Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Susan Armitage at the MAC

A quick announcement of an upcoming event at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. This should be excellent, Dr. Armitage is a terrific scholar and speaker:

Suffrage in Spokane
Public Lecture by Dr. Susan Armitage
Thursday, October 1, 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Dr. Armitage is Distinguished Professor of History, Emerita, Washington State University. Part of MAC’s Teachers’ Night program. Free to the public.Sponsored by Spokane Teachers Credit Union and a Teaching American History grant administered by Educational Service District 101 and Eastern Washington University.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Two Lightly Animated Cats Discuss Museums

I have mixed feelings about this video--it is amusing and might be a good starting point to discuss museums and their significance with students. But it has the flavor of an essay by a very bright undergraduate who mistakenly believes she has single handedly invented critical thinking about her topic. This flavor because that is exactly what the video is, with the addition of cats. The YouTube description reads:

Recently Kim's been obsessing over museums, her new "hobby." Here she reads from her latest report, "The Creation of Value: meditations on the logic of museums and other coercive institutions." Mildly unpleasant Dead Pinky Story also included (free poster available for download at (

[Hat tip to Twitter friend Steven Lubar.]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Promise of Mobile History

Look closely at the image of the iPhone--see the app with the letter H icon? That is a mock up of an iPhone app that would use the GPS system in the iPhone to help users to find historic sites when they travel. It is the brainchild of Twitterer DriveByHistory, known to you squares as Cynthia Sengel. Click here to play with the mockup and see how it would work.

I blogged a while back about the Duke Digital Collections iPhone app. But what is really promising about mobile devices is the promise of making history, well, mobile. Imagine being a road trip where you were alerted not just to historical markers but to museums that are currently open, historic trails along the way, old cemeteries, buildings on the National Register, etc., in each case with some pictures and a quick text blurb to tell you more. My immediate thoughts are 1) that would be amazing, and 2) I'd never get anywhere.

The next step would be to develop location-specific content for such mobile devices. How about a geotagged podcast that would take you on a walking tour of a historic site without having to have a set route? Or a virtual museum guide who knew what room you were in and which painting you were looking at? Or being able to see your location on a historic Sanborn or other map, or compare historic photos to the present-day house or building in front of you.

There was recently an interesting post over at Wired about a "Bionic Eye" iPhone app that produced "augmented reality." It looked to me like a good way to get hit by a car. But these augmented reality apps that overlay data from the internet on the scene in front of you have obvious uses for creating historical tours. In a few years you will see people standing at the edge of the Gettysburg Battlefield and holding their smart phones in front of their faces to see Pickett's charge reenacted on a 3" screen.

Also, it would be nice to see a way for historians to develop mobile content in a platform neutral way. I cannot see having my public history students develop content for a proprietary device that they cannot themselves afford.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

...for example...

As a sort of addendum to my post about the OAH below, take a look at this conference website: Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2010: Call for Participation. They have unconference sessions and a variety of other session formats, active discussion boards to promote pre-conference dialogue, even a room mate finder. Nicely done!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

More Cowbell: My Plan to Revive the OAH

So I was looking at the Organization of American Historians new 2009 Draft Strategic Plan and their request for member comments. The OAH is suffering the fate of many professional organizations--an aging and declining membership, fewer subscribers for its journal, less interest in its annual conference. I was typing out a long email response when it hit me: I have a blog.

I have only occasionally been a member of the OAH, usually when I go to the annual conference to present or to listen. I respect the organization, but it has never seemed very relevant to me. The articles in the Journal of American History tend to be narrow and densely written--which is fine when they publish something in one of my subfields, but of course this doesn't happen very often. The OAH conference consists largely of people in suits reading fledgling JAH articles out loud. I have drawn on the valuable OAH Speakers Bureau when designing a Teaching American History grant, and I do like the Magazine of History that they began putting out a few years ago. I always thought the OAH should be more of an
advocacy organization for funding for history programs but they don't seem to do much (correct me if I am wrong). So I have supported the OAH intermittently, sometimes feeling guilty for not doing more. Anyway, here is my plan:

1. Drop the print journal. The declining readership of the JAH is not a reason to "continue and further develop" that journal. There is simply a declining public and even professional interest in this sort of scholarship. Eliminate the print edition entirely and make it a digital publication to save money (à la the University of Michigan Press). The Magazine of History on the other hand is pretty good and should continue.

