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Digital Skillz November 29, 2006

Posted by McStorian in ClioWired.
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Within the past few months, I’ve created several things that could encompass multiple digital skillz.  So, I’m just going to start linking to things all over the place:

1. Images: I work a great deal with images and Photoshop at work.  Here are some recent examples: USACE History homepage – I designed this page, but the banner at the top is the most pertinent for images.  I used an image from our collection, etc. etc.  There should also be an image and a link to a vignette on the homepage.  Whatever image is there, I can assure you that I scanned and posted it.  Also, there are a good number of images in the Hurricane Resources page, which I created from scratch (not the images, but the site).

2. Blogs: Right after I created this blog, I created one for my “young adults” church group.  It’s debatable as to whether we’re either young or adults, but that’s beside the point.  Here’s the link.  It’s nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.  It appears that it’s gotten a decent amount of use too with about 1,000 hits since I launched it in September.

3. HTML is also something I work with probably on a weekly basis, although I’m no expert by any means.  Other than the history home page and the hurricane resources site, I’ve also been working on other pages for my office that haven’t been launched yet – namely a new Vignettes page and a new publications page.  I guess that’s not very impressive since they haven’t been launched yet.  Anyway, here’s a vignette I wrote recently.  It’s got HTML and photoshopped images!

4. Databases: From what I’ve learned in this class, it now seems that I may have made this wrong.  Or at least in a less efficient way as I could have.  Regardless, this took me quite a long time to organize, as I had to research, write, enter the data, and then create a website around it.  It’s called the Founders Project and I did it through the GMU Special Collections & Archives and the President’s Office.  If I ever feel willing to work some more on it for free, maybe I’ll tweak it some, but it was my first attempt at database creation.  I also tried the lazybase thing and started making a database of the sources I used to write my last paper on the sewer history of DC – sexy stuff, I know.  What I’m learning is that databases are one of the areas that I’m going to need to improve upon while I start up this project that I’m proposing.

5. Sound: This is a clip from my proposed Debris Removal Archive.  This was a very brief portion of an interview conducted by a historian in our office last year.  I converted the file from a .dvf to a .wav and then cropped out this section from the 1 hour+ interview.  I then cleaned it up, took out the pops and background noise.  I did it using Adobe Audition 1.5.  Then I converted the file to Mp3 and uploaded it onto Yahoo! where I have some server space. 

6. Wiki: I decided that Governor Alexander Spotswood’s page didn’t go into enough detail about his demise as the crown’s representative in the Virginia Colony.  So, I added a paragraph on his relationship with James Blair.  My master’s “major paper” was on Spotswood gradual conversion from a hardened soldier-imperialist to a gentleman-colonist – two completely opposing view-points.  I figured that was a little much for most wiki users, so I just included some things about the end of his career.  When I started linking to other wikipedia entires, I was surprised at how well it worked.  All I had to do was type something up in Word and then paste it in.  Then, on each proper noun, I clicked the “internal link” button and miraculously it worked.  I’m saddened however that Hugh Drysdale doesn’t have a wiki page, so I guess that’s something that I’ll have to remedy in the future.

Something good about the Government? November 21, 2006

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If there weren’t enough reasons to work for the US Gov’t, but hey – it’s a good gig.  There are pros and cons of government publishing: 1. Everything we publish is public domain.  My boss wrote a book in the 80s, published by the Office of History.  Not too long after, a private publishing company on the west coast published the exact same book and sold it for $30 per copy or something like that.  My boss will see none of that, even though his name is on the cover of the book.  2. Everything we publish in the office is free to the public – well, 1 copy each.  The GPO might sell the book, but if you contact the right depot, you can get the same book for free as a taxpaying American citizen.  Everything the GPO makes goes straight into the US Treasury.  3. When we need to use a painting or a picture with a copyright, it usually only costs us $20 to get authorization to use it whereas it would cost a for-profit much much more.  So anyway, the moral of the story: if you’re going to steal something, stick it to the government – you’ve earned it.  Also, get free books – they make good Christmas presents, seriously.

