23 March 2010

Thoughts on the Geospatial [Semantic] Web

(n.b. – Unfortunately I will not be in class on Friday but I wanted to put up some of my thoughts anyway)

I had never heard of the Semantic Web until I started library school, at which point it seemed to be everywhere (at least in my metadata-related courses). The theory is intriguing and the more I learn about the fundamental components, the more it seems possible. However, until preparing for this class I hadn’t thought about it specifically in terms of geography. I’ve been intrigued by the current trend for adding spatial components to the social networking arena through sites like Foursquare (which allows you to sync your “check-ins” with your Twitter feed) and now Google Buzz. There are those who are concerned about issues of safety raised by posting one’s location for all to see, such as the people who created the website Please Rob Me in an attempt to show that by posting where you are, it tells thieves where you are not: home. Of course, this doesn’t take roommates and so forth into account, but it makes an interesting point.

When Google Buzz first arrived on the scene many people (including the folks at Digital Humanities Now) raised issues of privacy as well as safety. In addition to integrating with your Gmail, Buzz also allows you to post your location using a layer on Google Maps. However, it doesn’t seem like these issues are as applicable to the Geospatial Semantic Web because its focus is more on utility than socializing.

To bring things back around to the actual topic, I had never used Google Maps for more than getting directions (and for experimenting with Buzz in its early days) until this week. I can see how the ability to make layers for different themes or characteristics would be incredibly helpful for visualizing aspects of historical narratives. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to incorporate these new tools into my work and play.

9 March 2010

Update on Final Project

I am working in conjunction with Liz and Carly on the Mary Bateman Clark project. Since my last update I have helped Eunice register a domain name and find hosting for the project, as well as installed Omeka. I have also spent some time customizing the theme I am currently using, which has led me to the conclusion that it would be much more of a hassle than it is worth to try to turn the original design for the website into an Omeka template. Rather it would be a better idea to simply choose one of the pre-existing themes and build off of that, customizing layout, colors, and so forth as necessary. This would result in a much more polished and easily navigable product, in my opinion.

The next major issue we are facing is that of content; specifically, who creates it. While Eunice was good enough to provide us with a variety of documents and images for our initial meeting, none of us are experts on Mary Clark and therefore none of us feel particularly capable of writing content on a subject we know so little about. The task of creating content is also very time-consuming and goes, we feel, beyond the scope of our responsibilities (as well as abilities) for the course of this project. I believe it would make more sense, and lead to a more coherent final product, to have Eunice provide us with the content she wants displayed, which we will then be able to add to the website for her or which she can add herself through the Omeka administration panel. I have attempted to set up each major section as a collection, although if the exhibit style would better match the content, that can easily be changed.

Liz also brought up the issue of attribution of sources, which is important when adding items to Omeka. Omeka is organized around the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, which is a simple set of 15 elements providing metadata about a resource. However, in order to successfully fill out the metadata for each object added through Omeka, we must have as much information as possible about the items so that everything will be properly attributed.

My final question concerns the finished product for this semester. I was initially under the impression that because we are working with a client on an actual digital history project that our final project would be the website itself, as well as an analysis of the process. However, the class discussion last week seemed to imply that everyone would be writing a proposal of some sort, including those of us creating a physical product. It doesn’t make sense to me that we should have to create a proposal for a project we are already in the middle of, but I wanted to make sure what the final expectations were.

2 March 2010

Questions for Prof. Gould

I have very limited experience with oral history and am interested in how oral history deals with social media (like YouTube). In an age where most people assume they can find whatever information they desire on the internet, how important is digitizing and/or making oral histories available online? Is there a growing trend to incorporate social media or make oral histories available on these media, or is the focus on professional, peer-reviewed databases and sources?

19 February 2010

Update on final project

I am still working on getting the official website for the Mary Bateman Clark project set up. I’ve been playing phone tag all week and have no results as yet, but theoretically the website name will be marybatemanclark.org and will be registered through Dreamhost, which Omeka recommends as a host that their users have had good experiences with. Until I’m able to have a conversation about hosting and registration issues, however, that part of the project is still on pause.

I’m not sure if we want to figure out a way to incorporate the original design made for the site, but there are several pre-existing themes for Omeka that we can use until we decide how we want to solve that issue. It would also be fairly straightforward to pick a theme we’d like the site to look like and then modify that theme according to the original design concept.

