles of the videos on the EDU landing page tell the story. Most are either sporting events, promotional videos, or videos of public talks or round tables (few of them featuring historians).

And try finding anything. I went to the Brandeis University channel because I listened to a good podcasted lecture from David Hackett Fischer this morning. Brandeis has 67 videos online at YouTube, but their page offers no sorting or guide. Most of the video are not lectures at all but Brandeis promotional pieces and recordings of public talks and concerts around campus. All well and good, but disappointing for the history fan dreaming of finding a full semester of Fischer's lectures. You can search, but the YouTube search function is a blunt instrument, with no advanced search capabilities. So I searched for "history" and found 4 videos--all PR videos from Brandeis. A search for "Fischer" came up with nothing.

The whole EDU portal is like that--there may be some great content (and AHA Today found some) but it is buried beneath the near-random pile of stuff that is YouTube. YouTube would work a lot better if channel owners could provide some categorization, or if it allowed user tagging.

Bottom Line: No matter how good some of the content, YouTube is not currently a good archive for history materials.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Behold the Awesomeness of My Public History Students

My Introduction to Public History course finished up with student presentations of their final projects. I gave students the option of writing a traditional paper or doing a digital final project and most of them chose the latter. Digital history was brand new to all of them and yet they did some fine work. As I watched them present I thought to myself--Hey! I have a blog! I should share some of this stuff.

Three of my students became interested in rephotography and created websites to present their work. Amber Chapin used Blogger to create a website: Kirtland Cutter Architecture: Then and Now. Cutter, was Spokane's most prominent architect of the late 19th and early 20th century and designed homes for the city elites as well as commercial buildings and even bridges. I like the way that Chapin found not only historic photographs but also blueprints for many of the Cutter buildings, and how she explored a variety of his work, not just the grand residences for which he is so locally famous.

James Dupey too quite a different tack in his project Historic Hillyard. Built as a depot town for James J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad in the late 19th century, Hillyard hit hard times as the railroad pulled out in the early 20th century and is today one of the most depressed neighborhoods in the state. But sometimes economic depression is the friend of preservation, and 85% of the historic buildings of Hillyard still stand.

Chris Hendee did a rephotography project focused on Racine, Wisconsin. Racine, Hendee tells us, has always been a town of immigrants who brought an eclectic mix of architectural styles to the community. I was impressed by how much of the historic fabric is intact.

Michele Reid drew on her connections with Great Falls, Montana and her thesis research to create a fifteen-minute historical documentary film, Red Stars on the Horizon: The Seventh Ferrying Group in World War II. The Seventh Ferrying Group was composed on pilots, some of them women, who flew airplanes from American factories to the Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease program in World War Two.

Finally Meagan Yapp used Google Sites to create a simple website to host her interviews with women veterans. The website is a bit rough but the interviews are excellent.

It was fun watching the students stretch their abilities and practice history in new ways. They agreed that a digital project turned out to be more work than they had bargained for, but was very satisfying. At the same time I will make some changes next time around. Some of the projects presented history digitally but did very little analysis, as a teacher I need to emphasize the importance of interpretation. I wish I had pushed the geographic turn in digital history a bit more--most of the projects could have integrated a map function. And I need to emphasize more strongly the need for credits and attributions in student projects.

This quarter I am teaching Digital History for the first time and will be raising the bar for the students--stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

LOC Launches a YouTube Channel

The Library of Congress has just announced that they have a YouTube channel. I'll let them tell you about it:

Well, this is a day that has been a long time in coming. The Library of Congress has been working for several months now so that we could “do YouTube right.” When you’re the stewards of the world’s largest collection of audiovisual materials (some 6 million films, broadcasts and sound recordings), nothing less would be expected of you, and our own YouTube channel has now gone public.

