Saturday, February 27, 2016

The History Manifesto

In their book: The History Manifesto, Guldi and Armitage made an argument that history is losing its importance and historians are losing their prominence in the world today.  How can we make history seem more valid and how can historians regain that prominence and respect that they once held? The authors also claim that historians today can tend to be a little short sighted when it comes to studying history.  It is this short sightedness; the “Manifesto” says that keeps us from finding the truth and making their history count. Apparently, historians in today’s world are not relevant. I imagine that I would have to agree with this statement. I find that we very rarely get to hear the historian’s point of view when it comes to modern day topics. I watch a lot of cable news, especially when it comes to politics, and there are a lot of people that come and give their point of view on a variety of topics-especially this presidential election. In all the news shows that I have watched I do not recall anyone calling on a presidential historian or an American political historian to hear their point of view. The one and only time this election season that I have heard a historian questioned about their point of view was on the Colbert Show and he spent a small amount of time asking his guest, Doris Kearns Goodwin how she feels about the presidential election (it would make sense being that she is a presidential historian). I am pleased that she was interviewed for her stance; but do I think she would have been asked had she not been a pseudo-celebrity. Probably not.  So yes, I do think that Guldi and Armitage have a point and I would love to live in a world where historians are called upon for their wisdom and knowledge of the past to help us solve our modern day problems.  By layering these “patterns of reality upon each other” we will be able to gain even more insight such as “placing government data about farms next to data on the weather…” we will be able to “see the interplay of material change within the human experience.” This is the solution about how we make history count again.
To solve the current problems that historians are facing, the authors suggest that we return to a “long duree” and focus more on the big picture than what they refer to as “microhistory”.  They also suggest that we try and move away from taking historians and their usefulness for granted and instead turn history back into “engaged academia”.  To back up their “microhistory” theory, the authors mention that “In 1900 the average number of years covered…doctoral dissertations in history in the United States was about 75 years; by 1975, it was closer to 30,” and that dissertations have also “concentrated on the local and the specific as an arena in which historian can exercise her skills of biography, archival reading, and periodization within the perti-dish of a handful of years.” We need to look at the bigger picture and instead of focusing on these little details and biographies why don’t we look at the history of labor or women or politics, etc.  That is not to say that the authors want us to completely get rid of our “micro” studies. Instead we should take these small events and compare them with the larger picture.
In their critique of the manifesto, Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler suggest that there is no basis for the Manifesto’s argument that historians do not face more on the big picture. In fact, they mention that “there is much more continuity than change across the twentieth century, and if anything, longer time scales had become more, not less, common as of 1986.” They will also claim that the Manifesto is biased because they are too focused on pointing out the advantages of the long duree when they mention “they needed to invert a crisis of short-terminism in the discipline in order to point out clearly toward the advantages of the long duree.” The response to Cohen and Mandler from the authors of the Manifesto is that their book was not meant to be looked at so closely and for every single detail and that Cohen and Mandler are “hanging judges.”   I would personally have to say that Cohen and Mandler get the upper hand in this argument.  I don’t believe that the biggest problem with the study of history is little picture vs. big picture.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Reviewing Digital History

