Thursday, October 29, 2009

Michael Finley on Native America Calling

I am listening to the Chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes, Michael Finley, on the nationally syndicated radio program Native America Calling. (Click here to play the October 28 show, Gonna Paint the White House Red.) Finley is the youngest ever chairman of the Colville Nation, the co-author of the excellent volume Finding Chief Kamiakin: The Life and Legacy of a Northwest Patriot. Finley also holds an MA in history from Eastern Washington University. He appeared on Native America Calling to discuss the upcoming Tribal Nations Conference at the White House that he will be attending.

As a faculty member at EWU it is exciting to watch Finley's progress. Though I wasn't a member of the department at the time I am told he was one of the most impressive students to come through our graduate history program in recent years. He has published a number of interesting articles recently as well as the biography of Kamiakin. And a few months ago he was elected tribal chairman. Finley is at his best on the program, for example describing the Grand Coulee dam as "an example of what the tribes have had to pay for what some call progress" and "the concrete monolith that . . . is like a tombstone for us" because it blocked the salmon runs. Check it out.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Anyone Using Open Source Collections Management Software?

I recently tweeted the question "What free/open source solutions exist for small museums looking to to create collections inventories?" In my role coordinating the Public History program at Eastern Washington University I often work with very small rural museums and heritage groups. These organizations are run by volunteers (often elderly volunteers at that) have budgets that are more often in the hundreds of dollars a year than the thousands, and have no one in the organization with any museum, historical, or technology training. However they are passionate about their local history, and often have unique and substantial holdings of records, photographs, and objects. How can they organize their collections? The software has to be free and extremely easy to use. It should also have web capabilities and use universal standards so data could be exported to another software package in the future.

Some twitter friend suggestions and a bit of gooling revealed at least four choices. But I don't have time to test them all and can't find a good compare-and-contrast article. If anyone has experience with any of these systems, please let us know what you think:

  • Museolog "is a software system, developed by EUROCLID within UNESCO HeritageNet project, and localised by NGO Open Systems where initial functions of input and editing of museum catalogues are provided by a modern intuitive graphical interface using forms and menu." Wikipedia page here.
  • "CollectiveAccess (formerly known as OpenCollection) is a full-featured collections management and online access application for museums, archives and digital collections. It is designed to handle large, heterogeneous collections that have complex cataloguing requirements and require support for a variety of metadata standards and media formats." Also web based. Here is a Slideshare presentation about the software.
  • CollectionSpace "is focused on developing solutions for museums and related heritage organizations that want to address this information gap and re-define the ways in which collections information is collected, managed, preserved, leveraged, and published. CollectionSpace partners will develop software with an open and extensible architecture, that is community-based and technologically robust." It appears to be in the early stages of development.
  • Omeka (of course): "Create complex narratives and share rich collections adhering to Dublin core standards with Omeka, designed for scholars, museums, libraries, archives, and enthusiasts." My only hesitation with Omeka is that lead developer Dave Lester has described it (at THATCamp PNW) as more of a web publishing platform than a collections management tool.
  •  Open Office version of Access (or Access itself if they already have it?) 
If you have experience with any of these systems, or suggestions for other ways to get this done, please weigh in!

[Image from Flickr user Brunngrrl and used via a Creative Commons license.]

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Henry V Less Virile than Previously Believed

Interesting article in the NY Times--Historians Reassess Battle of Agincourt: "Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers."

The revisionist historians have determined that rather than facing thousands of heavily-armed French nobleman, Henry's troops actually fought a couple of char women, a rabid cow, and perhaps a killer rabbit. But what is most interesting in the article is the description of the "new science of military history" that has produced a reevaluation of Agincourt: "The new accounts tend to be not only more quantitative but also more attuned to political, cultural and technological factors, and focus more on the experience of the common soldier than on grand strategies and heroic deeds . . .The approach has drastically changed views on everything from Roman battles with Germanic tribes, to Napoleon’s disastrous occupation of Spain, to the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War. But the most telling gauge of the respect being given to the new historians and their penchant for tearing down established wisdom is that it has now become almost routine for American commanders to call on them for advice on strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, Iraq and other present-day conflicts."

