Christmas Past and Present

Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone. – Charles Schulz

It’s December 16, 1913 and, as always, I’ve left my Christmas shopping until the very last minute. I’ve spent this morning creating a list of my family of book-lovers and searching the Eaton’s Catalog to find the perfect gifts. I think perhaps I will cut out the images of these books and paste them into the cards for my family so they might know that they will be receiving these books sometime in February.

If only there was a quicker method of receiving these books, like a magic screen I could look at and just make the pages of these books appear…

Whoa. What was that? And what the H*#% am I wearing? Nevermind that! The Eaton’s 1913 catalog has transformed itself into just the screen I was thinking about, and it has a series of buttons attached to it which mirror the QWERTY typewriters I’ve heard so much about! This machine is telling me that its now December 16th, 2011… and as my new-age capacity to deal with technology sets in, all I can hear in my head is “Google it… Google it… Google it.”

For Dad

Mortars, plasters, stuccos, artificial marbles, concretes, portland cements and compositions …

Catalog #34-272

Author: Fred T. Hodgson

Place: Chicago

Year: 1906

Found this full text online at the Internet Archive’s Open Library. Although it is the same book, I believe the 300 page cloth-bound edition that appears in the catalog might be a later edition than the one available online.

For Mum

The White House Cook Book

Catalog # 34-195

Author: Mrs. F.L. Gillette

Place: New York

Year: 1887

The best online version of this book I could find was part of the Project Gutenberg project. The book has been redesigned as one long script, but the chapters are hyper-linked and the text is keyword searchable. Also included are scans of the original, showing various cuts of meat and photos of all of the First-Ladies.

For Edith and Andrew

What a Young Wife Ought to Know/What a Young Husband Ought to Know

Catalog # 34-180

Author: Emma F. Angell Drake

Place: Philadelphia

Year: 1908

Catalog # 34-181

Author: Sylvanus Stall

Place: Philadelphia

Year: 1907

These two books were both found using Google, and the search led me directly to the Internet Archive. What’s great about this site is that it allows you to download the book in a series of formats (PDF, plain text, daisy, Epub) or to simply read the book online. It also provides a good deal of information about where else the book can be found online, and about the physical document itself, so you can get exactly the gift you want to give!

For Thomas

The New Century standard Letter-Writer

Catalog # 34-200

Author: Alfred B. Chambers, Ph.D

Place: Chicago

Year: 1900

Once again, Open Library provided the best version of this book available online. Given the age of the book, I couldn’t believe what a clear set of scans were available. Reading these letters, and looking over the reasons that letters used to be deemed necessary gives one a sense of nostalgia very fitting for this time of year. I might just keep this one for myself and get Thomas a Toblerone.

For Ruth

Through the Looking-Glass

Catalog # 34-352

Author: Lewis Carrol

Place: London

Year: 1871

There are very many copies of this book available online, but because of the ease of use of the University of Virginia’s Etext library version, and because they kept the original John Tenniel drawings, I thought this was the best version for my 13 year old sister.

For Robert

The Boy Scouts in the Rockies

Catalog # ??? page N 286

Author: Herbert Carter

Place: New York

Year: 1913

Although the origin for this book is Project Gutenberg, I much preferred the layout of the ManyBooks page, which gives you information about the book, a short synopsis, an excerpt and then allows you to choose to download in one of 24 formats.

What surprised me most about my search for these books in 2011 was the ease with which most of them could be found. For anyone simply wanting to read these books from times gone by, it wouldn’t take long to find most of these online. I think, however, that one going in search of a specific edition of a book might have a much harder time in their quest. Luckily for me, my family is unaware of my ability to time travel ( as was I just a short time ago) so they should enjoy their books regardless of the edition I was able to find. Now if I can only find a way to lug this machine back to 1913…

Getting Started with Cursive – An Online Guide to Handwriting

The pen is mightier than the sword – Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1839)

While having a discussion about teaching and technology the other day, it came to my attention that local schools were no longer instructing students in the art of cursive writing. Although I have heard rumours that cursive writing was being eliminated in schools in the Southern United States, the idea that my own child might not be taught handwriting when he attends school in 2 years struck a chord a little closer to home. I decided to do a little homework on what people are saying about the elimination of cursive writing from the education system, and at the same time I thought I’d complete a course assignment and create a “How To”  blog about learning to write in cursive.

