History and New Media For What?

One of the most exciting aspects of the digital humanities “movement,” if you will, is the emphasis on sharing. There are a few different ways the sharing culture of digital humanities manifests itself, one of which is the opportunity for academics to share and collaborate their research (Zotero is a great resource for this, I wrote a blog post on it a few weeks back). The second is the incredible amount of free platforms online for collecting, interpreting, and sharing content.

I’ve learned about a few from my History and New Media class this past semester. Some are great tools for non-professionals to share their own content and connect with institutions – like HistoryPin, which I have fallen in love with thanks to the work of my classmates. Others have more technical capabilities, like data visualization and text analysis. There’s an ever-expanding repository of tools for the digital humanities, but what should we be doing with them?

In her 2012 ASA address ‘Digital Humanities For What?’ Elena Razlogova argues that “DH technical experiments lack self-awareness because their research lacks a proper purpose.She was speaking about the field in relation to American Studies, but I believe her argument holds water in the field of History as well. I think this relates to why so many people are up-in-arms about Twitter accounts like @HistoryInPics, which uploads (as I’m sure you could guess) daily pictures of historical events and figures, often times without a source or any sort of contextualization. The accounts have also been accused of posting “fake” pictures (check out my previous post on our false expectations of images for my reasoning for the scare-quotes). In the world of history scholarship, these accounts undermine the work professionals have dedicated their lives to, and arguably undermine cultural heritage altogether.

But accounts like these do something that many more legitimate institutions struggle with: they attract followers. @HistoryInPics has 1.02 million followers, compared with the entire Smithsonian Institution’s 1.2 million. The National Museum of American History, the museum one could speculate could adapt itself to the social media world best, only has 73.3 thousand followers*. Does this mean that the general public is adverse to professionally curated material? That we should leave “history” to the informal accounts that do such a good job of connecting with their audience? Of course not. I do, however, think it means that connecting to potential audience members should be a key part of the purpose of digital humanities, at least for the interpretation and communication branch.

I tried to apply this purpose to my final project for my History and New Media class, for which I designed an online exhibit for a local organization. I worked alongside Rainbow History, a group “dedicated to collecting, preserving, and promoting an active knowledge of the history, arts, and culture relevant to sexually diverse communities in metropolitan Washington DC.” Their work started with oral histories from community members in an effort to capture fading memories of the HIV/AIDS crisis, but has expanded into an incredible resource of information on all aspects of 20th century LGBTQ life in DC.

Rainbow History does the collecting and preserving aspect of digital history well. At their start in 2000, they were able to take advantage of available technology to give a voice to memories that the DC community was at risk of losing. They’ve digitized thousands of documents and oral histories, and done so in the spatial context of Washington, DC. In fact, they have a database of over 500 “places and spaces” relevant to “sexually diverse communities in metropolitan Washington DC” over the 20th century that have since closed their doors. Through their walking tours, you can visit the Nationals Stadium and imagine the now-gone “entertainment district for Washington, DC’s gay community in the 1970s.”

Now, Rainbow History is shifting their focus to the side of digital history that I emphasized earlier in this piece, and I was lucky enough to work with them. I created the online-exhibit (experience it here!) for the Gay Women’s Alternative, a lesbian club in Washington, DC that hosted social and educational events from 1981-1993. I built the exhibit using Omeka.net, a free resource created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

As all the objects in the exhibit were collected by Rainbow History previously, my job was to piece together a narrative out of my own and existing interpretation. To do so, I drew inspiration from Trevor Owens’ “A Draft Style Guide for Digital Collection Hypertexts.” The two most important and relevant recommendations I found from Owens were his concept that each page is a front door to the exhibit; it needs to stand on its own while still introducing the content on other pages. Additionally, I was struck by his recommendation to take full advantage of hyperlink capabilities. I tried to link concepts where ever I could to other pages in the exhibit as well as outside sources. My hope is that the connectedness of the exhibit enriches the experience for the user.

No project ever seems to be fully finished, and if I could extend this one into the endless future I’d love to develop my HTML and CSS skills to move the exhibit off of Omeka. The platform definitely does its job, I found the site intuitive and pleased with the way the exhibit looks. However, I often found limited by the page layout options and found myself again and again wishing I could manipulate page elements.  Until then, I hope I used Omeka in a way that was consistent with the purpose of digital humanities to collect, preserve, and communicate our stories in an engaging, community oriented, and spatially relevant way.

