Archive for the ‘digital history’ Category

Fraser.TheLandOfSteadyHabits.pdf

The title of this post is the file name for a book that I recently scanned and added to my digital collection. Written by the late Bruce Fraser in 1988, Land of Steady Habits: A Brief History of Connecticut is an important work in the Connecticut history literary cadre.  According to the Publisher’s Note, The Connecticut Historical Commission produced this booklet claiming that it “provides the essence of Connecticut.” At the time of publication, the Commission hoped that Land of Steady Habits would stimulate further study and “provide a wider public appreciation” for the states historical heritage.  This work does all of the above and should be a standard in every history classroom across the state.

Fraser’s Land of Steady Habits is especially accessible to middle and high school grades because of its concise nature.  The entire booklet is eighty pages including title page, table of contents, postscript, timeline, images, and a four page listing of CT’s national historic land marks.  The body of the essay is fifty-two pages broken in 15 sections.  This is the equivalent of 3.4 pages per chapter, very manageable for readers at any level.  Although Mr. Fraser’s work is short, it is packed with not only the story of Connecticut, but also connections to the national historical themes.  Classroom history and social studies teachers could use this work to teach history through the lens of the local story from the time “before the Europeans” to the social unrest of the 1960s.  The basic premise behind this book is that the history of Connecticut is important, a message that we need to teach to the youth of the state.

One of the perennial concerns for Connecticut for the last several decades is the lack of local attachment. It is evident in the disjointed nature of the cities and towns and most prominent in the capital city.  Go to downtown Hartford on a weekend day and it is a ghost town.  People come in to work and they leave to their towns in the suburbs and beyond.  This scenario was just as true at the time of Land of Steady Habits publication as it is today.  Fraser and others, myself included, would accredit this lack of connection to suburban crawl and white-flight of the post-War period.  Nutmeggers now have their own enclaves a world apart from the deteriorating and increasingly diverse cities that they left behind. They lost their connection with the culture and history of their surroundings and they are unattached.

Raising our state’s future generations with knowledge and experiences of local culture and history is needed to create attachment to the region.  Students who are exposed to the culture of the state today will contribute to the local community tomorrow.  If we teach about the history and take students to experience Connecticut culture at places like the Wadsworth, Goodspeed, or Peabody and historical sites such as the Old State House, the Soldier and Sailors Memorial Arch, and Tapping Reeve House and Law School, then they are more likely to participate in cultural offerings when they reach adulthood.  Remarkably,  I am seeing a rise in interest in both state history and local connections.  This may be the time for institutions to market themselves to education institutions to increase their presence in the classroom and curriculum.  I am not talking about marketing to schools so you can charge $6 per person to offer a writing program.  Cultural institutions should look at schools as a way to market to future consumers or customers.  The more exposure the better.  Maybe these institutions should take the advice of the Connecticut Historical Commission and work to “provide a wider public appreciation” for the culture of CT…for the future of CT.

*Please note that my mentioning of cultural and historical centers in this article are not an endorsement of any institution or a discredit to those not listed.

Wadsworth image credit: Wikipedia.

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A Meeting by Happenstance

Last week, I ran into the Vice President of Goodwin College and we began discussing the progress of the land-use history I am working on for his organization. The meeting began with me asking if Goodwin College owned a piece of property in Wethersfield on the West bank of the Connecticut River known as Crow’s Point. I asked him this because there was an abundance of primary source documents in “the pile” of resources I have been combing through (This “pile” is his research on this project to date). He remarked that the college has owned the property since 2006 and that he would like this included in the land-use history. My first reaction was, “nice.” This property had some documentation about how the land was used, preserved and planned to be developed. I thought this would fit nicely into the Environmental History angle that I was working on. I figured that this would be a good time to bounce this angle off of him to see what came back. His response was a bit troublesome.

