Archive for the ‘Full Post’ Category

Analyzing Digital Narratives

In The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander defines digital storytelling as “narratives built from the stuff of cybercultur.”  For Alexander, these narratives can play out on myriad types of technologies, from podcasts to twitter feeds and Facebook pages.  Alexander argues that stories are important because they allow us to share our material, not conceal it.  For a historian, I think this is an incredibly important point.  Certainly, historical monographs tell stories (or often try to tell stories), but all too often they fall victim to criticisms that these narratives are only written for the 5-10 people in a sub-field.  Incorporating a digital narrative into a project allows for a historians work to be shared to a wider audience.  And for scholars more grounded in “traditional” history, this can be a useful tool.

While there are countless numbers of digital narratives available online, there are two in particular I want to share.  The first is the WWII Tweets from 1940 twitter feed.  This is a six-year project that “live tweets” the events of WWII on the day and time they actually occurred.  This is an inventive way to tell the story of WWII in short, digestible bits of information through an immensely popular social medium.  As Alexander notes, the strength of twitter as a place for digital storytelling is in it’s immediacy, which “lends itself to ‘live’ stories.”  As of today, the twitter feed has over 228,000 followers.  Twitter deservedly draws criticism for the bevy of inanities posted daily, but the WWII tweets provides an interesting way for history to reach a broader audience.  In addition to the main twitter feed, the WWII Tweets has a corresponding facebook page.  Additionally, this idea is dedicated to reaching the widest audience possible, as it has corresponding pages offering translations in Spanish, Russian, German, French, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Korean, Hebrew, Romanian, and Latin.

While it is commendable that the WWII Tweets from 1940 page endeavors to reach such a wide audience, twitter is still limited in terms of how interactive it can be as a medium for a digital narrative.  Others can read and retweet the feed, but their ability to contribute to the conservation is limited.  I’d be interested in seeing if the same people who ran this twitter feed could start a second one that would “interact” with the first in hopes of expanding the community.

A more useful way to engage the audience and offer them a forum to discuss the topics is through podcasts.  Podcasts tap into the “ancient” tradition of storytelling, making podcasts “deeply historical, even nostalgic.”  The advantage to podcasts is, as Alexander notes, that we can google key terms, look for maps and images of relevant topics, and follow along at our own pace using the internet to supplement the podcast.  Katrina Gulliver has shown the effectiveness of podcasts as a way to reach a wider audience with a historical narrative.  Her podcast, Cities in History, explores different aspects of urban history, from the contributions of the Chicago School of urban sociology to the history of Havana.  Each podcast is paired with a series of monographs to read to offer historiographical context.  One advantage to the podcasts over the WWI twitter feed is the ability to comment.  In theory, a provocative podcast could generate a healthy conversation in the comments section.  The ability for audience engagement gives this brand of digital narrative a powerful edge over twitter.

While these are just two of many types of digital narratives, I think they offer at least a brief glimpse into the possibilities for this particular type of digital history.  Personally, of the various types of digital media I’ve studied so far, I find narratives to be the most intriguing and promising for my own work.

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

Working with Omeka

After a brief hiatus from this blog due to an unexpectedly eventful spring break, I return to post some thoughts on a project I’m working on for my digital media class.  This week and next week we will be putting together online exhibits using Omeka.  I’ve been experimenting with Omeka for about a week now, and I’ve come to some initial conclusions.  I find the use of Dublin Core both necessary and incredibly frustrating at the same time.

On one hand, I understand the need for uniformity across the board for all Omeka users.  Dublin Core has certainly developed enough descriptive categories that most users would be hard pressed not to have a way to properly label their uploaded items.  When designing a platform to accommodate so many different users, uploading such a disparate array of items, having a standardized form makes sense.

But at the same time, for a first-time user, it has been challenging.  I’ve been uploading runaway ads from the Pennsylvania Gazette, and sometimes I’ve been unsure of how to fill out the various categories.  For the creator, do I list the newspaper, the individual who placed the ad, or something else?  Similarly, if I convert a page into a PDF and upload it as an item, what do I do if there are more than one runaway ads on that particular page?  I’m hesitant to put too much text into the description, because an excessive wall of text seems counterproductive to the way in which Omeka is set up and the way it uses Dublin Core.  So I guess you could say I’m struggling between understanding the need for uniformity and the problems caused by the rigidity of the descriptive categories.  This also leads me to question just how much variety you have in terms of uploading items.  The categories seem to make it better suited for images than text-based documents, but that might just be due to my inexperience with Omeka.

