Historical Marker Mashup

Many of you know that over the past year or so CHNM has been trying to secure funding for History Here, a project designed to provide improved access to Virginia’s roadside historical markers through cell phones and other mobile devices. My primary interest in this project is the mobile angle—I think it’s well past time to start thinking about how we move digital history off the desktop and into the historical landscape—but I also have a long standing soft spot for historical markers in general. My first job out of college was with the Colorado Roadside Interpretation Program, and ever since I’ve held great respect and affection for the thousands of local history enthusiasts around the country and around the world that have made historical markers one of the most visible and vital forms of public history.

In recent years, these enthusiasts have established a formidable online presence, far surpassing the official efforts of most state historical societies and departments of transportation. For example, the best place to go for information about Virginia’s markers is not the official site of the The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which manages the program, but rather historical-markers.org, which provides photos and descriptions of more than 1200 historical markers in the Commonwealth and has recently expanded to include nearly 500 more from other states. Other ambitious amateur efforts can be found at HistoricMarkers.com and in the markers category of Waymarks.

Many of these sites are using seriously forward-looking digital history techniques. We at CHNM have received lots of praise for our collaborative online collecting projects such as the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, most recently for our use of commercial map API’s to present the collections. Yet amateur marker enthusiasts are using many of the very same techniques, often very effectively. All of the marker sites I have listed are peer-produced, and while some grow simply by means of email submissions, others have deployed sophisticated web-based collecting technologies to build up their collections. The Historical Marker Database, for example, uses a wiki-style system that allows users to create new marker entries and edit those of others. These amateurs have also recognized and quickly seized upon the opportunities new geo-location techniques present for markers’ place-specific historical information. Neither implementation is perfect, but both the Historical Marker Database and Waymarks’ marker community use the Google Maps API to maintain their markers’ ties to the historic landscape.

Historical markers tend to get a bum rap from professional historians. Very often they’re criticized as biased, one-sided, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Very often these criticisms are just. But professional historians should also remember that it’s tough to cover the history of an entire city in 50 words or less, that (in most cases) any history is better than none, and that what historical markers lack intellectual context they often make up in physical context. Few forms of historical production have such dedicated and enthusiastic followings and are so enduringly popular. I think this mostly has to do with reaching people when they’re ready and keeping it real (so to speak). A cast iron sign read on a windswept scenic overlook has something a hard bound monograph read in a library will never have, and we would do well to think long and hard about just what that something is.

Apple History Roundup

Like many enthusiast communities, the legion of Mac users seems particularly interested in its history and in the history of its cause: the Apple computer. This takes the form of both casual interest by ordinary users (e.g. “Early Apple sound designer Jim Reekes corrects Sosumi myth” and “Steve and Steve in 1976”) and also more dedicated research and collecting (e.g. This Day in Apple History, apple-history.com, The Apple Computer History Weblog, and especially The Mothership).

Obviously historical impulses aren’t limited to Mac users. Indeed, we’ve seen lots of non-Apple computer history right here at Found History, most recently Eric Lenevez’s fantastic timelines. But Mac users seem much more historically engaged than their PC-bound brethren. Admittedly it’s an imperfect experiment, but all of the top ten links in a Google search for “Apple history” are enthusiast websites, compared to only three for “Windows history” (five if you count the two Wikipedia articles that turn up). I can imagine several explanations for this. Perhaps Mac users are more creative and energetic. Perhaps they feel beleaguered and are desperate for attention. Perhaps it’s just a function of Apple’s relatively smaller marketing budget. Whatever the case, the wealth of amateur Apple history online certainly makes for good browsing.

P.S. If anyone knows of other examples of Apple enthusiast histories, I’d love to hear about them.

Late Update: I’m embarrased to admit that I neglected to mention probably the most successful amateur Apple history site of them all: Folklore.org. Thanks to Steve and Jeremy for pointing out the oversight.

Late Late Update (10/30/06): Here’s another: Low End Mac.


If you ever have eight or ten hours to kill, check out CoverPop.com, a new mashup site and a goldmine of found history. According to the site’s operators,

Each coverpop is an interactive mosaic, made of tiny images, such as magazine covers. These are called “micro thumbnails”. As you drag the mouse over each micro thumbnail, it pops up to a full-sized thumbnail image, and provides some information about the item. For some coverpops, you can click again to produce either a full-sized image, or to go to another website to learn more information about the item.

coverpop2.jpgEach time you arrive at the site or click on “more coverpops” at the top right corner of the screen, CoverPop will present you with a new, randomly selected mosaic. For example, when I first arrived I was shown CoverPop’s collection of “a few thousand science fiction magazines”.

coverpop.jpgOther historical collections include vintage pulp fiction covers, Mad magazines, old cereal boxes, and (remarkably) engravings from the works of 17th Century Jesuit practical mathematician and natural philosopher Athanasius Kircher.