For my review I decided to look through Civil War themed archives one of the reasons being that archives are usually what I like to look through while I am doing research myself and, as of right now, I am hoping to focus on the Civil War/Civil War politics. After searching through various archives I decided to go with: The North Carolina Sesquicentennial Archive ( ) in association with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resource.
The website has been updated as recently as 2016. I don’t know what was added or revised in 2016 so I cannot say how current the scholarship is; but I would have to say that more than likely the website was published sometime between 2011 and 2015 (the monuments section has not been updated since 2010) so I can’t imagine that the information would be too out of date. I do want to make it known that most of the archival information on the site is not directly on the site, it is linked with the North Carolina Archive collection; but I decided to review this “archive” because it does include up to date scholarship and it is accessible to those attempting to study Civil War/North Carolina history. So I have considered it an archive because it can be used for the exact same purpose.
My first opinion of the archive was that it does not prove to be very user friendly (at least not for me) I am used to using archives and databases where the information is much more obtainable. The task bar (?) at the top of the home page includes: “home, mission, committee, themes, timeline, history, education, events, maps, and monuments.” You have to scroll down on the page to get to the topics that one might actually be utilizing the site for. That’s when you get to the records (most of them).  This archive includes topics such as: “Tar Heels at Harpers Ferry, Tar Heels Pitch in: North Carolina’s Contributions to the Civil War, and Sherman’s March through North Carolina.” That part is well organized and easily accessible; but I believe it would have been more so if there had been a tab for “topics” or something of that nature at the top of the task bar instead of having to scroll down the page. Now, the theme of the archive, I found to be quite apparent. The theme is North Carolina’s role in the Civil War. We see that in the title: North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial. The title, even though simple and straightforward, could also have been a little bit more specific. It could have been something along the lines of “Celebrating” or “Remembering” the Civil War in North Carolina. The theme of the archive does become apparent rather quickly; but not immediately because I found myself wondering at first: “Is this an archive about North Carolina Civil War history or is it an archive sponsored by the state of North Carolina about Civil War history everywhere in order to celebrate its 150th anniversary?”  There is a timeline, which I did not really appreciate. The timeline is just basic text and you can click on a year at the top and it’ll bring you to that year’s timeline of events in North Carolina but there are no visualizations. I think that the timeline could have been much better utilized if there would have been links to records associated with that date or even including records or visualizations with the timeline.”  I don’t much about creating these sites; but I don’t think adding a link to a relevant document/record somewhere else on the site would have been that difficult or costly. This is especially because when you click on “maps” there are several maps that link to other sites to give you more information about that specific battle, etc.

This archive does not make use of updated media and some of the links I have found are inaccessible. I would have really liked more access to animated maps or even the use of visualizations such as graphs, photos, etc.  This DEFINITELY would be great as an exhibit and I know for a fact that there is one in Henderson county about Civil War/North Carolina history; but I do not know if it is associated with the State Department like this site is or with the county (I am pretty confident the museum I am thinking of is county-run) but the point is that this would be very useful as an exhibit. Contrasting any exhibit with a digital archive, I would prefer the digital when I am looking to contribute to my research and try to find something very specific. I would probably use this site if I were focusing on the Civil War in North Carolina; but for anything else I believe I would leave it be. There are much better archives and resources out there; but this one does the job that it was meant to.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Analyzing Visualizations