For those wishing to dig further this 1991 article by Peter Paret titled "The New Military History" provides a background.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Five Take Aways from THATCamp Pacific Northwest

THATCamp Pacific Northwest was a great success, thanks to the hard-work of Julie Meloni and others at Washington State University. Unconferences such as THATCamp are said to be "user generated" but that is only true of the sessions--someone has to reserve the space and pay for the coffee and make sure everyone can get online and a hundred other things to make a successful meeting. Anyway, I learned so much and have a lot to think about. Here are a few random insights/resources/ideas that I am mulling over:
  1. There are a LOT of us doing interesting work in digital humanities in the Pacific Northwest and we never meet one another. More than 40 people gave up a Saturday to travel from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and the Puget Sound to Pullman (Pullman!) for the chance just to talk about digital humanities.
  2. We should not waste effort recreating resources that are already out there. As Dave Lester of the CHNM said create scholarship, not destinations.
  3. Apparently some digital projects that were created with public funds have since vanished behind pay walls! This is both obscene and easy to understand--as public money ran out and institutional support eroded, digital projects were adopted by commercial entities that could at least keep them alive. (I am eager to learn of specific examples of this phenomena, so email or tweet me or whatever if you know of any.)
  4. Humanities scholars working on digital projects should reach beyond their disciplines to their natural allies in libraries, museums, the genealogical community,  teachers, the open-source movement, and elsewhere.
  5. Michael Paulus of Whitman College made an important point: The Northwest needs a digital humanities center. Such a center could help prepare grant proposals, host meetings, form collaborative networks, sponsor digital projects, etc. We can start small--perhaps the center begins as an email list. Michael, I'm looking at you!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interview with Iraqi Archivist Saad Eskander

Archivists in the United States have to deal with declining budgets, political interference, and technological challenges--but we have it easy! Check out this fascinating interview with Saad Eskander, Director-General of Iraq’s National Library and Archives. He has worked to rebuild a scattered national archives admidst car-bombing, assassinations and kidnappings. His inspiring story comes via WBUR and NPR's On Point radio program with Tom Ashbrook.

Eskander seems to be doing a media tour to put pressure on the U.S. government to return some Iraqi documents taken after the war. You can read an Guardian profile of him here and his diary is online at the British Library.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Crowdsourcing Redux

In an amusing twist, Flickr user Heather Falk discovered my post "Lick This": LOC, Flickr, and the Limits of Crowd Sourcing and said hi (actually she said "LOL"). It was of course Falk who posted "lick this" to the forehead of a 1942 woman aircraft worker at the Library of Congress Flickr photostream, a comment that I held up as illustrating the limits of historical crowdsourcing. In any case, Falk has a Flickr photostream and appears to be a perfectly nice person with a cute cat.

This reminds me that I had promised to follow up with another post about crowdsourcing showing some of the triumphs of this approach. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

Historians Must Organize to Take Advantage of a Second Stimulus

Calls Grow for More Relief: "WASHINGTON – Eight months after enacting a massive economic stimulus package, the Obama administration is facing rising pressure from some congressional Democrats to move more aggressively to jump-start the moribund job market and try to spur a housing recovery."

If there is another stimulus, will history miss the boat again?

The last stimulus was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--and we blew it. Some of us on the fringes of the profession called for a new federal writers project. We noted that history was scanner ready. We envisioned hundreds of millions (of the hundreds of billions) of stimulus dollars flowing into oral history, digitization, historic preservation, and history education. Stimulus money spent on history would not need a year to eighteen months to hit the economy--we are ready to go. Give us a sack of dollars and a stack of unfunded NEH proposals from the past five years and we will get people to work by Christmas.

