Practicum: Library of Congress’s By the People

The Library of Congress’s By the People website invites volunteers to aid the Library in transcribing and reviewing digitized archival materials. Launched in Fall 2018, this initiative has resulted in the transcription of over 400,000 pages by over 28,000 registered users and countless unregistered volunteers.

By the People’s landing page.

Anyone can contribute to this project! You don’t even need to make an account, although registering will allow you to review and tag pages.

Clicking the “Get Started” tab will take you to the Welcome Guide, which walks users through the contribution process. After reading the linked instructions, you can choose a campaign to contribute to. Each campaign features an archival collection such as, for instance, papers concerning Walt Whitman.

The Walt Whitman Campaign. Along with a short description of the collection, the page includes a chart showing how the campaign is progressing.

To make a transcription, navigate to the desired document and begin typing in the box on the right. Make sure you read the instructions first! You can also click the “Quick Tips” button at the bottom of the page if you need a reminder about transcription standards. When you’re done, click the “Submit for Review” button.

To review another volunteer’s transcription, you’ll need to have a registered account. If you already have an account, you can simply review their transcription, make any necessary edits, and accept the final product.

Along with instructions and the campaigns themselves, the By the People site also includes a discussion forum where volunteers can ask questions and solicit help with transcriptions; an About page with statistics, press coverage, and FAQs; and a list of resources. This list includes lesson plans, tutorial videos, Transcribe-a-Thon How-To’s, and all sorts of other resources for students, educators, and the general public.

The LoC’s By the People project is a great way to give back to your community, even fulfilling some community service requirements. You can get first-hand experience working with primary source documents and contributing to a world-wide public history project. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!

Practicum: Wikipedia

A generation of American schoolkids has grown up hearing the refrain, “Wikipedia is not a reliable source.” The Wikipedia of today, however, is a different beast than the Wikipedia of the early aughts. What was once a poorly-maintained, amateur website is now an encyclopedic juggernaut with strict editing rules and constantly updated articles.

While Wikipedia is no longer the unreliable source that our school librarians warned us about, viewers should still be careful to vet each article before trusting its information. There is a long history of hoax articles and vandalism on Wikipedia, and you should never trust its articles at face value. There are several ways to go about checking for accuracy and controversy, most notably the “Talk” page and the “View History” page.

The “Talk” and “View History” tabs on the Harriet Tubman Wikipedia page.

“Talk” Pages

As most students know, the first step when vetting a Wikipedia article is to scroll down to the References section, where you can often find links to historical monographs and primary sources. Lesser known, however, is the “Talk” page. Talk pages list Wikipedia’s ratings of each article’s importance and accuracy and serve as a forum for community members to discuss ways of improving the article.

The talk page for the article on Robert E. Lee, for example, describes it as a level-4 vital article, meaning Wikipedia editors voted on it being an “essential” topic worthy of an especially high-quality entry. It is also classified as a B-Class article, meaning that it could benefit from more editing and expert knowledge. The talk page for Harriet Tubman’s article, on the other hand, also identifies the page as a level-4 vital article, but rates it as a Featured Article (FA-Class). Whereas Wikipedia editors have identified both Robert E. Lee and Harriet Tubman as important, the quality of the Harriet Tubman article is within the top .1% of all articles on the English-language Wikipedia.  

You can also check the article’s rating by looking at the icons in the upper right hand corner of the article itself. The star shows that this article is FA-Class, while the padlock shows that this article is semi-protected from rogue edits. Its semi-protected status implies that, like many FA-Class pages, this article has previously been subject to vandalism.

On the other hand, the article on “Black Dispatches,” or Civil War espionage provided by Black Americans, is classified as a Start-Class article, only one step above the lowest accepted rating, “Stub.” This article is also ranked as “Low-importance” in a couple different categories, meaning that Wikipedia editors have determined that its information is not particularly vital to those topics. While future scholarship might highlight the importance of Black Dispatches, the current consensus is that they are incidental to the histories of the United States and espionage. For now, viewers interested in Black espionage during the Civil War will have to read up on individual spies like Harriet Tubman to get more complete information.

The header on the Black Dispatches talk page.

The quality of discussion on talk pages can vary wildly. On the Robert E. Lee talk page, for instance, one can see respectful debates on how to interpret his views on race and how soon to mention his culpability in defending the institution of slavery. On the Harriet Tubman page, however, some comments are less respectful.

Fortunately, users like “Plain English1” are the exception rather than the rule.

While the talk pages can contain inflammatory rhetoric, Wikipedia’s strict standards and constant revision generally stops this sort of bias from making it into the article itself. To view the edits that have actually made the cut, viewers can check the “View History” tab.

“View History” Pages

In the “View History” tab, viewers can see a log of all edits made to the article.

The edit history of the Robert E. Lee Wikipedia page.

Along with this log, one of the handiest tools is the “Page Statistics” external link. Here, viewers can see everything from page views to word counts to connections with other Wikipedia articles. Most importantly for scholars is information on authorship: tables and pie charts showing who contributed the most to each article.

Among other functions, Page Statistics show who contributed the most to an article.


