Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Democracy of Wikipedia

Creating a Wikipedia article was more difficult than I thought. First of all, most of the topics I wanted to write on already had entries. I really wanted to create a new entry so I had to dig deep. I actually ended up creating an entry which I added to a fairly lengthy entry on Edinburgh, Scotland. It describes a company which operates ghost and history tours on and around The Royal Mile. After reading through the Wikipedia ‘rules’, I decided that this was probably an advert and would be removed. Just to see what would happen, I posted it anyway. There wasn’t really a category under which the entry fit, so I gave the page a new sub-heading -Walking Tours- which is now situated between Festivals and Celebrations. We’ll see how long it lasts.

Wikipedia really is an interesting concept; a free online source that can be edited and contributed to by the general public. The potentially stable version of Wikipedia which has been suggested could possibly be the best of both worlds: a stable or permanent entry, monitored by experts and serving as the authoritative entry, and an ‘open’, collaborative version which can be contributed to by the general public. This concept fits the idea in Public History that scholarship and research should be collaborative. Now I am in no way suggesting that my ghost tour entry is scholarship, but it could be used as a starting point for research on a number of topics. And what could be more collaborative than an open- source document which could be edited by anyone?

I fully expect that my entry will be removed or at the very least edited down and relegated to the bottom of the page. I guess Rosenzweig would approve because he would find this type of editing highly democratic. All this editing of Wikipedia is a good example of how experts can collaborate with non-experts further knowledge. For example, in the article”What’s for Dinner”, Mills T. Kelly explains the effect of new research on an article in Wikipedia.. An entry on the Donner Party stated as a fact that cannibalism had been practiced. After new research had been discovered an entry was posted by who had looked at the work of two respected historical archaeologists. The archaeologists found no physical proof of cannibalism in the Donner camps. Kelly posted changes to the original entry and his entry was subsequently modified. Why is this important? Because the modification included some qualifications. The new author of the entry did not state with absolute certainty that cannibalism had been practiced. What does all of this prove? Perhaps that there is a role for experts in an open-source era and that they can have influence when it comes to instruction and critical thinking.

Rosenzweig in his article, “The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web”, asserts that there should be more effort in democratizing than providing instruction to give meaning. Mills Kelly’s Donner Party example would re-enforce the idea that an aggregate of multiple voices, expert and non-expert, does provide for a re-examination of principles and issues in history.

Speaking of re-examining, it looks like I’ll have to do that; my entry has been removed.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

On History, Pubs and Beer

In his article “Free Beer for Geeks”(Wired,18 July, 2005) David Cohen describes how a group of German students published a beer recipe under a creative commons license. Now anyone can use the recipe for “pleasure or for profit”. You can make modifications, change the recipe if you will, and then brew away. “The only catch: If you make money selling their unique beer, you have to give them credit and publish any changes you make to the recipe under a similar license.”(Cohn, David. “Free Beer for Geeks,” Wired (18 Jul 2005) It seems to me that there are a number of links between ‘free beer’ and public history. After all, isn’t public history about collaboration and sharing of ideas? And once there has been discourse on a subject , aren’t there sometimes new and exciting developments? When new evidence has been discovered, implemented and shared, as in public history or a new beer recipe, don’t we all benefit? Of course the recipe may not always work out and there are some people out there, who, no matter what the mix, will never like anything other than the original brew. But that’s okay too. It’s the brew master’s job( or the public historian’s job for that matter) to reflect on the situation and provide options for the next batch of brew.

All this talk about beer and public history got me thinking about other links between the two subjects. The first thing that came to mind was of course the “Public House” or the pub. I mean could there be any greater tie between the two ? They share part of a name! Pubs were first known as “Public Houses” during the Victorian era. Previous to that, there were three distinct place you could drink in England: taverns( where you could get ale and food, inns ( which had food, drink and gave you a place to sleep) and the dodgy ale houses frequented by the likes of Shakespeare’s Falstaff.( The Lonely Planet England, 2001 ) Almost every household in the Middle Ages brewed ale(you took your chances with the water) and if you were particularly good at it and your ale was in demand you could sell it for a profit (not very ‘open source’ but hey, it was the middle ages) This led to the development of ale houses.

During the Industrial Revolution, brewers began capitalising on the scores of workers looking to quench their thirst and began selling brew to the public from originally private houses, thus the name ‘public house’.( The Lonely Planet England, 2001 )

So what does all this have to do with Public History( other than the name) and open source material? Well, I think it is the idea that the masses, the people, really dictate what history should be told. It was their need for a ‘safe’ and accessible beverage that led to the development of the pub and it is the public’s need for an understanding of the past that leads Public Historians to do what they do.

No one person or corporation should control access to historical knowledge. Rosenzweig says that “ public support underwrites all historical knowledge”. So if this is the case, shouldn’t the public have access to this knowledge? Does anyone really have the right to ‘own’ intellectual property? As a public historian I feel it is important for an individual or group to tell their own story - access to knowledge may help them do that.

At the very least, the public may have access to some pretty good brew recipes! Cheers!

Free software'' is a matter of liberty, not price.”
(Stallman, Richard M. “The Free Software Definition,” (2004)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Reflecting On Public History

What is Public History and the role of the Public Historian?
As Public Historians should we strive for objectivity and truth? Then again whose truth would we be telling? Perhaps what is more important than the facts is the act of interpretation and the critical thinking which must be employed when doing so.

Lynton says that, “ knowledge is not an inert commodity to be stored and/or dispensed to the privileged few. It is made fresh by its interaction with reality.” (Making the Case for Professional Service.Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education,1995) For me, this is a large part of what public history is. It is the knowledge of the past being presented to an audience in new and exciting ways. It is taking the past and juxtaposing it with contemporary examples to create new ideas. Of course this may also require the application of serious critical thinking and problem-solving , but again these things are also in the realm of the public historian. The role of the public historian should be to provide knowledge of the past which elicits a response or reaction from the audience and the Public Historian uses inquiry, interpretation and critical thinking to do this.

