Meta Data

I believe that the most prudent use of my time is not to create more information, but to make the information already created accessible and usable. There is a lot of information that will go uncovered because there it is not properly indexed. I plan, for my semester project, to help the Connecticut State Library in their meta-data creation endeavor. The primary piece of technology I will encounter is XML. While i have a basic knowledge of HTML, a language that is used to display data, I have had no real interaction with XML, a language used to describe data.

Over the past week I have used the W3 school’s XML tutorial and I am planning on meeting with the Connecticut State Library to learn exactly what they want me to do. Creating meta data will be an important part of the library’s process of learning what they have in their collection and will get them closer to being able to use the artifacts that they already possess.

Like a Quarter in a Stack of Pennies

The field that can most profit from the internet is local history. The internet provides a means by which small niche communities can congregate, whether these communities are in the same location or dispersed. This provides opportunities for historians to create strong and comprehensive local histories.

The challenge that community and local history have is that their audiences are, by definition, smaller than regional or national history. The internet levels the playing field by eliminating one of the main obstacles, money. Web 2.0 is about buying a “for dummies book” and figuring out what is available. Podcasting, blogging, or any media presentation can be accomplished by a laptop computer and broadcasted to your niche followers. This then becomes a symbiotic relationship where the blogger is learning as much from their peers as their peers do from them .

I am not interested in creating an online persona. I am more likely to use the internet as a way to display, store, and analyze my research. The tools available online to store oral histories and their transcripts in a format where they can be searched or create maps embedded with information about urban development are available inexpensively. The price has dropped and continues to fall.

The internet is a web, so attracting attention depends on linking from one document to another document. Making connections whether interpersonal connections with other people in the field or web connections, non-interpersonal communications.  The baseline fundamental way to attract attention is to have good material. Well researched, well designed, and well informed websites stand out like a quarter does in a stack of pennies. They are indispensable to the world wide web and will always have an audience.

Disclaimer: It is important to remember that the internet is a just tool. The internet is not a magic bullet. There are limitations to web based communication and no replacement for face-to-face.

Mine!

The Web is a wonderful way to distribute historic research, and there are many great options for the public to read and research online. There are databases like Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and others that make it easy to search and are free to users.

What most people took from that statement was that DPLA is free. And, while they are without direct charge to the user, they are not free. It costs a lot of money to run the DPLA and it is funded by Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The public has free access, but there is nothing free about it.

When people clamor that journal articles should be free, they cannot also mean that researchers should not be paid for to research. What people want is for journal articles to be free to them, but they ignore how expensive quality research is. The public would not foot the bill for an elite research journal. The publicly funded information is filtered down onto public radio, into public libraries, and community tv, but these institutions can hardly find funding.

While the idealist would believe that all information should be free, the realist understands that you only get what you pay for and quality research should be rewarded by those influenced by it.

The Web Effect

The internet has been around since I started researching. Since we are in a transitional period, still transferring from analog to digital, I have had to use both internet and non-internet resources. I have often wondered, “how would I do this if it weren’t for the internet?” or while reading a book published in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, “how did they do this without the internet?” The internet has made our jobs as researchers immediately more doable. There is now no need to travel to remote locations, spend years combing through irrelevant information, or even learn new languages. This new world that we have created seems utopic, but are we loosing something?

Last semester, I had to use an analog source, the newspaper that I was researching was not yet imported into the digital landscape. I first only noticed the disadvantages of sitting with the material on the microfilm readers, but after a while I saw that there were many interesting advantages to the hard copy sources. Most important to me was being able to put the articles I read in context, see what other articles people were reading, and infer the angle of the newspaper. I was able to see where the article was situated on the page and encounter the information in much the same way as I would have if I were reading the paper on my front porch in 1963. I slowly began to stop lamenting the lack of searchability and began enjoying the time it took me to comb through the hard copy.

While the internet has made information more accessible for researchers who are looking for specific documents, it has taken away the browse factor. To open a box in a database and find the document you’re looking for is rewarding, but what is more so is seeing what is next to it in the box. To browse and come across something that the researcher was not expecting is an important research skill. Only finding what you are looking for could lead to blindspots in the research.

The internet has made much of the world incredibly searchable and this has helped researchers immensely, but if researchers only rely on information that pops up during searches then we will have an incomplete view of the available sources. We cannot let algorithms dictate our sources.

