If you haven’t done so already, visit Yahoo’s TagLines now. A rolling timeline of the eight most popular Flickr tags for each day since 2004, TagLines is the most exciting piece of historical work—amateur or otherwise—I’ve seen a while. It is a provocative preview of what will be possible when historians manage fully to wrap their heads around born-digital sources.

FuturesWatch Timeline

Here’s another (crazy) example of how futurists (science fiction writers, etc.) look to history for process and inspiration. The FuturesWatch timeline begins in 1750 and simply carries forward to 2100 as if events from the late 18th century and events from the late 21st century qualified equally as history. Interestingly, FuturesWatch confidently documents things such as “First commercial fusion power plant” (2035) and “Period of increased social and civil unrest” (2055-2080), and only hedges when it comes to music: The timeline dates the end of “Rock and Roll” at 2010, but only tentatively suggests “World Beat?” as its replacement during 2010-2060. Perhaps it’s easier to write the history of future technology and politics than to do the same for art.

Yellow Arrow

Here’s another instance of amateurs beating professionals to the punch.

There has been a lot of talk lately among a certain set of public historians (lots of it at CHNM, in fact) about moving networked historical information off the desktop and into the historical landscape using new mobile communications technologies like GPS, podcasting, WAP, and SMS. Unfortunately, none of this has gone very far. The Virginia Department of Transportation, for example, recently declined funding for CHNM’s first foray into this arena, a project called History Here.

But as with web history, amateur historians seem to be getting on with getting on. While we have meetings, Yellow Arrow is coming to Washington with an SMS walking tour of D.C. punk history. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.

Thanks to Josh—my partner in pushing us into the mobile space—for the tip.

The Big Foot Riders of Wounded Knee

Rocketboom had a piece this week on the Big Foot Riders of Wounded Knee. For the past 19 years, a group of Lakota men have completed a ceremonial ride along the path Chief Big Foot followed from Bull Head, North Dakota to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where some 200 men, women, and children were killed in the last armed engagement between the U.S. Cavalry and the Lakota Sioux in December 1890. Each winter the event draws dozens of new riders and hundreds of new spectators far into to the Dakota Badlands. Correspondent Mitt Lee closes his piece with a question, which host Amanda Congdon invites Rocketboom visitors to answer:

This event is like so many things in Indian country. Different people coming together—Indians, folks who want to touch Indians, young people who love the idea of it all, the foreign press—all of these people coming together. It’s cold, there’s not enough money, and they come anyway. Longing for what? For spirituality? For connection? For what?

This question—why ordinary people do history—is the foundational problem of Found History. And if I hear Lee and Congdon correctly, Rocketboom and Found History agree that this question will only be answered by throwing it back to those people themselves, by taking stock of the many ways they do history and listening to their reasons why.

Lots of answers are provided by the Rocketboom visitors who answered Congdon’s invitation. Here are just a few of the more than 100 responses received:
Continue reading “The Big Foot Riders of Wounded Knee”


Predictably, the Harvard undergraduate plagiarism scandal has focused more attention on the thief—sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan—than on the thieved, coming-of-age novelist Megan McCafferty. In terms of found history, however, McCafferty is much more interesting than Viswanathan. Each day in (retro)blogger, McCafferty offers a glimpse into her past, reproducing an entry from her own teenage diary for the corresponding date. Today, for example, McCafferty gives us her diary entry from May 11, 1987. On Saturday, she posted her entry from May 6, 1991. It’s probably a stretch to call (retro)blogger history, but McCafferty’s clever adaptation of the chronological weblog medium to re-collect entries from her childhood journal not only suggests her own intimate connection with the past, but also does a good job of conveying that connection to her readers, simply and effectively making the past more present for us as well as her.

Amazon History

Following on my earlier post, here are two additional examples of practitioner web histories, both concerning Amazon.com. The first is an idiosyncratic, twenty-part insider’s account of Amazon in the late-1990s. The second, a more targeted piece by a designer unconnected to Amazon, documents what is probably the company’s most important contribution to the look and feel of today’s web, the tab navigation. (Thanks once again to Jeremy for the tip on the latter link.)

Calendars as Timelines

Jeremy had a post yesterday about the buzz over timelines at CHNM. For the last year or so, we have been talking a lot about timelines, all of us coming to the topic at slightly different angles. Jeremy, for instance, is especially interested in the user interface challenges that online timelines present, and he’s toying with some solutions in CSS/XHTML/JavaScript and emerging data standards like HEML (Historical Event and Markup Linking) and the HCalendar microformat. I’m most interested in the centrality of timelines to public understanding of history.

