31 May 2007

My Digital History Internship

As I noted in my last post, I am currently working with Bill Turkel on a digital history internship. I'm using MIT's Exhibit software to create a website that documents street name changes in London. The idea came out of a major paper I wrote last term on the same topic.

My website is going to be a very simple, interactive site providing information about street name changes such as: the original name, the new (not always current) name, the date of the name change, who initiated the change (was it a private citizen, a corporation, or the municipal council?), the bylaw that changed the name, and, where possible, I may opt to include a little social history behind the name change.

The last component is a sticky part for me. The reasons why people wanted to change the names of their streets in London was what I examined in my term paper. Luckily, in the paper, I could limit my focus to the number of streets for which I could find evidence. I found eight. Eight, for a website-creating internship of this nature, was, to play on a hackneyed old television show name, not enough. Bill told me I should aim for 20-30, just to make the website interesting.

Finding the social history behind the eight street name changes required a whole lot of digging, hair-pulling, and frustratingly long hours in libraries. That's history work, for you, though. I suppose.

I didn't have enough time to do an equivalent amount of research for the additional 12-22 streets. Nor do I believe that the information I would need is even available.

Surprising as it may seem, why someone wants a street name changed from one name to another is not always a requirement of street name changes in London. And often, the name changes occurred because of an annexation (there have been 17 in London between 1826 and 1993), where duplication of street names poses a potential for communication error with the 9-1-1 system. Think about it: if a call for a fire truck goes to the wrong Elm Street, the repercussions could be deadly. Literally.

What all this means is that the social history on my website will likely not exist (except, perhaps, in those eight cases where I already have it). Which is fine.

It's fine because, while I was not engaging in the kind of historical work most historians crave, developing London Streets Renamed (the website's tentative title, coined by Bill) has been a useful learning tool for me, both in using code (HTML, JavaScript, and JSON), and in understanding the difficulty in conveying useful, interesting information to the public in a format other than a written document.

So now I've a couple more tools to add to my public history tool belt.

**A short post-script: You'll have noticed, no doubt, that I did not provide a link to the website. It doesn't yet exist, but once it does, I'll post a link.

30 May 2007

To Be Continued

I'm taking this blog on a slightly different tack from now on. Since I'm no longer being graded on the frequency and content of my blogging, I have a little more leeway in what I can write. What this greater freedom will mean, I cannot say.

Plus, it's not as though I was all too limited before.

I can say, though, that in spite of the approaching end to my studies, I plan to continue blogging about public history, using the blog format as a tool of reflective practice.

So, for the next few months, in conjunction with the final stage of my M.A., I'll be blogging about things in the orbits of my internships.

The first internship I'm doing is a digital history project with Bill Turkel at the University of Western Ontario (wait for the blog post about this one soon).

The second, starting June 4th, is with History Television. I have a slim idea of what I'll be doing there, but rest assured, blogopeople, I shall keep you...posted(?).

My proclamations about change may end up being imperceptible. Maybe I'll start cussing, just to shake things up a little.

18 May 2007

Public History Controversy: An Obligation?

An interesting idea was brought to the fore in our public history class on March 7th. It was suggested (by whom I cannot remember) that when faced with two or more choices, people inevitably choose the easiest of the options. The example given was the choice between curating two museum exhibits: one that deals with a touchy issue, such as the racialized colonization of African peoples (as in the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit displayed at the ROM in the very early 1990s) or a less politically-charged dinosaur exhibit. The assumption is that the latter would be the choice of most people.

I question this assumption. Is it true that people always choose the easy route? I know from personal experience (or rather, from my wife telling me) that I often choose to do things the hard way. So I don’t buy the argument that humans are, by default, lazy (which is what this argument implies).

I do wonder, though, if people working in public realms like museums must, for pragmatic reasons, choose less difficult subject matter. Actually, we as a class know of a at least one example of this. We visited a local London museum (which will go unnamed) earlier this year. The curator told us that there are certain artefacts in that museum’s collection that s/he will never display because s/he is certain that such an exhibition will result in a politically-charged headache for her/him and her/his institution, as well as for the larger body to which the museum is attached.

So yes, public historians do sometimes take the easier choice when confronted with controversial issues.

But that sucks, doesn’t it? I mean, these people have the opportunity – some might even say the responsibility – to engage the public in important debates. Someone else in that March 7th class also suggested that we as public historians exist for the very purpose of poking the sleeping giant. Good point. Yet, in our short tenure as fledgling public historians we have already witnessed at least one such a figure who balks at this opportunity.

I do not want to back down from making meaningful change in the world. I admit, however, that it scares me. I mean, what if I mess up and end up a Jeanne Cannizzo, or better yet, given my career objectives, the McKenna Brothers? But if I end up a demon in the public’s eyes, I may, as Prof. MacEachern kept trying to get us to argue throughout the year, be more successful than my counterparts who are not so scandalous. After all, if I get people talking about the subject I present, doesn’t that make my public history venture a success?

Look at Jack Granatstein. He’s practically created an art form of making outlandish claims in the press, more often than not sparking the ire of the public, often to the benefit of society. I think, and this is pure speculation, that Dr. Granatstein says some of the things he does to produce the exact opposite effect of what it is he appears to be claiming. Take for example his assertion that the Canadian War Museum could solve its financial woes by selling Hitler’s car. It made a lot of people upset, and caused quite a stir in the media.

This is exactly my point: he got peoples’ attention, and their butts (and minds) followed, right up the steps and through the front doors of the museum, of which he was the director. And who knows, since what he was trying to do was raise money for the ailing museum, he may have prompted some people, who may otherwise not have, to donate to the museum.

I am not suggesting that everyone adopt this approach. But controversy can sometimes be the best thing for you. And me. And your neighbour. Even if we can’t see it right away.