*I think it’s important for me to mention the obvious flaw in this comparison. @HistoryInPics isn’t an American institution the way the Smithsonian is. Twitter exists outside of America, so it’s not too surprising that a general account would have followers that exceed an account with a country as the identifier. Additionally, Twitter is incredibly democratic. There are plenty of Twitter users with interests in history who would search history before they searched Smithsonian, for a variety of reasons. In any case, I think the comparison helps put the popularity of amateur accounts into perspective.

The Age of the Community

Local is everywhere. From craft beers to farmers markets, to love-your-city newsletters like Groupon, LivingSocial, and Scoutmob, the obsession with all things local is permeates our culture. It’s an interesting phenomenon, considering we live in an increasingly globalized world. Whatever the reasons are for all this local love, it provides an incredible opportunity for the community museums. If our regional heritage organizations and museums can embrace the community aspects of social media, there could be an unprecedented interest in local history from surrounding neighborhoods to international audiences.

Social media presents new opportunities for community members to be involved in their museums. The subject of critique as bastions of privilege, the museum world could stand to enter into the same shift towards collaboration sociology and anthropology have begun. As experiments in tweetups at the Smithsonian have shown, there is a public interest in engaging with museums. Local communities have stories to share, and social media might be the tool to make museums a more collaborative experience.

Interest in community museums doesn’t have to stem from the local populations alone. By developing their online content, museums can take advantage of the general shift in interest towards cities and neighborhoods. The Brooklyn Museum has an incredible online presence, and their success could be replicated across America.

There are several challenges that come along with these opportunities. Would interest be limited to cities? I could see an abandonment of interest in rural America as cultural interest moves to the urban world. I think this could also have an impact on national museums. Should, for instance, the Museum of American History dedicate space and attention to local D.C. history? If our cultural interests are becoming more region-specific, will we become less interested in the national narrative preserved by our national instiutions?

Then and Now: What Have We Been Saying about H Street?

H Street is an infamous area in Washington D.C. Like many other neighborhoods, the communities were hit hard by the suburban flight movements of the late 20th century. Destructive riots broke out in the Spring of 1968. In 2008 police set up checkpoints in nearby Trinidad to ensure that traffic had a “legitimate reason” to enter the neighborhood following violent gun outbursts. In 2013, Whole Foods signed a lease to open a store in place of the historic local chain Murry’s.

H Street  is the epitome of DC change – whether you frame it as gentrification or  development – the city, and it’s neighborhoods, are in flux. This inspired me to take a peek at the way that we talk about our communities. The DC Public Library has a fantastic digital collection of newspapers available to anyone with a library card. I made a Wordle, which displays frequency of words, from Washington Post articles about H Street from 1960-1969 and then from 2005-2014.

Frequent words in 1960-1969 Washington Post articles about H Street

Frequent words in 1960-1969 Washington Post articles about H Street

Frequent words in 2005-2014 Washington Post articles about H Street

Frequent words in 2005-2014 Washington Post articles about H Street


Unfortunately, everything in the 1960-1969 archives are scanned pdfs, so I was limited to using the abstracts of articles instead of the full text. I also limited my analysis to the first 5 entries in each time period, considering the manual labor involved in copying and pasting each story’s text.

With those caveats in mind, Wordle is a great tool to begin to analyze the changes in speech. First, it’s clear that there is simply more written about H Street in recent years than in the 60s. 2005-2014 also contains more words that situate H Street – including district, avenue, city, and D.C. – while the 1960-1969 collection describe the notable event of that time period – damaged, riots, slum.

Movement and Maps, Man

The spatial turn is, in my humble and underdeveloped opinion, one of the most interesting things to happen in the humanities and social sciences. Following the contributions of the deconstructionist geographers (From Foucault, to Derrida, to Harley, we learned that a map is more than a way of communicating information about space. It’s a tool of power, a form of discourse with its own rhetoric.), the turn of the 21st century has been burgeoning with spatial thought. The theory of the past 40 years (I’m using 1974 as a starting point, hopefully you’ll understand why in the next few paragraphs) has developed simultaneously with precise geographic measurement capabilities. I’d argue that we’re in a heyday for spatial thought as post-modern subjectivism merges with the concrete view of natural space through technologies like GIS.

I know that might have sounded like superfluous jargon, and I promise I won’t rely on words like post-modern subjectivism throughout this post. Spatial thought tends to exist largely in academic contexts, which is ironic as it’s largely related to revolutionizing the ideas of knowledge. That’s why I was so excited to read Richard White’s break-down of one of the most important works in the spatial thought canon, Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 book The Production of Space.

