Friday, December 30, 2011

The Internet Archive and the Beauties of Spokane

So I was playing around on the Internet Archive and discovered a few things. The Internet Archive is "a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. Its purposes include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format." It is a fabulous and growing resource. I have used items from the Internet Archive to post about the Grand Coulee Dam and an 1950s educational film about Lewis and Clark.

So what's new? First, there seems to be a lot more content, at least concerning Spokane, than a year or two ago. This includes a substantial number of volumes that are not on Google Books, such as the 1895 booklet The Beauties of Spokane (see below).

Second, there is something odd going on with images at the Internet Archive and Google Books. Take for example Durham's 1911 History of the City of Spokane. The Google Books version has the images that were included in the text, such as this Birdseye View of Spokane on page 3. Yet the image is missing from the Internet Archive scan of the same page. Why is that? I smell a copyright dispute...

Third, Internet Archive now has the very best tools for online reading and sharing of scanned print books of anyone. Check this out--an 1895 book, The Beauties of Spokane. The volume itself is quite rare--Google Books not only lacks a scan, it doesn't even know about the book. And the volume is a treasure trove of high-quality images of Spokane buildings, many now lost.  Check it out below:


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Recovering Memory in Joplin

From the Flickr group Lost Photos of Joplin
I taught in Joplin, Missouri for 12 years, from 1996 to 2008, and the town has been much on my mind this year since the devastating tornado on May 21st.  The loss of life and property were terrible, with 160 dead and in excess of $2 billion in property damage. The tornado tore a gash across the center of town, destroying 7000 homes and many of the people inside of them.

Lost Photos of Joplin
The tornado was also destructive to the history of Joplin. The twister missed the historic downtown and the local history museum, but it tore up many historic buildings (particularly residences). More damagingly, it destroyed the personal history of many of who survived. The tornado ripped the roofs off of houses and scattered possessions over miles, newspapers stories were full of tales of personal photographs, birth certificates, and family heirlooms being found in yards and fields for weeks. And the area was hit by drenching rains for days after the tornado, destroying the personal libraries and documents left unprotected in those shattered roofless homes.

Now an interesting virtual effort to reunite tornado survivors to their lost photographs has been launched a Facebook named Lost Photos of Joplin, MO Tornado. The idea is to use the social networking power of Facebook to allow volunteers to post photographs they found after the storm with the owners. There is also a website, Joplin Rescued Photos, and a Flickr group. Here is a Joplin newspaper story and an American Public Media radio piece about the effort. Photographs that were damaged in the storm can even be restored by the volunteers at Operation Photo Rescue.

What is most interesting to me is the decentralized but highly effective nature of the effort, made possible by social networking tools, the proliferation of scanners, and existing networks such as area churches and genealogical societies. The process will probably play out over years, and many of the photographs will never find their owners, but it is hard to imagine such an effort even taking place just a few years ago.

Don't Mind the Mess

I am playing around with the template, so this site may go through quite a few different looks before I settle on something. Wish I had saved the old one before I started!

Meanwhile, courtesy of my employer the Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, here is a mysterious 1888 death certificate from the frontier town of Spokane Falls, Washington Territory. Because I know you like that sort of thing:

I cannot find out anything more about this case online--there are no digitized newspapers for this period online. If you know anything, post it below!

Update: You guys are fast. A tip from the excellent Charles Hansen showed me that there are digitized newspapers from this period and I found an article about this case. Hansen writes the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society Blog, which often has valuable research tips for local and regional history.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Teaching American History Program Emergency

Today I received the following alarming message from the NCHE. The TAH program is on the verge of extinction.  Please call your representatives RIGHT NOW.

Dear Advocacy Team,

We need your help right away. The first report on the federal omnibus spending bill was released today and TAH funding for 2012 has been completely eliminated!

As you know, the House had already voted to defund the entire TAH program as part of Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R. California) Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act. Now, the Senate has decided that insofar as $46 million (the amount funded for 2011) would not fund all the 2012 continuation grants, that they would agree to eliminate the program!

The timing is extremely limited to get to our Senators and House members to fight for this. Congress will need to pass the compromise bill, or a short-term extension measure, by tomorrow to avoid a government shutdown. But, even though Democrats and Republicans have agreed to these numbers, the measure could face a rocky road because of political factors that have little to do with education spending.

So…. please act today.

1) Call your House and Senate members and ask them to restore funding for TAH in the omnibus compromise-spending bill. If you do not know their phone number, email me for that information or check

2) Email your House and Senate members and ask them to restore funding. Make sure to emphasize the impact of TAH not only upon teachers and students BUT also the economic impact to your state’s economy.


Spread the word! Let folks know that the future of TAH is at stake. To lose the funding will make it that much more difficult, if not impossible, to secure funding in the future of any history education professional development.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Beguiling History of the World via Paper Cutouts

Kalle Mattson - Thick As Thieves (Official Video) from Kevin Parry on Vimeo.
An arts and crafts history of the world.

Forgotten Highways and Historic Preservation

The Spokesman-Review recently had an interesting story and accompanying photo essay about attempts to revive interest in the the historic Three Flags Highway. Later known as US 395, this "Mother Road of the West" was first laid out in the 1920s and connected Canada to Mexico via eastern Washington, Oregon and California. The route was heavily promoted in the early days of auto tourism, particularly in California, with the saying "three countries one road." Today, according to the Spokesman, "historians in southern California are trying to revive the name as part of an effort to reclaim the motoring past."

The story got me thinking about how many economic revitalization schemes depend on history, and the role that historic highways can play in the process. As little towns across America look for some way to brand themselves and establish a public identity, they often reach into their past and heritage tourism. And there are so many historic highways that can be promoted. We all know about Route 66 but that route was a relative latecomer compared to the Lincoln Highway (see above, the first automobile route across America, established in 1913), the Jefferson Highway (Winnipeg to New Orleans, 1919), the Dixie Highway (Chicago to Miami, 1915) and a host of others.