The elimination of handwriting from the grade school classroom has received a fair bit of attention in the past while. Some bloggers, like myself, seem unsure of where they stand and are left wondering what will happen if no one in the upcoming generation knows the art of handwriting. The general consensus at the moment seems to be that handwriting is still an essential skill, despite the fact that it will likely not be used every day. Arguments for teaching handwriting include that the practice tunes fine motor skills, trains the brain to connect hand-activity with memory, and that it helps to connect students with their past.

My main concern when I think of handwriting not being taught is that these students will never get to discover a creative side of themselves that previous generations have taken for granted. No one’s handwriting is the same; the act of putting pen to paper is quite literally one of placing yourself on the page. I just received a Christmas card that was created online, and while I know that it’s the thought that counts, there were no signatures or notes of any kind made on the card, just a simple “Merry Christmas” in a generic font. Handwriting, and signatures more specifically, make things special, unique, and genuine. We can type all we want, but our handwriting defines us, it makes us stand out from all the others, it is an artistic skill, and for many, it is a thing of beauty. Where, then, would one start to look online for places to learn about handwriting? What sites provide the necessary information to help the next generation learn this skill at home, if they are not to receive these lessons at school? The following list will provide a starting place for adults to learn handwriting themselves, or to refresh their memories and help their children with their cursive classes.

Step One: The Importance of Handwriting – A History of Cursive

In order to understand the importance of the skill you are about to learn, it is useful to look to the past and see the ways that handwriting has played a role in many different cultures. This site: provides this very information, showing how different types of script have prevailed over others at certain points in time and detailing the difference between ideographic and phonetic systems of writing. Once you have explored the history of cursive writing, this site gives details about ways to hold your pen, where to position yourself at your desk, and provides worksheets for beginning to learn your cursive letters. Although there are instructions for creating the letters on this site, they are extremely detailed and might intimidate one who is new to cursive writing. I suggest taking the historical knowledge from this site and moving on.

Step Two: Video instruction

As the web allows for many types of communication, I suggest taking advantage of this and watching this video that details what you will need to get started with cursive writing:

While this video doesn’t provide the necessary worksheets, it suggests you look on line for them and gives you important tips such as practicing the same shape of letters at the same time to learn cursive more quickly. The subject of the video is an adult female, which helps to show that this skill can be learned at any age, and helps those who didn’t have the opportunity to learn it in grade school feel comfortable taking it on.

Once you have yourself set up with a pen, lined paper or tracing sheets, and an internet connection, you should turn to the more detailed series of videos by Susan Corbett:

There is a video available for each letter of the alphabet, and the upper case and lower case letters are covered in each video. Susan takes her time with the lessons, and clearly details how many lines are needed to create each letter and where they should be on the page. This series is intended for children who are home-schooled, and, like the video above, defines letters by their type (ex.  “climb and slide” =  I u w t , or “lumpy letters” = m n v x) to help with learning quickly. Although it doesn’t have the music or visual components that make a lot of the other available videos more ‘fun’, this video gets right to the point and is easy to follow.

Step Three: Practice makes Perfect

Now that you are familiar with the cursive style, you might find it helpful to practice on your own, without the aid of a video. This site: provides worksheets for practicing your letters and also groups them into the types of letters that you would have been learning if you followed the video instructions. Once you’ve mastered the individual letters, you might want to start writing words and sentences that interest you. Although you can copy words from a book, this often times means that you would be looking at print and focusing on making cursive from those words, which can be confusing. Instead, try making your own worksheets here:

You can put in a series of words and create a worksheet that is printable for practice. You can start with a series of single letters and work up to joining them into words, and then making them into sentences and paragraphs. And in case anyone ever asks you, and you don’t have a keyboard nearby, you can even practice writing the name of your blog!

¿Controlas sobre HTML? OR Discovering my Discomfort Zones

“A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.”
Lao Tzu

About a decade ago, an English professor asked me if I was fluent in HTML. I stared blankly at her, having no idea what those four letters meant, and answering the question as I would have if she had asked me if I could speak Russian, with a resounding ‘no’. If I had taken her advice and learned even a little bit of HTML when I was in my early 20s, I wouldn’t have been so petrified as I was when I went to the w3schools website for the assignment for this class.