Smithsonian Threatened? November 14, 2006

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I don’t buy that museums would be threatened if they don’t launch all of their artifacts online.  Sure, one can do a lot with a website, but they still can’t put you there . . . with the surroundings, distractions or lack thereof, just the environment in general.  I think it’s human nature to want to see something in person.  It’s not rational, but it’s human.  Putting pictures of the pyramids at Giza online isn’t going to make people think “wow, I guess there’s no point in going to see them for myself now.”  The same goes for paintings . . . or the Hope diamond, Spirit of St. Louis . . . or whatever.  A few high res. pictures and a discussion aren’t going to change that people would rather see these items in person.  I guess then the question becomes: “Do we have cool enough stuff to draw people through the door if we just put this stuff up online?”  Adding exhibits online can certainly bolster a museum’s outreach and expand its mission, but in no way should digital exhibits supersede the in-person experience, especially if it’s a good museum with good artifacts.  Maybe it’s the smaller ones that will tend to gain or lose the most from this phenomenon.

What can be considered scholarship? November 7, 2006

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On my resume, I have 2 text-based yet online projects listed.  Both projects are the culmination of a decent amount of research and a fair amount of web and graphic design.  It’s nothing that’s going to earn me a tenure-track position, but in my mind they’re publications . . . I think.  To me it doesn’t matter what the medium is, publications should be judged by who endorses them and their content.  If the AHA and Columbia University endorse a book/dissertation and post it online instead of in print, then it’s still a publication.  On the other hand, what if the same author went to a vanity press like iUniverse and published the book/dissertation – would it still be a publication?  Well, probably not.  Would Columbia publish the same e-book from their university press – probably not.  But regardless, having that endorsement brings a great deal of credibility.  The problem is deciphering whether an online publication is posted online because it’s not good enough to be in print, or if it’s purpose doesn’t lend as easily to print.  My “publications” are both.  The Founders Project, financed and endorsed by George Mason University, features an online database of those who helped found the university.  The purpose of the project was basically to enable the president of the university and others to quickly search and find out what key figures (especially those still living and still involved with the school) contributed.  The other project, Hurricane Resources, is endorsed by the Army Corps of Engineers.  It consists mainly of images and documents about Gulf coast hurricanes before Katrina and Rita.  It offers very little analysis, so it’s more like a mini-archive.  Because both of these projects have been posted and endorsed by legitimate organizations, then one could theoretically cite them without questioning the publishers ethos.  However, neither of these projects are worthy of being published in print – they are thoroughly “just ok,” but apparently good enough for the web.  So, does that mean that the web is the receptacle for everything deemed “just ok” but not good enough for print?  Obviously, some things on the web are great, but what about Columbia’s leftovers?  Because it’s not good enough for print, does that mean it’s scholarship?  Does print still hold the ultimate credibility because it must be endorsed by an organization with enough money to be choosy – whereas just about anyone can post something on the web? 

Digital conversion and storage October 31, 2006

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These are some of the issues that my office deals with every day, especially as an office that attempts to be on the front lines of history profession (but then what office doesn’t?).  But most of these things seem pretty straight forward.  Any publisher will tell you that photos need to be roughly 300ppi and preferably tiff.  If the image is small, then crank it up to 600ppi.  The problem isn’t so much the conversion to digital format that we find to be a problem (making a searchable PDF these days is no problem at all), it’s the retrieval of usable digital files from the field.  Corps employees and soldiers in Iraq will send back digital pictures that are 5×7″ 72ppi.  We can throw those on our website, but we can’t use them in a book unless we make them really tiny.  Another issue is the ridiculous amount of superfluous information that digital technology allows us to create.  In doing a history of TF-RIE (Task Force Restore Iraqi Electricity), the Gulf Region Division sent us all of their unclassified source material in one small box – 170GB of material on a hard drive, which wasn’t well organized – just thrown on there.  Some of the files are nearly identical to others with maybe 1 correction.  For example, imagine uploading every draft of your last major paper you wrote.  I think I have about 10 different versions of my D.C. Sewer paper and maybe 5 different versions of the presentation.  Now imagine getting that for an entire Army Division over a 3 year period.  Anyway, I think I got off topic.  My point is, there’s so much and although creating and preserving it is important, it seems like organizing it takes much more energy and labor expense.