In theory then, if each person brought to bear on the situation his or her own personal memory, experiences, and biases, we could end up with multiple interpretations of the truth.
I think this is where reflective practice comes in. If our job is to tell the story of the past so that it has contemporary implications( and I’m not totally sure that it is) we need to be able to change and morph our ideas based on new evidence and the values of our audience. Noel J Stowe writes, “Every new project, every engagement with new clients, every alliance with a new institution requires a re-examination of basic principles and issues.” At this point , Im not sure whether I completely agree with this statement, but the idea that the telling or presentation of the past is organic and can change and grow is exciting!

I started out by asking a question about objectivity and truth. Whose truth does the public historian tell? I’m not sure if I am quite ready to answer this question. I think that part of the job of the public historian should provide a basis for an individual, corporation, community to tell its own truth. Beyond that...I’ll have to do some more reflecting.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Googling Off!

I have to admit that I started with the Google search because honestly, I knew I had a limited idea of how this search engine worked. The simple search indicated that the most ‘relevant’ hit appears first. Of course I couldn’t help wondering, relevant to whom?

The advanced search was actually a revelation. I have used it before but after reading the Essentials of a Google Search page, I realised how much I had forgotten ( or how little I really knew in the first place.)

In order to put this new knowledge to the test, I skipped to the Web history scavenger hunt. The first item to find was a sound recording of Leon Trotsky speaking English. I used a simple search and typed “Trotsky speaks English”.( without the quotation marks) I was actually directed to many student blogs from the class which was originally assigned this task. Now I had a dilemma. Should I click on one of the blogs and read about how someone else had found the recording? Was this cheating? I decided that the object of the hunt was to find the items as quickly as possible so I read through the student blogs and from there it was just a matter of finding the correct answer. There were however a couple of problems: some of the links provided were dead and others pages wouldn’t load. Finding the sound recording was probably the most difficult task for me.

Finding lines from poems or speeches was really easy. I just used a Phrase Search and enclosed the specific lines in quotes and within seconds I had an answer.

Needless to say, I did not find all of the required items but I did manage to figure out why I couldn’t. Some of the items such as "Annual Review of Information Technology Developments for Economic and Social Historians, 1993" in The Economic History Review were only accessible through a private or gated web. Basically you have to have a paid membership to access some of these online journals.

No I didn’t finish in the allotted time and no I did not manage to find all the things I was looking for. Fortunately though, I did learn some tips and tricks to help me navigate the web and help me in my research-mission accomplished!

The Infinite Archive

Accessing History in a Digital World

Can we better understand ourselves by looking at how we employ technology? This question arises from Battelle’s "Database of Intentions". It prompted me to think about more than just what we already have in our digital universe; subsequently I began to think about what we choose to save, create and access. In terms of history, I want to know whose responsibility is it to save data and documents, who is making the decisions? Of course this led to yet another question: If only a select few are making decisions about what should be digitized and saved, who or what is being left out of this large database?

The Single Box Humanities Search suggested by Daniel J. Cohen is a charming idea but of course you need more than just the "techies" to make it happen. You need a panel of humanities ‘experts’ so to speak; persons who can define ideas and terms as most relevant to those in the humanities. They would help to tailor the results such that the most intellectually and /or historically pertinent documents are flagged, but this will only happen however when humanities journals are as open and indexable by search engines as scientific journals. (Cohen) For this to happen, those who preserve , write and edit history need to allow a greater access to primary documents and scholarly journals and what better way to do that then to digitize documents and allow for access on the ‘web’.

Cohen says that "Most important, however, is the question of open access. Outlets for scientific articles are more open and indexable by search engines than humanities journals." So it seems that those in the humanities, including historians, are making it difficult to further their own cause. If, according to Paul. N. Courant in his article "Scholarship and Academic Libraries in the World of Google", the new technology should lead to the sharing and teaching of ideas and easier collaboration across time and space, historians should jump at the chance to preserve and pass on information in a timely manner. I would have to agree with Cohen that "Making things freely available online" is a step toward preserving the past and furthering critical thought in the area of history as access to primary sources allows for more discussion and debate of ideas and issues.

This of course leads to the question of choice. Who chooses what should be ‘saved’ or digitized and what should not? What should be made available and to whom? The sheer cost and time of this undertaking would necessitate that those with the capital would undertake these projects. Large corporations and governments would indeed have the resources, but wouldn’t they also have their own agendas ? What would they choose to leave out or for that matter, include, to further there own interests? The risks of losing some material do not seem as great as not having access to the material in the first place. After all, most who choose to access and read such historical information, employ critical thinking when doing so. Looking at what has been digitized is not really any different than looking at an actual journal or artifact; you employ the same critical thought process and analyse the historical evidence. The digitization of primary sources can only increase our breadth of historical knowledge and understanding by allowing access, collaboration, and debate, not only about historical ideas but the digitization process and its historical significance.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Digital Wonderland

Hmmm ...I do feel a bit like Alice. This is my first blogging adventure and I begin with both curiosity and more than a little bit of trepidation. Reflecting on what I research, learn, read is one thing, but having someone read those thoughts makes me think that I want to drink that magic cordial that makes one shrink.

Of course many who know me will find this strange because I stand up in front of a room of teenagers on a daily basis and do not feel self conscious in the least - and they are a tough crowd!

Truly I am "stoked" to be part of the MA in Public History @ Western. This has been a long time coming andI really think i've found the right 'fit'.

Let the Mad Tea parties begin...