Coordinating the interpretation of a historic highway is necessarily a difficult feat, involving hundreds of communities and their small museums and historic societies, multiple state historic societies, and city and state tourism offices. For the same reasons it makes a good grass roots public history project--markers, displays and commemorations can come into being one community at a time, with or without any broad formal plan.

Writing this post reminded me of a visit a few years ago to the surprisingly excellent Great Platte River Road Archway Museum in Nebraska. The innovative museum covers the history of transportation and travel along the river corridor from pre-contact times to the present.  The exhibit I liked best was a section depicting an auto campground along the Lincoln Highway in the 1920s. I wish I had taken more pictures:

This aspect of American history--life and travel along the early pre-war highways--seems relatively under-interpreted to me. I don't know of a major museum or museum exhibit on this fascinating era.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Simpsons on Graduate School

I promise this is the last post on this topic for a while, but this is too good not to share:


Monday, November 28, 2011

No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions

My recent post, Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor, was far more widely read than anything I have posted before (27,000 page views and counting). It provoked considerable discussion--not only in the comments section of this blog but also on Twitter, Facebook, and other blogs. Some excellent points were made and I thought I should address them in one place. Reactions fell into a few broad categories:

What, this again?

Yeah I heard that one before
Brian Sarnacki tweeted "Not sure the world needs another "don't go to grad school" article, but if it does here's one from @larrycebula..." Others pointed out that all of my points had been made before, with the best known examples being Thomas Benton's essay Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. I pretty much agree with this criticism. In fact I keep a few copies of Benton's essays in my desk to share with students contemplating a PhD. So why another "don't go to grad school" article? I guess because I feel like the situation is even worse than Benton and other have presented, and because my students need the reminder.

"stark but truthful picture of the higher education job market"

The bulk of the reactions were similar to the above comment from Ted Schwab. An old friend from grad school emailed to say that her program had added the post to the assigned readings for incoming MA students. Digital history guru Dan Cohen called it "depressing but sage advice." Thanks, guys.

The Opportunity Costs Debate

I was properly called out for my offhand remark that the opportunity costs of a humanities PhD are "over a million dollars." I should admit this was a wild guesstimate on my part--but I am not sure I was wrong. In a thoughtful reply to my post, Sean Takats calculated his own opportunity cost. Takats gave up a well-paid job at IBM to pursue a history Ph.D. and in six years sacrificed by his calculation $450,000 in earnings.  But his calculation is incomplete, not taking into account the investments he might have made it that time (IRAs, home equity, etc.) and how those investments might have appreciated from that time until his retirement. He also does not calculate the differential between what he makes now as a professor and the larger amount he would be making had he stayed in the IT field. If you add those up, surely we are well over a million dollars.

"Charlie Brown, aren't you going
to the AHA this year?"
But wait, you say, very few humanities PhD students are walking away from a job at IBM. A better starting point is average starting salary of someone with a fresh B.A. in history--provided they can find a job at all in this economy. Zachary Schrag does the math and comes up with $120,000 in opportunity costs for a six-year doctoral program--but again, he is calculating only the lost wages for those years.

Of course, many college graduates are not finding work at all right now. For them, a fully-funded grad school gig is far better than moving back home with the parents. One person commenting about my post on another discussion board (unfortunately I cannot find the link) said that I did not understand the realities of the economy right now. He said he was a new college grad and was back at the crappy job he had right after high school and for the same money. A fair point. But even for those students, surely the economy will recover in the better part of a decade they would spend in grad school.

My Students Can Too Be Professors! They are Special.

Source of poor career advice
(Alternate version: I am special.) Part of the reason the job market is so overcrowded is the many professors who continue to urge impressionable young people to "follow your dreams!" without offering any realistic advice about this career path. Every department has a couple such professors, usually very popular with students. I was recently trying to warn a student about the odds in pursuing an academic career. She listened for a bit and then shut down. "I rely on Professor Sparkle Pony for career advice," she said. Good luck with that.

Holger Syme takes on my post point-by-point to argue Yes, You Can be a Professor--but his only argument is that since he overcame great odds and became a professor, his students can too. Sean Takats properly calls this response "a textbook example of survivorship bias." Takats quotes Wikipedia: "Sur­vivor­ship bias can lead to overly opti­mistic beliefs because fail­ures are ignored […] It can also lead to the false belief that the suc­cesses in a group have some spe­cial prop­erty, rather than being just lucky." This is a better explanation of the point I made in my post, that asking professors if you should go to grad school in history is "like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket." Nate Kreuter expanded on this point with a column over at Inside Higher Ed titled You Aren't the Exception.

We Need to Reform Humanities Ph.D. Programs

I like it that a lot of commenters thought that the job market was in part a symptom of the wretchedness of current history PhD programs--which in this country take an average of nine freakin' years to complete, have terrible drop-out rates, and with few exceptions are focused exclusively on preparing one for a career as an academic historian at a research-focused university. There is a lot to say on this topic and I will reserve my ideas for a later post.

"You are a world class ass"
A substantial subset of readers think I am a jerk. "I'm not a professor, but your condescending know-it-all tone further confirms how lucky I am to have chosen a career path outside of academia," one anonymous commenter wrote. "It's nice to not have to deal with pompous a$$hats all the time." I didn't even realize that my mother read my blog! Others described the post as "snotty," "tinged with condescension," "shortsighted" etc. etc.

They may have a point. Yet I do not like giving the advice in "No, You Cannot be a Professor." I have any number of students who would make great history professors, given the chance. But realistically they will never have that chance, and I have a responsibility to tell them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

For New Readers: Northwest History's Greatest Hits

Adolph Wolgast (LOC)
 Ever have a blog post go viral? Me neither--until this week, when Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor received 11,000 visits in 48 hours. Modest traffic by internet standards, but a major event here at Northwest History, where I usually get 50-200 visits per day. The post generated a lot of discussion and I will post some follow-up thoughts soon. For new readers in the meantime, here are some recent posts that might be of interest:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor

[Note: In response to the interest generated by this post I have also posted No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions and For New Readers: Northwest History's Greatest Hits.]

