Omeka Forums are Buzzing

It has been only three or four days since we released Omeka to the wild, and already we’re seeing some amazing interest. As of this posting, Omeka 0.9.0 has been downloaded more than 200 times, has been blogged by at least 50 authors, and for a brief time made the del.icio.us homepage “hotlist.” Most exciting to me, however, is the traffic to Omeka’s support forums, which shows that people are really using the software. Most of what we’re seeing are installation difficulties, especially where users are trying to install Omeka on third-party, commercial hosting services like Bluehost and Lunarpages.* The good news is that most of these problems can be worked out relatively easily, and I encourage anyone who is having trouble to take a look at the Getting Started and Troubleshooting forum threads and to post your questions there. Our crack team of developers will be happy to help out. Omeka is still in beta, and as an open source project, we hope everyone will feel comfortable joining the forums, becoming active in the community of users and developers, and just generally helping us make the software better.

* Note: if you don’t already have a hosting account and are thinking of signing up for one to try Omeka, we encourage you to consider Dreamhost, where Omeka has been most thoroughly tested and where we know it works seamlessly.

Xtimeline

Xtimeline is a new addition to the growing field of personal timeline builders. Simile Timeline, MIT’s open source offering is still the best of the bunch, but Xtimeline definitely wins in the user-friendly department. In terms of workflow, data management, and data display, the new Chinese offering also bears striking resemblances to our own Flash-based “Timeline Builder” proof of concept. Along with family trees, timelines are perhaps the preferred mode of exploring history and producing history among amateurs, and I’m not surprised to see more offerings in this space.

Previous posts:

Google Timelines

On Monday Dave Lester pointed to the release of Google’s new timeline view of search results. Found History has often commented on the importance of timelines in public understanding of history and amateur historical practice, so this seems like it could be a big development in that space.

Google points out that the timeline view works best for people, places, and other similar searches and suggests Thomas Jefferson as a good example. As Dave points out, the software groups frequencies of events (search results) by decade, and at first glance the results seem pretty encouraging. Jefferson’s timeline, for example, has peaks in the 1770s and 1800s—just where you’d expect them:

Thomas Jefferson timeline

Being somewhat suspicious of the representativeness of Google’s hand-picked example, however, I tried a more obscure search for George Sarton, founder of history of science in America:

George Sarton timeline

To my pleasant surprise, Sarton’s timeline turned out to be nearly as good as Jefferson’s, peaking in the 1910s when Sarton was getting married, finishing his dissertation, founding his journal Isis, and relocating to America.

Nevertheless there are a few pretty significant problems with Google’s new timelines. To start the timelines only display the frequency with which certain dates appear in connection with a given search term rather than tying these dates to actual events in the life of the search subject. We don’t see what Sarton did in the 1910s. We only see that he did something (or more precisely that lots of people on the web have pointed out that he did something). Viewing this kind of timeline—i.e. one without named events—seems to me a little like watching an old time silent movie with your eyes closed. You know something is happening because the music gets louder or quicker, but you don’t know what.

In this regard a Google timeline is at best an activity map of a given historical actor’s life, demonstrating for instance that Jefferson did more and more important things in the 1770s than in the 1740s and 50s. If that’s the case, Google’s new visualization falls victim to Dan Cohen’s “big whoop” (my term, not Dan’s) criticism. Pointing to a visualization of the full text of the New Testament which showed (surprise!) that Jesus sits at the center of the narrative, Dan lamented that too many digital humanities visualizations “merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” Google’s Jefferson timeline is another case in point. Is anyone surprised that Jefferson did more in his 20s, 30s, and 40s than as an eight year old?

Despite these problems, however, I do see something new here. Google’s is one of the first projects I can think of that attempts to move beyond using computational means to answer factual historical questions (our H-Bot software has been doing this for a couple years now) and actually tries to provide something approximating historical interpretation, that tries to put factual information into a narrative framework—even if that narrative tells us little more than Sarton was busier in 1910 than in 1940 or that Jefferson did something in 1776 and nothing in 1752. If we all agree that the real work of history isn’t about names and dates, then the real work of digital history has to be more than that as well. Digital historians need to think about computational methods for producing historical narratives not just historical facts, for producing historical knowledge rather than merely uncovering historical information. I guess what I’m talking about is artificial historical intelligence, and although Google’s timelines aren’t that, they’re certainly a gesture in that direction. They’re certainly something to watch.

Place Names / Time

Yesterday software engineer Matthew Gray from Inside Google Book Search posted a mashup/geo-visualization demonstrating how place name frequency changed over the course of 19th century publishing history. Gray’s four maps—one each from the 1800s, 1830s, 1860s, and 1890s—clearly point to a growing publishing industry and broader shifts in center of gravity from Europe to North America and from East Coast to West Coast.

