Wikipedia, Neutral Point of View, and the American Revolution

In addition to being a topic that fascinates historians, the American Revolution has captured the interests and attention of countless Americans outside the history profession. For many Americans the Revolution has become a highly romanticized time period. Great men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are still regarded by many to be the paradigms Americans should base their beliefs and values upon. What exactly these men represented is interpreted in many different ways by Americans. The Wikipedia page for the American Revolution reflects some of this debate in its talk page, as people ask questions even as fundamental as whether it is appropriate to call the American Revolution a Revolution. The paper proposed here intends on examining how the Wikipedia tenet of “Neutral point of view” holds up when applied to such a widely interpreted topic. To achieve this, the paper will examine what kind of things are debated on the Wikipedia talk page; do Wikipedia editors discuss questions over evidence and validity of interpretations? How do they resolve differences in visions of what the founding fathers represented? These questions have the potential to not only reveal what standards frequent Wikipedia users hold evidence too, but also what their political culture is like and how they resolve ideological conflicts. With this in mind the proposed paper will compare the debates that take place on Wikipedia with the debates professional historians have. In this age of the rise of the internet and the increased ability of public participation in creating historical memory it is important to understand the similarities and differences between the historical profession and this new brand of Wikipedia historians.

To properly examine and understand what is taking place in the talk pages of Wikipedia I will immerse myself in the talk pages of both the Wikipedia page for the American Revolution, and also several other Wikipedia pages. If possible I will also attempt to acquire any available data that would provide my paper with an idea of what demographic primarily edits Wikipedia. Some demographic information can be found on Wikipedia itself, but these statistics are limited. To further increase my understanding of how Wikipedia works I will utilize the Rosenzweig article and any other articles about Wikipedia and the idea of “Neutral point of view.” I will also draw upon several important pieces of the historiography of the American Revolution, such as Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and Woody Holton’s Forced Founders. Other works will be drawn upon if seen to be applicable.

In an age where the relatively unknown and un-vetted Wikipedia editor has the potential to define how Americans understand the past, it is critical that historians adapt and find ways to inject their voices into the debate and re-imagine their role. For decades the work of most historians have remained out of public view, but the new era brought about by the internet has given historians the chance to change that.

Project: Watergate in the Public Memory

I am deeply fascinated by the Watergate scandal and I love studying how it continues to affect politics, journalism, and American society in general.  My personal belief is that most Americans generally misunderstand the scandal.  I don’t think that the public has a clear or thorough understanding of what actually happened and, more importantly, why it remains relevant today.  For the print project, I would like to explore what people say about Watergate on digital mediums such as Wikipedia and various blogs.  I will seek to answer some of the following questions:  What are people saying about the scandal?  How do they remember it?  Do their comments suggest that they understand Watergate’s nuances and intricacies, or do they gloss over the story and only focus on the barest details?  Why are they talking about it?  What does it mean to them?  Granted, some of these questions are more complex than others.  It would take multiple projects to adequately answer all of them.  However, my project will serve as my attempt to begin offering insights into some of these questions.

I will be looking mostly at comments on Wikipedia and various blogs that are out there, but I may include a few comments that people have made on Twitter and other social networking sites as well.  To help me explain why these digital sources are worth reading, I’ll rely on texts that we’ve read (or will read) in class.  Of course, I will use Rosenzweig’s Wikipedia article.  I may rely on Cohen & Rosenzweig’s chapters, as well as Kirschenbaum’s article,  to provide some foundations for my analysis too.  I think that all of these pieces will help me explain what we can learn about Watergate from comments that people make on the web.

I also plan on including some of my own ideas about why Watergate remains important today.  I will then analyze if the comments people make online discuss or are in any way similar to my thoughts.  For example, I believe that one of Watergate’s effects was to significantly decrease Americans’ trust in their government.  I will look to see how many comments pertain to Watergate and people’s faith in government, and whether or not people think that Watergate directly led to a decrease in that trust.  There is a fairly large body of literature that discusses the scandal’s wider ramifications, so I will have plenty of sources that help substantiate my claims.  To name but a few, Stanley I. Kutler’s The Wars of Watergate offers a short analysis of some of Watergate’s deeper meanings, and Louis Liebovich’s Richard Nixon, Watergate and the Press specifically explores how it changed the relationship between the media and the presidency.  These sources, as well as others, will help provide a scholarly assessment of why Watergate continues to be something worth talking about.