David Staley defines visualization as “any graphic that organizes meaningful information in multidimensional special form.” He gives us some examples of visualization which include: maps, diagrams, panoramas, schematics, charts, and time series graphs. (xi) To clarify, he mentions that no, visualizations should not be considered illustrations or even “decorations”; but the “main carrier” of meaningful information. In his introduction and most of the first part of his book, Computer, Visualization and History, Staley recognizes the fact that visualizations have often taken a back seat to the written word. He refers to historians as “word people” who associate anything serious with the written word. “Historians have written history for hundreds of years. Despite the allure or computer visualizations, we might find it difficult to break this institutional habit.” What I really like about Staley’s book is that it focuses on a variety of ways in which history can be represented through visualizations with and without the computer. Staley mentions that most historians see the computer as nothing more than a word processor and a email sender, being that for the most part, I feel uncomfortable using the computer for much else myself, I really enjoyed this reading.
At first glance it looks like Staley is putting the visualization on a pedestal and saying that it is the new frontier and we should it embrace it; but, as I continue to read, I noticed that he is making his case more for equating visualizations with the written word.  In some ways, visualization can be more appropriate or maybe even more useful such as when the historian is trying to convey information that is not necessarily in linear order. I found it interesting the way Staley refers to writing history the same way someone would refer to writing prose or fiction. I had never considered writing style when writing history myself. He mentions “a historian’s linguistic choices may result in different accounts of the past,” which means that regardless of intent, the historian will make the conscience decision to either include or not include certain facets of the past and this alter the way we learn the information. When reading this, I thought of a quote from Abraham Lincoln that I like to use in discussing him.  In writing to Horace Greeley, Lincoln says, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Even in that instance, I had to pick and choose which section of the quote was enough and how much of it I needed to further emphasize Staley’s point. Typically if you have a historian/writer who is anti-Lincoln he could choose to use the quote this way: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it…” and be done with it. This is a direct quote from Lincoln regarding slavery and it has been used to assist the storyline that Lincoln was not interested in freeing any slaves. You could also take the same quote and use a different section of it to make the point that Lincoln has always been “The Great Emancipator” we all wish him to be. Of course there are better and more examples I could think of; but this seemed to be the simplest one. My point is (if it hasn’t been made clear already) is that in this way, I agree with Staley. Originally, this whole chapter caused me to become slightly irritated with him because you could absolutely do the same thing with a visualization. That was before I gave him the chance to further explain himself.
I had always been under the impression that if a little effort was put in, you could do what you can to recreate the past.  Staley references Louis Mink’s quote: “The job of this historian is not to reduplicate the lost world of the past but to ask questions and answer them.” Staley spends a long time giving examples of things such as photographs, primary sources, videos even historical landmarks and asserting that, bless their heart, they could try all they want but they are never going to recreate the past. This struck a nerve with me as I thought about this one Civil War reenactor I remember reading about in Tony Horowitz’s book Confederates in the Attic who went through the most extreme conditions I have ever heard of to try and recreate the historical experience for viewers (and possibly himself). Now, I am not  going to spend time going into detail about this man and what he did (or what his name was) because that would be getting off topic; but I had always thought that if anyone could make the past come alive it was people like him but then Staley dashes my hopes (again). He says essentially that we will never have the ability to recreate the past with words or images or anything because we don’t have a time machine. In this way he is putting visualizations and images on the same level. Both are biased, neither is better than the other and neither will ever tell us EVERYTHING about what happened. Only being there can accomplish that goal.
I also want to briefly talk a little more about my personal feelings. I have always been a visual learner. In fact, when I teach, I will never show a PowerPoint slide without an image and I love sharing videos with my students. I don’t mean that I make them sit through Ken Burns and Crash Course every day because I am lazy and want the video to do the work for me; I have trouble learning with nothing but text. As for the individual mentioned who referred to visualizations as a “distraction” he obviously has never tried to teach because I cannot imagine teaching without them. First of all, I would have the most difficult time talking about a battle with nothing but the written word. Sure, I could convey the information that way; but I think the true meaning would be lost. I am glad that Staley talked about film as a secondary source because I plan on using animated history maps and scenes from “Gettysburg” to help teach my students. Without a doubt. I remember being a student myself and listening to Dr. Gannon describe a battle in detail but not really understanding until I saw that animated map. There are a variety of things a visualization can do to help teach. It gives us an example of space and time, what it might have looked like, what the individuals involved in the event may have felt, etc.
I think I may have gotten off the topic of digital history in this blog post; but, I really enjoyed reading Staley interpretations on visualizations and applying to them to what I know and what I’ve experienced.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What is GIS?