[2014 Update: So what can you do with your history degree? My friend and former student Lee Nilsson offers some great tips in No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories.]

In a way it is the greatest compliment a student can give. I ask them what they want to do with their history degree. They get all passionate and earnest and vulnerable as they answer, "I want your job. I am going to be a college professor!" Then they turn their smiling faces towards me, expectantly awaiting my validation and encouragement of their dreams. And I swallow hard, and I tell them....

No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen. The sooner you accept this the better.

This is not because you are not bright enough. You are plenty bright. In any case, finishing a Ph.D. program is more a matter of persistence than intelligence. The reason you are not going to be a professor is because that job is going away, and yet doctoral programs continue to produce as many new Ph.D.s as ever. It is a simple calculation of odds--you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

First, let's look at the odds. Tenure track jobs are declining. The AHA recently reported that "The number of job openings in history plummeted last year, even as the number of new history PhDs soared. As a result, it appears the discipline is entering one of the most difficult academic job markets for historians in more than 15 years." And the job market was terrible 15 years ago. Very few of the people in history PhD programs right now are going to get teaching jobs--the Economist recently concluded that "doing a PhD is often a waste of time."

Not you.
Ah, but you say, I am special. I am a 4.0 student (except in your class where you gave me that 3.8 and ruined my life). Every teacher since kindergarten has told me how delightfully clever I am. I have interesting ideas and I really really love history. I know how hard it is to become a professor, but I am willing to work hard, so those odds do not apply to me.

Yes they do. The thing about grad school is that everyone else is at least as special as you, and most of them are more so. They all had 4.0 GPAs, they all have gone through life in the same insulating cocoon of praise, they all really, really love history. Hell, some of them shoot rainbows out of their butts and smell like a pine forest after a spring rain--and they mostly aren't going to get jobs either.

I know that some of your other professors are encouraging your dreams of an academic career. It is natural to turn to your professors for advice on becoming a professor, and it natural for them to want to see you succeed. Remember though that we 1) mostly have not been on the job market lately and 2) in any case are atypical Ph.D.s in that we did land tenure track positions. To return to the lottery analogy, it is like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket. For our part, there is a lot of professional satisfaction in mentoring some bright young person, encouraging their dreams, writing them letters of recommendation and bragging of their subsequent acceptance into a good doctoral program. Job market? What job market?

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promises to provide education with far fewer teachers--and whether you buy into this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won't be that lucky.
Also not you.

For a more accurate gauge of the job market speak with some of the people you find adjuncting at your university.  Ask them about the pay and benefits they get for the hours worked--most are earning little more than minimum wage with no benefits. Or head over to the well of bitterness and despair that is Adjunct Nation, and peruse the articles on topics such as Avoiding Freeway Flyer Burnout or Kent State Faculty Senate Opposes Collective Bargaining For Part-time Faculty. This a far more likely vision of your future than is the happy mid-career faculty member who biked to work yesterday and met you in her sunny office with the pictures of her European vacation on the wall.

Finally, I want to look at one factor that is too-little addressed in these discussions: the opportunity costs spending 6-10 years preparing for a career that, even in the event of your actually landing a tenure-track job somewhere (and again, that is not going to happen) will leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole compared to your friends who started professional careers right out of their undergrad program. In six years you could have entered a career, risen to mid-rank, bought a house, and had your IRA off to a healthy beginning. If you go on for a PhD, instead you will find yourself with student loan payments equivalent of a home mortgage but no home (and no equity), no retirement savings, and banking on the thin chance of landing a job in some part of the country usually only seen on American Pickers. The opportunity costs are at least a million dollars. You don't care now, because you are young, but you will.

So no, my bright-eyed young scholar, you are not going to be a history professor. That is not to say that you cannot work with history. There are some great jobs in public history--working for local government, or federal agencies, or museums, or as an independent contractor, or a hundred other things. These jobs are also competitive and hard to break into, but there are more of them and you only need an MA. Or you could get certified and teach history in the public schools--again, quite competitive but not nearly so much as college teaching. Good luck!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tacky Events at Public History Sites?

Here is a slick little video from the Public History program at Temple University about Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the annual haunted prison event there:

Eastern State Penitentiary is the most important prison museum in the United States, respected for its programs and the quality of its interpretation as well as the historic significance of the building. It is also home to the annual Terror Behind the Walls event where this nationally-significant historic site is turned into a fun house entertainment.

This Philadelphia Weekly article goes deeper into the controversy over the exhibit, which even Program Director XX admits "compromises the mission" of the museum. According to the article the event used to be much worse than it is now:

In the mid-’90s, “Terror”—which brought in new consultants to conceptualize the haunt—started transforming from the creepy candlelight tours of the first few years to something far more outrageous and sensationalized, with its actors recreating scenes specific to the prison’s history: Women crying because they’d been raped. Prisoners going crazy and climbing the walls due to the unyielding solitary confinement that the prison’s Quaker founders believed would cause inmates to reflect and repent their misdeeds. And a man standing on the roof stabbing himself, fake blood spurting all over the place.

The article also notes that Terror Behind the Walls is "a crucial cash cow" that "generated 65 percent" of the museums $4 million budget last year. I am shocked that a haunted house event could produce that much revenue--good for them!

I am interested in similar events--are there other historic sites that make compromises to host popular events in return for revenue and public support?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Advice for Academic Bloggers

I recently received an email from a professor who want to start a professional blog. "What advice would you give about having a blog?" she asked. "Is there anything you wished you knew at the start? Anything you did and wished you hadn't? What are the best ways to get out the word about the blog?"