If computers are killing the multiple choice question, let historians beat the essay question sensible. October 24, 2006

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Ironically, I was listening to WTOP on my way to work last week, and they aired a story about how professional educators have begun to push for abolishing calculators in the classroom.  Why?  Because students have forgotten or haven’t even been taught the basics.  Without the basics, how can one achieve higher levels of performance?  If simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are the basics of mathematics, then what are the basics of history?  According standardized tests, the basics are facts.  Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig seem to think that the advent of the computer will, like the calculator, will eliminate the need for rote memorization of what happened in 1688.  Instead, they advocate the rise of the essay – one in which a teacher will have to spend more time grading in order to discern whether or not the student really understands the issues at hand.

Here’s my beef: Facts are not the basis of history and essay questions are just a different form of regurgitation.  Maybe under some circumstances, teachers could have the forethought to allow students some mobility, but at it’s root, the essay question is really a string of multiple choice questions run together with a main theme in mind.  The teacher is still looking for specific things, and in many cases they’ll check them off as they go, issuing a grade based on how many of the issues the students stumbled upon.  Most essay questions are still mining for facts.  So, if facts aren’t the basis of history then what is?  In my opinion, it’s rhetoric.  It’s the art of argument applied to analyzing the past.  Therefore, students shouldn’t learn history, they should learn how to do history.  Apparently our society values the knowledge of facts – you’re smarter because you can tell me where all the Presidents were from.  Well so what?  I can look that stuff up, whether in a book or on the computer.  How ’bout you write me an article analyzing how the locations of President’s birthplaces were an indication of changing economic, social, and political currents in the United States.  Instead of standardized tests, why can’t students submit history papers?  Let them figure something out on their own.  Teach them how to use the library, how to make proper use of computer technology, and how to judge primary and secondary sources.  The requirements don’t have to be ridiculous and the topics don’t have to be original – but you bet those kids will learn more about an era by conducting their own research then by sharpening their memorization skills.  Plus, students who learn how to think, how to research, how to write, and how to argue will perform at a much higher level in almost all walks of life than if they never did.  Therefore, the analogy of the calculator and the computer doesn’t compute with me.  Simple processes are the basis of all mathematics, but simple facts aren’t the basis of history.  Allow the computer, ban the calculator, and teach students what history really is.

History, Topography, and Crap (literally) October 19, 2006

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In our last class we discussed maps, topography, and even looked at some maps of Washington, D.C.  If you’re actually interested in that kind of stuff, then I thought I’d point out (on my blog rather than at class, since I want to avoid looking like a shameless self-promoter) that the end of next week and next weekend is the 33rd Annual Conference on Washington, D.C. Historical Studies.  The conference runs from October 26 – 28, and is located at the MLK Memorial Library downtown.  Follow the above link for more details.

I will be presenting a paper in Saturday afternoon’s “Washington’s Not-So-Gilded Age” Session #8.  My presentation will discuss how the city’s natural topography, especially its watersheds, dictated urban development, economies, social structures, politics, sanitation, and the longevity of Washington, D.C. as the nation’s capital.  In a nut-shell – Washington’s streams were turned into canals, drains, and open sewers upon its founding – making prominent parts of the city especially “foul, repulsive, and unsightly.”  The National Mall, Botanical Gardens, and Foggy Bottom were especially disgusting and often people were forced to hold their noses while passing through – although most people avoided those areas if they could.  Now, I won’t be using any fancy technology other than PowerPoint – but it will all be maps and images – no bullet-points, I promise!

So come grill me before a live audience – it’s free!