I have always been afraid of failing, especially when I am forced out of my comfort zone. I know what I’m good at, and I stick to those things, because they make me feel comfortable and reinforce that I can, indeed, do some things right. Upon entering my PhD this year, though, I’ve decided to cast my fears of failing aside. This does not mean that I’m going to jump out of airplanes or perform in The Nutcracker, it simply means that I’m going to try to push myself a little bit further into my discomfort zones.

I always joke, when people ask me why I’m a monolingual Canadian (“don’t they teach you French in school?”) that I never got much past “Bonjour”. Thing is, I’m genuinely uncomfortable with the thought process that goes along with speaking in another language. My brain doesn’t seem to compute English into anything, especially verbally. To get myself past this I decided to put my best efforts into learning two new languages: Spanish and HTML.

The desire to learn Spanish has come out of a number of experiences working with the great people over at the CulturePlex at UWO. I’ve worked in their lab and also attended conferences which were organized by this team led by Juan Luis Suarez. I immediately feel out of place at these functions because the majority of people speak Spanish and I don’t even know how to greet them with anything other than an uneasy grin. When one of these students, who had just arrived in Canada, was looking to learn colloquial English in return for basic Spanish lessons, it was game on!

The HTML experience is part of the course for which this blog was originally designed. We were asked to go through the w3schools tutorial for HTML and then create a webpage that functions much like a CV (with contact information, interests, past experiences, etc) using the skills we just read about. The following chart is a comparison of my first experiences with these two languages, complete with most embarrassing moments.

The Past: A Necessary Part of the Future.

“Historians are not particularly hostile to new technology, but they are not ready to welcome fundamental changes to their cultural position or their modes of work. Having lived our professional careers in a culture of scarcity, historians find that a world of abundance can be unsettling.” – Rosensweig

In a recent article, CAUT President Wayne Peters notes that “At a time when we are flooded with streams of information coming at us in all forms and from all sources, it is extremely odd and contradictory that libra­rians would be deemed less than essential”. He is arguing for academics to understand and promote the work of librarians at universities, claiming that they are ‘under attack’ in an age when information has exploded out of the walls of the physical library. I agree with Peters: it doesn’t make much sense for library administration to assume that technology can replace the trained information professional. Technological advances such as the World Wide Web and the search engine may indeed have made more information more available to more people, but that doesn’t mean that there is no longer a need to collate, organize, and preserve this information. In reality the need for these skills should be more in demand than ever before. They should be so in demand, I would argue, that to leave librarians as the sole gate-keepers of information might not be enough. Academics from any profession that deems the past a necessary part of the future should be willing to work with librarians and archivists to understand the technological changes the world of information is undergoing and to assist in the preservation of this digital environment.

One example of this type of scholar is historians, who are well aware that their profession is a’changing. The future historians (those who study the year 2000, for example) will no longer face the scarcity of human records that the profession has been dealing with for decades. Information is plentiful. The world’s population has just surpassed 7 Billion people. With information such as census records, credit card bills, tax payments, and genealogical trees all readily available online, the historian will no longer have to construct the past from a few small records, but will have piles of information to sort through in order to ‘rebuild’ someone’s life. And, of course, it doesn’t stop there… as privacy concerns lessen, people of all ages post information about themselves, such as phone numbers, addresses, conversations with friends, and photographs all over social websites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In April of 2010, the Library of Congress announced that it was going to digitally archive all public tweets made since 2006. Just imagine what historians could have done with the collected daily thoughts of Napoleon or Elizabeth I. Now those will be available for the 80 million users of Twitter, plus those that don’t use the service, but are spoken about by people who do!

As the type and number of documents that historians have access to change, so must the tools that they use to pursue the past. It is these tools, I believe, developed by a new generation of historians who aren’t afraid to code, that can help librarians and archivists to deal with information overload.

