Digital Visualization and Historical Data

Data visualization is very useful when trying to make a huge amount of data have the biggest impact as possible. Synthesizing into charts has been very useful, and has even made major changes in the way different civilizations do things. For example, Florence Nightingale, compiled data in a pie chart that effectively show cased how most soldier were dying from infection rather than combat. (Allen) She is an example of how “advocates for various causes have also embraced visualization as a medium for communicating the breadth and depth of the problems they seek to communicate and, ultimately, solve.” (Allen) Her analysis, and synthesis of data showcases how powerful data visualization tools can be.

Archaeologists used data visualization tools to retain the information that is lost is when they removed the artifacts from their physical context. (Unsworth) Data visualizations that include detailed maps, and layouts of where and how these different objects were found provides information on their age and the dates and times of the various livings sites they were found by or in. This data collected by archaeologists can be used in an even more extraordinary manner, such as creating a virtual city.

An architectural firm in Newcastle has done just that when it created a three-dimensional view of the colony of Newcastle in Australia. The details, and layout of the city are incredible. They used archival maps, archaeological information, and GIS to create it. (Ray) This immersive and interactive portrayal of historical information illustrates exactly where history can, and is going.

Oral History

Oral history is hard to define because of the wide array of sources that are considered oral history. Things such as the story of Beowulf to the conversation you had with your father about his childhood in the 60s all could be called oral history. Historians officially agree that oral history officially started in 1940 when a historian wanted to record information on President Grover Cleveland. (What is Oral History) He interviewed and recorded people that knew him and worked with him in order to provide information to future historians or biographers.

Oral history, according to the article “What is Oral History, ” is a “self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record. Although the conversation takes the form of an interview, in which one person–the interviewer–asks questions of another person–variously referred to as the interviewee or narrator–oral history is, at its heart, a dialogue.” This immediacy, and dialogue that takes place between two people is closely related to the fields of anthropology and journalism. Include, the fact that most sources being created today are video sources means that we need to become adept at analyzing video. We will need team members in order do this effectively.

Parnterships are necessary with “journalists” or “public media producers” in order to make the best of the new technologies that are now at the disposal of historians. I think this digitization of information and the huge amount digital sources being video is going to make all historians into oral historians or instead “video historians.” (Kaufman)

Oral history has the ability to move history from visually focused exhibits and website we see to more rich and dynamic experiences by using sound. (Teabeau) Nothing compares to a human voice, and a moving human face to make the past relatable to modern audiences. Oral history, and video history are going to be the name of the game.

Copyright and Digital History

Copyright laws come into existence in Europe with “the invention of the printing press” and increased “public literacy.” (Wikipedia) Prior to this invention medieval Europe tended “to view knowledge as the product and expression of the collective, rather than to see it as individual property.” (Wikipedia) Laws were passed in Britian that were aimed at breaking up monopolies of printing presses, and the individual rights of artists were recognized with the coming of the Enlightenment. (Wikipedia)

Copyright laws existed from the beginning of the United States. They aimed to recognize the rights of the individual artist, while simultaneously supporting an intellectual commons. Today that idea still exists, and is something that historians must wrestle with.

Copyright laws, and unintentional infringement of these laws is a nightmare of any historian wishing to produce digital works. Partly, because “collaboration” and “sharing” are an “integral to a field like history.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig) In other words a lot of the work we do as historians is built on the work of others. This is easily apparent during the research and writing process of any historical piece.   We are able to borrow ideas from historians as long we recognize where that idea came from. If strict copyright laws, like the ones enforced on music, we would essentially be out a job.

“Fair use” laws allow historians “limited borrowing from the work of others,” and “was acceptable when that borrowing produces something new and useful.” (Cohen and Rosezweig) One problem I have with these laws is that who determines what is “new and useful?”

