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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 »

Filed under: Research, Tools, , ,

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, , ,

78 Terabyte Library

Wired:

Twenty three universities have agreed to share and combine their digitized content, including millions of scanned books and documents, in one gigantic, 78-terabyte library that launched Monday.

Called the HathiTrust, the depository contains digital content from 11 University of California libraries and a 12-university consortium that forms the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which includes the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago.

Before the HathiTrust launched, digital content was isolated to each university library, according to John Wilkin, associate university librarian of the University of Michigan, who was named the executive director of HathiTrust.

“This effort combines the expertise and resources of some of the nation’s foremost research libraries and holds even greater promise as it seeks to grow beyond the initial partners,” Wilkin said in a press release.

[photo credit]

Filed under: Books, Libraries, ,

Things Noted

Kevin Smith, Power, error, and a “crucial historian” Scholarly Communications
“Starting with a truly frightening story about how easily misinformation is spread on the web, librarian Amy Fry discusses some important lessons that we not only can, but must, learn about information in the digital age.”

Larry Ferlazzo, The Best Tools for Making Online Timelines Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day
“There are many online timeline tools out there. But I’ve only found very few — three, in fact — that are easily accessible to English Language Learners and non-tech-savvy students and teachers, free, and allow users to grab images off the web to add to their final product.”

Nick Poyntz, Digital history and early modern studies Mercurius Politicus
“The discussion in the JAH was mostly in relation to the wider public accessing historical sources. But can digital sources also alter the reality we as scholars reconstruct from a source?”

Mills Kelly, You Have Been Warned edwired
“What really has me charged up this semester is that I’m teaching a new course, ‘Lying About the Past’ that is an investigation of historical hoaxes, plagiarism, and fakery.”

Filed under: News

Print is Not Dead, but Reading and Knowledge Dissemination are Changing

After my recent reading of Jeff Gomez’s new book Print is Dead: Books in our Digital Age, I began thinking about print media.  Print is not dead, but it is fading as the preferred medium for reading. The world today, as Jeff Gomez points out in his book, is increasingly digital with hundreds of millions of people electronically linked.  Electronic media appears to have surpassed print media as the primary means of recording and disseminating information and entertainment.  Many, perhaps most, people read their news, get their information, communicate, share, take notes, and listen to music digitally. With more engagement and interaction with reading in a digital form, it becomes necessary to reconsider the book and its paramount place in historical scholarship.  As the nature of reading changes from linear and page turning books to circular interlinked digital literature, the form or forum for producing and distributing words and literary content must also change so that people will read and share new historical discoveries, understanding, and knowledge.

Books, according to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, “are the last bastion of analog.” In a primarily digital world, why then do print publications remain the ideal for disseminating historical understanding?  Historians research and write to have their work read and discussed, not just amongst their colleagues, but for the interested public as well. The digital realm can reach far beyond that interested public who might pass over a book in a bookstore, if a bookstore will carry a nuanced historical monograph in the first place. When considering that libraries worldwide only purchase roughly 200 copies of a book, it seems clear that access to and reading of that research and writing is inhibited. Logically then, in print form, historical work is not read widely. As Gomez suggests on his blog, “As a writer you can only hope that people read, or think critically, about your work. With a physical book, you know if they bought it but not if they read it (not mention whether or not it’s being discussed).”

Conversely, a study produced digitally and available on the World Wide Web to hundreds of millions of linked people will have a wider readership and probably a higher level of discussion amongst all readers. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books, Scholarship, Technology, Web, , , , ,

Fun With Wordle

A word cloud of this blog, created with Wordle (click to enlarge):

Here’s another using Bill Turkel’s blog:

Filed under: Web, , ,