WillowbrookAlthough he did seem interested in the idea of how the land was used, abused, and renewed, the Vice President wanted the research to focus on the “interesting things” that have happened on the property. Then, I tried to explain that I would definitely include such information, but I was looking for an angle that would contribute to the field of history. I remarked, “I am looking for an angle that will appeal to a wider audience, something that may get published.” He responded that they will publish it and not to worry about it. By the way we were interacting, I could tell that I was talking to a history buff, not a historian. Then, I asked some clarifying questions that gave a refocus to my research. After this 4-5 minute meeting, I came to understand that they really wanted a chronology of the development of the land. They wanted some of the history of Pratt and Whitney and the development of the neighborhood pictured here that is adjacent to the Goodwin College Riverfront Campus. They want to know more about the ferry that Colt created to help his workers circumvent the tolls in and out of Hartford. They are seemingly less interested in the rejuvenation of the land that their riverfront campus occupies, although the do want some of this included.  Overall, I am grateful for this meeting and the amount of research that the Vice President has put into this project.

This happenstance meeting helps me in several ways. First, it helps to cut out some of the unnecessary research I was conducting about the floodplains near the Putnam Bridge. Next, it helps me refocus my attention to the development of the community just East of the campus. Finally, it helps me focus less on the remediation of the property, thus cutting out the last 5-8 years. This process is interesting because, if this were solely my own project, it would focus on the use, abuse, and renewal of the property, examining how and why this use has changed over time, and linking this change to broader themes within environmental history. I wouldn’t say that this project is any less valuable, just different. As a public historian, I guess it is not my place to place value on a project or its outcomes. The value of the project is set by the contracting party and I am not at liberty to share the “value” of this project.

The Pile

This week I met with my supervisor, Steve Armstrong, and we discussed the progress on the project so far.  We went back and forward about what the overall goal of the Goodwin project and how we could make this topic relevant to a wider audience.  Ultimately, we decided that an environmental history angle was appropriate for this type of project.  I suggested we meet with Bruce Morton,an environmental studies professor that teaches at Goodwin College.  From what I have heard from colleagues that have worked with him, or taken his classes, Professor Morton really knows his stuff when it comes to the connections to environment.  I am currently in the process of setting up a meeting between Bruce Morton, Steve Armstrong and myself.  In the meantime, I am sifting through “the pile.”

When I am referring to “the pile,” I am describing the pile of primary sources that I first came across in a meeting at Goodwin College.  “The Pile” is a collection of maps, news articles, printed Google books, and legal documents.  Most of the sources are available on the Internet, but there are also engineer’s maps and plans for a resort.  One interesting source provided was a frame by frame printout of a 1640 map of Whethersfield, CT.  Each frame was printed on a separate page, making interpretation almost impossible.  I followed the url at the bottom of the page to a series of frames of this map.  In order to get a good look at the map, I had to take a screen shot of each frame and then puzzle them together.  Included here is a copy of the map, which shows the CT River before it shifted to its present course.

Resources:

http://www.footefamily.org/

In the beginning…Hist 521

The noun “intern” traces its origins to 1879, near the beginning of the Gilded Age, a time of industry and growth, Jim Crow and immigration, writers and Robber Barons.  This time period is also important because it was in the midst of the centennial of the birth of the United States as a sovereign nation and the wave of revolution throughout the Atlantic world.  With the growth of the insurance industry and international maritime trade, Connecticut was in boom and Hartford was entering its height.  Writing with Charles Dudley Warner, Mark Twain labeled the time period with the novel, The Guilded Age, lampooning Washington D.C. and many contemporary leaders.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “intern” is an American English word describing ‘”one working under supervision as part of professional training” especially “doctor in training in a hospital.” The word comes from the French word interne meaning “assistant doctor.”‘  By 1933 the usage evolved to include a verb tense offering the terms “interned” and “interning.” This usage coincided with the beginning of the New Deal.  In 2012, I am beginning a new interning experience as a part of the Public History program at Central CT State University.  Although I am not interning to be a medical doctor or any sort of doctoral degree, I did make a deal with the department to conduct research on behalf of two private clients.  This is a very interesting endeavor that seems to meld several professional interests into one experience.

The first aspect to this internship is researching for a land use history for Goodwin College in East Hartford, CT.  According to their website, “Goodwin College is a nonprofit organization and received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.” Over the past several years this institution has purchased large tracks of land on the east coast of the CT River, which now houses its River Campus and its environmental-themed magnet school, Connecticut River Academy.  Much of the developed land in Goodwin College’s riverside holdings are brown fields.  These lands along what the River Tribes termed the “long tidal river” were damaged by years of pollution from home heating oil spills.  Coincidentally, the environmental movement sparked major efforts of reclamation of polluted lands in the 1970s, just about 100 years after the first use of “intern.”