2. Reboot the conference. The conference needs an overhaul! 3 panelists + 1 commenter + passive audience = snooze fest. (The accompanying picture is of the audience at my last OAH presentation.) So
me changes:
  • Ban the reading of papers and shorten presenters time to ten minutes.
  • One-half of each session should be dedicated to discussion with the audience.
  • Ask presenters to summarize their evidence and arguments on a conference blog in advance of the conference. Allow others to comment and engage the presenters.
  • Ditch the roundtables, which are actually even more of a snooze than the traditional panels because no one prepares anything new to say. The majority of roundtables come off as the most forced and awkward imaginable sort of cocktail party conversation.
  • Free wireless throughout the session, and encourage use of a Twitter hash tag to open another channel for conversations. This is important.
  • In short, make the conference a bit more like THATCamp. Try including some "unconference" sessions at the 2010 meeting.
3. One blog to rule them all. Establish a year-round OAH community blog and discussion forum. Community blog means that any member of the OAH can create a post! Have some loose guidelines (no advocacy except for historical advocacy, no pictures of your cats) and name some moderators (and yes I am volunteering). The H-NET lists are largely moribund and online historical discussion has been atomized across a hundred different forums. The OAH can bring some of it together and gain scholarly energy and relevance. The closest model for what I have in mind is the general interest community blog MetaFilter, except limited to historians and requiring users to post under their real names.

(BTW, Katrina Gulliver and I have been discussion this at considerable length, mostly via email but here is a post where she elaborates on some of the ideas.)

4. Build up from the grassroots. Encourage smaller regional informal gatherings--OAH Pizza, Beer and History nights, OAH historical tours, the OAH History Book Discussion groups, etc. These could draw in school teachers, folks who majored in history in college but work outside the profession, and others.

5. A lifeline to independent scholars. Offer a home to independent scholars and public historians. And by a home, I mean access to the scholarly databases that are the 21st century life blood of our profession. Academic discussion boards are full of plaintive pleas from unaffiliated historians who lost access to these resources when they left graduate school and whose scholarship is hamstrung because of the fact. Work out a deal with JSTOR and MUSE and the Evans Collection and to give OAH members access as part of their paid memberships. (I see that the American Economic Association is already on it, at least with JSTOR--why not the OAH?)

6. Get on the grants train. The OAH should try to offer it services as a partner in more grant activities--especially the Teaching American History Grants. And industry of history content providers has arisen in response to the more than $800 million that the Department of Education has pumped into this program so far. Some of these content providers are frankly shady shallow commercial outfits with marginal qualifications. ( Why isn't the OAH getting on board? Its expertise is sorely needed, and could be generously rewarded.

The OAH was founded in the early 20th Century on a 19th Century model. Can it make the leap into the modern era? Can any of our professional organizations?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dan Cohen on The Future of the Digital University

Here is an interesting talk from Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. (He also has a blog and tweets and is one of the hosts of the Digital Campus podcast.) Despite the video presentation this is largely a talk with few illustrations and you can play it in the background while you play World of Warcraft or whatever.*

*I have never played World of Warcraft.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Building the Digital Lincoln

Journal of American History - Building the Digital Lincoln: "This special resources site offers a snapshot of how historians andBlogger: Northwest History - Edit Post "Journal of American History - Building the Digital..." digital humanists have helped to build a new understanding of Abraham Lincoln with a series of innovative and powerful Web-based tools. Their contributions during the decade preceding the Lincoln bicentennial have significantly altered the landscape of Lincoln scholarship by widening and deepening access to a vast array of primary sources. The result has been a more finely detailed portrait of President Lincoln, his relationships, and his career’s most pivotal moments."