While Gray’s results are convincing and the whole project a good example of how digital tools are creating new avenues for amateur historical inquiry, we should also admit that it reinforces Dan Cohen’s recent point that “too many visualizations … merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” The question Dan wants us to ask is whether these visualizations teach us anything new. It’s a good question. Are we surprised that Denver is mentioned more frequently in print in 1890 than in 1830? Probably not. But another question we should ask is whether these visualizations can teach our students and publics anything new. I wonder if the obvious truths told by these maps, charts, and diagrams aren’t so obvious to people who don’t identify themselves as historians. I’m struck by the fact that both this example and the one Dan points to were both produced by and for non-professionals. I suspect the answer to Dan’s concern is that the best place for these things is not in research, but in teaching and public understanding.

Finding History at Home 2

Today in Digital History Hacks, Bill Turkel imagines a not-so-distant future of “history appliances”:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. The stereo adjusts automatically, streaming Bob Marley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce. LCD panels hanging on the wall switch to display Roberto Matta’s Jazz Bande and Elizabeth Murray’s Wave Painting. If you check your TV listings, you’ll find Mean Streets, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris … even Are You Being Served? In your newspaper you find stories about the cease-fire in Vietnam, about Watergate, about Skylab, about worldwide recession and OPEC and hostilities in the Middle East. If you want to read a novel instead, you might try Gravity’s Rainbow or Breakfast of Champions.

Turkel goes on to suggest a kludge of current and near-horizon technologies that could fulfill this vision. Though plausible, I suspect we’re still some way off from a history appliance that the average consumer could install and operate. But the idea is very compelling. I agree wholeheartedly with Bill that such a device would present fantastic opportunities for public historians, and it seems to me that even if we have to wait a while for the home version, museums could start working on this now for their galleries.

First and foremost, “history appliances” would allow public historians to provide audiences with the kind of deep historical immersion that’s currently only available through years of long study. Sometime in the depths of their researches, I think all professional historians have experienced fleeting moments of time travel. “Turkel’s Time Machine,” if it ever comes to pass, could offer something similar to lay publics at the turn of a dial.

Geni

The tech blogs are buzzing about Geni, a new genealogy application launched by former Paypal executive David Sacks (see Valleywag and TechCrunch for example). Billing itself as “a unique approach to solving the problem of genealogy,” Geni “lets you create a family tree through [its] fun simple interface”:

When you add a relative’s email address, he or she will be invited to join your tree. That relative can then add other relatives, and so on. Your tree will continue to grow as relatives invite other relatives … Each family member has a profile which can be viewed by clicking their name in the tree. This helps family members learn more about each other and stay in touch. Family members can also share information and work together to build profiles for common ancestors.

I suppose it was only a matter of time until the web 2.0 crowd realized that genealogists were playing the social networking game long before Rupert Murdoch ever heard of MySpace.

Late Update (3/6/07): Just two months after it first grabbed the headlines, TechCrunch is now reporting that Geni is worth $100 million and boasts more than 100,000 registered users.

Tags Over Time

There’s a new trend in online amateur history that digital history scholars would do well to notice. A few months ago I pointed to Yahoo’s Taglines, a Flash visualization of the changing use of Flickr tags over a 16 month period from June 2004 to September 2005. More recently Chirag Mehta, an IT manager living in Florida, developed an open source application to do the same thing with any body of machine readable text. According to Mehta’s website, Tagline Generator is “a simple PHP codebase that lets you generate chronological tag clouds from simple text data sources without manually tagging the data entries.” Mehta’s demonstration piece, the US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud, got a lot of traction on Digg a few weeks ago. Now Todd Bishop, author of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Microsoft Blog, has applied Metha’s code to a body of speeches, articles, and emails written by Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and other key figures at Microsoft over the past 30 years.

Obviously this technology could be extended to other bodies of digital historical text. For example, I can imagine mapping the frequency of terms such as “victim” “terrorist” “Osama” “sad” and “angry” in personal narratives contributed to CHNM’s September 11 Digital Archive between, say, September 2001 and September 2003 as memories faded and events such as the wars in Afganistan and Iraq intervened. Maybe Dan will find time to give it a go as he did with his awesome map of what American’s did on 9/11.

Yahoo! Time Capsule

This is huge, or potentially so. Yahoo! has launched what they are calling an “electronic anthropology project”—a digital time capsule of images, stories, video, audio, and artwork, all submitted by Yahoo! users. As of this posting, the project has collected more than 4000 objects from nearly 3000 people in just over a day. When the capsule closes on November 8th, the collection will be transfered for long term preservation with the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings project. Until then you can explore it through a very cool Flash interface. By any measure this a very welcome expansion of the practice of online collecting … even if Yahoo!’s claim that “this is the first time that digital data will be gathered and preserved for historical purposes” is patently and outrageously false.

CoverPop

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.