My usual answer to would-be blogger: "Try standing in the garage and talking to yourself for twenty minutes a day. If you find it satisfying, you might also enjoy writing a history blog."

That answer is too flippant--and wrong. I began this blog with no particular expectations of readership or impact.  And Northwest History remains a small fish in the blogging world--even in the history blogging world. I am sure that I do not receive a fraction of the readers that Kevin Levin enjoys over at Civil War Memory or that read AHA Today. But this blog has brought me a modest professional reputation in my field, some interesting collaborations with people whom I have met through the blog, and serves as a resource for my students. At history conferences someone usually comes up to me and introduces themselves as a reader--perhaps the only one at the conference, but still. And when I went up for tenure this year I presented this blog as a work of public history scholarship and my Cliopatria award as peer review. I received tenure. Not bad for something I began on a whim in 2007.

Four years is a long time for a blog to remain active--it is like a century in dog years or something. A lot of what I considered my peer history blogs when I began aren't around anymore (others are still going strong). What have I learned in four years? My mission statement covers some of this ground. Here is my advice:
  1. Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation. 
  2. Don't make it about you. Blogging about your academic work is fine, but if you find yourself posting pictures of your cats, it is time to retire from academic blogging.
  3. Don't make it about politics. It is so tempting to become political--what the hell is wrong Eric Cantor anyway?! And political posts will get you an audience more quickly that anything else you could do. But the political quickly drives out the historical, and soon you are running a miniature version of the Daily Kos
  4. When you have an idea for a post, go ahead and start it. Save it as a draft and come back later. The 'Blog This' browser button helps you get a fast start to a new post. 
  5. Not every post needs to be an essay in miniature. Sometimes sharing a video or a new online resource requires only a few words of introduction. Blog posts should be pithy.
  6. Share what you are working on. The other day I posted a brief letter from William F. Cody that I had just transcribed, along with a video clip I found online.
  7. Don't expect comments. According to Google Analytics I have a readership. 35,000 people visited Northwest History last year (either that or 1 person 35,000 times--same thing right?). Most of these people came here on purpose-my leading referrals are from Facebook and Twitter and other history blogs. But I don't get 100 comments a year. 
  8. Try to keep a semi-regular posting schedule. My Google calendar nudges me to post something twice a week. 
  9. It is OK to stop. A blog is not a lifelong obligation. With a blog as in life, when you run out of things to say you should stop talking.
  10. I don't have any insights into promoting your blog beyond the usual advice--comment on related blogs, put the URL in your email signature, and sign up with a service that automatically published your new posts to Facebook and Twitter (I use Networked Blogs).
  11. Have fun! When blogging begins to feel like a chore, your days are numbered. (See #9.)
Do you have an academic blog? Tell me about it in the comments.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How History Gets Rewritten

This is very funny but there is also an actual historical point to be made. (Warning--vulgar language):

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Event: Historic Cemeteries of Spokane County

The Spokane Valley Heritage Museum is sponsoring a talk/fundraiser, “Historic Cemeteries of Spokane County” presented by John Caskey on Saturday, November 12th. The talk will take place at the Opportunity Presbyterian Church at North 202 Pines in Spokane Valley. The event is from 11:30am-1:00pm and the cost is $20 ($15 for seniors). The museum asks that your RSVP at (509) 922-4570.

This is an interesting event for a good cause. John Caskey is the historian on staff at the Fairmont Memorial Association,  which maintains some of the most historic burial sites in Spokane. Caskey recently spoke to one of my history classes at EWU and it was a treat.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Creepy Vintage Halloween Pictures

Modern Halloween is a holiday full of fake chills--plastic vampire teeth, puny fog machines, and pumpkins carved to look like Simpsons characters. You grandparents, on the other hand, knew how be really scary. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Burton Holmes Archive of 20th Century Travel Films

Check out this charming silent travel film of a 1920-something visit to Glacier National Park:

The film is part of the Burton Holmes Archive:

The Burton Holmes Archive is the world’s largest repository of films, photographs, programs, scrapbooks, and other ephemera related to the life and career of Burton Holmes, the “Father of the Travelogue”, and that of his cameraman and associate, Andre de la Varre.  If you’d like to see more of this collection, take a look at our Photostream, our Photo Sets, or watch a slideshow of the entire collection. In addition, you can watch films made by Holmes at: Burton Holmes Films, as well as those by de la Varre at Andre de la Varre Films.

The above film appears to be the only one from the Northwest, however there is also a film of a 1920s visit to the Grand Canyon (check out the clothes on the tourists!) and such exotic destinations as Bits of Life In Japan 1920s or Nine Glories of Paris - 1920s. The casual racism of some of the captions are striking to the modern eye (the Japanese entertainers are "charmingly childlike") but overall the films are striking and intimate glimpses into the world of 90 years ago.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Two Sides of Buffalo Bill

For the last two years I have been an Associate Editor at the William F. Cody Papers Project. The goal of this project is to encourage scholarship and public understanding of William F. Cody--Buffalo Bill to most of us. Cody was the most famous American in the world for much of his life, and you can explore nearly any topic in late-19th century history through the lens of the Wild West, from the formation of gender to transportation to white-Indian relations.

Part of the project is to gather together as much of the vast contemporary writing by and about Cody that we can. There is also a YouTube channel for sharing video as we find it--such as this snippet below:


My current project within the Papers is to gather and edit the writings of Cody's business partner Nate Salsbury. Viewing the Wild West through Salsbury's eyes is showing me that Cody was a hard guy to work with. Below is my preliminary transcription of a letter that William F. Cody wrote to Salsbury in 1884. I have not yet located the letter by Salsbury to which Cody was responding, but you can get the idea:

My Dear Salsbury, 

 Your very sensable [sic] & truly rightful letter has just been read. And it has been the means of showing me just where I stand. And I solemnly promise you that after this you will never see me under the influence of liquor [.] I may have to take two or three drinks to day to brace up. That will be all as long as we are partners. I appreciate all you have done [.] Your judgement and business is good. And from this on I will do my work to the letter. This drinking surely ends today. And your pard will be himself. And be on deck all the time. 

