Honest Abe

Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library explores our ongoing fascination with Abraham Lincoln with 21st Century Abe. Launching officially on Lincoln’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009, the site will present reflections on Lincoln’s legacy by leading scholars and artists. More interesting is that between now and February, the project’s curators will also be using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, a blog and other digital tools to collect public impressions of Lincoln in text, images, audio, and video. These popular impressions will sit alongside those of the scholars and artists on the website to present a fuller and ultimately more honest picture of what Lincoln really means to Americans two hundred years after his birth.

Missouri Journalism Launches Pictures of the Year Archive with Omeka

The Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism launched the Pictures of the Year International Archive over the weekend using CHNM’s Omeka web publishing software. The Archive, which contains nearly 40,000 historic photographs arranged by collection, chronicles more than fifty years of journalism history, including striking images of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. In future the Archive will feature thematic, museum-style exhibits using Omeka’s exhibit builder functionality. The POYi Archive features an elegant original Omeka theme and offers a good example of the kind of customizations and display choices Omeka enables. It also provides another example of the range of collections-based research being published with Omeka. Check it out!

Help Wanted at NYU

New York University’s archives and public history program has posted an exciting opportunity for a qualified digital humanist. In the past few years the NYU program and its students have delved increasingly into the digital side of historical and archival work, and now they are looking for a digital curriculum specialist to help them solidify and formalize that new interest. Here’s the description:


New York University’s Archives and Public History Program (History Department) is now considering applications for a one-year grant-funded Digital Curriculum Specialist. The Program seeks a scholar experienced with the technical and intellectual issues in digital humanities to help the Program incorporate digital technologies throughout its curriculum and internship programs. The successful candidate will work with existing faculty to reconfigure existing courses, develop a digital history track within the program, provide technical services and conduct workshops for student and staff, create a platform for mounting student digital projects, and partner with archival and public history institutions in order to establish digital humanities internships for students. He or she will work closely with NYU’s Information Technology Services and Digital Library staff.

Qualifications: The successful candidate will have an advanced degree in either humanities or computer or information science, with a solid grounding in the issues and technologies relevant for humanities scholarship. Knowledge and experience with XML, XSLT, TEI, PHP programming, and Web 2.0 social networking technologies. Familiarity with archival metadata and digitization standards.

For three decades, NYU has prepared students for successful careers as archivists, manuscript curators, documentary editors, oral historians, cultural resource managers, historical interpreters and new media specialists. The program emphasizes a solid grounding in historical scholarship, intense engagement with new media technologies, and close involvement with New York’s extraordinary archival and public history institutions. For more information on the program, see http://history.fas.nyu.edu/object/history.gradprog.archivespublichistory.html

Salary and Benefits: Competitive depending on qualifications. Review of applications will begin on July 31, 2008 and will continue until the position is filled.

Please submit cover letter, curriculum vitae, and names of three references to:

Dr. Peter J. Wosh
Director, Archives/Public History Program
Department of History, New York University
53 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-8666
(212) 995-4017 (fax)

Twitter, Downtime, and Radical Transparency


Listeners to the most recent episode of Digital Campus will know that I’m a fairly heavy user of Twitter, the weirdly addictive and hard-to-describe microblogging and messaging service. But anyone who uses the wildly popular service regularly will also know that the company’s service architecture has not scaled very well. During the last month or so, as hundreds of thousands have signed up and started “tweeting,” it has sometimes seemed like Twitter is down as often as it’s up.

Considering the volume and complexity of the information they’re serving, and the somewhat unexpectedness of the service’s popularity, I tend not to blame Twitter for its downtime. As a member of an organization that runs its own servers (with nowhere near the load of Twitter, mind you), I sympathize with Twitter’s situation. Keeping a server up is a relentless, frustrating, unpredictable, and scary task. Yet as a user of Twitter, I still get pretty annoyed when I can’t access my friends’ tweets or when one of mine disappears into the ether.

It’s clear, however, that Twitter is working very hard to rewrite its software and improve its network infrastructure. How do I know this? First, it seems like some of the problems are getting better. Second, and more important, for the last week or so, Twitter has been blogging its efforts. The Twitter main page now includes a prominent link to the Twitter Status blog, where managers and engineers post at least daily updates about the work they’re doing and the problems they’re facing. The blog also includes links to uptime statistics, developer forums, and other information sharing channels. Twitter’s main corporate blog, moreover, contains longer posts about these same issues, as well as notes on other uncomfortable matters such as users’ concerns about privacy under Twitter’s terms of service.

Often, an organization facing troubles—particularly troubles of its own making—does everything it can to hide the problem, its cause, and its efforts to fix it. Twitter has decided on a different course. Twitter seems to have realized that its very committed, very invested user base would prefer honesty and openness to obfuscation and spin. By definition, Twitter users are people who have put themselves out there on the web. Twitter’s managers and engineers have realized that those users expect nothing less of the company itself.