To put it into a simple definition, GIS or geographical information system is a way for historians to try and tackle issues with space. Peter K. Bol writes that GIS presents “a platform for organizing data with temporal and spatial attributes—population, tax quotas, military garrisons, religious networks, regional economic systems, family history, and so on—representing them graphically and analyzing their relationships.” GIS also gives historians a better look at/understanding of maps while allowing them to go beyond simply mapping. To be even more specific, HISTORICAL GIS refers to the ways in which researchers take advantage of geospatial technologies for research and teaching by combining geohistoire (an idea of historian Fernand Braudel which maps human activity where possible), historical geography and spatial as well as digital history.
Kelly Anne Knowles refers to GIS as both a “superb tool” as well as something which is “problematic” for history. GIS is superb because “it allows one to visualize the geographic patterns embedded in historical evidence, examine evidence at different scales, aggregate date from smaller to larger units, and integrate material from textual, tabular, cartographic, and visual sources provided that they share common geographic location” and problematic simply because it relies on mathematics. Mathematics is an issue for most historians who tend to focus on images rather than quantitative data.
Let’s take a look at some of the case studies included in the reading. The first I am going to bring up is “The Salem Witch Trials Archive” which use primary sources such as court documents and proceedings which took place in the colony. The archive becomes a great resource for a variety of historians studying early America. In addition to just being an online archive the project has taken on an aspect of GIS by linking biographical information about those involved in the Salem witch trials (those specifically mentioned in the documents) to the locations of their homes. Of course, it is obvious that it shows the researcher where each individual lived; but for what purpose? The creator of the Salem Witch Trials archive, Benjamin C. Ray uses GIS in his project to illustrate that “witchcraft accusations did not reflect clear geographical and social divides between Salem’s merchant class and less wealthy farm families, as the prevailing view has long contended.” As you can see, this is an example of how GIS can answer questions that have long been invisible to researchers.
I spent a lot of time also looking at chapter 10: “What Could Lee See at Gettysburg” because I am passionate about Civil War history and I wanted to see how GIS is making an impact in that realm. The historical question being asked is, of course, in the title. However the bigger question would be: “why is it so important to know what exactly Lee saw at Gettysburg?” Historians want to know why General Lee gave the “go ahead” to what would eventually be known to historians as “Pickett’s Charge” in which Confederates were simply massacred. To me, the obvious response would be to look at what Lee had to say about the event, or a soldier from either side who was present. Perhaps that way we could get a good idea of what transpired to cause this disaster for General Lee. Of course, we can try and see what Lee saw by visiting the battlefield itself. The National Park Service has been working hard to maintain the battlefield for historians and tourists alike. So why GIS? Why do we need it when it is possible we could find out from an eye witness or even go to the preserved battlefield ourselves? There are several other questions asked within the chapter itself. “Can the evidence of sight be used to test the credibility of generals’ post hoc justifications, such as Longstreet’s explanation of his long counter march on July 2? Did the Union’s possession of Cemetery Ridge give Major General George G Meade and his intelligence officers’ superior knowledge of the battlefield and enemy movements in addition to providing them more defensible positions?”  Knowles makes the argument that both Lee and (union) General Meade would have been excellent resources due to their expertise in topographical mapping which they both gained at West Point.
GIS is able to assist us in this endeavor by doing what the generals in 1863 could not. “GIS uses a digital model of the terrain to determine points and areas that are, or are not, theoretically visible from a known viewpoint.” Curtis Musselman, cartographer and GIS coordinator at Gettysburg National Military Park has created renderings of historic roads and lanes, fence lines, property boundaries, and buildings as they stood in 1863. “He also provided a digital elevation model (DEM) developed for Adams County by a private firm in 1996 and a set of contour lines at five foot intervals that had been interpolated from the DEM. The elevation data meets the US Geological Survey’s national map accuracy standards for 1:4,800 scale mapping.” The digital terrain that has been created using GIS is a simplified version of the reality. What makes it stand out to researchers is that it provides us with information that even the great generals did not have: the big picture.
What researchers ended up discovering was that General Lee had an excellent view from the Lutheran Seminary on July 2, 1863. There is a monument to Lee at the park where it is believed he was supposed to have watched the final assault. “Standing with his field staff on the edge of a copse of woods near the center of the Confederate’s line of attack, he would have had a fairly clear view across the undulating fields to his objective…the GIS viewsheds help one imagine what might have gone through the minds of soldiers and commanders that fateful day.”
Another component of GIS is offering students to make new discoveries about history using technology.  For students who are living in a world where they look up everything on the Internet, the realm of digital history and GIS is a perfect fit. Students can apply their skills with technology to mapping, organizing files, building databases and most importantly, complementing their writing with a visual representation. In addition to this, using GIS will allow students to find spatial data and have their own visual representation of history without having to imagine what it would look like or what effects geography made on the resulting history. GIS also helps students frame research questions and engage in analytical thinking. For example, students might be compelled to ask themselves: “What is spatial about this research?” “Why does space matter?”
How did rivers affect the eventual manufacturing?” etc.