 Yours always, W.F. Cody

[The original letter is at the Yale Beinecke Library]

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mark Twain, Failed Blogger?

Roughing It has long been my favorite work by Mark Twain.  Of his autobiographical works, it is more mature and less contrived than Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad, more vital than Following the Equator, and less sloppy than his Autobiography. For some reason the following passage, about his brief stint as an editorial writer for the Territorial Enterprise, has been stuck in my head for years. Tonight I recalled the passage again and suddenly realized--he sounds like a struggling blogger:

    In the Editorial Chair 

     I wanted a change. I wanted variety of some kind. It came. Mr. Goodman went away for a week and left me the post of chief editor. It destroyed me. The first day, I wrote my "leader" in the forenoon. The second day, I had no subject and put it off till the afternoon. The third day I put it off till evening, and then copied an elaborate editorial out of the "American Cyclopedia," that steadfast friend of the editor, all over this land. The fourth day I "fooled around" till midnight, and then fell back on the Cyclopedia again. The fifth day I cudgeled my brain till midnight, and then kept the press waiting while I penned some bitter personalities on six different people. The sixth day I labored in anguish till far into the night and brought forth--nothing. The paper went to press without an editorial. The seventh day I resigned. On the eighth, Mr. Goodman returned and found six duels on his hands--my personalities had borne fruit.

Twain being a bad ass (1901)

     Nobody, except he has tried it, knows what it is to be an editor. It is easy to scribble local rubbish, with the facts all before you; it is easy to clip selections from other papers; it is easy to string out a correspondence from any locality; but it is unspeakable hardship to write editorials. Subjects are the trouble--the dreary lack of them, I mean. Every day, it is drag, drag, drag--think, and worry and suffer--all the world is a dull blank, and yet the editorial columns must be filled. Only give the editor a subject, and his work is done--it is no trouble to write it up; but fancy how you would feel if you had to pump your brains dry every day in the week, fifty-two weeks in the year. It makes one low spirited simply to think of it. The matter that each editor of a daily paper in America writes in the course of a year would fill from four to eight bulky volumes like this book! Fancy what a library an editor's work would make, after twenty or thirty years' service. Yet people often marvel that Dickens, Scott, Bulwer, Dumas, etc., have been able to produce so many books. If these authors had wrought as voluminously as newspaper editors do, the result would be something to marvel at, indeed. How editors can continue this tremendous labor, this exhausting consumption of brain fibre (for their work is creative, and not a mere mechanical laying-up of facts, like reporting), day after day and year after year, is incomprehensible. Preachers take two months' holiday in midsummer, for they find that to produce two sermons a week is wearing, in the long run. In truth it must be so, and is so; and therefore, how an editor can take from ten to twenty texts and build upon them from ten to twenty painstaking editorials a week and keep it up all the year round, is farther beyond comprehension than ever. Ever since I survived my week as editor, I have found at least one pleasure in any newspaper that comes to my hand; it is in admiring the long columns of editorial, and wondering to myself how in the mischief he did it!

EWU History Department Offering Prize

The History Department at EWU is running competition for high school students, Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Thanks to a generous private donor, there are cash prizes for $400, $300, $200 and $100. This is the first year of what we hope will be an annual contest in historical writing for regional high school students.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Notes Towards a Guidebook for Attending Scholarly Conferences

What are your rules of thumb when you go to a scholarly conference? In recent years I have done a fair bit of conference-going and I think I have it partially figured out. Some of my rules are:
Do not approach
  • Leverage the technology to improve your conference experience. Twitter is a powerful (and for history conferences, under-utilized) tool to extend scholarly discussions and also to meet people.
  • Bring a graduate student or two to the conference if you can. Encourage your institution to fund graduate student travel, even if they are not presenting. "As long as grad students keep showing up this organization has a future,” a friend told me.
  • Avoid round tables, plenaries, “wither our field” sessions, and other sessions where the presenters are allowed to talk about themselves, because they will talk about nothing else. Some academics see the world as a movie in which they are both the star and narrator. Ugh. 
  • On a related note, don't try to approach or make eye contact with the senior scholars in your discipline--the silver backs. Though they might be nice enough if you met them anywhere else, at the disciplinary conference they must stay focused on their elaborate rituals--chest-thumping, mating displays, and grooming one another's luxurious academic coats.
  • Also to be avoided are panels where all of the presenters are linked by a single institution or all of the presenters are graduate students.
  • When in doubt, sit in back near the door so you can skip out to a different session.
  • If you don’t know many people at the conference, the breakfasts, luncheons, and banquets are a good if expensive way to meet some. But once you have attended a few years, it is more productive and fun to go out to dinner with your conference friends. 
  • Dine arounds are good. A dine around is where a set of lists are created according to sub-disciplinary interest--women's history, mining history, advanced footnoting--and folks sign up to go to dinner with the group. If the conference organizers do not set this up you can do it yourself and put the word out through your disciplinary mailing list.
  • Stay in the conference hotel if you possibly can. A lot of the best networking happens in the elevator, the book displays, and the conference bar. And by networking I mean drinking.
  • Some presses sell their display copies of books at a steep discount on the last day of the conference--thought I don't see this as often as I used to.
  • Explore the city! Don't hesitate to blow off the afternoon sessions and rent a bicycle or something. When you are on your deathbed you will not say "If only I had listened to more historians read their papers out loud!"
What about you guys--what are your conference rules of the road?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Western History Association Conference in Oakland

I am in Oakland for the WHA conference. I love this organization. The WHA is one of the more vital scholarly organizations--by the way such things are normally measured. Attendance at the meetings is good, the journal comes out on schedule and with interesting articles, and...