This interesting site from the Journal of American History uses the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln as the thread that brings together a variety of approaches to digital history. In fact it is a fine introduction to some aspects of digital history--from word clouds to GIS layers to 3D modeling (using Google Sketchup!) to an interactive online essay to a brief documentary created using Photostory. What I like about the Building the Digital Lincoln site is that it is not all bleeding-edge technology, but uses well-known and widely available software packages. A visitor to the site thinks "Hey that is really cool--and I can do it!"

By the way, I will buy a drink for the first person who can identify the origin of the animated GIF on this page. (Hint: It is not from the JAH!)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Great Archival Find

Archives are like treasure rooms that have not been fully explored. This article from the Winston-Salem Journal reminds us of the importance of funding and programs to develop archival holdings and make them public.

Cherokee Revealed - Translated Moravian records disclose a forgotten history: In front of the house stands a long, open shed covered with clapboards adequately provided with benches and other seats, as well as a raised plank for writing on. The Talk was held under this shed. At a short distance from this stands a tall pole. A designated Indian took his position at this pole with a drum, and beat the drum as a sign of the beginning of the meeting. He kept drumming until Indians were seen coming in lines. In the heat, the Indians used turkey wings in stead of fans to make a breeze for themselves. -- Report from Abraham Steiner, a Moravian missionary to the Cherokee at Springplace, Ga., May 22, 1801, translated from the German.

The Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem have a website, but unfortunately none of the translated documents are available. A tip of the hat to Suzanne Fischer for making me aware of this story.

Picture is from the linked story, where it has this caption:
"This map showing the settlements of the Cherokee Nation was drawn by Moravian missionary John Daniel Hammerer and is dated to 1766."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bootylicious, and Other Piratical Links

I am getting a jump on Talk Like a Pirate Day with a roundup on decidedly non-Northwest links.

First, and the impetus for the post, a charming New Yorker essay by Caleb Crain: Bootylicious: A History of Pirates. Like much of what Crain does, it is a model of how popular history should be written. "On the evening of April 1, 1719, an English slave ship came to anchor near the mouth of the Rokel River, off the coast of what is now Sierra Leone. In the hold were linen and woollen goods that could be traded for slaves, fava beans to feed them, and, for the officers, cheese, butter, sugar, and Westphalia ham, as well as live geese, turkeys, ducks, and a sow. The captain, a devout man named William Snelgrave, was apprehensive, because the west coast of Africa was rife with pirates . . ." You know that Snelgrave is in a world of trouble. Crain offers a review of pirate historiography, a sweeping history of piracy, explanation of pirate society, and a review of a new book by Peter T. Leeson, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. (Preceding links includes a video interview with Leeson and a sample chapter.)

The blogosphere is swarming with black-hearted piratical content right now. Crain's fine blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything, has a series of pirate posts. Start with this one. And A Lively Experiment, the excellent blog of the Rhode Island Historical Society, is running a series of posts on the pirate-related items in their collections.

(On a personal note, my 9-year-old son, a bright boy and a fan of Captain Jack Sparrow, became fascinated with these 300 year old directions to pirate treasure. As I write this he is pouring over an atlas map of the Caribbean trying to match up the cryptic "J L" and "B O" to some modern feature. I am impressed by the way he is thinking historically--"Dad! Do we have a map of the Caribbean that was made in 1719? Because the names might be different now!" "Dad! Is there a biography of the guy who wrote the directions? Because then we could see where he went and narrow it down." The poor kid is ruined.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Google's Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars?

Your humble Northwest History blogger is sometimes accused of being a Google fanboy. A fair cop. But you know who is not a Google fanboy? Geoffrey Nunberg, that is who. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education Nunberg has a witty jerimiad, Google's Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars.