In many ways, timelines are general public’s favored mode of representing historical change. Timelines figure prominently in most history classrooms. They provide newspaper editors a column inch-saving shorthand for contextualizing current events (see, for example, the sidebar on this recent article in USA Today about the Balco doping scandal). And the most energetic among amateur historians—genealogists—traffic almost entirely in a particular type of timeline known commonly as the “family tree.”

Over the past year I have been trying to move forward a project at CHNM called “Timeline Builder,” which would provide an easy-to-use tool for people looking to generate online timelines. A public beta of Timeline Builder is up and running at CHNM Tools, and although it’s a little clunky, it will give you an idea of what we have in mind. (I should say that I have had very little—read “nothing”—to do with the actual building of this system. When I say “move forward,” I mean begging my more skilled colleagues to build it for me. Josh Greenberg over at Epistemographer has been especially generous, both intellectually and technically, and a summer intern, Josh West, has done most of the programming work to date.)

To launch an effective timeline builder we need two things. First, we need an elegant way to render timelines visually within the space of the browser. Here I think the work Josh West has done in Flash is great, and I’m hoping that Jeremy will be able to replicate the best features of his display mechanism (e.g. the slide and zoom functions) in CSS/XHTML/Javascript.

Second, and just as important, we need an easy and familiar way for people to enter events. As my coworkers can attest (and I’m sure to their annoyance), I had a brainstorm on this second point a couple of weeks ago: such a system already exists and is already in the hands of users. This system is called the calendar. Why should we invent a new standard and build an event builder system when people already have one on the desktop in their calendar applications? Isn’t a calendar just a “timeline” laid out on a grid rather than on a line? If we can afford some facility for people to upload .ics files created in their calendars to our server and then dump that event data into an online timeline, wouldn’t that be a lot better than inventing our own event standard and our own event-creation interface?

This possibility got me to thinking more broadly about calendars as digital objects and historical artifacts. The increasing universality of the .ics standard (currently used by Apple’s iCal and Mozilla’s calendar projects, and supported by both 30Boxes and Google Calendar) presents historians with an amazing opportunity. If we could develop strategies for collecting and preserving standards-based calendar data and the right tools for analyzing it, we could gain unprecedented insight into the daily and even hourly activities of historical actors. What if, for instance, we had the daily calendars of everyone at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project in an identical format and we could nail those calendars to a single timeline for comparison? What questions could we answer about the extent to which those scientists worked collaboratively and/or individually? More immediately, I want this for our forthcoming Mozilla Digital Memory Bank project. I’m sure everyone at Mozilla keeps a calendar in the .ics format or in some other format easily exportable to .ics. What will we be able to say about the nature of the that diffuse and complex community of developers if we are able to collect and easily compare who was where and doing what with whom when? Incredible.

So what does all this have to do with Found History? Since most people nowadays keep some kind of digital calendar, I’m also interested in the question of whether this calendar-keeping can be considered history-making. On the one hand, calendar-keeping is time-based, event-centric, and preservational. This argues the affirmative. On the other hand, calendar-keeping is largely future-focused (reminding us of upcoming events rather than past events), and while it’s concerned with preserving time-based information, I’m not sure it entails or encourages any interpretation of or reflection on that information. This argues the negative.

I’m still trying to sort out where I come down on this question. My guess is that it varies from person to person—that some people keep calendars with a historical or memorial purpose in mind, and others do it simply to keep from forgetting their next anniversary. In any case, personal digital calendars represent a historical resource of enormous potential breadth and depth, and we should all be thinking about ways to collect, preserve, parse, and present the information they contain.

Makings of a Classic

An interview with Phaidon editor Emilia Terragni about his new three-volume Phaidon Design Classics turned up Tuesday on digg. Accompanying the interview is a slideshow of twelve Designs That Never Get Old, consumer products from the last century that fit Phaidon’s definition of classic design. Among these are the table-top Kikkoman bottle and London’s familiar double-decker Routemaster Bus.

The interview and slideshow are themselves pretty interesting. But more exciting as a piece of found history is the long thread of vistor comments that follows the initial digg post. There digg users debate different definitions of “classic” and argue the merits of their own favorite industrial artifacts, including lots of vintage cars (Studebaker Hawk, 1961 Lincoln Continental, BMW 2002, Mazda Miata), a few firearms (Colt Single Action Army, Winchester 94), and a bunch of ordinary household objects (the fortune cookie, the zipper, the jelly bean, the slinky, the push-pin, the Michelob beer bottle). It’s worth a few minutes to see how deeply these people are thinking about the relationship between old and new and the pace and meanings of historical change.