The shift from scarcity to abundance that was well documented by Rosenzweig has created a number of exciting opportunities for historians. While it is true that the digitization of documents from all over the globe means that scholars will travel less (be it across the Atlantic or over to the archive) and spend more time researching, it has become evident that new ways of dealing with these texts are needed. New websites and databases are being created every day, all of which help to collect documents that might not have been readily available if librarians were the only ones performing the task. In order to keep things moving at this rapid pace, today’s history professors have to continually inspire the new generation. Born-Digitals, Digital Natives, or whatever term follows them into the future, this generation definitely has new classroom needs that stem from an unprecedented technological learning curve.

Information is already being collected in ways that will change how the next generation of students learn. For example, look at Google’s 3-D Ancient Rome Project, which allows users to travel virtually through Rome in 320 A.D. If people believe that this generation of students are visual learners, then this might catch their attention much faster than a book on the same topic.

Or just take a minute to check out what people are doing with words. ManyEyes, Voyeur and Wordle all provide free and easy ways to challenge your thinking about word use.[1] For example, I’ve created an image that shows word use in this blog post.

The largest words are the ones I’ve used the most frequently in this post. Conjunctions, articles and prepositions are left out for clarity. Although Wordles look pretty, just imagine what a quick copy/paste of a text you were unfamiliar with could tell you about its subject. There is also the option to organize the words alphabetically, change direction or colour of your image, and delete the words you don’t feel are necessary.

These are just two examples of teaching tools that could easily be worked into a high-school history syllabus. Although it is important to be aware of the next generation of students, today’s historians and librarians could take a quick lesson from the kindergarten class that would help both their teaching and their research: play nice.

The literature shows that librarians are not always (or often) perceived by the scholarly community as true academics. They have access to the material you need, know the quickest ways to find it, can order it for you if it’s not available at your institution, and, believe it or not, have research interests of their own! Most academic librarians in Ontario have research time as part of their contracts, and many would love to get involved in a digital history project. They would know the copyrights that might affect your study, know places to archive your material and may even know people who are doing work similar to your own. And this goes for the librarians out there as well! If you hear of a project going on at your institution that interests you, offer them your services. Chances are the project team would be more than happy to have a librarian on board.

There are plenty of places for this type of collaboration to take place. Numerous digital history projects exist that have involved librarians, and that librarians in turn use as resources for their patrons. Unconferences such as THATCamps offer weekend-long talks and workshops on the future of education and how to solve the problems that accompany information abundance. Great projects result from these weekends, such as DHCommons, a site currently in beta mode which will allow projects to be posted with relevant information so that those interested in helping out can contact the team directly. The more and more we work together to understand the situation we are in with the vast amount of information available to us, the more scarce it will seem.

[1] Stay tuned for an upcoming post about the Visualization workshop at THATCamp GTA.

A Discussion on Documents

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.  Angela Carter

In order to feel fit to talk about How Humanists Read, I’ve been doing some thinking about what they read. Books, from the distant scrolls to the ever-changing Ebook are obviously the most commonly ‘read’ items for humanists. At some point, most of us have become so entranced by a story, be it fact or fiction, that we have felt the need to explore all the information that helped to create that story: we want to know more about the characters, the author, the world in which they live. We want to understand how things came to be the way they are, and would happily eat up every detail we can find that helps that story we love become more real, more apparent. These details, however, only sometimes occur in the form of other books; they are often texts of other kinds: maps, diaries, newspaper clippings, genealogies, photographs, drawings, or letters. All of these documents must be read in some way, interpreted in light of their surroundings, linked to sources with similar topics and from similar places.

Collecting has been one way in which humanist scholars have studied the human condition. From bookshelves and map drawers to the photo albums and boxes of letters that lines the walls of archives, collections bring together similar objects and humanists spend their lives pawing through them. It has been the librarian’s job to organize and care for these objects, making them readily accessible for humanist research. With hundreds of years of documents to peruse, there is always something to be studied, and as Angela Carter notes above, every time a text is read, it is rediscovered on the reader’s terms. Each humanist that happens upon a text brings a new set of eyes, a new background of research and new experiences to that document.

