Blog #3 Out of the Library and into the Street: Examining Conventional and Public History

     As public historians seek to follow historical narratives out of the library and into the street, a new relationship is forged between old and new methods. Katharine Corbett, Graham Carr and Benjamin Filene all cite examples of the relationship between advocates of conventional practices and public historians which can be both antagonistic and cooperative. On one hand, as Carr aptly puts it, there is an ongoing argument over which side has the “right to do history in public.”[1] On the other, Corbett maintains that history and heritage (popular and conventional methods) have become “blurred.”[2] What has emerged in the twenty-first century then, is an overlapping of two methods of historical practice: conventional and popular history. One the study of documented narratives and the other tangible pursuit of popular heritage.

Corbett acknowledges this overlap by noting that “traditionally…history was a narrative of the past whereas heritage was…more tangible” and “could be inherited.”[3] Moreover she argues that “since the 1950s, popular usage has blurred the terms, but they still stand for different approaches to the past.”[4] Filene similarly finds that conventional and popular history currently face different audiences: “museums and sites struggle to attract audiences and bemoan the public’s lack of interest in history” whereas “genealogists, heritage tourism developers, and re-enactors…working outside museums and universities, without professional training, and often without funding, are approaching history in ways that fire the enthusiasm of thousands.”[5]

The relationship between conventional and popular history becomes even more interesting when methodological differences are laid aside and advocates from both sides choose to rally around the same historical project. This situation is best illustrated in the case of the 1992 Canadian television documentary miniseries The Valour and the Horror which Carr describes. The films, which examined three significant Canadian battles from World War Two, appeared highly credible by conventional standards. They were co-produced by the CBC, the National Film Board of Canada and Galafilm Inc. In addition, they were directed by award-winning journalist Brian Mckenna. Despite these credentials, the miniseries was subject to intense criticism from veterans groups for allegedly creating a biased and incomplete portrayal of Canadian military actions. Interestingly, the side in support of the films included both conventional military historians such as John Keegan as well as organizations which fit more on the popular history side such as the Writer’s Union, the Guild and the Producer’s Association. Perhaps this cooperation is what Corbett had in mind when she suggested that “with effort and luck, [professional historians] can join in the public’s ongoing conversation.”[6]

 


[1] Carr, Graham. Rules of Engagement: Public History and the Drama of Legitimation.” The Canadian Historical Review 86, no. 2 (2005): 354.

 

[2] Corbett, Katharine T., and Howard S. (Dick) Miller. “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry.” The Public Historian 28, no. 1 (February 1, 2006): 22.

 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Filene, Benjamin. “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us.” The Public Historian 34, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 11.

 

[6] Corbett, 38.

Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica etc Debate

So… after declaring how it is easier to use Wikipedia since when you Google a given thing the top hits are always Wikipedia and NEVER a link to another encyclopedia, I just had my first ever opposite experience. I was looking up a poem – Speak What by by Marco Micone – and to my shock my search did not elicit a link to Wikipedia at all. However, the WAS a link to an Enyclopedia Britannica entry. It seems like old fashioned encyclopedias are still filling a bit of a niche – at least for now.

The Credibility of Wikipedia and Other Open Source Projects

Wikipedia has become an essential first step in the research of many researchers. Regardless of whether you use it to refresh your memory, or as an introduction to the topic, the significance of Wikipedia has grown and its offerings have multiplied along with it. The debate in the world about Wikipedia is the continuous debate on the credibility of the Wikipedia sources (being an open-source concept) and more specifically between the scholarly work produced by academic journals and the informal work produced by the thousands of contributors to Wikipedia. Roy Rosenzweig points out in his essay that in 25 biographies on Wikipedia, only 4 came back with errors, where as in 10 articles on MSN’s Encarta, 3 errors popped up. This could just be coincidence but 30% of articles found with an error on Encarta, versus the 16% of errors found on Wikipedia suggest that one should begin to reexamine the credibility of websites such as Wikipedia verse MSN Encarta. The fact that these two encyclopedia, one open sourced the other closed sourced, are so close in comparison with their errors, with Wikipedia in fact outperforming Encarta on this note, suggests that Wikipedia should be reexamined as per how the academic world views it.