Lefebvre’s works are all incredible contributions to how we know and understand the world around us. They’ve been used to spark the spatial justice movement and mark a schism in Marxist thought. But they don’t inherently adhere to an ideology, instead The Production of Space calls for a shift from binary systems to what has been called a trialectic. The thought is that when you have an either and an or, there also always exists something else. As Lefebvre says – il y a toujours l’autre – there is always the other.

Edward Soja’s book Third Space explores this idea further, if you’re interested in really digging deep into spatial thought. There’s no better place to start, however, than White’s post on the Spatial History Project at Stanford’s blog. White breaks down Lefebvre’s ideas on the three methods of the production of space beautifully and succinctly. I’ll share his basic definitions here, but I urge you to click through to the blog and have a look around.

The first production of space comes from spatial practice; the second, representations of space; and third, representational spaces. It’s extremely important to keep in mind that 1) each of these productions is linked to the other two, and 2) the purpose of trialectics – to paraphrase Soja – isn’t to create a holy trinity. Instead, it’s to push us to constantly look for “the other” to ever expand our ways of understanding.

  1. Spatial practice is all about movement – as we move from our bedrooms to our kitchens, our homes to our work, or as we migrate from one nation to another. Spatial practice is how we divide our constructed spaces and link them through our movements
  2. Representation of space “is an attempt to conceive in order to shape what is lived and perceived.” Think of representations of space as maps or city plans, they create knowledge and order, aid in state surveillance, and help us decide where to put street lights and which areas are “blighted.” Representations of space have this co-producing relationship with spatial practice, often what we represent are our patterns of spatial practice, but how we continue to construct space is also heavily influenced by our representations.
  3. Representational spaces are spaces “lived and experienced through symbolic associations.” The grand ceilings of sanctuaries and the ordered rows of military barracks symbolically represent the experiences associated with these spaces – spiritual euphoria, or ordered conformity.

We can take any of Lefebvre’s three productions of space and apply them to historic inquiry, but I want to focus on representations of space. Specifically, in reference to Charles Jospeh Minard’s map of Napoleon I’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Minard shows the movement of troops into, and retreating from, Moscow. He plots temperature points and poignantly depicts the losses of war by thinning the line which represents the troops’ movements. What starts as a strong army of 422,000 men dwindles down to 100,000 by the time Moscow is reached, and 10,000 by the time the army leaves Russia. Temperature markings inform us of the conditions, and notations of geography help us contextualize the army’s journey. The map runs between the Russian border and Moscow, with the Nieman River in between. Minard’s choices are significant; the river crossing during the army’s flight claimed 22,000 lives.

Minard’s Map of Napoleon I’s 1812 Campaign

Close up of the Niemen River crossing

Minard’s map shows spatial practice – the battlefield is constructed from the movement to Moscow and back. It’s also a truly radical representation of space. This map wasn’t drawn from a position of power; it depicts not a nation’s campaign of imperialism but the human tragedy of war. The Fundamental Principles of Analytic Design offers amazing excerpts from Minard’s sources, detailing the freezing temperatures, the loss of humanity, and the absolute chaos of battle. While these primary accounts are beautiful and enabled Minard to construct his map, they tell the same story in so many words that Minard does in one image. That’s an incredibly powerful idea.

Minard was a civil engineer; many of his projects involved redevelopment after destruction. This map gives us more than the astronomical number of lives lost (412,000). Minard’s represented space, in this case the area of a military campaign, shows us the horrifying brutality of war. It is, in itself, a primary document in antiwar and anti-imperialist movements (I feel confident that this is not an appropriation of Minard, he produced explicit anti-war materials).

A map is never just a map. Each representation of space is a human production and will always be guilty of silencing some things while giving voice to others. This isn’t a reason to fear maps; instead it’s a reason to study representations of space with more vigor than we ever have before. What does a map tell us about the cartographer? In the same vein, we should pursue radical visualization with the same propensity. What new ways of representing space can communicate whole stories?

A Space for Thoughts on Space

Hey readers, here’s a little-known-fact about me: one of my biggest interests is in humanity’s interaction with the built and natural environment. As a humanities and social sciences student, I’m fascinated with spatial sides of anthropology, sociology and history. The spatial turn, as it’s called is relatively new, so it’s exciting for me every time I find a book, article, or blog that includes spatiality. You can imagine the improvement that Zotero, an open-sourced and free program that allows you to collect, make notes on, organize, and cite materials online. I’ve started my first Zotero project on, of course, individuals and space. Check it out here!