Based on my preliminary research, average Americans seem to be discussing Watergate more than I originally thought.  The scope and range of their comments surprised me as well.  In a quick review of sites like Wikipedia and a few WordPress blogs, I’ve seen staunch defenses made on Nixon’s behalf, claiming in bold type that “HE WAS INNOCENT,” to characterizations of Nixon as a down-right “evil” man.  My preliminary research has led me to conclude that my topic is one worthy of greater examination.  Hopefully, my project will shed light not only on what Watergate means to people today, but how they understand American political history as well.

Print Project Proposal: Social Media and the C & O Canal

For my Print project, I would like to analyze blogs and forums about the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. Primarily I would like to focus on what people are saying about the Park, its various sites, its interpretation, its recreational possibilities, etc. I would also like to know what people are saying about the National Park Service in general. I would also like to analyze why people are going to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. Are they visiting the Park for purely recreational purposes as hiking, biking, camping, or kayaking? Are they visiting the Park to observe nature? Are they visiting the Park to simply get away from the city? Are they visiting the Park because they are interested in history? If so, what part or aspects of history are people interested in?

I am interested in doing a print project on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park because I am currently working on a group project directly for the Park for the Public History Practicum course for the semester. Doing a print project on the park, not only peaks my interest, but would help me gain a better understanding of the Canal and National Park Service in general and thus would help me to create the best interpretation possible for my group project.

In order to come to an understanding of how people are talking about the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park and National Park Service and why visitors are visiting the Park, I will analyze a variety of social media outlets. Sites from Yelp, Traveladvisor, Yahoo Travel, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook are just some of the social media sites that I will analyze.

There are many different elements to take into consideration when discussing the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park in terms of what people are saying and why visitors visit the Park. For starters, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal stretches 184.5 miles from Georgetown, Washington DC all the way up through Western Maryland. Therefore, there are many different sites along the path, including the visitor center in Great Falls, Maryland. This is a popular hiking and bike path that many visitors take each year. The path along the canal allows visitors to see a vast amount of beautiful nature in the surrounding areas. Also along the path are numerous Lock Houses which used to be inhabited by Lock keepers and their families to control the water flow in the canal. Some of these lock houses have been restored. In fact, six of the historic Lock houses are now a part of what the Park calls the C & O Canal Quarters Project which began in 2008 and continues today. What is unique about this program is that visitors are allowed and encouraged to stay overnight in one of the six historically themed lock houses that are currently open. Another question I would like to pose is why are people staying in these houses? Is it primarily because they are hiking or biking the length of the canal and just need a place to sleep? Are visitors primarily interested in the historic period that the house is covering?

The main point of this project, in addition to seeing how people are talking about the C & O Canal National Historic Park and why they are visiting the Park, is to see how social media is used by people in connection with historic parks. Trevor Owens, in his article “Tripadvisor Rates Einstein,” states that “the social web provides those interested in understanding how the public is interacting with monuments” with an important and unprecedented resource. In an age where digital media is at the center of discussions, it is important to look at how people perceive historic parks through the use of digital media. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the C & O Canal is not allowed to market itself beyond the use of its website, partnerships, and the occasional flyer. It wasn’t until last week that it started to use the social media site Twitter. In lieu of this fact, this project will hopefully shed some light into how people, social media, and the C & O Canal National Historic Park interact.

Is Bigger Always Better?: How the Public Views Large and Small Museums

“Do you like us on Facebook?” is a common question on museum websites today.  In the current digital age, many organizations are concerned with how to better represent themselves through social media.  On the flip side, through sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp, organizations are being represented through people’s reviews.  Museums can use these reviews to gain public feedback on how well the public likes the museum, engages with the museum, and considers the best assets of the museum.