The text that got me hooked on the humanities was a set of letters between William Cecil, Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil. I was given the privilege of transcribing these letters by Dr. William Acres as part of a Research Assistantship while an undergraduate students at the University of Windsor. During the same summer I was a student in Dr. Acres Elizabethan History class, and for me the world of Renaissance England just became visible. All of a sudden I was completely and absolutely obsessed with everything Elizabethan. This passion took me through a MA in History where I wrote about the London Lord Mayor’s Day pageants, a topic that was introduced to me by a fabulous female who has much the same obsessions: Dr. Janelle Jenstad. From that point on, I would do my best to see any uniquely Elizabethan, and as the years went by my obsession settled more and more on London. For me, reading the past meant reading the present. I had family overseas and went every two years to see them, spending as much time as I could walking the streets of London, imagining what it would have been like 400 years ago. I searched for the Blue Plaques to trace to city’s past and went in search of exhibitions that had the same intentions. Knowing I was far from alone in my love for this city was never a bad thing; the more people that studied London and its past, the more I had to read.

What became apparent to me were the many types of ‘texts’ that could be read to absorb more about the city. Maps were always wonderful, and being able to make these maps interactive is one way that the internet has helped humanists to ‘read’ in different ways while accessing the same document. Take Janelle Jenstad’s The Map of Early Modern London project, for example. Scholars of Elizabethan London can jump from section to section of the map and find information about everything from street names to church locations.  Here, the Agas Map is the backbone to a constantly evolving project which helps to shape how scholars understand London’s unique past. It’s also great fun to compare that map with modern interactive maps of London, with their Tube stops and railway stations. By learning from maps and orienting themselves within the city, drivers of the London taxis have expanded parts of their brain – perhaps we can nurture our own by continuing to read maps in new and exciting ways.

My own research on the Lord Mayor’s Day pageants led me to England, where I searched and sorted through the texts related to this annual event to see the various ways that London was represented. At the time (a mere 4 years ago) I moved overseas so that my texts were accessible to me, and spent my time transcribing them and highlighting, recording, and deciphering every mention of the word London. Today (and perhaps even then) Digital Humanists would laugh at me… indeed, I myself wonder what I was thinking. The fact is, though, that I didn’t know any better. I never thought about plugging my texts into a computer program that would find the word “London” for me, let alone count the times it was used, track words that are most commonly used in conjunction with it or visualize these occurrences to show me change over time. The idea that this is possible is still amazing to me, and it also allows me to do the work that was once going to be a PhD thesis as a side project to a much longer study on the reading habits of humanists.

For me, it will be interesting to compile the different texts that surround the Lord Mayor’s Day Pageants into a functioning digital project. There are letters that mention the pageants as they were displayed in the London streets, drawings of the arches and costumes that were part of the day’s events, and documentation from the sponsoring guilds on what was paid for by whom. In order to bring these events to life, I will want to include every detail. However, as I’m only just dipping my toes into the digital humanities at the moment, I’ll start small. I will begin with a single text and play with as many DH tools as I can in order to ascertain the many ways in which it can be read. I’ll bring my own background to the text, my passion for London and my recently cultivated interest in all things digital. I’ll take you along with me down what will surely be a long and winding road and at the end we’ll have discovered new ways to read, new ways to write, new ways to publish and new ways to learn.

Ready to Walk the Walk

When I was an undergraduate in English and History there were plenty of times I wished that it was possible to view a document in its original format. The handwriting of the author, the actual size of a map, the intricate brushstrokes of a renaissance painting… all of these were reduced to images in a textbook. The last decade of humanities computing, however, has made it possible to allow the new generation of History and Literature students to experience their topics in new and exciting ways. I’m very jealous!

Having finished the MLIS degree at Western in January, I found myself intrigued with the Digital Humanities. I attended THATCamp Chicago about a year ago and was excited to find out that librarians can play such exciting roles in this up and coming field, and decided to pursue my interests as I enter the LIS PhD program.  My dream job would be creating interactive digital syllabi for Humanities courses, and to get myself there I am working at understanding how both students and faculty in these disciplines work with digital tools. For the past year I have been researching the ways that Ebooks have become integrated with the scholarship of historians… both in their research and in the classroom.  I have been observing behavior of humanists, and relaying my findings to the wider academic community, “talking the talk”, as they say.

I’m extremely excited to take the next step, part of which is the reason for the creation of this blog.  I will be using the space here to document my reflections on William Turkel’s Digital History course, to communicate with classmates and to track the progress I make as I attempt to “walk the walk” and recreate myself as a digital historian.