As a Twitter user, the company’s openness about its difficulties has made me more patient, more willing to forgive them an occasional outage or slowdown. There is a lesson in this for digital and public historians. Our audiences are similarly committed. We work very hard to make sure they feel like we’re all in this together. We should remember this when we have problems, such as our own network outages (CHNM is experiencing one right now, btw) and technical shortcomings.

We are open with our successes. We should be open with our problems as well. Our audiences and partners will reward us with their continued loyalty and (who knows?) maybe even help.

Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives

I couldn’t be more excited to announce the launch of CHNM’s first major online exhibition for general audiences. Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives draws visitors into the Gulag’s history through bilingual exhibits (English and Russian), a rich archive, and other resources. Exhibits are presented with a thematic approach that illustrates the diversity of the Gulag experience through original mini-documentaries, images, and the words of individual prisoners. A searchable archive includes archival documents, photographs, paintings, drawings, and oral histories that give visitors the opportunity to explore the subject in much greater depth. The site also features a new blog and podcast, Episodes in Gulag History, and later this summer will include a virtual visit to the Gulag Museum at Perm 36.

Visitors to the site will quickly see that it is a product of the work of many, many talented people. Primary among these are Steven Barnes, the project’s lead historian; Stephanie Hurter, Gwen White, and Sheila Brennan, its project managers; and Jeremy Boggs and Misha Vinokur, the project’s technical producers. I’m honored to be part of this fine group and I encourage all of you to check out their amazing work.

Project Announcements from ASHP

Longtime CHNM partner and inspiration, the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning (ASHP/CML) at CUNY has just announced three exciting new initiatives of interest to Found History readers.

From ASHP’s latest newsletter:

Picturing United States History: An Online Resource For Teaching With Visual Evidence

In October 2008, ASHP/CML will publicly launch our latest website, Picturing United States History: An Online Resource for Teaching with Visual Evidence. Based on the belief that visual materials are vital to understanding the American past, Picturing U.S. History (PUSH) will provide Web-based guides, essays, case studies, classroom activities, and online forums that help teachers incorporate visual evidence into their classroom practice. The website will supplement standard accounts of U.S. history with visual analysis and activities that allow students to engage with the process of interpretation in a more robust fashion than through text alone.

The website’s debut will feature a series of monthly public online forums featuring noted scholars of American history and culture: David Jaffee (Bard Graduate Center) will be guest moderator for the discussion on Jacksonian America in October, followed by Peter Mancall (University of Southern California) on Colonial America, Kirk Savage (University of Pittsburgh) on Slavery, Catherine Lavender (College of Staten Island/City University of New York) on the West, Barbara Melosh (George Mason University) on the Great Depression, and Alice Fahs (University of California, Irvine) on the Civil War.

Picturing U.S. History is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its We, The People initiative.

ASHP/CML Public Seminar – Recovering Community History

Recovering Community History panelists Marci Reaven, Craig Wilder, Lillian Jimenez, and Madeleine Lopez (at left) Recovering Community History panelists Marci Reaven, Craig Wilder, Lillian Jimenez, and Madeleine Lopez

On March 5, 2008, the American Social History Project hosted a public seminar entitled, “Recovering Community History: Puerto Ricans and African Americans in Postwar New York City.” The Gotham Center for New York History co-sponsored the event.

“Recovering Community History” highlighted the personal narratives of lesser-known Puerto Ricans and African Americans living in New York City who participated in different forms of social activism. Filmmaker Lillian Jimenez opened the evening with a clip from her documentary, Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente! Her work focuses on visionary leader Dr. Antonia Pantoja, whose activism sheds light on the quest for Puerto Rican self-identity, educational rights, and bilingual education in New York City. Marci Reaven, Managing Director of City Lore, then took the audience on an illustrated journey to the Bronx. She spoke about the links between Bronx Puerto Ricans’ musical heritage and their political activism (from “Mambo to Hip Hop”). Finally, Craig Wilder of Dartmouth College discussed the history of African Americans and public education in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s. Hailing originally from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Wilder added a personal touch to the story of Boy’s High School and the African-American experience in New York City.

ASHP/CML Collaborates on NEH Funded Education Grant with CUNY’s John Jay College

The Division of Education of the National Endowment for the Humanties awarded its third largest teaching and learning grant this year to former ASHP/CML staff member Professor Fritz Umbach and his colleagues at John Jay College, Elisabeth Gitter and Patricia Licklider. “Making Objects Speak: Portable Audio Guides for Teaching with Visual Culture in the Humanities” is a three-year project that brings together scholars in English and history to produce and disseminate ten audio tours of local museum collections, historic buildings, and neighborhoods. The project will also create supplementary web-based educational materials and develop workshops and other resources to foster the replication of this project nationally.

