PhilaPlace is an attempt by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make local history into a unified experience – one that takes place both on the internet, as well as in the streets around you.  Utilizing the power of Google Maps, scholarly historical writing, oral histories, photographs, and user generated content, aims to fill a niche somewhere between walking tour, museum, and archive.

The site’s authors explain that “PhilaPlace weaves stories shared by ordinary people of all backgrounds with historical records to present an interpretive picture of the rich history, culture, and architecture of our neighborhoods, past and present.”

There are several ways to access the information stored at PhilaPlace.  A menu offers users the choice to interface the site by using a map of Google map of Philadelphia, by topic, by collection, or by checking out what’s new on the blog.  Browsing by topic or collection yields direct access to a wide array of information, detailing nineteenth century race riots, local newsletters, local celebrities, and more.

The map interface is one of the more innovative features of the site – it promises to put the historical events covered by the site into geographical relationships with each other, bridging the gap between historical walking tour and reading a detailed book on local Philadelphia history.  A map of modern Philadelphia is featured prominently on the site’s home page, and the intent seems to be that users can access the historical information by clicking on pinpointed links on that map.

PhilaPlace is subtitled “Sharing Stories from the City of Neighborhoods.”  The site features input and oral histories from the people who know the city best – its lifelong residents.  It also allows users to submit their own stories and memories about city locations.  In this way, PhilaPlace strives to be more than a simple archive – it is actually documenting history, adding new information to the historical record.  It is not meant to be a passive experience, but more a celebration in which users are invited to take part.  At the time of this writing, there are forty-two interviews featured on the site, and other parts of the site promise to incorporate other user contributions as the site grows.

The blog has not been updated since September.

That is a shame, because the idea of linking history to Google maps is powerful.  I, for one, love knowing the ins and outs of my surroundings.  I love to walk and to bike, and I often wonder about the buildings and the people I pass on a daily basis.  PhilaPlace seems like a great model for integrating history into our daily experience.  Perhaps the next step is make the project more open-sourced.  A web 2.0 model could be an even more powerful, synergistic way to document the history of a big city like Philadelphia.  This site is already presuming that there are many people interested in sharing their expertise about local history – why not take advantage of those numbers and that passion?  Write the code, build the site – and then let them put the pins in the map, upload audio, video, photos, and their own stories, the way Wikipedia and Facebook do it.

The Digital Future is… Processing.

When can we stop asking about whether the time has come for the humanities to enter the digital age and start exploring how digital humanities started long ago? In The Digital Future is Now (Fall 2009), Christine L. Borgman calls upon humanities scholars to take the initiative to “design, develop, and deploy the scholarly infrastructure for digital humanities.” Borgman must not realize that these initiatives have already begun! In order to accomplish her goals, Borgman suggests looking at the successes and failures in eScience, including such plans as the National Science Foundation’s Cyberinfrastructure Vision for 21st Century Discovery. As a beginning point of comparison, she identifies six factors for comparison between science and the humanities. Let’s look through these six areas and the ways in which the Digital Future has already begun to be realized not only in science but also in the humanities.

1. Publication Practices: Everything is going digital, whether we like it or not. In the sciences, scholars have such sites as to post and search through new papers on physics. Guess what? This site is sponsored by Cornell University Library. In other words, for the humanities to create similar sites, it requires institutional plans for such depositories. Do we have these? While Borgman argues that humanities journals are slow in moving to online publications, there are thousands available through such sites as JSTOR and Project Muse and, increasingly, other journals are moving toward electronic publication. Also, it must be understood that the kind of information historians want to access is not  limited to current experimentation/theorizing, but historical documents and primary sources. In addition to accessing these on sites created by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian, various universities have begun setting up their own sites. The University of Washington has a database on African-American history here. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an excellent site of southern history sources here.

2. Data: Borgman spends quite a bit of time discussing different categories of data in science, including observational data, computational data, experimental data, and records. According to her argument, “we are only beginning to understand what constitute data in the humanities, let alone how data differ from scholar to scholar and from author to reader.” I have a suggestion. There are two types of data in the humanities: primary sources and secondary sources.  In other words, scholars in the humanities have always understood what constituted data, and they don’t complicate it any further than it needs to be. The fact that theory and methodology may be different from scholar to scholar does not complicate the situation, either. Now, in regards to accessing this data, as Borgman explains, intellectual property rights makes it difficult since scholars don’t own the rights to historical records they use and often need permission to print or reprint such documents. In other words, individual scholars themselves cannot take the initiative the way Borgman wants. These sources can only be made electronically public by those institutions holding the rights, which many are doing, as discussed above.

