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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

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 WHA: A Debrief

The Nebraska CrewTM made it back safely from Salt Lake, where a group of us attended the WHA Conference. I think I can speak for the group when I say we had a blast.  Additionally, the digital history panel went as well as we could’ve hoped.  There were a couple of problems.  Unfortunately, Dr. Seefeldt was unable to join us and Nathan lost his voice (though regained enough of it to present) and we didn’t have wireless Internet, the panel went off without a hitch and generated some great discussion.  And having Dr. Richard White comment on the panelists was a real honor.  If you weren’t able to attend, check out Doing Digital History to catch up on the three presentations and add some comments.  My guess is one of us will be doing at least one more post about the conference at DDH.

The remainder of the conference was great as well, although I wish the panels hadn’t been spread out between two buildings.  And there might have been a more appropriate hotel to host the conference at.  The Marriott was built for the 2002 Olympics and designed to maximize the number of people they could fit into the building rather than designed for conferences, so the conference rooms were small and almost every panel I attended had people standing during the presentations.  Overall, however, a positive experience for my first WHA conference.

In other news, I’ve picked up the diminutive and cheap Dell Mini 9 and have to say I’m really impressed so far.  I had debated between the Dell, HP Mini-Note PC, and Asus Eee PC for a while before deciding on Dell.  I’ve had good experiences with Dell throughout the years I’ve been using them and decided to stay loyal.  Part of the reason I enjoy the Mini 9 so much is that it’s running Linux (Ubuntu 8.04), though you can pick one up that runs Windows XP.  I’ve become a great fan of open source.  Linux runs better than XP and is powerful enough for my needs (my desktop runs XP which I use for my high-powered computing needs).  I’ve been a Windows user for all my life, and have interacted with Mac systems a handful of times.  I didn’t have the funds to pick up a Mac, which probably would’ve been my ideal choice for a new laptop, but for a computer I plan on using in class, taking notes on while reading or at archives, emailing, surfing the web, blogging, and other low-power tasks, the netbook is all I required.  I’ll post a review of the netbook later this week after I use it a bit more.

Filed under: Academia, Conferences, , ,

Liveblogging: The Programming Historian

William J. Turkel, professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, is on the UNL campus today giving a talk titled, “Interactive, Ambient and Tangible Devices for Knowledge Mobilization.”

11:03 Following a brief introduction, Turkel described his talk as the exciting work he is currently undertaking, rather than presenting a published paper. Some of his current work stems from Geocoding photographs of the Chilcotin region , which was the focus of his dissertation. Turkel states that he sought to tell a story with no written archival record and tell an environmental history of an area over 300 million years.

11:05 As soon as he started searching for sources, he found thousands and thousands of sources including an interesting story of the people performing research extraction in the region. Turkel came to find every place as an Archive. Things come from a past that is progressively deeper. In his work, Turkel wants to consult the archival record while performing field work to better reconstruct the past with the present. Mostly historians have to take the field back to the archives, or vice versa, but it would be excellent to have the archival record with you in the field. Historians are able to do this via digital means. Turkel discusses instances where students digitized maps and documents and geocoded them so that they are usable with ArcGIS, so that this information could be used in the field. This is partially how Turkel involves people in digital history. Additionally, he notes that he put together a pilot project with area youth to get them involved with digital work in the field.

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Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Technology, , , , , , ,

The Challenge of Digital History

Over at his blog, Dan Cohen writes about “The Pirate Problem” in digital history. He says that “the digital humanities represent a scary, rule-breaking, swashbuckling movement for many historians and other scholars. We must remember that these scholars have had—for generations and still in today’s graduate schools—a very clear path for how they do their work, publish, and get rewarded.” It is a somber look at what digital humanitarians have to face when explaining what digital history means the profession.