We are starting with more than 70 videos, arranged in the following playlists: 2008 National Book Festival author presentations, the Books and Beyond author series, Journeys and Crossings (a series of curator discussions), “Westinghouse” industrial films from 1904 (I defy you to watch some of them without thinking of the Carl Stalling song “Powerhouse”), scholar discussions from the John W. Kluge Center, and the earliest movies made by Thomas Edison, including the first moving image ever made (curiously enough, a sneeze by a man named Fred Ott).

There is not a ton of material there yet, let alone Northwest material, but I did find this wonderful snipped of some unidentified Plains Indians who worked for Buffalo Bill doing a buffalo dance:

I see that the LOC has disabled comments on the videos! I am a bit surprised--not very 2.0 of them!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Wax Cylinder Recordings Online

Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection - Syracuse University Library: "The Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection provides online access to digital audio files of cylinders in the Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive. Belfer’s cylinder collection includes over 22,000 cylinders, 12,000 of which are unique titles. The goal of this digitization project is to provide 6,000 audio files by 2010."

This is a really nicely done site--clean and easy to search and navigate, with abundant metadata. And you may download the songs as MP3s! They should have a podcast or two of songs from the collection.

There is no northwest content that I could find at the site but there are a lot of songs on historical topics. A keyword search for "war" brings up fascinating WW1 nuggets such as the instrumental Battle of the Marne the rousing Are we downhearted - no! and the touching My Bugler boy. And don't miss the Scottish Wit and Humor category--which reminds me of Robert Darnton's oft-quoted point that "When you realize that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it."

[Via Metafilter. For additional wax cylinder recordings online see The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at UCSB.]

Monday, April 6, 2009

National Council on Public History Conference

I am just back from the annual conference of the National Council on Public History. It was in Providence this year and though it was chill and rainy (see picture) it was a great and inspiring conference. There were many sessions on digital history projects and I will feature many of them on this blog over the next few weeks.

If you have not been to an NCPH meeting, they are really good (don't believe me--look at what some guy said over here). Here is the 2010 Call For Proposals for the meeting in Portland, Oregon:

In 2010 the American Society for Environmental History and the National Council on Public History will meet together at the Hilton Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Portland was recently named the nation's most sustainable city by The SustainLane US City Rankings and our conference will be held in the heart of downtown, with cafes, restaurants, several historic districts, and a river trail within easy walking distance. While many conference events will be shared, the two organizations will offer separate but coordinated programs. Both organizations invite panel, roundtable, workshop, working group, paper, and poster proposals for the conference.

Proposals are due by June 30, 2009.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Digital History at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln is angling to make a place for itself at the digital history table. Their website Digital History has some excellent resources. As UNL describes it:

Digital history is an emerging and rapidly changing academic field. The purpose of this site is to educate scholars and the public about the state of the discipline by providing access to:
  • Presentations about the field by noted scholars
  • Interviews with scholars about topics related to digital history
  • Information about many aspects of digital history, including reviews of major online projects and reviews of tools which may be of use to digital historians
  • A clearinghouse of current events and news items of interest
  • A selected bibliography of Digital History resources
  • And more!
Some of these sections have yet to be filled in. The review of tools for instance contains exactly two reviews, and none for Omeka or Zotero. But the essays are excellent, and I really love the video interviews with leading digital historians such as John Lutz, William Turkel, and Ed Ayers.

What jumps out at me here, more than the site itself, is who is built it. The University of Nebraska Lincoln graduate program in history has an excellent reputation as a training ground for scholars of the American West--but it was not much noted beyond that sub discipline. They seem to be using digital history non-traditional way of moving up the rankings. And good for them. When one thinks of the other emerging leaders in digital history one sees the same thing--George Mason University, which houses the incredible Center for History and New Media, was not on most people's radar screens before they started their digital programs.

The leaders in the traditional ways of training historians, the big graduate programs of the Ivies and R-1s, are not going to be the leaders in the new wave. This is a similar model to what happened in my other field, public history, where it was second tier institutions who saw the need and opportunities most clearly and were able to create the leading programs.