Rosenzweig points out that what makes it further difficult to trust Wikipedia scholarship is the make up of its authors and their perceived biases. The articles that have come out in most detail on Wikipedia are articles topics perceived to be considered passions of a geek, like Star Wars and Coronation Street, where Coronation Street on Wikipedia was longer than the article on Tony Blair. Whether or not this Tony Blair’s article is longer is not the entire relevancy of the point, whether it be biased through the lenses of multiple geeky contributors or vice versa, most scholarly work already maintains some sort of bias and different events in history all suggest preferences towards history that is more exciting. The scholar community should begin to recognize Wikipedia as a beneficial resource, as its usefulness to any one interested in researching any topic in history is a key starting point. There is no question however that Wikipedia’s credibility is affected by the fact that it is open-sourced and its contributors tend to lean closer to the computer geeks biases. However, I argue that just as one reads any article, information must be viewed critically, since there is bias in the majority of history.

On a final note, having been a university student for a few years, I have noticed that regardless of the fact that the university does not view Wikipedia as a credible source, every student has used wikipedia in some form for a project, they simply avoided recognition of the fact. This isn’t to say that students are plagiarizing, but that the site is used as a basic stepping stone and guide to further dig into the topic at hand. It simply doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. These sort of open-source websites provide a new way to process information. Rather than individuals interpreting and editing the information alone, its more a team project where each individual can combine with others to link their efforts, as one builds off another. This can be realized in The Spider and the Web Project, a competition which took the picture of an object and through a description of where it was found a number of thought streams poured over the internet into suggestions of what it might be and how it could have been located where it was. This sort of benefit of the open source internet world allows for individuals to actually open a door of creativity and thoughts that could potentially be used to solve problems in a way not before considered. Hopefully scholars in the future will recognize the importance of this tool in history, for greater collaboration and an efficient source of communicating information for those researching and those posting, this sort of online brainstorming is highly beneficial to the discover and debate of history.

Fashionably Late: Website Review.

In order to find an historical website that I was completely unfamiliar with, I turned to my good friend Stumbleupon. I limited my ‘interests’ to just history, and started stumbling. A lot of the websites I came across were blurbs, maps, videos, or other things that didn’t quite fit what I was looking for. And then I stumbled upon the Digital Vaults, at www.digitalvaults.org.  The Digital Vaults, as the intro to the website explains, is a collection of more than 1200 digitized archival selections from the massive (actually, though – massive) collection of the United States National Archives. Once you’ve clicked past the intro text, you are given a selection of eight archival texts, from pictures, to illustrations, to textiles, to documents. From there, clicking on any given text brings you to a constellation of related archives, which you can click through and explore. Tags such as ‘women’, ‘Minnesota’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘soldiers’ are attached to each archival text, and work to orchestrate the constellation of corresponding archival documents. The experience is largely visual, as you pick which archives you’d like to learn more about based almost exclusively on the image provided to you. Each archive you click on brings up a new constellation of related archives, and gives you the option to ‘View Archive Detail’, which shows you a short text blurb about that particular image. Each image also has the option of viewing it in the ARC, or the Archival Research Catalogue, which is housed on the National Archives website.

This website is a good way to show people the extent of the documents stored in the National Archives, but does not give the great detail and variety that would make it a truly stunning website. In some ways, it does the work of Wikipedia surfing, but in a more visually pleasing way. This website could, however, get people interested in personal history, as some of the selected archives are of a more micro, familial scale, in the same vein of ancestry.com or other such websites. The visual nature of the site also molds which the documents are provided – archives that are visibly ‘interesting,’ quirky, or unusual, are included more often than more ‘ordinary’ texts.

The Digital Vaults present an edited version of American archived History. While this website may be just enough to get someone truly interested in the archives, to the point where they might dig a little deeper into an unedited collection of documents, it gives a very narrow view of American historical events to those who might go no further than this site. While the lens is a very specific one, the selections in the Digital Vaults do not shy away from a few of the USA’s more disgraceful moments, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and there is a fair collection of what might be considered ‘minority archives’, addressing issues of Native American rights, the involvement of women in the marines and the workforce, and issues of migration.