Like many other components of digital history, it appears we still have a lot to learn about geospatial mapping; however, it is exciting to see how technology is playing a role in helping us understand the past and even take a look at images that were once long gone.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Pasts and Futures of Digital History

What is digital history? What distinguishes it from “traditional” practice in the field of history? What distinguishes it from the larger field of digital humanities?
As mentioned in “What is Digital History”, “digital history might be understood broadly as an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems…digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collection efforts.” So what does that mean exactly? Well, I’d like to start by addressing the fact that like digital humanities, digital history isn’t the most popular and we have seen examples of historians becoming disenchanted. In “Promises and Perils of Digital History” we hear from two historians in the early age of digital history. Marxist historian David Noble says “A dismal new era of higher education has dawned…in future years we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic high education system and wonder how we let it happen.” However, none of this predicted chaos has come to pass. In fact, the field of digital history has been on the rise.
It was mentioned in “The Past and Futures of Digital History” that digital history was tailor made for historians. The author of the article itself mentions having an affinity for working online and with computers and in this technology age, history is now becoming more and more accessible and collaborative than anyone has ever seen it. Digital history is not just historical journals online or endless databases, it is also a resource for the “amateur historian”: the teacher, the classroom student, the enthusiast, the Civil War reenactor. Because of this new digital world we find ourselves in, information is more accessible for non-historian. In fact, a few years ago Yahoo listed 32,959 history websites providing information for virtually every archive, museum, house, site you could possibly think of.  In “Projects and Perils of Digital History” we are told that “almost every historian looks at the computer as basic equipment.” One of the projects mentions is “H-Net” which is a “large, active, differentiated, participatory, and convenient network of historians of all levels talking to one another about our common passion.”H-Net is simple and straightforward—the desired of effect of the being influenced by the digital world.
Not only has history become more accessible; but we are seeing a larger capacity to hold information (a 120 GB hard drive can hold a 120,000 volume library that can be accessed right at your desk!), more diversity (more people can access this information than ever before) and more flexible (the experience of consuming history has changed drastically).
It is also important to note how digital history differs from the giant umbrella of digital humanities. In digital history, we tend to focus on collection, presentation, and dissemination of material online whereas digital humanities focuses more on creating than organizing or defining anything. Digital humanities and digital literary studies have different focuses, for example. As Stephen May mentions: “I’m not saying that the presentation of material online is not part of digital literary studies: electronic scholarly editions and manuscript collections such as The Shelley-Godwin Archive are longstanding parts of that field, but, as the current debate indicates, at present they are not its predominant focus. To clarify, historians are going to focus on getting the information and not so much in creating any type of visualization or creation.
Digital history is not a perfected art form. According to Dr. McClurken “digital projects are complex, and because of versioning and because projects may take directions that the software creators never intended, it raises all kinds of questions.” Some of those questions might be: how do we give credit to every contributor? Should every contributor be recognized for their contribution? After all, “historians as professionals are not trained to play well together. We go alone into archives, commune with the dead, and come back. But most digital history projects are collaborations. Within the discipline, there are resources for collaboration: for example, librarians and archivists. In terms of digital humanities training, the library field is so far ahead of us. Now, I think, history graduate students are getting better at engaging with digital tools in their teaching.” And that is true. Each new generation that decides to come to this field will be more adept than the rest of us as well as be able to bring new ideas and new ways of envisioning/studying history.
Of course these aren’t the only issues. How does the digital historian or even the digital history students do about reliability? How can we determine what is authentic on the Web. We tell our kids to stray away from particular sites such as Wikipedia due to its ability to be edited; but, now we can see that sites like Wikipedia are using citations and becoming more and more reliable tools for history students.

It’s clear that there are a lot of mixed emotions when it comes to studying history digitally. I think that, with anything else, we will be able to grow and adapt and make these tools work for us in ways we can’t imagine even now.