Computer History Timelines

We have seen before how timelines are a particularly attractive mode of historical production among non-professionals, perhaps especially among those interested in computer history. Here’s another example. French programmer Eric Levenez has assembled an impressive collection of incredibly detailed techie timelines and sets of annotated links. The most recent is his Unix History. The most widely known is his Computer Languages History, which has been reprinted commercially by O’Reilly. Elsewhere Lenevez tackles Windows and NeXT.

Spend five minutes with one of Lenevez’s timelines, and you’ll see these are histories only a geek could love. They are certainly very different from anything a university-trained historian would produce. Yet they are undoubtedly very formidable and important works of historical research. Lenevez’s work won’t be published in Technology and Culture or even the Annals of the History of Computing anytime soon, but it’s hard to imagine how anyone, professional or otherwise, could write a decent history of Unix or Windows or computer programming languages without first having done the kind of backbreaking work Lenevez has already done for us.

What is a Museum?

This one comes from Found History reader Tim, who wanted to hear my thoughts on NPR’s recent story about the Museum of Online Museums (MOOM), a directory of online collections. Aside from being a treasure trove of found history, MOOM raises the question—at least for NPR’s editors—of what constitutes a museum. Should we or should we not call MOOM’s listings “museums”?

Arguing the affirmative is Jim Coudal, one of MOOM’s founders, who points to one of two definitions of “museum” in Webster’s dictionary: “a place where objects are exhibited.” Arguing the negative, is Wilson O’Donnell, director of the museology program at the University of Wasington, who says that calling MOOM’s listings “museums” is “like calling Wikipedia an encylopedia.” I actually take issue with both lines of reasoning, but ultimately I come down on the side of Coudal and MOOM.

You could say that Coudal and O’Donnell make converse mistakes. On the one hand, Coudal employs a definition that is too vague and too broad and leaves the museum without a distinct identity. If anyplace that displays objects is a museum, then we should consider department stores, the Home Shopping Network, the fun house at the county fair, the row of expensive whiskeys behind the bar, the auto show, and a million other things “museums.” Historians of museums know that our modern notion of the museum was born out of a 19th century “exhibitionary culture” that included things like World’s Fairs and department stores, as well as museums. But no one mistakes Macy’s for the Met.

O’Donnell, on the other hand, makes the opposite mistake, attempting to reify and dehistoricize the museum. In fact, things called “museums” have been around in one form or another for 400 years, and for most of that time they have borne little resemblance to our modern museums. I’m not sure whether it is Wikipedia’s amateurism or its unfamiliar digital format that irks O’Donnell, but the truth is that for much of their history, museums were both largely amateur endeavors and existed in formats that would be unfamiliar to us today. Many of the great European museums (the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford are good examples) were founded as private collections in private homes and were organized around criteria and displayed in formats that today would seem very foreign indeed.

For my part, I’d pick Webster’s second definition: “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” I probably have to think about this more, but to me it’s not the simple act of display, nor is it “professionalism,” that makes something a museum. Rather it is the collection and display of stuff with a preservative intent and historical mindset that makes a museum. That is, by my definition, MOOM’s “museums” are really museums … and all museums are pieces of found history.

Apologies to Tim for the long delay in answering his very good question.

WordPress Ho!

I finally took the plunge and switched from MovableType to WordPress. So far, I’m very happy. I had a few hiccups with with the .htaccess file, I had to manually carry over and re-upload some of my images, and the theme still needs some work, but otherwise I’m really surprised by how easy the whole process was. Everything should be working fine, but subscribers may want to refresh the Found History feed in their news readers just to be safe. Onward!

9/11 Imagined

Unsurprisingly, the anniversary just passed has prompted widespread historical reflection among the popular media. More surprising is the fact that much of this thinking has taken the form of virtual, or alternative, or speculative history: musings about what might have happened had 9/11 never occurred or what might still happen as the aftermath of that great event continues to unfold. For example, the cover of last week’s Time magazine featured an extended history of the future by Naill Ferguson. Likewise this week’s Newsweek features a piece by Jonathan Alter entitled “An Alternative 9/11 History.” Finally, New York Magazine devoted an entire issue last month to the question “What if 9/11 Never Happened?”, featuring “could-have-beens” from the likes of Tom Friedman, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Frank Rich, Tom Wolfe, and Andrew Sullivan. I take it as a measure of how hard things have gotten in the past five years that the anniversary of September 11 has prompted not only heartfelt remembrance, but also such carefully historicized expressions of regret.