Rainbow History Project Proposal

On November 4, 2000, five strangers met at a café near Dupont Circle; four – Charles Rose, Bruce Pennington, Jose Gutierrez, and James Crutchfield – had responded to the fifth’s – Mark Meinke – request in the “Washington Blade.” Meinke was looking for a group of people dedicated to solving the problem of a lack of organized and accessible resources on the history of the LGBTQ community in Washington, D.C. As a result, the Rainbow History Project was born and 14 years later the project is still actively involved in the community. Today, RHP’s mission is “to collect, preserve, and promote an active knowledge of the history, arts, and culture relevant to sexually diverse communities in metropolitan Washington DC.”

Rainbow History Project’s work has continued to fill the gap in community knowledge that Meinke noticed almost a decade and a half ago. Their oral histories project sheds light on the experiences of LGBT individuals in context of the larger gay, women’s, and African-American empowerment movements happening in D.C. in the latter 20th century. This collection, paired with their exhibits on community activists and organizations, provide a unique look at the progression of social change and the challenges of intersecting identities. All of RHP’s work has strong ties to D.C.’s history as a city and should be an integral part of understanding the space as D.C. develops in the coming years.

I’ll be lucky enough to assist the Rainbow History Project in their efforts to improve their interpretation in the digital age. RHP doesn’t have a physical space; all of its exhibits and collections are housed online. Currently RHP is in the process of moving all its resources out of its html site and into Omeka, a free and open source software service that allows users to build and share exhibits, among other things. Omeka is a project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The software is designed to be user friendly for both the cultural institution curating the exhibits, and the public viewing them.

The viewer-experience aspect of Omeka is one reason why it is such a good tool for my project with the Rainbow History Project. I’m responsible for creating the Omeka exhibit on the Gay Women’s Alternative, an organization dedicated to providing a safe and educational space for lesbian and gay women in the 1980s. I’ll be pulling from the resources Rainbow History Project has to curate the final exhibit.

While I’ll finish the exhibit by the end of April, it’s part of a larger project to revitalize the website and produce content of Omeka by Capital Pride Weekend, June 6 – 8. The weekend will be marked by celebration and reflection of LGBT presence in D.C., and the historic perspective the Rainbow History Project can bring to the discussion is invaluable. Especially with specialty exhibits on less-represented groups, like the Gay Women’s Alternative, Rainbow History Project has the opportunity to impact our current understanding of D.C. and its culture. Making the rich history that RHP has collected available to more people, through new media outlets like Omeka, are a first step in that direction.

The Tortoise and the Hare: The Present and Future of Books

I recently stumbled upon a new app called Sprtiz – via The Washington Post – that uses streaming technology to enable you to read a 1,000 page novel in 10 hours. They claim that what really takes up our time when we’re reading is the way our eyes have to bounce around the page to follow words. Try being conscious of your eye movement as you read the upcoming sentences. Suddenly, reading seems like a lot of work. No wonder we dread the book-a-week (per class) homework load of academia; think of how much SCANNING our eyes will have to do!

What Spritz does to solve this problem (which reminds me, personally, of the kind of problems invented by infomercials) is remove all eye-movement from reading. The words are all aligned in flash on your screen, like you’re reading a book through high-quality gifs. Give it a try on their website here. Impressive as the technology may be, there does seem to be something problematic about it. If you’re reading at 500 words per minute, how much time do you have to synthesize, comprehend, and retain the information?

It’s reminiscent of the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare – when you speed through life, what do you miss? Hare’s tragic flaw was the confidence and hubris he gained from his speed which gave him the false notion that he had time to take a nap. Without over-simplifying what are complex issues, I think this fable is applicable to the current debate on text-mining projects from Google and others that give us the ability to track word use in print materials over time.

These are incredible tools, without a doubt, especially for linguists. For humanities scholars however, who, for the sake of the analogy, have been the tortoises of academia, distance reading might create more problems than it solves. What we might risk by shifting away from close readings of text is the significance of context. Text-mining might be the Hare’s approach to analysis, and that may do more harm than good.

This is not to argue against any new technology, of course. Instead, I think the solution is to really start incorporating these existing technologies into our current research methods. We tend to use future-heavy words when discussing digitization, but this type of language obscures reality. In his 2005 piece (that’s almost a decade ago!), Patrick Leary argued “Google and other search engines are not…merely the future of scholarly discovery; they are its present.” He goes on to stress that there are skills we as scholars need to learn in order to avoid “the fragmented nature of our online reading.”

But it’s tough for old dogs to learn new tricks, and for Tortoises to gain speed without becoming Hares. How can we break down the walls between the humanities and the digital humanities? Can we start looking at the future as the present, without becoming overwhelmed by the skills we need to learn?