Using Digital Sources in Traditional Historical Work

Crowdsourcing on the Internet presents a slew of problems and blessings.   One of the benefits of crowdsourcing is that the collections created online are “far larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig) This upending of traditional hierarchies is not something new to the Internet. It did the same thing with the invention of eBook publishing. Writers who could not afford to have their books published traditionally now can, bypassing the rigorous selection process of a traditional publisher. This easier path to publishing also has allowed more low quality works to be published. This same idea of quality standards can be applied to the digitally born collections created by crowdsourcing. Sometimes, the quality of digitization of a photograph or sound recording of an oral history is poor. This populist form of history does not have the strict guidelines that the archivists do, so the material collected is not always high quality.

The highly fluid or “ephemeral” nature of primary sources “born digital” make for an interesting discussion about the practicalities of using these sources in your work as an historian. (Cohen and Rosezweig) For instance, in my current Master’s project I would like to use comments and pictures posted on a page for a Facebook Group for hunters on and around the Colville Reservation. Most of the group members are Native, and they post opinions, pictures of their kills, the weapons they use, and information on such hunting events as the “Tribal Elder Hunt.” This page is a fount of information on my topic, which is exploring the revival of traditional foods among the Plateau. But how do I cite this information? Can I use specific names when I am quoting the comments they left? What about the pictures that are posted? Does copyright apply? Do I need to ask permission to use these primary sources? Facebook pages are highly unstable, as well. The feed is constantly growing, and people do sometimes delete their posts. How can another scholar find that primary source I referenced when it is not a static object or document? These are the questions that I am wrestling with right now. These are questions that I am facing as an historian right now.

This weeks readings focus on the building of a website and ensuring that said website is preserved. To sum Cohen and Rosenzweig’s recommendations you need to “back up, create simple, well documented standardized code.”   I find this information helpful only if you are going to create your own website from scratch, which is very unrealistic for myself, and for a lot historians because of a lack of funds and coding skills. A more practical approach would be to use a platform that is already in place, and maintained at someone else’s expense or by you at a low price. For example, Facebook is a great tool for presenting historical information. One librarian from the University of Nevada created 2 Facebook accounts for real people from 1910. He posted photos, and created posts that made sense for these people, sometimes quoting the archival information she had available. A link to an article on this page is here. Another possibility is using such sites as WordPress, Weebly, or Wix. These are all platforms that can be utilized by people with limited funding, time, or skill.

The Power of Digital Tools

When designing a website defining who your audience for is key. Your audience will determine all the information presented, and how it’s presented. Cohen and Rosenzweig, point out that if “significant numbers of your site’s visitors are not part of your intended audience,” re-making your website is not out of the question. In fact any digital historian worth their salt would be constantly changing and up keeping their website in order to serve its visitors.

One way to reach your audience is to use the community networks you are already familiar with. For example, let’s say you are an American Historian at a local university that simultaneously works with students who wish to be academic historians and secondary education students wishing to obtain social studies endorsements. You create a website that serves both of these audiences, but in different ways, as Cohen and Rosenzweig recommend. You, in this metaphorical world, have connections already with 2 very large communities with their own networks, professional organizations, and personal connections. It is imperative to use these largely FREE communities to your advantage when promoting your website. This is done through word of mouth, mass emails, conference presentations, and in person connections that happen naturally in the course of your work.

Mass marketing of your website seems to be something only the very well funded website is able to afford, but there are some way that one can use the tools of mass marketing to your advantage. One is through utilizing Google’s use of keywords. When naming your website make sure the header has common keywords that would be utilized by potential site visitors.

However, I think, Google, and other digital tools, to a certain extent, are not the bastions of democracy we would hope for. One example, of something that I think is more than it appears is the National Digital Public Library. The library’s goal of “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations,” is a wonderful goal. (Darnton) I can’t help but wonder though the very real cost of such a project, and the advanced infrastructure that it relies on that limits the creation of such a library as only possible for very wealthy countries. In a way this increased digitization of history is a form of imperialism. If only documents and works from these certain wealthy cultures are the only ones that are preserved it will be the only history that is told because of the ease of access, and the free sticker tag to site visitors; it will encourage research in that direction because of those practicalities.