The Digital Vaults is a good example of how a polished design can work with historical and archival documents in order to make an engaging, interesting website. It presents archival documents in a way that invites users to make connections between events, and despite its limited historical scope, hopefully inspires some to look further into the overwhelming collection of archives held by the U.S. National Archives.

Wiki is Hawaiian for “quick!?!?”

Wiki is Hawaiian for “quick!?!?”
Fascinating.
Apart from learning what the word wiki comes from, the exploration of the origin, creation, and maintenance of Wikipedia was most compelling when Swartz analyzed who really contributes the most to this online public encyclopedia. Swartz’s conclusion that Wikipedia is written in nearly the exact same way that all the expensive and prestigious other encyclopedias in the world are written, except on a larger scale, almost legitimizes wikipedia further for me. Wikipedia exemplifies precisely the value of the World Wide Wed that Berners-Lee had such trouble convincing his colleagues of only a handful of years before Wikipedia was conceived. A seemingly boundless network of networks can produce such unbelievable and valuable resources simply because of its scale. 1000ish dedicated editors revising and maintaining detailed contributions of hundreds of thousands of infrequent contributors certainly seems to me like a better and more progressive system than a team of scholars trying to accomplish the same task.
A couple points struck me about the Rosenzweig article that I want to touch on as well. Rosenzweig’s explanation of Wikipedia’s expansion and his evaluation of Wikipedia’s state in the present (2006) is mind boggling. So I wondered how has the internet, or the number of internet users, changed the way Wikipedia is used now, six years later. A quick Google search showed me that the number of internet users worldwide nearly doubled as of 2012. (see link)

http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/material/graphs/2010/Internet_users_00-10_2.jpg

Many of these new users are probably not English speaking, but nonetheless I wonder what sort of affect this has on Wikipedia.
Lastly, I was not a huge fan of Rosenzweig’s critique of the writing used in Wikipedia as opposed to encyclopedias or biographical databases. He has forgotten the most important fact about Wikipedia. Wiki means quick. If I want real thorough information on a person or event, I would not use Wikipedia as the end all be all of my investigation. It would be my QUICK start to help me link to other key articles, scholarly work, pictures, tables, graphs, and other information about a given topic. So in a way I think it simply does not matter that Wikipedia’s writing is sometimes unclear or is verbose or just empty, it is my QUICK reference.

History in a Website

Picking one historical website was hard. It was a decision between presenting on Ukrainian churches in Alberta or the Holocaust. But as I thought about what constitutes a historical website I found that the websites around Ukrainian churches in Alberta, or the Prairies for that matter, were more collections of photos then historical interpretations.  I choose the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s to review instead – http://www.ushmm.org/.

This website deals with the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general. It serves three purposes to publicizes the museum activities and exhibits, to display internet exhibits and to educate. The audience for this website is diverse, it can be used by teachers looking for teaching tools, academics, students both post secondary and primary to find sources and information, but as a whole this is a website meant for public use. Presenting for those interested and not specializing in the topic. Many of the articles in the website are not filled with citations, instead there is a list of suggested readings at the bottom, and links to photos, interview, film footage, maps and similar articles. It is similar to articles that you would read in History Today. This by no means makes the information given simple, simply accessible to everyone.

What is most interesting is the concept of an Internet exhibit, in it the viewer can examine the artifacts, look at photos, hear the stories from the survivors, read letters and move the exhibit around to highlight what you want to look at. It uses videos to incorporate these elements and then below the video gives more information on what you are hearing and seeing. Within the episode they have a ‘curators corner’ where a curator takes an object in their exhibit tells the story around it, for example they used a green sweater and had one of curators talk about it. Besides that there are links to podcast, blogs and interesting lectures.

As a whole this is an amazing website it is full of information and primary sources that one could use and one can browse through it easily. It has been able to use its collection effectively through the internet.

Granted they do not often go into some of the greyer areas of the Holocaust, for instance the image of the rescuer. On the website they are not dynamic instead a rescuer is rescuer, not someone who demands payment or betrays other rescuers.