Building on the flexibility of digital audio technology, the “Making Objects Speak” project will enhance introductory college courses in history and literature by engaging students directly and actively with the artifacts and environments of past societies. ASHP/CML will develop the website for this project, while ASHP/CML’s Donna Thompson Ray and Professors David Jaffee and Cecilia O’Leary of our New Media Classroom and Learning to Look programs will convene workshops in New York and California with faculty interested in creating their own guides based on the same pedagogical principles. These institutes will explore the instructional potential of material culture for the humanities, with attention to inquiry-based pedagogy and new technologies. Participants will also learn the best practices for creating new audio tours and the practical computer skills required to produce them.

Briefly Noted for April 11, 2008

A few quick notes from the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Louisville, KY.

Bill Turkel has a terrific post on the nonlinear character of many academic careers, comparing planning our professional trajectories to solving nonlinear optimization problems in mathematics. “Nonlinear” definitely describes my own career path, and Bill provides his own poignant nonlinear story. Students, especially those interested in careers in digital history and humanities, should hear more of these stories.

The Powerhouse Museum joins the Library of Congress in Flickr Commons. Though not officially part of the Commons, the Boston Public Library also added its own photostream to the online image sharing site. Maybe this Flickr thing has legs. 😉

Jeremy Boggs is starting a much needed new series on the nuts and bolts of doing digital humanities work. I am first to plead guilty when I say that too much of the digital humanities blogosphere is taken up with reflections on the discipline, project announcements and press releases, and wishful speculations that will never bear fruit. Jeremy is boldly taking us down the path of real work, by explaining the basic methods, processes, and tools necessary to produce quality digital history and humanities projects.

Federal Funding for the Humanities

nha.jpgYesterday I spoke at the 2008 conference of the National Humanities Alliance on a panel entitled “Federal Support for History.” The purpose of the talk was to give some concrete examples from our work at CHNM of the different funding sources available from the federal government to historians and public history projects. This was supposed to give audience members a better sense of the range of historical programs that the U.S. government supports in preparation for their meetings today on Capitol Hill for the 9th annual “Humanities Advocacy Day.”

Over the years, CHNM has received about half of its funding from federal sources. The largest number of federal grants have come from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has funded the entire range of work done by CHNM: education projects (History Matters, World History Matters, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), public projects (Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, the Bracero History Archive), and research projects (our forthcoming study the potential of text-mining tools for historical scholarship). In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has become a major source of funding for our education projects, funding our five Teaching American History collaborations with local school districts and our forthcoming National History Education Clearinghouse. We are also increasingly working with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) on projects like Zotero, Omeka, and Object of History. Rounding out the list is the Library of Congress, which (through its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program), funds our Business Plan Archive/Birth of the Dot Com Era collaboration with the University of Maryland, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which has provided several years of funding for our Papers of the War Department 17840-1800 project.

During the 1990s, CHNM was almost entirely dependent on federal funding. In the past seven or eight years that situation has changed as we have been able to attract an increasing share of our funding from private foundations and other private sources. We are very grateful for the support of these private entities, but at the same time, I think it is important to stress that not all funding is the same. Just as private funds allow you to do certain things federal funds don’t, federal funding sources have some advantages over private sources. From my vantage point as a digital and public historian, there are at least two reasons why federal funding specifically is important to the continued work of historians and humanists.

First, federal funding allows—and increasingly demands—us to give all of our resources away at no cost. While our society is getting increasingly closer to eliminating the first digital divide, where network access was determined by demography, we are nevertheless seeing a second digital divide, where many of the best sources of networked information are available only by paid subscription. Small school districts, home schoolers, small businesses, and ordinary taxpayers without a university or corporate affiliation usually cannot afford access to important information resources like LexisNexis and ProQuest. By freeing us from the burdens of cost recovery that private information providers face and private foundations increasingly impose, federal funding helps us provide pertinent, high quality, open access information resources that reach not only the well heeled and well connected, but ordinary Americans.

Second, sometimes the only way to get an experimental or unproven, but promising project off the ground is with federal funding. Because federal funding is distributed through a process of peer review, a new idea is judged on its merits rather than on the basis of some prior relationship with the funding organization, as is often the case with private foundations. Usually this federal support consists only of modest seed money (e.g. NEH’s Digital Humanities Start-up Grants). But that small seed grant can be enough to show the potential of a given technology or approach, to produce a proof-of-concept that then can be taken to a private foundation for additional funding. Private foundations are much more likely to take on new grantees who have something more to show them than just a good idea and a business card. This model of seed money from the feds yielding longer-term private support has worked well for CHNM in several cases, including for History Matters and Zotero. It is essential if we want new ideas to become funded realities. Just as in Keynesian economics, sometimes the only entity that can serve the “pump priming” function is the federal government.