Why did we get nothing? Because our professional organizations failed us. So far as I know there was no effort by the OAH, the AHA, the NCPH, or any other history organization to rally its members for a major push for a share of the stimulus. They sat on their hands while lobbyists from the other sectors of the economy elbowed their way to the trough. (I apologize if I am mischaracterizing anyone here and welcome correction.)

It looks like we might be about to get a second chance. Will we sit on the sidelines again? I invite ideas on how to mobilize the historians, genealogists (who are legion after all), preservationists, and teachers to channel some stimulus money into history. How do we do this?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mapping Seattle's Lost Landscapes

Founded on Indian ground by American settlers in 1851, Seattle is one of the most dramatically engineered cities in the United States. Its shorelines have been extended, lagoons filled, hills flattened and rivers re-routed. Built on an active geological fault near a large volcano, Seattle has also been jolted by huge earthquakes, washed by tsunammis, covered by volcanic mud and ash, fluted by glaciers and edged by rising seas. Enter here to glimpse this history through The Waterlines Project.

This attractive site from the Burke Museum takes a geographical approach to Seattle history.  At the core of the project are some neat GIS layers of traditional and historical shorelines, rivers, and other geographic features along with historic maps and place marks for significant sites. But GIS and the web are like oil and water, so the maps are rendered in flash (at least that is what I think is going on). I am not fond of flash but this site is really well-done, at least once you give up on trying to download anything and realize that the right click is no longer what you think. Fortunately a Maps and Images section provides downloadable copies of many (though not all) of the images used in the flash site.

The Duwamish River section (I would link, but it's Flash so I can't) has the richest collection of map overlays. On a modern map of Seattle you can click boxes to superimpose important native sites, maps of the shoreline at different eras, and maps showing how the rivers have been rerouted. Each layer brings up new interpretive paragraphs and a map key.

Waterlines is an ongoing project and will be more than a website: "In planning stages now are physical exhibits to be placed at sites in downtown Seattle and electronic broadcasts to handheld devices." Sounds great!

[Top Image: Plan of city during Battle of Seattle, 1856, Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries Image number: 2002.3.54.]

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Story by Sherman Alexie

The current New Yorker has a magical story by Sherman Alexie, "War Dances." I won't try to describe the story, but it does contain this previously published poem by Alexie:

Mutually Assured Destruction

When I was nine, my father sliced his knee
With a chainsaw. But he let himself bleed
And finished cutting down one more tree
Before his boss drove him TO EMERGENCY.

Late that night, stoned on morphine and beer,
My father needed my help to steer
His pickup into the woods. “Watch for deer,”
My father said. “Those things just appear

Like magic.” It was an Indian summer
And we drove through warm rain and thunder,
Until we found that chainsaw, lying under
The fallen pine. Then I watched, with wonder,

As my father, shotgun-rich and impulse-poor,
Blasted that chainsaw dead. “What was that for?”
I asked. “Son,” my father said. “Here’s the score.
Once a thing tastes blood, it will come for more.”

Here is a brief interview with Alexie about his new book, War Dances.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What if the Apollo 11 Astronauts had Died?

One of the finest speeches that William Safire ever wrote for his boss Richard Nixon was never delivered. It was this contingency speech, prepared in July of 1969 in case something went wrong and the Apollo astronauts died on the moon.“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," the speech begins. "These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery.”

Wait--just Armstrong and Aldrin? What about the third Apollo crewman, Michael Collins?  Well Collins did not go down to the surface, he was to pilot the command module orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin took the lunar module down--and presumably back. But it was that last part that was considered tricky, as Safire explained in a fascinating 1999 essay: "The most dangerous part of the trip was not landing the little module on the moon, but in launching it back up to the mother ship. If that failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would have to ''close down communications'' and, as the world agonized, let the doomed astronauts starve to death or commit suicide."

This speech was rediscovered in 1999 and has been kicking around the internet ever since. I was inspired to post it here when I saw it over at the Teaching American History in SW Washington blog, which rightly points out that the speech is a great classroom resource.