3. Research Methods: I suppose an important question in this section is whether history or the humanities can become as “open source” as modern science in such venues as in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. History can not easily be made open source, as Roy Rosenzweig so eloquently explained in this study on Wikipedia. Rosenzweig does question why so many academic journals are not being made available without costly subscription fees. However, in a field where publication is essential to progress and the hopes for tenure, do scholars in the humanities have the power (or desire) to challenge reputable (and, therefore, costly) journals and choose instead to give up any “prestige” by publishing solely on completely “open source” websites where they would be competing with anyone who has access to a keyboard? Who would be willing to moderate such sites, and without pay, in order to have it all available to the general public without fees? Indeed, modern writing in the humanities may never be fully “open source,” though primary documents can be placed more in the open. Borgman mentions the Perseus Digital Library but, as mentioned above, many other libraries have placed their sources online.

4. Collaboration: In the face of scientific collaboration, Borgman sees only the image of the “lone scholar” in the humanities. While it is true that individuals must conduct their own research, planning, and development of dissertations, the entire historical field is one of collaboration. Can any scholar write an argument  without addressing his/her critics? Are scholars allowed to ignore methods and theories of others regarding race, gender, class, religion, etc? I would argue that the entire field of humanities is one single collaborative work with thousands of scholars from the widest range of disciplines.

5. Incentives to Participate: In many respects this section is about disincentives more than incentives. Either way, Borgman concludes that “the digital humanities encounter most of the same incentives and disincentives for sharing data and sources faced by the sciences and by other disciplines.” Indeed, we all have the incentive to publish our findings and hope that we can publish them before someone else does. Having data available online rather than behind closed doors that only we as individuals have access to changes the game quite a bit, though we’ve already been playing this game for quite some time now.

6. Learning: This section is about “the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning.” Um, basically everything we’ve already discussed above, except Borgman places emphasis on the need for a “common technical platform” for all the information to be available openly online. Well, given that the Internet is supposed to be one of the most democratic tools available to allow a multiplicity of viewpoints and platforms, is a single, common platform for the humanities really desirable? Perhaps it would be nice to create a platform for libraries and institutions to place their own links for the researcher to be able to find multiple sources simply by going to one site. Of course, there already are sites like this one, not to mention historical associations like this one.

The digital future IS now, though I think it’s been around for quite some time. What do you think?

Image found here.

The Good and Bad of Digital Media

How can historians effectively use the Internet to enhance both their research and how they present that research to a wider audience? Daniel J. Cohen’s and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web attempts to answer this question by examining the potential possibilities and pitfalls digital media presents to historians. Within their introduction, Cohen and Rosenzweig define the seven major positive aspects of digital media as:

Capacity: Digital media gives historians the ability to exponentially expand storage space for object or archival research. This expanded space also allows archives and museums share collections not on display in their institutions with the public.

Accessibility: By using formats such as online exhibits, web sites, and digitized archives historians can reach larger academic or non-academic audiences than ever before.

Flexibility: Digital media has allowed historians to move beyond the use of text sources to include other forms of media such as sound and moving images.

Diversity: The openness of the web has given beginning, amateur, or hobby historians that may not be able to publish in scholarly journals an outlet to present their work to a broader audience.

Manipulability: The use of search engines lets historians search across broad swaths of sources in a short period of time, this makes the research process much quicker than only using print sources and microfilm.

Interactivity: By creating online sources, historians can directly and conveniently interact with a larger audience.

Hypertextuality: The broad scope of the web provides an expanded ability to move from narrative to narrative quickly.

These seven aspects of digital media remain particularly useful for historians because they expand our research options, broaden our audiences, and give us the opportunity to engage in direct conversation with other academics and the general public. In contrast to these positive aspects of digital media, the authors also warn historians of the more negative aspects of digital history, including:

Quality: Because of the openness of the web anyone can publish low quality or historically inaccurate work.

Durability: As technology rapidly changes, archivists struggle to keep track of and preserve born digital material.

Readability: Online scholarship can reduce the readability of articles by overloading readers with images and sound clips in addition to an already dense argument.

Passivity: Many of the more interactive components in digital history have trouble using the computer to detect “gray” areas.

Inaccessibility: Many scholarly databases only allow access to institutions able to pay the subscription fees. Also, there is a substantial “digital divide” between those who can and cannot access the Internet.

After Cohen and Rosenzweig detail some of the pros and cons of digital media within their introduction, they go on to give a history of the field that uses several links to web pages to illustrate advances made in historically relevant sites. This first chapter not only provides useful information on the history of digital media, but also provides more specific examples of the pros and cons discussed in the introduction.