Well, that is it. Like most of our professional organizations, the WHA consists almost entirely of a conference and a journal. Its members include academic historians and a scattering of other history professionals such as Park Service historians, archivists, and editors.

There was some discussion at last night's plenary session about the disappearance of history buffs from the organization in the last decade or so. Nobody was sure where they have gone, but we were assured that they are fine. I think they are living on a farm in the countryside or something.

Maybe this is not a problem--there is tremendous value in historians talking with other historians. I certainly enjoy learning what my friends and colleagues are working on, in formal sessions and hallway conversations and drinks at the hotel bar. ($10 for drink!) I just wish we were a part of the public of the public conversation about western history. There is a huge public interest in what we do.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Digital History in the Public History News

Posted: Visualizing US expansion through post offices. from Derek Watkins on Vimeo.

Public History News is the newsletter of the National Council on Public History. Back issues are here. A regular feature of the newsletter is "Worth Another Look," which offers capsule introductions to various articles and public history projects. In the latest issue it is striking to me how many of the public history projects are digital projects. Some interesting examples:

  • The World Memory Project is a partnership between the Holocaust Museum and to utilize volunteers to index some of the museums 170 million documents. So far 3000 volunteers have indexed over 600,000 records. 
  • Speaking of Crowdsourcing, Scripto is "a lightweight, open source tool that allows users to contribute transcriptions to online documentary projects." It is the latest digital tool from the folks who brought us Zotero and Omeka.
  • Visualizing US Expansion through Post Offices (seen above) is a straightforward project that scraped some public databases and added some computer magic to create a neat video showing what we might dub the Post Office Frontier. The link in this paragraph will take you to an interactive map where you can sort the results by date range and zoom in on a region. Did you know that the first PO in eastern Washington was established at Colville in 1862?
  • What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library is an Atlantic Magazine article that highlights how the library is doing "some of the most innovative online projects in the country." These include "Biblion, a storytelling app whose iPad icon features the lion head, is the flashiest of these efforts...Then there is the library's slick crowdsourcing projects, which allow users to digitize beautiful old menus from New York's restaurants and plot historical maps of the city onto the GPS-enabled digital maps of today. Both projects are both useful and feature user interfaces that best most commercial crowdsourcing applications. The library is even improving its basic infrastructure to keep pace with the big social networks, announcing this week that they are launching a new log-in system through Bibliocommons that will bring simplified and more powerful catalog and account services to the library's users.
  • 4Humanities is a Canadian digital humanities site offering digital tools, news, and a valuable Humanities Showcase.
A few years ago I was at a ThatCamp where one of the participants proudly announced that "Public History is Digital History!" This is a silly overstatement. But it might not be too much to say that Digital History is Public History.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Shushwap Films about Native Culture

I don't know much about this excellent short film of a native elder giving a tour of a Plateau winter house.  A series of similar films were uploaded to YouTube by user SCES about a year ago. The films look to me like they were made a few decades ago and have been converted to digital. From internal evidence they were made by members of the Sushwap Nation. If anyone knows more, please tell tell me!

In any case, the films are wonderful--straightforward tribal-centered descriptions of various aspects of traditional life on the northern Plateau. Subjects include Tanning a Hide, Smoking Salmon, Making Moccasins, and Secwepemc Worldview. There are ten of these films in all. They would make a great addition to any educational unit on the native peoples of the Columbia Plateau. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Data Visualization: Journalism's Voyage West | Rural West Initiative

The Growth of US Newspapers, 1690-2011 from Geoff McGhee on Vimeo. Here is neat project from the Rural West Initiative at Stanford: Data Visualization: Journalism's Voyage West
. The patterns are about what you would expect--newspapers spread west with white settlement, filling in the rural areas for most of the 20th century, and declining in those same areas in recent decades. Clicking on the circles links you to the relevant page over at the Library of Congress's Chronicling America website, from which the data is drawn. It is a fun site to play around with and familiarize yourself with the history of newspapers in your region.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What was the Odor of Early Spokane?

...or anywhere else? This newspaper article about history and smell has been making the rounds. “It seems remarkable to me that we live in the world where we have all the senses to navigate it, yet somehow we assume that the past was scrubbed of smells,” says "sensory historian" Mark Smith. The article discusses current attempts to preserve, for example, the scents of certain endangered plants. It also discusses the difficulty of reconstructing the olfactory worlds of our ancestors. The latter relies on written accounts, chemical traces, and a lot of educated guesswork.

The nose knows, or knew
The article made me wonder if it is possible to know the odors of early Spokane? A quick search through the Google News Archive for Spokane turned up hundreds of stories with the keywords "smell," "odor," and "scent." After sorting out the advertisements and articles clipped from other newspapers, we do get some hints:

  • An 1894 article reported that some of the milk sold in Spokane "smelled like a stable" and was "full of dirt." Bad meat was often detected by its foul odor. A typical article was titled "It Didn't Smell Nice" and documented the discovery and destruction of a entire warehouse full of rotting bacon and hams in downtown Spokane.
  • Stories about alcohol often mention smell, usually as a means of detecting when someone had been drinking. In 1895 Spokane Fire Chief Winebrenner was being investigated for drinking on the job with testimony from various citizens who apparently were asked if they had smelled liquor on his breath. No wonder a 1909 advertisement for a patent medicine to cure drunkenness promised that users would "look better, fell better, and smell better" upon taking the cure.
  • Similarly, a teacher in Indian Prairie was fired when his students detected the smell of tobacco about him.
  • An 1896 Chinese New Year celebration was notable to the American reporter as much for its scents as its sights, including the large quantities of incense and the delicious smells of the exotic food. Yet a few weeks earlier the Chinese quarter or Spokane was described as "Vile Dens of Vice." The article continued: "In every place entered the air was reeking with the foul smell arising from the fumes of opium and the crowded condition of the ill-ventilated rooms."
  • On the other hand, two culinarily-challenged Spokane police officers in 1912 falsely arrested two black residents when the policemen mistook "the smell of garlic cooking with a roast in the oven" for opium smoke. The article dwells on one of the arrested pair, "Phil Chapman, colored dandy." In an apparent effort to justify his suspicions, Officer Edwards "declared that Chapman, a negro barber from Butte, had the finest trunk and array of clothing he had ever seen carried about by a black man." 
  • One also finds a greater use of bad smells as a metaphor than is common today. Judges would "smell out evil" while the Italian government was "in bad odor." The greater use of such language suggest that smell was a more important part of the sensory landscape than it is today.
  • There were good smells as well. A 1916 article "Spring, Lovely, Smelly Spring" enumerated the intoxicating scents: "There is the pleasing smell of wet asphalt and damp earth after a shower or sprinkling. From the river comes air cooled by the spray from the falls. From Hangman Valley the south wind breathes a perfume that no laboratory but nature's could mix..."
Not a cookie jar, despite what the
tag at the antique store might say.

Since newspapers only publish items considered newsworthy, they are a very imperfect source for discovering the smells of early Spokane. Photographs of the early city show a steady stream of horses on most streets, we know that bathing and clothes washing were less common than today, and chamber pots were a common household appliance. These were typical smells, and have to be added to list of atypical smells that produced news stories. Newspapers are only the beginning of exploring the history of smells.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Briefly Noted

These items seem worthy of further investigation. So get to it and report back here:
  • WhatWasThere (see below) is a website (and iPhone app) that allows users to put historical photos on a Google map. It is not all that different than HistoryPin or similar services, but has a superior interface that integrates Google Street View to give you instant "before and after" views. Play with the slider on the image below!

  • My local newspaper the Spokesman Review now has a good local history tag. Local history is a staple of many newspapers and the reporting is often quite good, but finding the articles can be a chore. Glad to see this.

So, what are you reading?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lessons in Reciprocity: The Return of a Clatsop Canoe

It seems some descendants of the explorer William Clark have donated a replacement canoe for one their ancestor stole from the Clatsops in 1806. "Some of Clark’s descendants and a few donors stepped forward to pay for the canoe, which was custom built in Veneta, Ore. The five-hour ceremony on Saturday included songs, gift exchanges and the maiden voyage of the replica canoe. Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Nation’s tribal council, said the return of the canoe is a 'good place to begin healing.'”

"Hopefully this will lift that family
curse I told you kids about."
The theft is rather a famous incident in stories of the Corps of Discovery, and is related by even the most shameless hagiographers as an example of something bad that the Captains did to the Indians along their path. The finest historian of the expedition, Jim Ronda, calls the incident "a blot on the expedition's honor." The theft was planned in advance, as related by Clark in the expedition's journal for March 17, 1806:

we have had our perogues prepared for our departer, and shal set out as soon as the weather will permit. the weather is so precarious that we fear by waiting untill the first of April that we might be detained several days longer before we could get from this to the Cathlahmahs as it must be calm or we cannot accomplish that part of our rout. Drewyer returned late this evening from the Cathlahmahs with our canoe which Sergt. Pryor had left some days since, and also a canoe which he had purchased from those people. for this canoe he gave my uniform laced coat and nearly half a carrot of tobacco. it seems that nothing excep this coat would induce them to dispose of a canoe which in their mode of traffic is an article of the greatest val[u]e except a wife, with whom it is equal, and is generally given in exchange to the father for his daughter. I think the U' States are indebted to me another Uniform coat, for that of which I have disposed on this occasion was but little woarn.— we yet want another canoe, and as the Clatsops will not sell us one at a price which we can afford to give we will take one from them in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter.

You can see the need for self-justification in Clark's writings: "in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter." Historians often point to the incident as a product of the troublesome and declining relationship the Corps had with the coastal peoples over the long winter, "part of a larger pattern of growing distrust of Indian relations" as William Lang describes it.

This is true but I would go a step farther to say that the theft of the canoe by the Americans might be read not as a rejection of native rights but rather an adoption of native trading patterns. Anthropologists describe native trade as taking place within rules that were determined by the level of reciprocity between the two parties. If you were on good terms with the other party (or wished to be on good terms) the exchange would often be framed in terms of gifts. One party might give another party something of value as a gift, but with the unspoken assumption that a gift of equal value would be forthcoming from the recipient. (Whites often missed this lat part.) This is called generalized reciprocity.

"This canoe? We, uh, we found it. Yeah, found it."
If you were on neutral terms with the other party, it was traditional to haggle over the exchange. This process is called balanced reciprocity and most closely resembles trade as understood by 19th century Americans. Under balanced reciprocity, each side drove the hardest bargain it could. Thus the explorers were forced to part with a "uniform laced coat and nearly half a carrot of tobacco" for one canoe.

Hardest for the modern reader (and Americans of the time) to understand is the exchange of goods that took place between peoples who were on bad or distrustful terms. This negativity reciprocity resembled stealing. Heck, it was stealing, but it was also more than that. If you were on bad terms with another tribe you might steal their horses or food caches or whatever. At the same time, you might want to keep the door open to future trade, and so you might leave something of value behind, or make good the theft with some items of value at some point in the future. The Clatsop had been introducing the Americans to the concept of negative reciprocity the entire winter by pilfering small goods from the explorers and hardly bothering to cover it up.

Equals six elk.
An example is the aforementioned Case of the Purloined Elk. In February some Clatsops took the freshly killed animals from an American cache. When the captains complained to Chief Coboway about the stolen ungulates, he sent the expedition three tasty live dogs. (It is to be noted that some members of the expedition particularly savored dog meat, and the the Corps consumed at least 200 dogs on their two-year journey.) This is a classic exampled of negative reciprocity in action.