For these reasons and many others, it is important that sources of federal funding remain available to history and the humanities. Continued federal funding is essential to the future of history in this country whether you are a public historian, a digital historian, a scholar, or an educator, and whether you are a direct recipient of these funds or not. We all owe a debt to the National Humanities Alliance, to the National Coalition for History, and to our colleagues who took time today to participate in Humanities Advocacy Day and petition our government on behalf of history. Thanks, and good luck!

Twitter as a tool for outreach

In an earlier post I wrote about the early buzz around Omeka, both in the forums and among education, museum, public history, and library bloggers. One thing I didn’t mention—and frankly did not expect—was the buzz about Omeka on Twitter, the popular SMS-centered microblogging, won’t-get-it-till-you’ve-used-it social networking platform.

twitter.pngTwitter has been getting a lot of attention lately as a tool for use in the classroom, including an insightful blog post and front-page video segment on the Chronicle of Higher Education website by University of Texas at Dallas professor David Parry. It turns out Twitter has also been a great way to build a community around Omeka—to get in touch with possible users, to keep in touch with existing users, to give the product a personality, and to provide information and support. Among other things, we have been answering technical questions using Twitter, connecting far-flung users with Twitter, and pointing to blog posts and press coverage on Twitter. Because the barrier to participation is so low—Twitter only allows messages of 140 characters or less—people seem more willing to participate in the discussion than if it were occurring on a traditional bulletin board or even in full length blog posts. Because every posting on Twitter is necessarily short, sweet, informal, and free from grammatical constraints, I think people feel freer just to say what’s on their minds. Because Twitter asks its users to respond to a very specific and very easily answered question—”What are you doing?”—it frees them (and us) from the painstaking and time consuming work of crafting a message and lets people just tell us how they’re getting on with Omeka. And because Twitter updates can be sent and received in many different ways from almost anywhere (via text message, on the web, via instant message), the Omeka Twitter community has a very active, very present feel about it.

I’m very encouraged by all this, not just for the narrow purposes of Omeka, but for digital humanities and public history outreach in general. Interactivity, audience participation, and immediacy are longstanding values of both public history and digital humanities, and Twitter very simply and subtly facilitates them all. The experience of the last week has proved to me that we should be doing this for all future projects at CHNM, not just our software projects like Omeka and Zotero, but also for our online collecting projects like the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, our public exhibitions like the forthcoming Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, and our education projects like the forthcoming Making the History of 1989.

For now, if you’d like to join the Omeka Twitter community, you can sign up for a Twitter account and start following Omeka. If you’re not quite ready to dive in head first, or if you just want to keep an eye on what other Omeka followers are doing, you can simply subscribe to the “Omeka and Friends” public feed. Finally, if you want to see what I’m up to as well, you can find me on Twitter at (no surprise) FoundHistory.

Omeka for All

Omeka As Steve Brier, Josh Brown, and Mike O’Malley pointed out in Episode 2 of History Conversations, CHNM’s late founder, Roy Rosenzweig firmly believed that it wasn’t enough for the historian interested in popular memory simply to be an analyst of popular historymaking. He or she also had to be an active practitioner of public history, making him or herself available to community, enthusiast, and other non-professional historians to help them in their efforts. True to Roy’s example and admonition, I aim to be both practitioner and analyst. But as the recent dearth of postings here on Found History attests, I have been doing a lot more practicing than analyzing lately.

Aside from general management stuff at CHNM, I have been spending most of my time and energy on Omeka. Just launched for general public download today, Omeka is CHNM’s latest software offering, a free and open-source platform for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits. It complements CHNM’s successful Zotero project, providing cultural content producers with innovative, open-source presentation software in the same way that Zotero has provided cultural content consumers with innovative, open-source research management tools.

First and foremost, Omeka is intended to reduce the costs and improve the quality and functionality of online exhibitions. There are lots of software tools in the world of libraries and museums for managing and searching collections. There are almost none to help designers, webmasters, curators, librarians, and scholars publish and present those collections in rich, narrative, interpretive online exhibits. Omeka aims to fill this gap. Free, easy to use, and fully customizable through feature plugins and design themes, Omeka can bring rich, elegant, interactive, and “Web 2.0” ready exhibits to even the smallest and least well-funded of institutions—institutions for which high priced web design vendors are completely out of reach.

In the early days of the web, personal web pages were poorly designed, difficult to update and maintain, flat, and generally ugly. That all changed relatively recently with the advent and widespread adoption of blogging packages and services like WordPress, MovableType, and Blogger. Now a well designed, dynamic, interactive, and standards compliant personal website is just a few clicks away for practically anyone. Why should it be any different for cultural exhibits?

With Omeka, it shouldn’t.