Digital Campus

dctv.jpg This is also somewhat off topic, but I’m very pleased to announce the launch of Digital Campus, a new biweekly podcast that explores how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. Come listen to Dan Cohen, Mills Kelly, and I talk about the launch of Windows Vista, the rise of Google Docs, and recent stories about Blackboard in our first episode. At the end of the show, we share links to the best free wiki software and sites on digital maps and books.

Subscribe to Digital Campus via iTunes or another subscription service at http://digitalcampus.tv

The Object of History

CHNM has just launched a new project called The Object of History. A partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the project aims at lower cost model for “virtual” museum field trips. It also tries to open up the work of museum curators to student scrutiny. For most students, history exhibits (like history texts) are black boxes, revealing little of the long hours of work and sometimes difficult negotiations required to produce historical knowledge. History students rarely get to see how we make the proverbial sausage. The Object of History aims to show them.

Kudos to Sharon and the rest of the team that produced this incredible new resource.

O'Reilly on the History of Science

In a post today called Remember the old “Two Cultures” Debate? Tim O’Reilly points to Jon Bosak’s keynote at the XML 2006 Conference to show that C.P. Snow’s two cultures thesis is phooey. He writes that Bosak’s referencing of Kant and Donne “puts to rest the idea that engineers don’t know the humanities.” Maybe, but I wonder if O’Reilly would be so generous to us humanists as we take our own tentative steps across the two cultures divide.

More from UWO

Bill Turkel has a fantastic post about the ways people search for history online. Using search data released by AOL and some statistical methods, Bill has been able to tell us a lot about how ordinary Internet users think about history and what topics interest them most. Clearly this is very important stuff for Found History, and I hope he takes it further. I’d be particularly interested in how the history searches of AOL users compare to those of Google and Yahoo! users, but I suppose (thankfully) that Google and Yahoo! have more respect for their users’ privacy and that this won’t happen anytime soon.

One thing Bill notices is how many searches for “history” relate not to the study of the past, but to the web browser’s cache and how to delete it. Though Bill’s methods are statistical and mine are anecdotal, this is something I have noticed as well. I do a lot of searching around the web for the pieces of found history I post in this blog, and I often find myself sifting through lots of web pages and blog posts about clearing Internet Explorer’s history files on my way to finding a truly historical nugget.

This suggests a converse research question to the one Bill has asked of his data set. It would be interesting to compare the kinds of history people are searching for with the kinds of history they’re posting about. I suppose you could do this by pulling three months’ worth of feeds for blog posts containing the word “history” (easily done through Bloglines or blogsearch.google.com) and running some similar text mining operations on them. Analyzing how “history” is used in titles could be particularly enlightening in that titles and search terms share a similar descriptive intent. And you could easily ask the same kinds of information distance questions of both.

Obviously this has me thinking. Many thanks to Bill.

For Further Reading

This is slightly off-topic, but anyone interested in public history should check out the student blogroll for Alan MacEachern’s graduate seminar at the University of Western Ontario. (Most of MacEachern’s public history students are cross registered in Bill Turkel’s digital history class, so there’s lots of good history and new media stuff there too.) I’ve spent most of my time at Kelly Lewis’s Curiouser and Curiouser, Molly MacDonald’s Public History, and Jeremy Sandor’s Humility in History, but they’re all worth a look.

Well done to all the gang at UWO!

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.

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.

Looking for (Digital) History?

This one has been making the rounds, and rightly so. Bill Turkel has posted a very useful and much needed roundup of digital history blogs over at Digital History Hacks. It’s not quite “found” history, but it’s one-stop-shopping for anyone looking for history online. The blogs on Bill’s list run the complete gamut of history and new media, from digitization to data mining to teaching with technology, and their authors represent some of the best talent in the field today. Found History is kind of the list’s odd duck, but we’re not complaining. It’s very flattering to be placed in such good company.

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.