I’m also intrigued by the idea of user-generated data.  To me, this presents a similar challenge to the ability for users to tag pictures on flickr.  On one hand, allowing users to add their own data onto an exhibit item offers the ability to share authority, to connect to the visitors to the exhibit site, and, in some cases, to gain a greater, more in-depth description of a particular item.  But considering the specificity inherent in the Dublin Core classification, it seems to run contrary to the variance that could come from user-generated data.  Additionally, when you’re uploading something very specific, like a runaway ad, the terms and data can be precise.  I could see potential problems having individuals place their own terms on something like that.

I suppose this raises larger questions about who has the authority to classify these items.  Should it only be the professionals, who have the training and background necessary to input data, or are these artificial distinctions that limit the ability for historical exhibits to reach a wider audience because of some notion of a gate-keeper who holds authority?

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

Flicking through Flickr

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

My freshman year of college corresponded with what I am dubbing the “digital camera revolution.”  You could scarcely go anywhere on a weekend without seeing someone taking a picture with a digital camera.  At parties, during spring break, on trips to away games for football, and even before class, friends and colleagues were snapping away.  Now this “revolution” occurred in an age when Facebook had yet to develop the photo album feature, so friends flocked to websites to upload their pictures, get the link, and share them through their AIM profiles (wow, that makes me feel old).

Today, it seems most pictures are taken with smartphones and immediately uploaded to Facebook.  But while this seems the norm, some websites still offer individuals and organizations a place to upload and share their photos.  One such site is flickr.  I’ll admit, I haven’t used flickr before, so I was on a bit of a learning curve this week as I browsed the site.  I did dislike the fact that it’s linked to yahoo, and that I would need a yahoo account and a separate flickr name to post and comment on pictures.  I already have far too many screen names and passwords.  And as someone who always needs an obnoxiously long password, it was a bit frustrating to need to write down yet another one.

I found the flexibility of flickr very refreshing.  The fact that images are tagged really makes it easy to find what you’re looking for (for the most part).  I remember old picture sites were all organized by user.  While you can search user images here, it’s nice to be able to streamline the search process by looking for specific tags.  My search for “sleeping pugs,” for example, yielded dozens and dozens of results.  It really takes some of the best aspects of these new technologies, the connectedness, and applies it to images.

At the same time, it’s nice that you can search by group, too.  My search for “history” yielded a jumbled mass when I just searched for the same term by group or person it was more manageable and led me to what I wanted faster.  This was generally the tactic I used to find historical groups and specific archives.  Though I did accidentally luck my way into finding the Smithsonian’s various collections of images.

Still, it isn’t a perfect site.  I don’t quite know why a baseball field showed up when I searched for “gilded age,” but I suppose no search feature is without its faults.  So I think you’re always going to get some extra images you weren’t really looking for in each search.  I’m particularly intrigued by the interconnectedness promoted by flickr.  I think it’s great that historical societies and museums can use tags to help organize images, and that informed users can add comments to help fill in information about a given image.  I can see how this might be especially helpful for someone doing research into genealogy, for example.

I do wonder what the future could hold for flickr.  It certainly has perks, but it’s still limited in its complete application.  With museums and archives moving towards digitized formats, I wonder if the tagging and comment feature could be used for other archival material, not just pictures.  There are pictures of everything from historic photos to animals on flickr.  So could you upload an image of a manuscript to flickr?  I think that might be problematic as far as copyright issues are concerned.

I don’t know if flickr is something a historian should use to any great extent.  The more modern history you’re doing the more useful you will most likely find the website.  There were few images, that I found, of early Pennsylvania.  But if I was researching 1950s Chicago, I’d find flickr much more useful as a research aid or place to get started.  Ultimately, I think it’s a worthwhile website.  Certainly, the best of any I’ve found that allows you to upload images.  And with the work various historical groups have put into using flickr, I can definitely see a role for historians.

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

Digital vs. Analog

February 1, 2012 7 comments

This is a post for HIST 479 addressing tensions between digital and analog exhibits in museums.  This blog is a reflection on three readings: Andrea Witcomb’s “The Materiality of Virtual Technology: A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” Fiona Cameron’s “Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects – Traditional Concerns, New Discourses,” and Deidre Brown’s “Te Ahua Hiko: Digital Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments.”

