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.