16 February 2010

Questions about the Victorian Women Writer’s Project

I’m certain the presentation on Friday will address what the intended updates to the Victorian Women Writer’s Project will be and how they will be brought about. I’m interested to know how or if the actual “design” of the project will change. As it stands the current design is sufficient and allows the full text of the sources to take up the majority of the screen real estate, which makes sense as they are the primary focus. However, it is not necessarily aesthetically pleasing and looks somewhat “dated.” The introduction to the chapter on Designing for the History Web discusses the difference between academic and commercial web design, as well as design focused on usability versus aesthetics. Is there any plan to try to incorporate a new design into the updated site, or is the focus going to be more on content than delivery? If there is such a plan (as I assume there will be at least some upgrades to the design), is it going to focus more on the superficial aspects of making the site look less dated or will it attempt to incorporate more “usability” elements and focus on function, or will it be a combination of the two? How much of a priority is the look and feel of the site?

11 February 2010

Archives/Research · Allison Fredrickson

The archive I chose to examine and utilize for this session is the British & Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries database from Alexander Street Press. The layout is intuitive and easy to navigate; even if one isn’t certain what a particular category in the navigation bar means, the hover menu elaborates on the contents and is in general very helpful. The search feature is excellent, particularly the Advanced Search that allows the user to select specific terms from pop-up lists instead of relying solely on “keyword”-style searching that may or may not be accurate. The presentation of the resources themselves is very clean and minimalist, with the documents themselves occupying the majority of the screen real estate. This is particularly beneficial for users who are searching the archive on a small netbook-sized screen.

One of the problems I found with the presentation, however, is that the page titles for individual results are generic “Table of Contents results” and do not specify what the search terms were or what the title of the document is. This is especially frustrating for people like myself who have a tendency to open multiple tabs at once and without the feedback (or in-depth knowledge of the authors to be able to determine at a glance what the search might have been) in the title bar it is often confusing and may hinder searching.

Changing the page title to more accurately reflect the page’s content would be one way to make searching easier. Another way would be to organize by subject terms and make each subject term appearing in a given bibliographic record a link to a page containing a list of all other documents categorized under that term. The subjects are already listed on the bibliographic record pages and to make them links would, I feel, increase resource discovery tremendously.

A research and writing project I could conduct with this archive could be a comparative analysis of British women’s letters home as they traveled in current colonies as opposed to former colonies in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries. It would be interesting to investigate the paternal (or maternal) language of imperialism used by these women as they traveled and whether or not it changed depending on the country’s status as a current or former colony. While such a project might be embarked upon at a print archive, the amount of resources available in a given print archive would naturally be smaller than those available in a database the size of the BIWLD. Also, resource discovery is necessarily harder in a print archive than in an electronic one where further research on a topic that pops up during other research is much faster and easier than when one is limited solely to print.

While Google Books would certainly not replace the database or archive, it would serve as a sort of complement. I could potentially use it to read or check first editions of print copies of the collections of letters that exist in the database, or to make comparisons between editions. However, that also presents the problem Geoff Nunberg discussed about the accuracy of Google’s metadata. While the resources I found were all secondary sources that did not appear to have any consistency issues, the potential for inaccuracies would increase dramatically for comparisons of editions of original works as mentioned.

Google Books’ advanced search function is not nearly as helpful as that of the database and makes Boolean less intuitive. However, as I discussed earlier, Google Books does provide a multitude of secondary sources that are not available through this particular database. In this context Google Books provides both access to the secondary sources themselves as well as ideas for further research. In the end it would be more sensible to rely on the database than Google Books, although there is the potential for both to work together harmoniously.

11 February 2010

Small databases

I am SO sorry, I didn’t realize I had left this as a draft all week!

The resource(s) I chose to examine are letters written by Victorian lady travelers throughout their travels in the American West, going along with the theme from my previous post. While the resources I have used in the past were books of published letters, I believe the common themes of letters both published and unpublished (and indeed even a comparison between the published and unpublished versions) would benefit from organization in a database. Some examples of similar digitization projects include: the Victorian Women Writers’ Letters Project at Simon Fraser University; The Emma Crosby Letters at the University of British Columbia; and the Dolly Madison Digital Edition at the University of Virginia. These three databases provide access to the full text of women’s letters (not all from the period I am specifically interested in) and allow for searching and browsing on multiple facets such as writer, recipient/addressee, dates, and places.