The other piece to this internship is contributing to the beginning stages of a teacher resource section on the Connecticut Humanities website connecticuthistory.org.  In this research project I will find resources and write short descriptive essays for a section entitled, “Connecticut and the New Nation.”  As the title indicates this was a time of beginnings.  This period was a time of manufacturing and good feelings, the triangle trade and immigration, British invasion and Manifest Destiny. Many CT towns have a rich history from this period.  There were canal projects to circumvent the Enfield falls and others to circumvent the entire lower Connecticut River.  The maritime tradition of the CT River and coast connected the state to the Atlantic World and beyond.  This was a burgeoning region with a bright future.

New beginnings are always filled with similar optimism and uncertainty that Connecticut faced at the beginning of the new nation.  The same can be said for beginning this internship experience.  In some ways this experience will be blazing a new path and in other ways it will be practicing old methods. This internship will expand my knowledge and provide new skills to navigate the professional road that lies before me.  According to Mark Twain, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first one.”  Now that this blog post is finished, I am ready to start on the next task.  If you are reading this, I guess we begin this journey together.

Semester in Review

Although I am sleep deprived, worn down, and have a headache anytime I look at my computer screen, I can hardly believe that this semester is over.  These past 16 weeks have been a whirlwind and as I look back on my accomplishments and growths from this experience, I cannot help but think that my experience has been successful.  This class has opened my eyes to the endless advantages, and some disadvantages, to digital history.  Many of the theories and skills that I picked up this semester are applicable to my professional life.

One tool that I picked up this semester was the online website manager and social tagging site, delicious.  I use this program on a daily basis and I love it.  Since signing up for an account this past January, I have bookmarked over 100 sites on various social studies topics.  In fact, I got rid of internet explorer and substituted Firefox as my browser because delicious is an add on for Firefox.  Every time I utilize a website for teaching or research and I think that it may be relevant to use in the future, I bookmark the site and set as many tags to the site as possible.  Overall, this site has made organizing important web resources in one efficient place, instead of writing down each url and hopefully remembering where that damned slip of paper disappeared to.

Another benefit of the digital history course is the utilization of a blog.  I have always been a person who valued reflection as an important means for internalizing learned material.  I often incorporate reflections into the classroom because it is a higher order thinking skill.  Through this blog I have been able to pose questions and formulate opinions on topics in class.  Utilizing a blog on a regular basis also gave me the confidence needed to build and manage a website on Google.  This site is a place where students can check homework assignments and announcement related to my class.

Overall, I intend to maintain this blog, although maybe not as frequently as I have over the past several weeks.  I believe that utilizing a blog as a learning, growth, and development tool is important to my progression as a professional.

Civil War Hartford

I would have to say that the hardest part of creating a digital archive is composing a well thought out introductory essay.  It is not that I have trouble writing or that I don’t know the content enough to write about Hartford in the Civil War.  I would have to say that the difficulty is creating a piece of writing that is interesting and sets forth the scope and importance of my exhibit.

In the future, if this exhibit turns into something more than a class project, the introductory essay may be what people (in my case teachers) use to determine if the archive is worth while.  Essentially, it may determine if my archive is relevant and credible.  Of course, I am probably putting too much emphasis on the importance of this piece…that is typically my shortcoming.  I am always striving to change the world or make some sort of break through.  I think my wife puts it best when she tells me to “Keep it Simple Stupid.”  Honestly, this is great advice, but it hurts every time.

When it comes right down to it in this essay I have to determine why people should care about this archive.  Why is the archive relevant?  To answer this question, my archive is relevant because Hartford is like a microcosm of what might have happened if the South did not secede from the Union.  Essentially, in Hartford, there was a large number of Democrats and Republicans.  The climate of Civil War Hartford was very explosive.  There were Democrats who supported the war, known as War Democrats.  There were anti-War Democrats who, in many cases, supported the Confederacy.  As for Republicans, there were basically two types.  There were what would be considered today fiscal Republicans, whom supported the war effort because they were at the forefront of business innovation and wanted protection from a strong central government for their business adventures.  Finally, there were radical Republicans that pushed to end slavery.