Throughout the reading, I thought the authors most effectively demonstrated the positive side of digital media by noting the ability to increase public accessibility to history through the use of the Internet. By illustrating how online archives, exhibits, and articles, can provide both historians and the general public with access to historical materials that otherwise may have been unavailable to them, Cohen and Rosenzweig make a very persuasive argument encouraging the use of digital media. In regards to the darker side of digital media, the authors best argue that as corporations become more involved in history on the web, the accessibility praised above becomes limited. This seemed particularly relevant in regards to databases such as JSTOR or Project Muse that offer incredibly useful services, but only to those institutions that can afford to pay the hefty subscription fees. By illustrating both the pros and cons of digital media, and by providing a background of the digital history field, Cohen and Rosenzweig’s work helps technologically inept historians ground themselves in the basics of digital media.

To build on this week’s reading, I have included below three links that illustrate ways in which historians, archives, and museums, have used digital media to reach a broader audience. The first link to the Valley of the Shadow Project discussed in the reading illustrates how historians can use the web to bring their research to the general public. The next link to the National Archives Digital Vaults demonstrates how online programs can help archives reach K-12 teachers. Lastly, the National Museum of American History’s site on their collections illustrates how museums can use the Internet to show the general public larger parts of their collection unable to be displayed in the museum. Happy browsing, and please share a few of your own favorite history sites as well!

Valley of the Shadow Project

National Archives Digital Vaults

National Museum of American History

– Kelsey Fritz

Bridging the Digital Divide: Digital History Proves a Promising Tool for the Traditionalist and the Techie

In an online discussion hosted by The Journal of American History entitled “The Promise of Digital History,” eight noted digital historians defined digital history and detailed how it had revamped the historical field as a whole.  The roundtable participants included: Daniel G. Cohen (George Mason University), Michael Frisch (University at Buffalo, State University of New York), William G. Thomas III (University of Nebraska), Steven Mintz (Columbia University), Patrick Gallagher (Gallagher & Associates), Kirsten Sword (Indiana University), Amy Murrell Taylor (State University of New York- Albany), and William J. Turkel (University of Western Ontario).  According to this distinguished group, even the most “traditional,” for lack of a better word, historians have already integrated aspects of digital history into their research, instruction, and publication repertoire whether they are aware of it or not.  As Kirsten Sword points out, “The new media are profoundly changing the ways most historians work, whether or not we are self-conscious about how we are becoming digital.”

Digital technologies have revolutionized the way historians create, supplement, and distribute historical research and scholarship and digital history represents the future of the discipline.  William J. Turkel explains that the use of digital sources “completely changes the landscape of information and transaction costs that historians have traditionally faced.”  Moreover, non-digital scholarship is not even a possibility anymore. “Say you consult physical sources in a library, archive, or museum, write your notes on three-by-five cards, and type drafts on a typewriter,” Turkel explains, “You still have to use networked computers to access finding aids. You have to prepare an electronic copy of your work so that it can be published in paper. Everything is at least partly digital. The idea that digital history can be marginalized depends on the perception that the Internet is somehow external to our real business. But seriously, how much research can we get done during a power outage?”

This dependency on technology has many old guard historians, who enjoyed the simplicity of the Dewey Decimal System and browsing library stacks, shaking their heads.  However, Daniel G. Cohen responds to skeptics who might argue that there is “no substitute for old-fashioned legwork” by pointing out, that while “almost every historian has probably benefited from browsing the stacks and bumping into helpful sources, books can only be arranged on a physical shelf in one way, resources are often distributed across multiple archives, and physical layout and distribution can hide interesting and relevant materials from even the most dedicated researcher.”  In the not too distant future, innovative, technologically advanced research tools could allow historians to browse “virtual shelves” and potentially “bump into” millions of possible virtual sources.  As Cohen explains, David Mimno’s “virtual shelves” “cluster[s] books differently depending on a particular researcher’s choices while also allowing for surprising and welcome finds. He creates these virtual shelves by scanning the full texts of books and applying document-classification algorithms to them. Search tools that look inside books rather than just at the spines or the subject headings are already available, such as Google Book Search. New online library catalogs are coming that move beyond the undifferentiated match lists of a pre-Google era, and I suspect historians will warmly welcome these interfaces.”  The combined experience of browsing customized shelves with access to an “infinite archive” (to borrow Turkel’s phrase) of digital sources sounds like a dream come true for even the most staunchly skeptical historian.

The younger generation is naturally more comfortable and confident with the digital experience.  In the age of interactive video games and social networking, “the virtual world has a very different meaning for a younger audience raised with technology as a given,” states Patrick Gallagher. “We [the older generation] grew into this reality; they were born into it. Our research shows that when people of an older generation interact with technology, they always harbor a bit of fear. A younger audience has no fear and in fact feels much more in control.”  William G. Thomas agrees with Gallagher yet cautions that, “just because students have grown up with a technology does not mean that they understand anything about it. Students are users, as a general rule, and not producers, but if our next generation of historians are going to have a voice in this medium, they will need to be producers. Yet as the first lifelong users of the Web, these students also have a perspective that we need to pay attention to. Many are savvy users who through experience with the medium have their own views on what constitutes an important or useful development.”