This website has a lot of resources given to it and as a result it can create and maintain an interesting interactive website.  Can we have a website that is equally as dynamic with out the finical resources behind it?

Rethinking Rosenzweig re: Wikipedia

Ron Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source?” ponders, in my view, the central question of writing history in the age of new media — is the line between professional and non-professional scholarship in history being muddled by the advent of collaborative information sources like Wikipedia?

In addressing this question, Rosenzweig makes a couple of missteps that I think detract from his analysis in a rather significant way. Consider, for instance, his discussion of the length of various Wikipedia articles:

“It devotes 3,500 words to the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, more than it gives to President Woodrow Wilson (3,200) but fewer than it devotes to the conspiracy theorist and perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche (5,400); American National Biography Online provides a more proportionate (from a conventional historical perspective) coverage of 1,900 words for Asimov and 7,800 for Wilson.”

Here, Rosenzweig appears to misunderstand something fundamental about Wikipedia and the audience it serves. Firstly, Wikipedia should be thought of as a multi-dimensional, non-linear sort of platform. Sure, the article on Woodrow Wilson is shorter than the one on Lyndon LaRouche. However, it can be equally possible that an entry on Wilson features far more quality hyperlinks that direct readers to more traditional history sources. The key here is to evaluate Wikipedia not for the merits of the entries on their own, but for their capacity to aggregate and synthesize many diverse sources without restricting our access to them.

Secondly, Rosenzweig should consider that Wikipedia’s purpose is less to make original and unique contributions to history, and more to offer information about a topic that may have a dearth of sources on the web. Woodrow Wilson is, in many respects, far more consequential than Lyndon LaRouche. For this precise reason, more information about Wilson exists online. (A quick Google search for Wilson yielded 13.3 million results compared to LaRouche’s 920,000) A Wikipedia article on Wilson, then, does not need to be nearly as exhaustive as LaRouche’s entry.

Blog #2: The Wisdom of the Crowd

Amongst much of the debate surrounding the move of historical study to the digital realm, the role of the public and of amateur historians in the dissemination of knowledge is one that is of great importance, and of even greater contention. After all, aren’t experts in a given field only experts in relation to the general populate?

Many of the concerns regarding the exchange of information in a digital space are those qualities that the academic world prides itself for upholding – things like historical accuracy,[1] scholarly debate, and ensuring the contextualising of historical events via strong research.[2] Roy Rosenzweig and Aaron Swartz[3] use the example of Wikipedia as a prototype for the kind of collaboration and discussion that can happen between ‘netizens,’ and despite the debate that surrounds Wikipedia as a viable source of information, it can’t be denied that it has not only helped shaped how we get our information (How many times have we Wiki-ed a subject we don’t know?), but the nature of how we share that information.

But what does this mean for scholarly studies? Is it the case that there will always be such a divide between the scholar and the everyman? I think not. In fact, by embracing and engaging in such collaborative efforts that are being done online, academics have a greater chance of being able to share their knowledge with a greater community, not just the one behind the ivy-covered walls. Likewise, amateur historians will be able to benefit from the knowledge of those trained in the field, and be able to substantiate their own points of view with clear evidence, as opposed to mere statements/opinions. As Madsen-Brooks suggests, it would be better to view professional historians as ‘guides on the side’[4] and aid in increasing factual knowledge for all.

 

Side note: Something I found interesting is the fact that Wikipedia is considered by some to be an academic source.  However, it seems that to do so is bestowing upon it a dubious honour, since Wikipedia doesn’t make a claim to being such a source – in fact, the origins of its name {i.e. ‘wikiwiki’, Hawaiian for ‘quick’ or ‘informal’[5]) suggest that the very nature of such a resource is meant for background information, and not necessarily scholarly debate.  Just a personal thought that didn’t fit anywhere in my response, but that I wanted to note…


[1] Rosenzweig, R. ‘Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.’ Essays on History and New Media. Accessed September 25, 2012. http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42

[2] Madsen-Brooks, L. “‘I nevertheless am a historian’.” Writing History in the Digital Age, March 12, 2012.  Accessed September 25, 2012.  http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/madsen-brooks-2012-spring/

[3] Swartz, A. ‘Who Write Wikipedia?’  Raw Thought. Accessed September 25, 2012. http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/whowriteswikipedia

[4] Madsen-Brooks.  Ibid, par. 42.