Throughout these three readings, all of which are well outside my “comfort zone,” I found myself returning to something familiar: the idea of Kuhn’s paradigm shift.  It seems that the rise of digital multimedia exhibits in museums has elicited significant tension between those who prefer analog exhibits and those who see the utility in multimedia presentations.  In a sense, I find this to be a paradigm shift.

It seems to me that there is a series of fundamental questions underlying the incorporation of digital exhibits into museums.  First, does the incorporation of digital representations of historical objects undermine, or lessen, the values of the objects themselves.  Cameron points to theorists who argue that digital exhibits eliminate the auric, iconic, and ritualistic qualities of the actual object.  Second, are digital objects capable of conveying the cultural importance of the actual object.  Brown’s article touches on this extensively.  Brown points to the role of digital objects in the efforts by Maori to understand their cultural heritage.  Brown argues that digital objects do transfer the culture found in the original object.  Finally, are digital exhibits capable of evoking the same emotional responses that “real” exhibits are capable of doing.  For Witcomb, not only do digital exhibits allow for a powerful emotional response, but in much more democratic way than traditional museum exhibits.  Witcomb notes that:

“The result is the ability to empower the museum visitor to undergo a process of alteration, just as much as it is an attempt to tell history from a different point of view.  However, because affective responses are embodied and not abstract, the process of coming to know is not framed by a didactic top-down approach characteristic of conventional museological interpretations of the material world, but rather it is more open to the process of dialogue and interactivity.  In a sense, multimedia installations, if seen alongside objects and not as their other, can bring a new understanding of the way in which virtual media can have both physical expressions and material efforts.”  (Witcomb, 47)

To me, the above quote embodies the fundamental benefit of digital exhibits.  In an increasingly global and pluralistic world, digital exhibits enhance the ability for a museum, or piece of public history, to reach a wider audience.  Multimedia exhibits fit within the wider trend of new media emboldening increased democratization.  Witcomb and Cameron, in particular, address the fact that multimedia exhibits are less confined by the institutional control of a museum.  Cameron emphasizes that objects and their reproductions are part of a specific form of knowledge and institutionalized claims of authority.  The rise of multimedia and digital exhibits reflects the cultural turn of history and new social history, helping free these objects from such confined hierarchy.  Above all, each author makes a strong case for the legitimacy of the digital object as an object in its own right, not just a representation of something “real” or tangible.

Admittedly, I lack a strong theoretical understanding of the practices of public history, but several questions remained after reading these essays.  I must wonder if those debating the relative merits of digital and analog exhibits are missing a fundamental point.  If museums and other pieces of public history are meant as a way to reach wider audiences, does it really matter how something is conveyed?  If authority rests both with the curator and the audience, then the audience is still free to interpret the object whether it is digital or analog.  Getting bogged down in theoretical debates about the “realness” of the object pushes the debate away from the ability for the audience to interpret and react in their own right.

Going back to my point about a paradigm shift, I must also wonder if established members of museum hierarchies feel somewhat threatened by the democratizing effects of digital representations.  Do multimedia exhibits threaten the institutionalized hierarchy of knowledge in a museum?  As Witcomb states, digital exhibits shift the role of curator from the holder of knowledge to a facilitator of knowledge.  I don’t imagine it a stretch to question if some of the resistance to digital exhibits has something to do with this change.

Finally, I must question the rise of digitized objects as it pertains to more “traditional” historical research.  I’m sure I am not alone in hearing stories of historians sifting through manuscripts and archival materials only to discover a misfiled document that provides great insight into their monograph.  But as more archives are becoming available online, historians are increasingly able to research from the comfort of their couch.  If one of the major debates about digital vs. analog has to do with the “realness” of the objects, what does that mean for the historian looking at the digital manuscript as opposed to traveling to the archives?

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479, Museums

The Usefulness of Twitter

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

This is the second “official” post for HIST 479.

I begin this blog with a confession: when I first learned of twitter, my initial reaction was hardly positive.  I believe my first response was something along the lines of “why in the world should I sign up for something that is just a bunch of facebook status updates?”  Twitter seemed like one more frivolity that would serve only to eat up my time.  In many ways, I was right.  One only needs to follow a handful of celebrities to discover a bevy of tweets asking “what should I eat?” or “going to the party!”  But at the same time, I severely underestimated the usefulness of historians


Twitter has a number of uses for scholars, the first of which is networking.  Through twitter, historians from around the globe are able to communicate with other scholars they might not necessarily know through the usual route of job interviews, conferences, etc.  The History News Network has a list of historians who tweet.  Even a cursory glance of the list will bring you into contact with a number of historians in your field.  While the internet has facilitated conversation between scholars, twitter has made that communication even faster.