The transformation of the way we research, write, and present the past is no doubt a big change for the profession, and apprehension is to be expected. Prof. Bill Turkel, who is visiting UNL today and tomorrow, remarked this morning that the transformation must be akin to the introduction of the word processor. Historians who had for years labored over a typewriter must have been stunned by how quickly their students could produce assignments. The same thing is happening in digital history, where our ability to search Google or online databases such as American Memory or America: History and Life eases the process of research. Rather than spend copious amounts of time straining my vision with a microfilm machine, I can keyword search the 19th Century U.S. Newspapers database to locate articles related to my topic at hand. I can type in William Jennings Bryan and locate the ninety-five citations of his name in their database in an instant. The process of locating sources quickens, but the job of the historian to assess the source remains.

As Cohen pointed out, this is a new way of research. Rather than examine letters and newspapers contained in a bankers box, we have instant access to thousands of digitized resources. The traditional path of scouring archives, reading sources closely, generating copious notes and examples, synthesizing and analyzing the information, writing a monograph, and receiving tenure has been changed because research and the presentation of history itself is changing. I want to assure those who are skeptical of digital history that this field is not trying to upend the traditional practice of history; this is not Cliometrics 2.0. One of the great aspects of digital history is the ability to utilize new tools to make our jobs easier, like Google Books or newspaper databases, and to present the past in new ways that cannot be replicated in a monograph. In a large sense, digital history will combine both the “old” and the “new” realms. We have new ways of locating historical material, but the ways that we assess that material will not go away.

Cohen’s clarion call that digital historians “threaten to take that calm ship into unknown waters” certainly rings true, but that does not mean we should avoid the concepts that allow us to explore and understand the past in new ways. Additionally, more and more people are turning to the web for information and go no further. Shouldn’t historians have a role in helping define and create what constitutes “good” history on the web?

[Photo credit: jcarter]

Filed under: Academia, Scholarship

Bobley Visits UNL

Last Tuesday, Brett Bobley, Chief Information Officer and Director of the newly-minted Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) visited the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to discuss grant programs, tips and suggestions on what makes a great application, how the NEH peer review process works, and the future of digital humanities at NEH. As somebody just entering the professional study of history and learning the ropes about grants and funding, Bobley’s talk was illuminating and addressed some of the issues confronting digital scholarship.

Technology is changing the way we create, store, and present history. Along with this comes issues of sustainability, copyright, and access. The NEH has recognized the role digital scholarship will play in our future and in 2001 founded the Digital History Initiative, which became ODH just last week. Part of their purpose for existing is to assist digital scholars in the production of online projects. After chatting with faculty and other students who attended the talk, we sense that ODH will play a large role in defining what exactly digital scholarship will be. As a leader in assisting humanities scholars utilize the web, NEH wields great power in dictating what exactly digital scholarship will look like. Looking at the types of projects NEH decides to fund or not fund will say a lot about how it and other funding agencies view digital scholarship. From Bobley’s talk, it sounds like NEH is focused on innovation and developing new tools for the digital age.

But what about those of us that simply want to use those tools in the digital realm, not produce them? Are they left out of ODH’s consideration? And if so, where will the funding come from for those who only want to utilize digital tools? Often times, funding agencies often follow NEH’s lead. If historians are left out of the funding opportunities, combined with the budget pressures in academia, there’s a real concern about where additional funding will come from for our projects, which are normally concerned with utilizing new digital tools to achieve analysis that cannot be replicated in print. I think it’s no stretch to say that, for better or worse, NEH’s role could determine the course of digital historical scholarship.

However, that NEH has committed itself to ODH shows that they are taking digital scholarship seriously, as Dan Cohen pointed out a few weeks ago. Indeed, despite reduced budgets, the NEH is there with the funds to help the field develop. I also sense that NEH is very concerned with accessibility, which is an ongoing discussion in digital history. NEH is committed to allowing anybody access the great heritage of this country. As more and more people turn to the web for their first (and sometimes only) stop for information, it’s important that accessibility for all is maintained.

It’s important that historians maintain a role in this conversation.

Filed under: Academia, Scholarship, , , , ,

The Rise of the Digital Humanities

At Inside Higher Ed, Andy Guess uses the establishment of the Office of Digital Humanities to discuss the rise of digital humanities and the problems and potentials it has in academia. It’s a great introduction to our field, so be sure to give it a read.

[Hat tip: Dan Cohen]

Filed under: Academia, History, ,