Geographical searching in library catalogs October 17, 2006

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It took me a while to think of something to write about this weeks’ readings.  That usually means that it was too technical for me to figure out or that it made so much sense as to be pretty obvious.  But I have been thinking about geographical library searches.  I know we’ve all gotten used to searching catalogs based on LOC subject headings – and to me they generally make sense.  But I thought that the idea was “kinda cool,” especially since, as the article states, political boundaries change.  I could see how that would be pretty useful if you were only interested in issues that took place in a certain area.  But then I thought about Colonial Virginia.  When  I was working on my undergraduate and graduate “theses,” which we both based on roughly the same geographic area, I had to learn the political boundaries of the early 18th century.  County names were different, their land masses were bigger or smaller than today, and town and road names varied.  So, theoretically, a geographic search on Germanna, Virginia would be great since a. there’s no town by that name anymore, b. it’s now the name of a community college, which scews searches, c. the same name exists in other states, d. the location of the Germanna colony has been a part of 4 or 5 different counties since it was first established.  Information about it is therefore scattered amongst Virginia courthouses – whichever one had jurisdiction at certain times.  The problem is that the person creating the geospatial catalog is going to have to know that and it’s going to take someone a lot of time to gather that information.  So, if one were do to a search on that part of Virginia, all the information about it from a courthouse 100 miles away might not be included because how is the designer supposed to know that the information is there?  Maybe that’s a moot point, but much of American history is the story of westward expansion and I don’t see the need to waste so much time and effort to get everything packed into a geographic search engine when its certainly bound to miss something.  A researcher can do a search, but it seems so impractical.  Obviously, doing a search on the current system is the same way, but at least you’re not under the impression that you’re getting absolutely everything under the sun about that location.  Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems that both systems are lacking and that one is really no better than the other – either way, the library catalog search shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all of your research, but the starting point.

This is my research. Hands off! October 3, 2006

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Obviously, I’m pretty new to the history profession, and much of the reading for this week went over my head or was highly theoretical, but from my limited knowledge, it seems that one reason why historians don’t share more information is because we feel like we have some kind of ownership over it.  Even if I’m working with unpublished primary sources, the idea of many other using those sources at the same time seems very foreign to me.  I do work for a government history agency however (which today included playing Frisbee outside for about a half hour.  Seriously, gov’t history work is where it’s at), so I can see this being somehow helpful for my work if I understood more of it and had some more concrete examples of what it all means.  The one article by Miller mentioned the idea that users might feel ownership over their information and I’m not sure how to break the historian of such a belief, but then I’m not sure about what kind of scale we’re talking about.  But I’m not going to go out and bust my hump for 40 hours per week at an archive to do specific research and then just upload it in order to give thousands of others the opportunity to take advantage of what I just took days or weeks to find, collect, and upload.  Or should I?  I do think historians should collaborate more with one another and with those in other disciplines, but I don’t know yet how I feel about sharing all my research with the world.

404 Error: Page Not Found September 26, 2006

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In reading the final assignment for this week – the blog on searching, spidering, and scraping – I came across and was intrigued by the link to “How to read a book,” probably like others of you.  When I clicked the link, this is what I got: 404 Error: Page Not Found, which in my opinion is one of the biggest weaknesses to this glorious cause of on-line history and self-narration.  Traditional history is theoretically infinite, in that the LOC or some other library in the world will have a copy of new publications.  Many academic websites, such like that of the U. of Michigan, where that link pointed, are extremely fluid.  Budgets, time, and perceived significance all lend to longevity of a popular or scholarly site.  We’ve all experienced countless errors in web browsing, many more than “item not on self” returns from the LOC.  Should historians exert much time and energy into a digital representation when there’s no guarantee that the site will be maintained for future historians?  In 1984, my predecessors in the Army probably thought it was a great idea to store oral history transcripts on WANG disks, yet now the “link” is dead and the information is gone forever.  With the current state of the web, is that a risk worth taking when considering hundred of hours of effort and possibly thousands of dollars of expense?