Nunberg's beef is with Google's sloppy and commercially driven metadata schemes. He demonstrates that even with such a basic item as date of publication, Google Books very frequently gets it wrong. This in turn often corrupts search results: "A search on 'Internet' in books published before 1950 produces 527 results; 'Medicare' for the same period gets almost 1,600." By comparing Google's data to that found in the catalogues of the contributing libraries Nunberg shows that these errors do in fact belong to Google, not to their partners.

Nunberg also whacks Google for the classification errors where books are placed in the wrong categories: " H.L. Mencken's The American Language is classified as Family & Relationships. A French edition of Hamlet and a Japanese edition of Madame Bovary are both classified as Antiques and Collectibles . . . An edition of Moby Dick is labeled Computers; The Cat Lover's Book of Fascinating Facts falls under Technology & Engineering."

Worst of all to Nunberg is Google's adoption of the Book Industry Standards and Communications categories for Google Books, which he describes as a modern commercial invention used to sell books, rather than a scholarly system of classification like the Library of Congress subject headings: "For example the BISAC Juvenile Nonfiction subject heading has almost 300 subheadings, like New Baby, Skateboarding, and Deer, Moose, and Caribou. By contrast the Poetry subject heading has just 20 subheadings. That means that Bambi and Bullwinkle get a full shelf to themselves, while Leopardi, Schiller, and Verlaine have to scrunch together in the single subheading reserved for Poetry/Continental European. In short, Google has taken a group of the world's great research collections and returned them in the form of a suburban-mall bookstore."

I think that Nunberg has a number of good points--point he gathers together to form a molehill, from which he conjures up a mountain. Google's metadata may be everything he says (and I think he is probably right) but how great a problem is that really? This scholar at least uses Google Books either 1) to locate a digital copy of a book I already know about, or 2) via a string of search terms. In the first case, it is not relevant to me that Google has classified Adventures of Huckleberry Finn under "wild plants" or whatever. I know perfectly well what it is, and just wanted to find a quote I remember.

In the second case, I might search for mentions of the Columbia River in books published before 1860. And suppose a faulty date in Google's database brings me to something written after 1860. So what? Surely when I click on the link and find myself reading Sherman Alexie instead of Lewis and Clark, I will notice the fact. (Actually I just did the search and on the first 10 pages of results I don't see any errors at all. Take that, Nunberg.)

So for which scholars exactly is Google Book Search a "disaster?" Nunberg cites "linguists and assorted wordinistas" who are "adrenalized" at the thought of data mining to "track the way happiness replaced felicity in the 17th century, quantify the rise and fall of propaganda or industrial democracy over the course of the 20th century, or pluck out all the Victorian novels that contain the phrase "gentle reader." But who does this? OK, I know that people do it, but most data mining of this type has always struck me as more of a parlour trick than actual scholarship.

The other thing Nunberg ignores is that metadata is not that hard to fix. Google already provides a "feedback" button on every virtual page so readers can report unreadable or missing pages. If we howl loud enough we could easily see similar feedback mechanisms on the "More book information" page so we could correct names and dates and categories.

Nunberg is absolutely correct to recognize the monumental importance to scholars of the Google Book Search project. It is vital that scholars take a critical stance that will push Google to improve the project and make it even more useful. His article is a valuable push in that direction.

UPDATE 9/3/09: Reader Ed points out that Geoff Nunberg also posted a nicely illustrated version of his article on the blog Language Log, and got a brief response in the comments from
John Orwant, who manages the metadata at Google Books.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Date Announced for THATCamp Pacific Northwest

THATCamp Pacific Northwest: "THATCamp Pacific Northwest will be held on the campus of Washington State University in Pullman, WA on Saturday, October 17, 2009. For more information, visit the schedule and location pages, e-mail the organizers at, or just apply now."

If you are in the PNW and are interested at all in the digital humanities I strongly recommend that you apply. The glory of THATCamp is that it invites people of all different levels of knowledge, experience and training. I came away from THATCamp at George Mason full of ideas and enthusiasm. My post about the event is here.