Although I think that this information is all extremely interesting it is not the material that would be typically covered in a Middle or High School setting.  For my essay, I have to focus on how local history reflects the trends that were occurring nationally.  That is the focus of my collection and exhibit.  Now I just need to put the thoughts to paper in a way that entices people to utilize my materials.

Digital Champion

This past week I have been engulfed in trying to design a class website for my social studies classes.  I figured this would be easy enough since I have been studying digital history for the past semester.  Of course, it was not as easy as I expected.  I thought I could jump on to Google sites and wham, bam it would be done.  That couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Although the site editor for Google is pretty straight forward, learning how to use it was like learning another language.  It was full of trial, error (mostly error) and frustration.  The first major headache after I chose which template I wanted was figuring out how to organize information on the site.  I knew that I wanted an area where announcements for each class could be viewed quickly and easily, but I definitely didn’t know how to do that.  Luckily, I was able to contact another teacher who instructed me on how to tweak the site so the information fit together nicely.

The next major problem, which I have yet to conquer, is figuring out what I want to put on the site for text.  I don’t want all text in your face because that is boring.  Essentially, I want to explain each of the classes on their own subpage.  But really, who is this explanation for?  I am willing to bet that most students who visit the site are not interested in my definition of Sociology or Civics or US History.  In actuality, this information is for the parents.  I have some parents ask me when and if I was going to post a website.  I bet that any parent actually interested enough to visit the site will probably read this information.

Overall, this has been a great learning experience.  I am now at least semi-proficient in creating a website on Google.  The great thing about this site is that if I go to another school, the site comes with me.  I am also able to put the address for this site on my resume, which I am sure many administrators will find impressive for job interviews.  So far, my work in Hist 511: Digital History has transformed me from a digital idiot to a Digital Champion.

The Possibilities of Collecting Born Digital Sources

As a teacher I utilize more and more “born digital” resources in the classroom.  These resources to range from news clips, youtube videos, and personal accounts of historical events.  There are countless sites on the web dedicated to provided a wide array of digital sources that can be incorporated into the classroom.  One of the fastest growing areas of digital sources are oral histories.  This may seem strange considering the intensive process that historians partake when conducting such interviews.  The internet, however, seems to be revolutionizing oral histories as we know it.

Essentially, historians have turned to the web in various formats to collect information from living history sources.  One examples of these efforts is the 9/11 digital archive.  This is a sight where people can tell their story of that historic day by adding email, and uploading images, documents, and other digital files to the archive.  This archive showcases many web 2.0 technologies and creates a truly democratic exhibit where people can connect, recollect, and memorialize the victims of that tragic event.

If I were to build a history website, I would definitely incorporate a section where people could contribute their memories, images, and documents to enrich the site.  My site would have a core set of materials on display such as maps, images, teaching resources, and interactives as well as two types of contribution areas.  The first would be the type described above and the second would be a place where scholars could submit suggestions and content.  Scholars would contribute primary sources, original work related to the topic, and suggestions for site design.  One of the key components to this contributor format is collection of submitter contact info.   This way, when I want to redesign the site or exhibit new or different content, I could send out mass emails asking for intellectual contributions.

Interconnecting quality secondary and primary resources in a digital format is can have a massive effect on learning in and out of the classroom.

Folksonomy: Tagging w/o the Mess

There are many people who are worried about the idea of users (visitors to websites) placing tags on items for categorization.  It seems to me that people who are against any person (especially those they deem to be uneducated) creating tags or categories to place internet items are not wholly off base.  There could be a possibility that mis-educated, undereducated, or uneducated people would create a myriad of tags making it impossible for other users to utilize tag features to locate items on the internet.  They complain that it would be some sort of digital anarchy.