[5] Rosenzweig.  Ibid, par. ‘Origins.’

Anneliese’s Response to Wisdom of the Crowd Readings

Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ article “I nevertheless am a historian” raises an important debate about historical scholarship on the web: who should be writing our history? Marshall Poe, an American professor and historian, which I found on Wikipedia, believes that Internet users who are “uncritical, poorly informed, and with axes to grind” should not be writing history (Madsen-Brooks, 5). Leslie Madsen-Brooks, also a professor and historian, makes a convincing argument that the public can be historians in their own right, producing “interesting and useful historiography,” as in the case of the Black Confederate Soldiers. (Madsen-Brooks 5). Given both historians’ arguments, I believe that the public should be encouraged to contribute to and share in telling history.

One of the best examples of public contributions to our historical scholarship is Wikipedia. While Jimbo Wales believes that over half of Wikipedia contributions are made by less than one percent of the users, Aaron Swartz reveals that in fact multiple users contribute large chunks to Wikipedia articles and only a select few users make several edits to the articles. Knowing this, it’s amazing that thousands of people have collaborated on over twenty-two million articles. Critically, in “Can History Be Open Source,” Rosenzweig highlights how a majority of Wikipedia contributors share characteristics: English speaking, male, above-average technological skills. Undoubtedly, these characteristics influence the scope, tone, and bias of their historical writing.

In the future, I would like to see an improvement in the quality and increase in the quantity and diversity of historical scholarship on the Internet. I believe that non-historians and historians alike will be responsible for using the Internet to share and to collaborate on the making of history. One avenue to do this would be through portals, similar to the University of Toronto Learning Portal, which allows networks of individuals in non-academic and academic settings to share information that contributes to a larger dialogue. While some academic historians may find this irrelevant, online sharing and publishing will enhance their research and allow them to reach a wider audience. Who should be writing our history? It should be us.

 

References

Madsen-Brookes, Leslie. “I nevertheless am a historian.” Accessed on September 21, 2012. http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/madsen-brooks-2012-spring/

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Can History be Open Source?” Accessed on September 21, 2012. http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42

Swartz, Aaron. “Who Writes Wikipedia?” Accessed on September 21, 2012. http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/whowriteswikipedia

Wikipedia. “Wikipedia.” Accessed on September 21, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia.

Wikipedia. “Marshall Poe.” Accessed on September 21, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Poe.

 

Blog II: Wherefore Study History?

The readings for this week formed a very cohesive and detailed discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of ‘lay’ or public participation in the analyzing and writing of historical sources on the internet. What strikes me as, perhaps, the most relevant part of the discussion is the notion of accessibility, that “academic historians have tended to write for an audience of other academics” (Madsen-Brooks, 8) and that the more reliable, scholarly historical sources offer limited access which is largely restricted to members of wealthy academic institutions (Rosenzweig, 138). The real question, it seems, is why, for what purpose, do we study history; is it simply to know that there exists, somewhere in a publication or a book, a detailed and nuanced record of what has come before us or is it to inform the general understanding of the present and to help people connect with their origins. As a student of history and a member of an academic institution, I certainly appreciate history for history’s sake, and the collection of knowledge as an endeavor with intrinsic value. However, it seems not only futile, but also selfish to keep this knowledge within a closed intellectual community. History is primarily the study of and the search for the popular or lay experience, so it seems pejorative to exclude this very community not only from the analysis of its past but also from the results of such analysis. The ability to devote oneself to this sort of intellectuality is a luxury that is afforded to historians only because of a large majority who do not; in return for this privilege I think that historians owe it to the public to promulgate the fruits of their labours beyond their own closed circles. Too much separation between an intellectual discipline and everyday life is the mark of its obsolescence; in order to remain relevant and worthwhile, the study of history needs to find a way to embrace public participation.