One way I think some impoverished or war torn cultures are combating this are through creative use of the cheap mobile phone cameras that are everywhere. In Syria they created a “Mobile Film Festival.” I think this is amazing. These people are actively participating in the creation of a collective memory of the conflict. The problems I forsee for them is the ability to compile, and store all of this data in a network, like the National Digital Library. I don’t think this will be possible for quite some time.

This was taken from Al Arabiya News. This is a picture of young Syrians filming a protest.

Using and Designing Digital Tools To Do History

Designing historical content for the Internet in the form of a website can be a challenging notion for people who are much more used to dealing with archives. It is important for the historian to keep in min the primary purpose of your website. Your website needs to be planned out in the same way you would plan out an article or book. (Cohen and Rosenzweig) Everything from layout, content, and domain name need to be consciously chosen in order to make the most of your website. (Cohen & Rosenzweig) Depending on what sort of webpage you decide upon will determine the practical questions of costs, databases, and the level of software you will need to create the website.

One of the dangers of digital history would be getting caught up in statistics and data, but one way in which technology can bring the human story to the forefront is through face recognition software, which is highlighted in Tim Sherrat’s article, “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Sherrat highlights the power of search tools, like face recognition software, that is able to search through thousands of photos in an amount of time that is humanly impossible. This sort of search capabilities allows historians to do research on both a grand scale, because of the sheer volume, and on a very human scale because the search highlights individual human stories.

These search tools, even the simple ones, like the keyword search challenge traditional power structures. (Sheratt) Archives, and the way governmental records are stored follow and reinforce existing power structures by organizing their documents in ways that mirror these structures of power. This structure is challenged when the archives digitize their records and open them to searches using tools like face recognition or keyword searches. These searches break down walls because they use a logic or intelligence that is removed from a human being; at least to a certain extent. These tools also help us overcome the “information overload” that seems to be occurring presently, by aiding us in the “storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing” of vast amounts of data. (Cohen)

Challenges of Digital History

The digitization of history presents a wide variety of advantages and pitfalls for the historian, but it does not replace the historian. The historian is key in the development of the story, or argument that is being made on the digital platform whether that be a website, image, or video. The technology allows historians to reach a wider audience, while also engaging in a non-traditional presentation of history.

Because of the nonlinear nature of the web presenting a historical argument is challenging. The traditional essay or thesis that is the foundation of any history program in the United States does not lend itself easily to creating a website. Cutting and pasting your paper, and calling that good are unacceptable because such a format is not visually appealing. The Internet first and foremost is visual. One only has to look at any major website like CNN, Yahoo, National Geographic, to see that a certain amount of flash and flare is needed in order to capture the audiences attention.

Secondly, how do you portray an argument in a format that uses visuals, audio, and video? Unlike, the traditional essay your argument is not stated in explicit language. Instead, in some sense it is embedded in the pictures you choose, the sound bytes that play at the clicking of an image or its placement, and coloring of your entire website. The historian by engaging in this new format in some ways needs to become familiar with the power of placement, lighting, coloring, and the subtle art of image selection. These are all things that filmmakers are aware of, and I’m sure the best PR Professionals and web-designers are as well.

One thing that all the previously mentioned professionals, and the historian who uses digital tools must be very aware of is audience. For example, large news organizations like Aljazeera has multiple website for the multiple countries it serves. Even the English speaking countries of America and the UK have different content, layout, and color schemes tailored to its audience. (The hyperlink connected to Aljazeera is the one tailored to the US. I have accessed the Aljazeera English website which is connected to UK. I had opened and read through it, after a while I was blocked from the website, and only able to access Aljazeera America.) As you can see the content of these websites is different. The American website is dominated by a deep blue, and the English by a bright orange. These observations are superficial, but they do point towards this idea of the creator of the website changing the website to fit the needs of the audience. If a historian is to be successful in this digital form audience awareness is vital.