For my print project, I would like to research the differences in how large and small museums are represented on Tripadvisor and Yelp. I would like to see if people have different experiences at smaller museums versus bigger museums. Do people feel a more intimate connection with small museums? Do people find large museums impersonal?  I would also like to discover if museums get their central theme across to visitors and if reviewers comment on this theme. In the more intimate setting of a smaller museum, do visitors understand the central theme better?

The idea that visitors who have a more engaging experience become more interested is well-supported by the University of Iowa Libraries’ successful experiment with crowdsourcing, as described in “Crowdsourcing the Civil War: Insights Interview with Nicole Saylor.”  I will use Saylor’s insight on when people more intimately engage with history, such as transcribing Civil War letters, they become more engrossed in the history.  I would like to see if people’s experiences at small museums reflect this intimacy and thus heightened interest and connection.

These reviews can also provide insight into the many different ways museums reach visitors.  Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, in Digital History, illustrate how the web connects people with history in more ways than ever and museums should find ways to better reach audiences through this new medium.  I will also research if people comment on the presence of museums on the web. Are larger museums better represented on the web given their greater access to more resources? Does this provide people with a different experience than smaller museums? Does an online presence decrease the intimacy of smaller museums?

To study if there are differences among how smaller and larger museums are discussed on social web sites, I will concentrate my study on six sites (three small, three large) in Washington, D.C.  I will look at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Newseum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The smaller museums I will look at are the American Red Cross Museum, Frederick Douglass Historic House Site, and Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. If there is a large amount of comments, I will use the digital tool Voyer to find repeated themes.

My hope is that this study will reveal the differences between small and large museums and how all types of museums can engage with social media. These museums can realize their uniqueness and understand what visitors take away from their visits . Even though smaller museums will be less represented on these travel sites, this study might reveal how these smaller museums can appeal to more people by emphasizing what reviewers found most compelling. Museums can further their appeal when they consider public input.  These social web sites allow museums to understand how visitors think of a certain museum, what they find most meaningful, and what they connect with the most. Isn’t it every public historian’s dream to better understand how to connect with their audience?!

The Quilt Index – Future directions

I grew up in a family of quilters. From the baby quilts my mom and great grandmother made me to the quilt my aunt made for my graduation that currently covers my bed, I’ve always been surrounded by them. Although I myself am not a quilter (much to my family’s dismay), I still find the process, patterns and stories behind these intricate blankets interesting. For these reasons, I can spend hours looking through quilts on The Quilt Index.

I was first exposed to The Quilt Index when my aunt asked me to help record oral histories at one of her quilt documentations. These documentations are where people bring in their quilts to have them photographed and analyzed. Volunteers looked at the technique, construction, colors and type of fabrics used. I recorded the history of the quilt and the quilt maker. Contributing organizations upload all this information onto The Quilt Index for researchers to easily navigate.

The Quilt Index has eight goals to expand the site, which I would like to analyze the possible outcomes of three. One is to incorporate a map that shows where the quilts were made and where the quilt makers were born and lived. How would visualizing this information change the way we look at quilt making? Do the oral histories of quilt makers who grew up in the same area show any similarities? I expect that Morritti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees will be a useful read for looking at quilts through maps.

Another idea is to eliminate the middle man and allow the public to add their own quilt photos and information to the site. Is it necessary for these historical organizations and associations to be the only ones submitting material to The Quilt Index? What are the pros and cons of allowing the public to directly upload material? The crowdsourcing readings will be useful for looking at this idea.

The last goal is to open The Quilt Index model up to different sources other than quilts, like cross-stitch samplers or baskets. How would these sources tell us new information about their makers and where they were made?  How can The Quilt Index model be used more efficiently to encourage research in unconventional primary sources?

Analyzing these three ideas to expand The Quilt Index provides an opportunity to reflect on how the site has already utilized technology for history, as well as think about how it can continue to stretch these boundaries in the future.