So developing, and not only using the new technological tools reactively, is the key.  Amy Murrell Taylor reasons that historians will need to make a huge conceptual shift in how they think about history in order to produce meaningful digital experiences.  Traditionally, historians have explained, presented, and professed their interpretations to an audience and/or reader.  Digital historians, on the other hand, hope to participate, engage, and interact with their “user.” Increasingly collaborative, ever-evolving works or projects that hope to engage rather than instruct have replaced the linear, narrative monograph. “A student who is friendly to digital technology can be quite uncomfortable with thinking about history in new ways. This discomfort may also have to do with being asked to rethink the position of the historian—in ceding some control to the user to define the experience, what control does the historian/creator retain?”  In effect, historians must discard the notion of guiding their audience through a narrative and, instead, create a space that is “participatory” and “interactive” where the “user” of the technology controls his/her own experience.  It would almost appear that the monograph has been replaced with the technological equivalent of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book (or, in this case, site).

Public historians may feel most comfortable cultivating this “dual allegiance,” as Taylor calls it, between traditional and digital history.  This is likely due to the fact that public historians, who often work in museums as curators, preservationists, and archivists, understand the value of creating an experience and an atmosphere that reaches the widest possible audience and attempts to create a multi-sensory encounter (whereas, traditional history only appeals to the sense of sight to stimulate the imagination).  Public historians are also more familiar with the “open” format of digital history, which, as Thomas points out, “shares some qualities with the museum exhibit—its constituent parts are arranged, text is often minimal or “chunked,” visitors can walk through the space, visitors have some choice over where to go and what to see. In this sense the experience is participatory and spatial.”

Not surprisingly, and in contrast, academic historians are typically the most resistant to supplementing their work digitally and surrendering control of their work and are leaving digital history to the next generation.  “Many tenured and tenure-track academic historians assume that digital history will somehow be taken care of by the next generation, which is, of course, practically cyborg,” Turkel jokes, “Unfortunately, this isn’t true.”  Although most historians are now at least “partly digital,” many do not extend their knowledge of digital history beyond the use of computerized source finding aids.  But this may soon change, as historians of the “pre-cyborg” generation era recognize the one of the obvious benefits of digital history– the potential for worldwide proliferation of information.  Publishing works online rather than waiting for publication in an academic journal leads to an exponential increase in readership and enhanced name recognition.  It is also important for historians to remember that digital history is not threatening to replace traditional history; instead, it aims to supplement rather than supplant the monograph and other traditional forms.  In fact, the pairing of traditional historical work with a complementary digital work can, as Taylor writes, allow the historian “to do it all.”  This model, she continues, is excellent “given that I am still quite attached to the monograph, that is appealing—but more significantly, it allows the historian to exploit the strengths of each medium and produce history that is deeper and richer than if presented in only one form.”

– Tracie Peterson

Image credit:

Bringing Historical Order to YouTube.

YouTube is a repository for public memory.  It’s about documenting what is in the zeitgeist now.  It also provides a glimpse at what we remember about the past, too.

That’s the premise behind, a website that attempts to provide some historical order to the otherwise chaotic YouTube.  It’s a sort of stream-of-consciousness archive of popular culture and current events in a given year.  Visitors to the site can search videos by year dating all the way back to advent of motion pictures in the late nineteenth century.  Videos can be filtered by categories such as current events, sports, video games, commercials, and television among others.

The impetus of the site is less historical than nostalgic.  As the site’s creators explain as they recount’s origins, “…it wasn’t specifically Jordan or Primal Rage videos I was searching for … it was 1996 … the feeling of being in 1996 …the intangibles of that year fascinated me, but getting bogged down in the specifics and having to make CHOICES eventually spoiled my quest.”

In other words, it’s like those VH1 clip shows, but without the often silly commentary.  Or better yet, with personal commentary provided by the viewer.  Or in our case, the historian.

The selection of videos archived on this site for a given year may be less than representative – but it’s fascinating from the perspective of public memory.  Just how do people choose to remember 1996  anyway?  What does it look like as a shared cultural moment?

What other ways could be used as a historical tool?


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Welcome to

This is the course blog for History in the Digital Age at American University. One of the explicit goals of this course is for us to develop as communicators on the public web. To that effect students will be sharing and discussing their ideas about various digital tools, resources, and readings with the intention of engaging both with eachother and with any of the broader digital history web whom wishes to participate.

This is the only part of the course readings which is actually composed by the students and the broader public. Please join our conversation, but please do so respectfully. We are all learning how to do this together.