As the AHA notes, live tweeting of conferences introduces new ways to experience a conference.  Certainly, many of the tweets could be construed as redundant for those attending the conference, as they might also be attending a live-tweeted panel, it allows those not at the conference to see what sorts of ideas are being promoted at the talk.  Several historians tweeted information from the New Faculty meeting earlier this week.  Because of twitter, I was able to follow the conversation even though I wasn’t attending.  While nothing can replace actual attendance, live-tweeting certainly allows you to stay better informed about key ideas and arguments being presented.


I probably could lump this into another category, but I decided to make it a separate one.  The #twitterstorian hashtag offers many ways to use twitter for scholarly communication.  Before my first semester teaching, I made a comment on twitter about how I felt nervous.  Within a few minutes, numerous twitterstorians responded with suggestions and advice to weather the storm.  I’ve seen people try to arrange conference panels using this hashtag, note exiting articles or useful tidbits of information, or start general conversations about the discipline or the profession.

These are just three ways in which twitter can be useful for a scholar.  While I certainly think there are limits to what twitter can provide, I think it’s a worthwhile tool to use if you approach it with the right frame of mine.  Undoubtedly, many people use twitter as one more way to present random comments are tidbits about their daily activities.  140 characters can only offer up so much space to offer your ideas.  But in the end, it isn’t a completely useless tool.

In what ways have you guys use twitter?  Do you think it has merit?

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

“Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America”

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

This is my first “official” post for LUC HIST 479 and is a reflection on Wendy Bellion’s “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America.”

Bellion’s article explores the role of the physiognotrace within the political culture of the early-1800s. Bellion posits that an examination of the physiognotrace offers insight into the political mindset and cultural worries of Jeffersonian-era politics. Bellion argues that society praised the physiognotrace for its ability to depict actual representation, which in the rhetoric of the age meant direct and true political representation. As such, the physiognotrace became a medium through which Americans could “enact a fantasy of Jeffersonian political subjectivity” (Bellion, 31).

The physiognotrace was developed by John Isaac Hawkins, an English immigrant to America.  The machine was, essentially, a drawing machine.  Individuals would sit alongside the machine and a mechanical arm would trace the outline of the individuals face.  The device then created four miniature silhouettes that came to be referred to as profiles.

The physiognotrace was popularized in America thanks to the work of Charles Willson Peale, a portraitist and proprietor of the Philadelphia Museum.  This quickly became a source of great wealth for Peale, as it brought visitors and their money to the Philadelphia Museum.  Peale allowed anyone to use the machine for free so long as they paid for entrance to the museum.

A large part of the physiognotrace’s success lay in its democratic nature, something ingrained within the rhetoric of Jeffersonian America.  Not only was the machine inexpensive and relatively fast to operate, but it was “affordable and available to a social spectrum of Americans who had neither the means nor use for an expensive portrait in oil paints” (Bellion, 36).  Bellion does an excellent job in this essay explaining the history of the physiognotrace and the ways in which it gained popularity in the United States, particularly her discussion of Peale’s entrepreneurial insight as he used the device to draw crowds to his museum.  The argument for the democratizing effect of the device is particularly strong, and one worth considering in relation to the role of media in the 21st century.

The bulk of Bellion’s essay addresses the idea of representation and politics as it pertains to the physiognotrace.  Bellion believes that notions about visual and political representation coalesced around the physiognotrace because contemporaries believed it provided an accurate representation of the individual’s portrait.  For contemporaries, representation played an important role because accurate representation became a way of gauging truth.  There were many types of representation – visual, political, classificatory, didactic – and the physiognotrace was one more way to create a sense of representation.  By having one’s outline traced by this device, the individual was taking part in this rhetoric of visual representation thus giving them a sense that they were involved in the Jeffersonian political climate.