Small database diagram

This diagram represents the different relationships existing between writer and addressee and the topics such letters could cover. Having tables for different dates, places, and themes would make it easy to organize research dealing with these particular issues.

28 January 2010

New media versus “old”

In addition to the recent history of the post-Soviet era in Central Asia, one of my areas of historical interest is women’s experiences in the American West in the 19th century. In particular I am intrigued by British women’s perceptions of the west as expressed in letters home as well as in published travel writings (which often took the form of published compilations of such letters). I wrote a paper on the subject during my senior year of undergrad at the University of Montana and decided to expand on that idea for this week’s discussion in H650.

I’m not sure if it says more about me or the times we live in that I found Wikipedia the most usable of all the sites and media I investigated. Wikipedia offered categories I was explicitly interested in, such as Women travel writers or English travel writers, whereas in the Encyclopedia Britannica I was limited to broader subject entry points such as “Travel writing” or “human geography.” Both are relevant categories and do indeed provide a good foundation for background knowledge but provide little opportunity for drilling deeper into specific sub-categories. I found it particularly difficult in the Britannica to find information about gender in relation to these topics unless I looked up specific women, which wouldn’t be helpful if one had no prior knowledge of the topic. It was also disappointing that while the 1911 edition of Britannica contained an article on Isabella Bird (Bishop), one of the travelers I spent the majority of my research on as an undergrad, the most recent online edition does not.

One of the greatest advantages of Wikipedia is the ease of resource discovery it allows. I was able to look up Isabella Bird and find broader or narrower categories from that page, as well as external links for potential further research. A disadvantage is that, as everyone already knows, the information one finds on Wikipedia is not always accurate. The article about Isabel Burton, for instance, had a link referring to her husband as the actor Richard Burton instead of the writer Sir Richard Francis Burton. Editing the links to point to the correct person’s page was my first Wikipedia edit, but also underscores this problem: you are never entirely certain of the authority of the information and anyone can alter it at any time.

Another disadvantage is that items aren’t always categorized the way we think they ought to be and so there is the possibility of missing out on potentially beneficial resources because one doesn’t know all of the subject terms or categories to search. Naturally this is a problem when doing any form of research, but I found it particularly frustrating when dealing with Encylopedia Britannica when I could not find what I was looking for using the terms I thought would be most sensible. Using Isabella Bird as an example again, her Wikipedia article originally was included in only “English travel writers” and not “Women travel writers,” which was a category I felt she would make an important contribution to and so I wound up editing another wikipedia article.

Searching Google for strings like “Victorian women travel writers American West” I found lots of excellent resources, many of which are archives such as the Victorian Women Writers’ Letters Project and IU’s Victorian Women Writers Project. These both offer access to excellent primary sources but do not necessarily provide much more in the way of context. I found them to be the logical step to consult after finding interesting leads in Wikipedia or the Britannica. Other resources like essays [Women’s Travel Writing], bibliographies [I Take Up My Pen, Women’s Travel Writing, 1830-1930] and finding aids [Travel Writing at IU Libraries] provided more details as secondary sources than the archives mentioned earlier but not all made use of the benefits that could come from a digital history resource like the ones reviewed earlier in this course. Of course, the trouble with searching for resources on the web is that some, while good, have not been updated in over 5 years (which is close to a lifetime in Internet years) like Women & Travel at the University of Texas.

I compared these internet resources with a more traditional media in the form of the scholarly article “Peak Practices: Englishwomen’s “Heroic” Adventures in the Nineteenth-Century American West” by Karen M. Morin (1999). One of the most obvious examples of the disadvantages of the internet resources (at least those that I’ve included) is that they don’t provide the kind of analysis or interpretation that a focused article can. There are relationships and insights that this article in particular provides about the types of travel writing these women produced and how they might be read in a post-colonial and yet still neo-Imperial way that the resources I discussed above do not delve into.

On the other hand, the internet resources allow for a much quicker and sometimes easier method of resource discovery, when an interesting item is a click or two away instead of requiring more research on the user’s part. They can also obviously link to a greater variety of topics and alternatives than a print article (or another form of “traditional” media) could.