The page statistics for Black Dispatches, for instance, shows that user Tfine80 contributed 82.4% of authorship. Examining Tfine80’s user page shows that they are an avid contributor to Wikipedia, often translating German-language articles to English. While there is little information about Tfine80’s credentials, user pages can give a general “vibe check” for viewers who want to know more about an article’s authors. One might trust Tfine80, for example, more than they trust ScottishFinnishRadish.

This radish has only two enemies on its “arc-enemies” list. That’s two more than I expected.

As an open source, freely accessible encyclopedia, Wikipedia is unmatched. It still, however, suffers from biased authorship as most contributors to English Wikipedia are white, Western men. As you can see from the inflammatory rhetoric on the Harriet Tubman talk page and the underdeveloped Black Dispatches article, the site is still plagued by both overt and subtle racial bias. Wikipedia itself has acknowledged that it has a problem with race as well as sex and gender . Tools like the Talk and View History pages can help you identify biases and better understand why Wikipedia looks the way it does.

I’m interested to know if anyone in this class has contributed to Wikipedia. If so, what was your experience like? Did you engage with other editors on the Talk pages? Let us know in the comments!

The Programming Historian

The Programming Historian is a website which publishes “novice-friendly, peer-reviewed tutorials” designed to help teach historians “digital tools, techniques, and workflows.” It is aimed at helping historians who identify as “technologically illiterate” to become programming historians. If you’re a historian and you want to know how to set up an Omeka site, or edit an oral history using Audacity, then The Programming Historian is a place to learn how and where to get started.

Over half of the lessons have been translated into Spanish. If you speak French, you’re out of luck at the moment.

Clicking on the English-language portal presents us with three options: we can Learn, we can Teach, or we can Contribute. Learn takes us to the lessons and Contribute provides links to pages with information for those interested in writing a lesson or becoming one of the reviewers. Teach has little beyond a link to provide feedback on ways to make the lessons better suited to being used as teaching tools. We’re going to Learn today.

Clicking on learn brings up all the lessons that you can access. There are 78 lessons available in English, which is quite a few to browse through.

The Programming Historian provides a few ways to organize the lessons to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. At the top, you can click on buttons to display all the tutorials that are tagged with one of five categories: Acquire, Transform, Analyze, Present, and Sustain. 30 lessons fall under the category of Transform, making that the largest of the five categories.

The next way to sort the lessons is by more specific criteria: for example, you can click to see all the lessons tagged with “Web Scraping” (only 6) or lessons that have to do with the  programming language Python (19 lessons – second only to “Data Management”).

Finally, you can sort the lessons by their publication date or by their difficulty. Lessons are given a difficulty – Low, Medium, or High. These difficulty lessons appear to be assigned based on the difficulty of the subject matter covered by the lesson, not the difficulty of using the lessons to learn the programming tool.

Here’s half of the lessons tagged with “Digital Publishing”

Let’s click on the lesson “Up and Running with Omeka.net”. This is a lesson designed to help historians set up their own content on Omeka.net.

The lesson is all text and images – no video or audio. The lesson reads like a longer version of one of our digital tool reviews, featuring walkthroughs of how to use the digital tool. When I say “longer,” I do mean significantly longer – here is the table of contents for the Omeka.net lesson:

And here is what the content of the lesson looks like:

The lessons all seem well-written and informative. However, they are not infallible: several lessons have notifications that reviewers have caught inaccurate information. Rectifying these errors is dependent on the website administrators contacting the authors and then having the authors correct the mistakes in their lessons.

Overall The Programming Historian seems to be a very helpful resource for any historian looking to expand their technical skills.

Digital Tool Review: Wordle

Wordle is a simple program (from the user side – I don’t know enough about coding to judge whether a lot is going on under the hood) which creates word clouds. Word clouds, for the unfamiliar, are a way of visualizing which words are used or found most frequently in a given text. Word clouds have become very fashionable in all sorts of presentations, because they allow a presenter to illustrate the key or central themes of a piece of text in a very easy-to-understand visual format. A word cloud is both a means and an end. A presenter might cite a statistic which is difficult for a listener to comprehend. Showing a word cloud dominated by a word presents the same information in a more visually striking way.

Here’s an example. This is the Course Description for History and New Media course:

To use Wordle, I downloaded the Mac app from the website. The web browser version will do the same thing as the downloadable app, but it relies on a piece of Java which many browsers no longer support. The app also requires Java but the software it needs is still supported and can be downloaded as an update from Java for free. I copied the text of the course description and then pasted into the text box which appears when the app is launched and hit “Go.” This generated the word cloud. Words which are used more often will be larger, so whatever words are the biggest are the ones used the most. Here’s that same text in word cloud form:

Wordle has several benefits for presenters: it is free, and usable on both web browsers or as a downloaded application. It does the computing and graphic design needed to produce a word cloud; a presenter who doesn’t have the time or resources to create a word cloud themselves can simply copy-and-paste text and then choose from a variety of styles and fonts. Using the simple drop-down menus, the creator of the world cloud can opt to remove common words in a number of languages. This ensures that the word clouds aren’t dominated by words without serious historical meaning, like “the.” You can also alter the graphic design of the word cloud in a number of ways: you can adjust how many words are included in the word cloud and how the words are arranged.