Did the Clatsops interpret the theft of their canoe as an example of negative reciprocity? There is some suggestive evidence that they did. In 1814 the Clatsops were visited by a new set of imperialists, the British Northwest Company. When Chief Coboway met with expedition leader Alexander Henry (to return some British goods that Indian people had stolen), the Indian leader produced a certificate of good conduct that Lewis and Clark had left with him. That Cobaway apparently valued this certificate enough to have kept it all that time, and considered it worth producing to the British trader, may indicate that he considered the Americans not so much thieves as troublesome trading partners.

Henry, an experienced hand in the fur trade, gave the chief some clothes, and "gave him a writing in lieu of the American one, which I threw in the fire before him."  Unlike Lewis and Clark, Alexander Henry understood the rules of reciprocity.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How many photos have ever been taken?

How many photos have ever been taken? About 3.5 trillion according to Jonathan Good, in a fascinating piece. I particularly liked this graphic of the world's largest photo libraries:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hacking the Academy, a Publishing Experiment

A brief essay of mine has appeared in a new volume, Hacking the Academy. I am excited because this is not just a book but an experiment in digital publishing, backed by some of the most respected names and institutions in the field of digital humanities.

Hacking the Academy is edited by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. In May of 2010 they used social media networks to put out a call for contributions to the volume, giving would-be contributors only a week to submit their essays, "the better to focus their attention and energy." They received "329 submissions from 177 authors, with nearly a hundred submissions written during the week-long event and the other two-thirds submitted by authors from their prior writing on the subject matter." One-sixth of the submissions were accepted for the volume, including my "How to Read a Book in One Hour."

Hacking the Academy is interesting for both its content and its approach to publication. The content focuses on "how the academy might be beneficially reformed using digital media and technology," particularly "writing that moved beyond mere complaints about the state of the academy into shrewd diagnoses and potential solutions." The essays are organized into three broad categories: "Hacking Scholarship," "Hacking Teaching," and "Hacking Institutions." The essays alternate between provocative big-picture, "this is how we ought to start doing things" pieces (such as David Parry's Burn the Boats/Books and Jo Gildi's terrific "Reinventing the Academic Journal") and more immediately practical pieces such as "Unconferences," a how-to guide by Ethan Watrall, James Calder, and Jeremy Boggs.

Hacking the Academy will be published in two ways--a free, digital publication available right now and a forthcoming print edition. The publisher is the University of Michigan Press, via their digitalculturebooks imprint. UM Press attracted a lot of attention when they announced a shift to predominantly digital publishing in 2009. The digitalculturebooks series now features over two dozen titles, available online and in print as either cloth of paper editions.

Hacking the Academy is something of a test case for a new model of producing a scholarly anthology. Coming out under the imprimatur of some of the most respected names and institutions in digital humanities, and with an timely topic and high-quality content, this book should have an impact. It will be interesting to see if the work is adopted in classrooms, cited in the literature, blogged and tweeted and run through the social networks. It will also be interesting to see if people will buy print editions of what they could read online for free.

If this is successful it could be a first step into a new publishing world.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Brief Exploration of the History of Post Offices of Rural Washington

Former PO  in St. Andrews, WA (photo by Panoramio user Chris Metz)
The U.S. Postal Service is in crisis right now. The most frequent cost-cutting proposal is to close thousands of rural post offices. The proposal has led to a spate of stories from little towns across America who protest that in many cases the Post Office is the only thing keeping the town alive.

You can explore the rise and fall of rural post offices in the Northwest online. Maps of postal routes were common. For example, compare this 1897 map (at the Washington State Library) and this 1905 map (at Washington State University). Let's zoom in on a section of rural eastern Washington:

This 1897 map show the prevalence of POs in some of tiny hamlets of the Columbia Plateau.
Just 8 years later in 1905 some of the locations have changed.
A handful of 1897 post offices such as Buckingham and Ophir have disappeared by 1905, but many additional POs (Mansfield, Withrow, Mold) have been created as the countryside filled in. The Great Northern Railroad reached Douglas County in 1893, and the population boomed from 3,161 individuals in 1890 to 4,926 in 1900 and 9,227 by 1910. The very existence of such detailed maps of postal routes for this period shows how important the institution was thought to be for rural development. Oddly enough, I cannot find equivalent maps for the late-20th century.

By the mid-20th century the population of places like Withrow and Mansfield began to decline, and for the most part has declined ever since. Only a handful are open today--and soon there will be even fewer.

Bighorn, a Film about Custer and Football

BIGHORN from Alfred Thomas Catalfo on Vimeo.

Bighorn "is a 15-minute, supernatural historical fantasy based on a true fact: that General Custer's bandmaster, Felix Vinatieri -- an Italian immigrant and the great-great-grandfather of Super Bowl-winning kicker Adam Vinatieri -- was ordered to stay behind at the 7th Cavalry's Powder River camp and missed the Battle of the Little Bighorn." It is a fun piece. A quick Google uncovers an archive of Vinatieri's compositions, where you can listen to General Custer, Last Indians Campagne March, a song Vinatieri wrote for Custer in April of 1876, months before the general's death at Little Big Horn.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Back from Summer

My summer Google Latitude locations
I am back from the longest blogging hiatus since I began Northwest History in 2007. It was not a planned break--as you see from my Google Latitude locations, I got busy. The summer included working with teachers in Teaching American History projects, meeting with the other editors of the William F. Cody Papers Project,  family reunion and a couple of road trips. Also a major grant proposal and supervising two MA thesis defense and three internships. 

On the professional front, the Spokane Historical app should be available pretty soon and I will be in Oakland this fall for the Western History Association, and I am teaching two public history classes this fall--Research Methods in Local History and Historical Writing and Editing. And I will be blogging again. Nice to see you.