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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

Designing Digital History

Our digital history seminar is currently in the midst of designing our digital projects and has gotten me thinking about how to design digital scholarship and the tools that are available for helping in the construction of projects.  Beginners to digital history are somewhat daunted by the design process.  The lingo of web design – HTML, CSS, Javascript, XML, metadata, hypertext – seems like an endless alphabet of ambiguous elements in the digital environment. This post means to highlight some tools and resources digital humanists might find useful in constructing their own projects, as well as impart some of my first-hand experience thus far in the design process.

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Filed under: Tools, Web, , , , ,

Open Source Scholarship, and Why History Should Be Open Source

Open Access logoIn June 2006 the late Roy Rosenzweig published an article entitled “Can History be Open Source?  Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” in the Journal of American History.  Open source models like Wikipedia, Rosenzweig suggests, might offer alternatives to the historian’s highly individualistic and possessive craft.  The triumph of Wikipedia indicates the thirst for free and accessible information people have. The methods and approaches that have characterized Wikipedia’s success raises questions about how we produce, share, and debate scholarly work.

Open source in the technical sense means offering software and code available for free, allowing users to explore, extend, debug, or tweak in a highly collaborative atmosphere (open access refers to the principle of making research freely available; for my purposes I tend to think of the two together and often refer to them interchangeably – for instance, offering the raw XML of a transcribed newspaper article on my digital history project is both open source and open access by providing access to my research and access to the data and encoding behind documents).  Open source began with Richard Stallman, who voiced the idea of making computer code freely available for all to use and edit as long as they shared changes to the software.  In his wake came Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and Brian Behlendorf, the developer of the free web server package Apache.  More below the jump.

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Filed under: Academia, Research, Scholarship, , ,

The Dell Mini 9: A Historian’s Review

dellmini9

The subnotebook – or “netbook” – has become a hot gadget in the last year.  With the introduction of the Asus Eee PC just over a year ago, the market for budget notebooks has exploded.  The first Asus Eee boasted a two-pound, 7 inch screen starting at under $300, an attractive price compared to the “ultra-portable” laptops that often ran above $1,000.  Dell joined the netbook frenzy in October 2008, releasing the Dell Mini 9 for $349 (Linux) or $399 (Windows XP).

The system comes standard with 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270, 512MB of RAM, and a 4GB solid state drive, making it a very basic computing machine.  I made some upgrades to the memory (going with 1GB) and the hard drive (going with 8GB).  Being a fan of open source and a user of Linux on my previous laptop, I opted for Linux Ubuntu 8.04.  Ubuntu comes with all the gear I would need for my basic day to day tasks: OpenOffice Suite for word processing (alternatively I often use Google Docs for taking notes when I have access to wireless Internet), Firefox web browser (which I customized with Firebug, Web Developer, AdBlock, and Zotero), and media software for playing audio or viewing videos.  My only other addition has been JungleDisk so I have access to my Amazon S3 server.

Battery life thus far has been fantastic.  Installed with a four-cell battery, Linux estimates I can get nearly four and a half hours of life out of it (I suspect the number is actually closer to three and a half, but thats a far cry better than the one and a half hours I might get from my prior machine).

As the title suggests, this thing is tiny.  The computer is just over an inch thick (1.07″) and weighs just over two pounds.  It’s roughly the size of a book, and riding in my bag I would never know I had a computer with me.  The compact size makes trips to class, the library, the office, and archives a snap.  The display (1024 by 600 resolution) is sharp and clear.

In terms of hardware, the netbook comes standard with three USB 2.0 ports, VGA, Ethernet, and headphone and microphone jacks.  It also comes with a 4-in-1 memory card reader.

Now perhaps the most important part for historians:  the keyboard.  The keyboard might be less cramped than an Asus Eee’s keyboard, but it is still very compact.  Most of the alphanumeric keys are easy enough to use and drafting a document is fairly painless.  However, the Tab, Shift, and Caps key have been shrunk down or placed in unfamiliar spots.  The most frustrating relocated key has been the apostrophe/double quote key.  I find myself often hitting Enter instead (the normal position of the apostrophe key on a QWERTY keyboard is next to Enter), which can be quite irritating.  I’ve been able to retain touch typing rather than hunt-and-peck for the most part, but its been an exercise in retraining my brain to recall some of the new placements.  This computer isn’t designed to replace a main computer.  If you have thoughts about using this as your main computer, I recommend picking up a full-size keyboard, wireless mouse, and external monitor.  The keyboard construction, however, is well built.  There’s little flex in the keyboard as you type and the keys are responsive.

The touchpad is decently sized, has a good textured feel to it, has great sensitivity and response, and can easily naviage the desktop.  Two mouse buttons are located below the touchpad.

If the machine is reserved to word processing, surfing the web, or checking email, the Dell Mini 9 is a great machine.  As a portable tool for research, taking notes, or PowerPoint, coupled with its nice pricetag and ease of use, it would be hard to go wrong.

minicompare1

The 8.9" screen compared to a 15.4" screen.

[photo credit]

Filed under: Technology,

Presidential Election Word Clouds

If you have not checked out wordle, it is an excellent tool for visualizing word frequencies in a given text.  Additionally, it is extremely easy to use.  After the historic election on Tuesday night, the transcripts (or versions of them) from President-elect Barack Obama’s victory speech and Senator John McCain’s concession speech were on several different news outlets.  I pasted the text from each of their speeches and imported it into wordle to create word clouds.  This is another tool that can help one analyze and understand texts.

Here is Obama’s Victory Speech:obama-victory-speech

And McCain’s:

mccain-speech-word-cloud1

Filed under: Technology, , , ,

Tool Review: MIT’s Citeline

The open source tools created by MIT’s SIMILE project can help historians visualize their data in a variety of ways.  One of the project’s newer tools is Citeline, a WYSIWYG exhibit builder for bibliographies.  Recently, I experimented with this tool in constructing an exhibit with citation data for the digital history project I am undertaking. The  tool offers a simple interface for editing publication lists, bibliographies, and other citation information. This tool requires BibTeX files to run. BibTeX files are created by digital bibliographic services such as EndNote and RefWorks. The Citeline frequently asked questions describes how to import BibTeX files into the tool. On the other hand, one using Zotero can download Zotz, a firefox add-on that extends Zotero, to upload data directly to the Citeline service.

This tool is implemented very easily, requiring almost no HTML knowledge as the tool writes all of the code itself. The Zotero route for importing data into the MIT tool seems much simpler and straightforward, particularly if one is familiar with Zotero.  After downloading Zotz, one must simply click export data to Citeline and within seconds, all of the data in the Zotero library is available and usable. Once imported to Citeline, data is presented in a visual exhibit, downloadable and freely usable as an HTML file. The output is an online, multi-faceted interface in which users can investigate, analyze, and query citation data in lists or on a timeline. See the brief skeletal exhibit I created here. This output seems to combine Simile’s exhibit and timeline tools, by directing them towards citation data. Read the rest of this entry »

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