For an example of how Wordle might be used in a presentation, I decided to input the text of two related documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States (amendments not included). This could be used by a scholar of early American history to illustrate the similarities and differences between the two documents.

Here is the word cloud that Wordle generated from the Declaration of Independence:

And here is the one generated from the Constitution:

A presenter could point to words which appeared in both word clouds, such as “States,” as well as illustrate the differences between the two documents. By altering the number of words included in the word cloud, presenters can make these contrasts even more obvious. Having these two images in a presentation would enhance its educational power, especially for visual learners.

Practicum, Week 2: Kevin Lukacs

Hey classmates. This week for practicum we’re looking at two GPS history sites, and a word cloud generator. I had fun looking at these, and I’m excited to demo them in class.

PhilaPlace

PhilaPlace is a GPS-based self-touring website that presents the history and stories of two Philadelphia neighborhoods. Old Southwark and Greater Northern Liberties have been home to immigrant and working class communities but are being affected by gentrification. PhilaPlace uses the resources of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and community sourcing to offer dozens of neighborhood stories.

The site is a little difficult to navigate, and some of the features seem to be missing. The bulk of the site is dedicated to location-based stories, presented as a blog. Stories contain pictures, short text, and a map location for each entry. Some stories claim to have oral interviews, at least fifty-one, but accessing the interviews was not possible.

Philaplace also offers resources for educators. These programs and activities seem interesting but are not currently accessible.

While some of the services PhilaPlace offers are not available, the basic function of the website is pretty valuable. Their collections present hundred of photographs of the neighborhoods’ history, and the stories could be invaluable to Philly residents or curious web surfers to explore some of the unknown parts of the city. Each article comes with a list of references for further research for students or amateur historians.

The blog also offers unique opportunities for community members to have themselves heard. Contributing a story is a relatively simple process. This story about Soupy Island was contributed by a student from Drexel University. Most stories have been added by the Historical Society, but the potential for having a community platform is in place.

PhilaPlace is a project with a lot of potential, that still seems like it needs a bit of work. While this project focuses on two neighborhoods of Philadelphia, History Pin has a much more global perspective.

History Pin

History Pin is another GPS-based history site, designed for creating digital collections and digital tours. Part history project, part social platform, History Pin collaborates with thousands of organizations and takes contributions from any member willing to create a pin.

Creating a history pin is incredibly simple. An account needs to be created, as well as a collection or tour for pins to be added to. Contributors can request to add pins to established tours and collections or create their own. When demoing the site, I chose to make my own tour to see how that process works. Creating a tour simply requires a title and a description.

Creating a pin first requires some type of media or a block of text. I uploaded a picture of Butler Little Theatre’s first performance in 1941. The BLT is a community theater that I did several projects with prior to coming to American University, and I still have some photographs and written material on hand. I included a short description of my image, and then added a GPS location pin. Pins can either be exact addresses or general locations. And that was it. I created a pin for the BLT. It’s an incredibly easy process, aided by a series of tutorial videos available on the history pin website.

The play was “The Night of January 16th,” and it was performed in the court house. The Theater had yet to locate a suitable, permanent venue.

What’s great about History Pin is it’s free and accessible platform. Individuals and small organizations can have a set up like PhilaPlace or Cleveland Historical, without needing to commit as many resources. Organizations like The Museum of Connecticut History now have a digital platform, and all it takes is a few minutes to sign up.

Wordle

I think word clouds are dope af. You put in a bunch of text, and generate an image made from the most used words. Facebook has done it for a “year in review” type thing. I remember reading a tips and tricks for writing that suggested putting essays/scripts into a word cloud generator to help find a central theme. My employer, President Lincoln’s Cottage also uses a word cloud. They generate an image monthly to gauge visitor response to an opening question. Word clouds. They’re dope.

This is the Lincoln’s Cottage word cloud from the week prior to January 13th, 2018.

Word clouds by themselves can have limited impact. There’s an old Woody Allen joke about speed reading. The general gist and the relevancy here is that you could put War and Peace into a word cloud, just to find out that that huge book has something to do with Russia. The information presented in a word cloud needs context, or a way to find patterns. Doing a single word cloud of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural doesn’t have much value, but a word cloud of all of Lincoln’s speeches provides insight into themes and word choice.

I’ve kept to writing about word cloud’s generally because I could not get Wordle itself to run on my laptop. I tried three different browsers (Chrome, Edge, and Explorer) to no success. So, here’s a list of Wordle alternatives that may actually work.

That’s my contribution to this course’s practicum. PhilaPlace is an interesting look at urban and local history that could provide a great platform for the community. The massive infrastructure of History Pin could be invaluable to small organizations and is very simple to use. Wordle did not work for me, but if used correctly, word clouds can create wonderful visual aids.

Let me know what you think! What other organizations have you see use History Pin, Worlde, or a website like PhilaPlace? What are some benefits to doing GPS based history? Will I get a stern talking to for using “dope af” on a graduate level classroom assignment? Leave your thoughts below!