01 May 2007

The Digital Shadow

Last term in our course on Digital History, I believe I got the reputation of being the anti-digital crank. I even wrote a blog post in my own defence.

In the 24 February Globe & Mail of this year, in an article on our society’s increasing individual isolation, author Erin Anderssen refers to what is called a “digital shadow.” A digital shadow includes, among other things, “a camera phone [that] makes it possible to document that rush-hour fender-bender or to record a farewell to your loved ones if you’re trapped in an avalanche”[1].

I could add a few other things to this list, but suffice it to say that this idea is both novel, and old, to me. I've thought of it before, but I always considered it more of a leash than a shadow. But I like the shadow metaphor better. It's darker, perhaps more looming.

And ominous.

[1]: Erin Anderssen quoting John Pliniussen, The Globe and Mail, 24 February 2007, F6.

Canadian History Podcasts?

A few months ago, I decided to drop my guard against all things digital. Well, not all things. But a good number of them. One of the digital technologies I have since embraced is podcasting.

Podcasts, for those unfamiliar with the term, are sort of like digital radio programs you can listen to on a computer or mobile audio player. (With the introduction of video to the world of portable music players, some podcasts have also taken to offering visual complements to their audio files, but I will not delve into that realm in this post.)

In a December blog post, Joel Ralph, a graduate of the UWO’s Public History Program (in which I am currently enrolled), wrote about history podcasts. I, too, had been thinking about that topic all last semester. Ever since enrolling in Digital History, I’ve searched – and found quite a few – podcasts suited to my liking. Unfortunately, though, not one of the podcasts I regularly listen to are about history (My interest in history tends to focus on Canadian content. If I were to broaden my scope, I am certain that I’d find many more podcasts that deal with history. Joel even mentioned a few in his blog).

One organization that is, I believe, really making quite a lot of headway in podcasting is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I first stumbled upon a podcast called All in the Mind, hosted by Natasha Mitchell. Actually, just like Alan Cross’s The Ongoing History of New Music podcast, All in the Mind is really a radio show that is also available in podcast format. One of the reasons I like All in the Mind is that I am constantly educated and entertained. Scouring the ABC podcast site, I found some other very interesting podcasts, not the least of which were two history podcasts, Verbatim and Hindsight.

Compared to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Aussies have us licked. There are probably 40 or 50 podcasts on the ABC website, compared with only 27 at the CBC.

The CBC conducted a survey in December 2005 about who downloads their podcasts, and how and when those people listen. Unfortunately – for people interested in history – the results are not promising. As the summary of the survey notes, “When asked what kind of content Canadians want from CBC Radio podcasts, the overwhelming response was for national news, current affairs and music.”

Again, I should point out that all of the podcasts on both sites are really radio shows put into podcast format. And seeing as the ABC and CBC are already equipped with the technology, the people, the budgets, and their respective brand names, the appeal to potential listeners is likely greater than for some schmo producing podcasts out of his two-bedroom flat in London, Ontario (I toyed with the idea of making some of my own history podcasts to fill the void in content I mentioned earlier. Its on hold for now.).

Browsing the web for Canadian history podcasts, I, too, like Joel, did a Google search for “history + podcast” and received these results:

One interesting thing that appears is that two of the first ten results are military history podcasts. Not surprising really, considering that, in my view, many people practicing history outside the academic realm tend to like – and therefore engage with – military history. Just walk into a large bookstore like Chapters or Indigo, and look at the history books. More likely than not, the portion allotted to military history will be as large or larger than the entire remaining history section.

Note, however, that there are over 63 million hits on that Google search. 63 MILLION! Well, there is no way there are 63 million history podcasts out there. So, utilizing the skills I acquired in my digital history class this term, I played with my search a little. This time I tried “’history podcast,’” with quotation marks around the phrase, and no addition symbol. It trimmed down the results significantly:

Instead of 63 million hits, I got about 78,000. Two are still devoted specifically to military history, but more of these results focus on history education than in the previous search.

Conversely, and these results are by no means inclusive, a search in the iTunes Store of podcasts with the word “history,” reveals only thirty podcasts. Four of those podcasts are the same: Alan Cross’ The Ongoing History of New Music, so the total number of history podcasts available through iTunes is really twenty-seven. Of those twenty-seven, only six fall under the “History” category. Fourteen fall under “Education” or “Higher Education” or “K-12” (another way of saying “Education”). “Podcasts,” “Music,” “Places & Travel,” “Tech News,” “TV & Film,” and “Visual Arts” make up the remaining podcasts’ categorization:

Search: “history”
6 history
14 education
2 podcasts
1visual arts
1 places and travel
1 tech news
1 music
1 tv and film

Joel’s focus for history podcasts appears, by the name of his blog, to be about education, and more specifically, education as it occurs in the classroom. I like my history to be entertaining and broader in audience, which makes my search for history podcasts troubling.

First, one could conclude that I think education and entertainment are incompatible, which is simply not true. The disappointing outcome of my search is largely the result of the (admittedly) narrow scope of my subject matter (Canadian history). I do not think that by virtue of something being educational it is naturally devoid of entertainment value. I am both educated and entertained all the time. Take Alan MacEachern, for example. He teaches me and makes me laugh, often at once.

The second problem with my search results is the implication that history is not entertaining. Anyone who has seen Band of Brothers, the HBO six-part series on a Second World War U.S. Airborne Company, should be able to tell you otherwise. Even my fiancée, whose only interest in history lies in getting me to stop talking about it, could not get enough Currahee.

I think podcasts present an interesting venue for public history creators. We talked about it in our class on numerous occasions. So where are all the entertaining Canadian history podcasts?