There lies one interesting irony and contradiction with the notion of accurate representation coming from the physiognotrace.  Bellion argues that society wanted direct, particular, and accurate representation.  Jeffersonian voters wanted politicians who represented, and resembled their constituents.  They often elected candidates in whom they saw themselves.  And because the physiognotrace was viewed as a device creating actual representation, it stood as a model for Jeffersonian-era politics.  The irony lies in the fact that the physiognotrace does represent Jeffersonian politics, but not for this reason.  Bellion argues that Jeffersonian politicians often carefully modified their appearance so their constituents believed they resembled them, effectively calling into question the veracity of that public image.  Additionally, the physiognotrace could not actually obtain an accurate depiction of the individuals who used it.  Many of the small details, such as wisps of hair, were added later, usually by an artist.  Even the notable portraits of Thomas Jefferson made by Peale were taken from a bust of Jefferson, thus twice removed from Jefferson’s actual representation.  Thus the physiognotrace contradicted the desired ideal of actuality.  So in this sense, the device does represent the era’s politics because it, like politicians, presented an image believed to be accurate, but in truth somewhat distorted and modified.

Bellion’s point about the role of the physiognotrace as a representative device for contemporary politics is certainly intriguing.  But as someone with little exposure to the theory of representation, I found Bellion’s language to be confusing at times.  Several instances throughout the text left me with the feeling that Bellion is assuming readers have previous knowledge about representational theory.  This, paired with occasional jargon, dilutes the effectiveness of her connection between the physiognotrace and America’s political culture.

Bellion’s essay provides an interesting insight into a fundamentally flawed piece of technology.  In many ways, I couldn’t help but compare the physiognotrace to many modern technologies.  For starters, I see many parallels between the democratizing effects of the physiognotrace and the democratizing role of the internet.  I wonder if part of new media, regardless of whether it’s new media in the 19th or 21st century, is the fact that it helps to level the playing field.  The other point that stuck with me throughout the essay was the idea of whether or not this representation is real.  The physiognotrace creates a portrait thought to be real, but in actuality is somewhat artificially constructed, especially when taken from a bust.  Can the same be said about the internet?  How accurate is the representation of an individual who posts on a message board, uses some instant messaging program, or writes a blog?  Does this individual purposefully craft their image, much in the same way an artist my add strands of hair to a portrait after the fact?  If someone does create a persona on the net, is that an accurate or real representation?  I’m not sure I know the answer yet, but it’s a question worth asking.

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

A Brave New World

January 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Like many in my generation I have had the internet for most of my life.  In the early years, I enjoyed having the ability to post on message boards, waste time on AIM, and post on blogs.  But the internet was always a recreational tool.  When I started college, I realized the internet had greater potential, but I still limited myself to the internet as a place for fun.  Never did I consider the possibility that the internet could provide me with a new medium for historical scholarship.

Similarly, when I started my graduate career at Loyola, I considered myself a “traditional” academic.  Right or wrong, I had no interest in public history because I realized my interests did not lie in archives or museums.  Little did I know that there was an entire world of public history and historical scholarship that utilized emergent media as a way to reach a wider audience.

In retrospect, my first exposure to the power of new media was brought to my attention through the now defunct Rate Your Students, a blog designed as a space for professors to anonymously vent their day-to-day frustrations in the classroom, with administration, and with changes in higher education.  One day, the following video was posted:

At the time, I eschewed this experiment as something far too complicated to be worth trying in my own classroom one day.  Little did I know this was my first step down the path of exposure to digital history.  Somewhere between my first year in graduate school and today, my fourth year, digital history became a term I heard with great regularity.  One only needs to look at the program for the 126th annual AHA conference to realize the prominent role digital history now plays within the profession.  Now, digital history appears all around me.  From the work on spatial history at Stanford to digital narratives or digital archives, it seems historians are beginning to realize the power of new media as a way to do history.

While I’m becoming increasingly adept at finding examples of digital history, I remain unable to offer a concrete definition of what it is.  But that is why I’m here.  For the next four months, I will be exploring the many facets of digital history in HIST 479: Public History Media.  In the process, I hope to achieve four goals.  First, I hope to gain sufficient knowledge of what digital history is, and the theory behind the practice.  Second, I hope to develop some of the technical skills necessary to create digital scholarship.  Once I have established this foundation, I want to explore ways I can incorporate digital history into my dissertation.  Finally, I want to investigate the ways in which new media can enhance the classroom experience for my students.  As I work through this four goals, I hope to move through the four stages of digital history, moving from a practical-ist who sees the utility of digital history to a realist who embraces digital history, recognizes the challenges it faces, yet works to incorporate it into my own historical framework.

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