Recently, I have been increasingly using tags to organize websites using delicious.  This program allows me to locate a website, store the site, and tag it for future use.  For the most part I try to put as many tags on an item as I can. Basically, when I tag I am trying to forecast any and all keywords that can be associated with the item.  For instance, if I am tagging the website for the Imperial War Museum, I would create tags such as “primary sources, archive, museum, research, UK, war, imperialism” and so on.  This way, in the future, when I want to access the site, I can type in any one of the mentioned tags and be able to locate the source.

Why can’t the same thing be applied to items in a digital archive or a museum’s online collection.  I guess a lot of people will complain that typical, everyday users are not capable of creating meaningful tags.  But, honestly, meaningful to whom?  The purpose of museums (online, digital,or analog) is to store items and create access for the public.  Why would a museum want to spend exorbitant amounts of money to collect and store information, only to hide it.  I say let people tag and see what happens.

The great thing about technology is that museums can monitor tags that people put on items and use add the relevant terms to the items tag database.  This process is identified by the term folksonomy which is where the end-user places their own tags on items and the best or most relevant tags become apart of the colloquial language to identify items.  You know, let the “folks” label items.  They are ultimately the end-user, so why not make it accessible.  I feel that this is just another way of making information accessible and relevant to everyone.  It’s the future, nay it is the present.  Museums: Don’t be left behind.

Digital Misconceptions

This past year I was married to my beautiful and incredibly smart bride, Amanda.  We were lucky enough to to hire a friend of ours as the photographer.   We were lucky for two reasons.  First, we know the ph0tographer and we were very comfortable with her.  Second, after our wedding was over, she went back and digitally touched up the photos.  Just basic alterations, fixing the hue and contrast, maybe taking out some unsightly objects in the background–alterations that can really make or break the shot.  With the advent and acceptance of digital cameras and photography these types of changes can be unobtrusive and undetectable.  I argue this is fine for wedding pictures and art, but when does digitally altering photos become unethical.

Back in 2006, CNET News published an online photo gallery of altered images exposing how seemingly innocent photos can be altered.  I will have to admit some of the alterations are harmless.  For instance, one photo shows a note written by George W. Bush, asking if he can go to the bathroom.  In this photo the contrast was altered so that the handwriting stood out.  In another example, OJ Simpson’s mugshot is featured as it appeared on two national magazine covers.  In this case, Time Magazine darkened the photo for effect.  These are common alterations that may change the mood of a photo, but does not overtly change the content of the image.

Although it may be harmless to use programs such as Photoshop to make slight alterations, it is unethical to alter the content of the photo.  For instance, in the 2004 Presidential campaign, many may remember that a photo of John Kerry was spliced with one of Jane Fonda making it appear as though the two were on stage together at an anti-Vietnam war rally.  Although this may seem harmless enough, it was certainly detrimental to his bid for the Presidency.  In this case, someone maliciously reproduced the picture and used it as propaganda.  In an other instance, a photographer, Adnan Hajj, manipulated images of Israeli air strikes in Lebanon and sold them to Reuters.  Upon discovering the forgeries, Reuters cut ties with the Beirut-based photographer and removed all of his 920 images from their database.

A 2006 article in the Economist details how easy it actually is to make these alterations.  Even though there are efforts to control/monitor alterations to images, the ease in which photos are altered makes this task nearly impossible.  So what does that mean for historians?  Basically, it means that historians have to be diligent in vetting their sources.  It is not enough to Google a topic and take whatever image pops up.  Make sure you are doing your due diligence.  Is the source an authority?  What other type of content is on the page/archive?  Are there any discrepancies or inconsistencies  in the image?  Does the photo seem realistic?  Can you find that same image on other reputable sights?

Here’s the bottom line.  Altering photos is definitely not a new phenomenon.  The USSR and China were notorious for this practice during the Cold War.  Ultimately, it is up to the researcher, in my case, the historian, to analyze any and all images before adding them to your collection of sources or digital archive.  Think about it.  If the historian, who is producing historical work, does not identify and dismiss a falsified image which ends up on a website, do you think that the everyday user of your site will conduct their own analysis to ensure authenticity?  Or, do you think that they will take it at face value?  I bet, more times than not, the latter will occur.  Misconceptions are the worst type of ignorance–they linger.  Diligence is the key to ensure that your research is authentic.  You don’t want to be written off for utilizing bad sources, do you?