However, none of the online resources I examined dealt with a topic in the way that Ayers’ and Thomas’ “The Difference History Made” did. Their digital article found a way to combine the hypertextual powers of the internet with historiography in a way that is unique in my (albeit limited) experience. I find myself in a position of commending Ayers & Thomas for producing history in a method other than the linear narrative. However, I found myself wishing for a narrative version or alternative because I would find myself getting distracted and not really understanding where I was in the context of the “lesson” or thesis. Thomas discusses the problem of “reading” the article and I find myself agreeing with Cronon: “without some plot to organize the flow of events, everything becomes much harder, even impossible, to understand” (p. 1351). I feel that my problems, if they were such, with the Thomas and Ayers article were more due to being unfamiliar with the format than with the content itself. I wonder if the article were in a different form, even like a wiki article, if it would be easier for me to comprehend. I suppose that brings me back to the beginning: Wikipedia is spoiling me.

Cronon, William. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narratives.” Journal of American History, 78:4 (March 1992): 1347-1376

Morin, Karen M. “Peak Practices: Englishwomen’s “Heroic” Adventures in the Nineteenth-Century American West.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89:3 (September 1999): 489-514.

22 January 2010

Review: Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives

Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, http://gulaghistory.org. Created and maintained by the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. Reviewed 21 January 2010.

Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives seeks to provide an in-depth look at life in the Soviet Gulag through a combination of online exhibits, an archive of images and documents, and resources for educators. The majority of the content is focused on the exhibit portion of the site and is conveyed in a narrative fashion.

The site contains multiple exhibits, the largest of which is “Days and Lives” which provides various forms of media to depict the conditions of prison life as well as various themes of the Gulag experience. The exhibit “GULAG: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom” focuses more on the history of one particular Gulag camp, Perm-36, and receives much of its content from the Gulag Museum. It also serves as an online counterpart to a traveling exhibit, although information on the traveling exhibit has not been updated in several years.

The organizational structure of the layout is intuitive and easy to navigate. There is a clear narrative structure within each element (or “theme”) of an exhibit that allows the user to jump to different themes or to examine a different facet without requiring additional browsing or backtracking. The Archive section of the site provides a generic search box with no advanced search options, as well as the ability to browse all items or by tag, which I don’t believe is necessarily the most effective (and which will be discussed more below).

The audience is not stated explicitly, but the exhibits and general language are geared more toward a general public audience looking to for an introduction or overview of the subject rather than an academic audience with significant expertise. Bibliographies are provided in the Resources pages of various exhibits and .pdf versions of sample lesson plans are available for download for educators. However, these are not as actively promoted as the exhibits and archives, which leads one to conclude the audience is primarily public.

The site attempts to incorporate many aspects of new media, to varying degrees of success. The “Days and Lives” exhibit uses embedded videos to give panoramic views and tours as well as documentary-like video clips. Unfortunately these clips start automatically and the video would only play (for me) in Internet Explorer, which didn’t give the option to pause or stop the clip. The transcripts provided were helpful but don’t completely compensate for not being able to control the video. The exhibit providing a panoramic tour of the Perm-36 Gulag-cum-museum does not sync the audio with the video so that the narration is more cumbersome than helpful, and again the video auto-plays and does not provide a method of pausing.

The tagging system in the archives is an interesting endeavor but one whose potential isn’t entirely realized. Tags that only exist for one item, such as “pig blood,” are interesting but don’t seem to be very useful as they don’t provide further elaboration (instead of “material: pig blood”). Such tags, as well as others like “theme fates,” which seem to be associated with the various themes available for investigation in the “Days and Lives” exhibit, and others such as “sv 22,” which refer to cataloging numbers, suggest to me that perhaps a faceted classification system either instead of or in addition to the tagging system would be a better method of organization and facilitating resource discovery.

Lastly, the “GULAG” exhibit incorporated an interactive community dialog like Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss in “Exhibits, Films, Scholarship, and Essays” by employing a comment posting system on the “Reflections” page, which is further broken down into pages for discussion of and reactions to the exhibits as well as pages for survivors of Gulags (or their friends and family) to discuss their experiences.

19 January 2010

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog for the H650 course History and the New Media. There will be all sorts of interesting posts coming up, so stay tuned!