Dipping My Toe/ Jumping into the Deep End

After submitting my first edit (19th Century -> 19th century), I felt like I had given something back to a community from which I had taken so much. It was a good feeling, so good that I decided to buckle down and submit an article.

I am staunchly pro-wikipedia. I have had to bite my tongue while professors decry the untrustworthiness, when readers must always apply critical thinking skills when reading. Wikipedia is not different from any other source. The reader must carefully follow the argument, vet the sources, and determine the veracity of the information that is printed, whether that information is printed in a Harvard journal or on a Wikipedia page.

Professors who instruct their students to eschew Wikipedia because it is untrustworthy should be encouraging students to judge for themselves the truthiness of the information found on the collaborative encyclopedia. This is a lesson in critical thinking. Prohibiting the use of Wikipedia because it contains misinformation, but allowing the use of peer reviewed articles or monographs, does not teach a student to weigh information and make judgements based on critical source analysis, which should be the goal. There is also misinformation in peer reviewed monographs and articles, students should be encouraged to find quality sources no matter where they are published.

In around three weeks I will find out if my article is published on Wikipedia. The entry is about a Michigan artist whose career I have closely followed. Writing this document was offered valuable insight into how Wikipedia operates. Seeing behind the curtain helps to explain how these articles are formed and gives me more faith in the collaborative process.

Citizen Archivist

When I told my wife that I was transcribing old weather data from 19th century U.S. Navy ship logs, she noted that it sounded like something I’d be into. She clarified, “you’ve stopped studying history, and started doing history!” While I was getting frustrated with the user interface at OldWeather.com, she saw the enterprise in which I was engaged. Once she contextualized the practice I really saw citizen archivists for what they were, historians.

What an incredible means by which the public can be welcomed behind the proverbial curtain. There are many benefits of crowdsourcing archivists’ practices

  1. There is a lot of work to be done, a lot.
  2. The tasks are simple and do not require any real training.
  3. The result is significantly more rewarding than winning a level on Candy Crush.

The amount of data that needs to be transcribed is astounding, and, while handwriting recognition software may catch up, this seems to be a task best performed by humans. We live in a multi-screen society, where it is not uncommon to have phones in our hands and laptops in our laps while watching TV. The tasks at OldWeather.com can be achieved while watching Netflix, and, although they don’t have the flashing lights, the achievement is much more significant that mindless mobile games.

Since I have made citizen archivism seem utopic, I want to bring up some of the problems. I could imagine a high school teacher assigning this as homework, this would be bad. Citizen archivists have to have an intrinsic respect for the data they are transcribing. Wrong data is worse than none at all. This is not an activity that one can force someone else to do. There shouldn’t be any added incentive, the transcription is the reward.

Another problem that I assume befalls potential citizen archivists is patience with the user interface. It takes a minute or two to understand how the software works, in this minute or two, I am sure, many users get distracted and give up. A message to those impatient users, stick with it because doing history can be much more rewarding than studying history.

Has the Web Changed History?

The World Wide Web is a tool, a wonderful means by which historians can research, communicate with other historians, and present their findings. This is one of many tools in the historian’s tool kit. Historians have only begun to understand what this tool is capable of and, therefore, have only begun to see its potential. The World Wide Web has not changed the fundamental relationship between the historian and their research, but it has changed the scale, the speed, and the connectedness of their research.

This tool has made it possible to achieve research goals that would have previously been unfeasible or would have taken a lifetime. For example the ability to overcome geographic obstacles, analyze large quantities of data, and other tasks are easily completed using the World Wide Web. The web has made researching much easier, but it has also changed the means by which research can be presented.

The World Wide Web has opened the peer review process, allowing research to be vetted by the open public. The academic world is characterized by limited access, an insular group of elites, but now, with web 2.0, there is an opportunity for the public to infiltrate the island and set up camp on the beach. The “ivory tower” can now be scaled. This can openness, however, could be problematic. History is a field that mandates nuance and sensitivity, but the public does not typically operate in nuance.

The web is a powerful tool that historians use to present, store, and analyze their findings, but the web is just a tool. The web has expedited research, but has not changed the methodology; has enhanced analytics, but has not changed the strategies; and ultimately, digital history has changed many of the characteristics of historic research, but has not fundamentally changed the discipline.