A Few of My Favorite Things

With some fudging on how many items can be in a “top five”, here are my top six “top five” lists (in no particular order):

1. Top Five History Books
(Listed in the order in which I read them)

1. Rats, Lice & History: The book that really made historical thinking click for me in my first history class freshman year.
2. A Midwife’s Tale: The book professors have assigned to me in three different courses, a great microhistory.
3. Nature’s Metropolis: The book that has stuck with me for years–I just really like Cronon’s approach.
4. Nation among Nations: The book I want to use in my teaching to help kill the myth of American Exceptionalism.
4.5. The Silent Majority: The book that really made structuralism stand out, great analysis of structural racism.
5. Something New Under the Sun: The book that made me want to incorporate a macro-level analysis to my research.

2. Top Five Non-Academic Books
(Listed in no particular order)

1. 1984: The book with some great quotes about history.
2. Brave New World: The book that pairs well with 1984.
3. Amusing Ourselves to death: The book that is the real life equivalent of the above fictional dystopias.
4. The Catcher in the Rye: The book every teenager should read.
5. Slaughterhouse-Five: The book (like the rest on this list) everyone should read.

3. Top Five Blogs I Read
(Listed by how often I read them, starting with the most frequently)

1. ProfHacker: The blog I read most often, great for thinking about academic topics
2. Jason Heppler: The blog (and person) that helped convince me to start my blog.
3. Dan Cohen: The blog every digital historian (and humanist should read).
4. Matthew Kirschenbaum: The blog of another great digital humanist.
5. The History Roll: The blog I use to find other good blog posts.

4. Top Five Digital History Projects
(Listed in the order in which they influence my work)

1. Gilded Age Plains City: The project that lured me to UNL and into the digital humanities.
2. Spatial History Project: The project I look to for visualization inspiration.
3. Voting America: The project I reviewed and I have always liked.
4.Valley of the Shadow: The project that cannot be left off any list of digital history projects.
5. The Welikia Project: The project that is just really cool.

5. Top Five Non-Academic Websites
(Listed in no particular order)

1. Gmail: The website I have been using for email since high school.
2. Twitter: The website I use for news (academic and otherwise) and my attempts at social networking.
3. Facebook: The website I use for everything inappropriate for twitter.
4. ESPN.com: The website I read too much.
5. briansarnacki.com: The website I make (self-promotion at its best).

6. Top Five Things I’m Listening to Right Now
(Listed in no particular order)

1. This American Life: The podcast that I listen to whenever I can, interesting and entertaining stories.
2. Radiolab: The podcast that regularly blows my mind, addresses more science-y type topics in a very accessible way.
3. Stuff You Missed in History: The podcast that I would consider assigning in an undergraduate survey course.
4. British Music: The bands–Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, Arctic Monkeys, Kate Nash, Lily Allen, V.V. Brown, Stornoway (some help from Pandora on finding them all).
5. Ivan & Alyosha: The band I saw in concert a few weeks ago that I can’t stop listening to and if they ever get really famous I’ll be able to say I liked them before they were cool.

Mobile History

Sean Kheraj:

Over the next year, we will be working on this application development project and we hope to get help and feedback from the community along the way. What kind of features would you use in a mobile application for environmental historians? Are there important blogs, podcasts, and news sources that we should include in this app? What should we call this app? Please post your comments and suggestions to this page or contact me directly through Twitter at http://twitter.com/seankheraj.

Mapping the NBA


You all know the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. Some of you may even be familiar with the Erdős number, which uses authorship of math papers to measure the “collaborative distance” between a person and the mathematician Paul Erdős. I applied this same type of thinking to sports and went looking for the Center of the NBA Universe.

You can also play around with the project

Classic Literature and Video Games

The Atlantic:

Last year, I talked to Dante’s Inferno producer Jonathan Knight about what drew them to the Divine Comedy to adapt into a game. He said that a film adaptation wants simple narratives, but games thrive on complexity. Dante didn’t just tell a story—he built a world to explore. And as luck would have it, it was full of giant monsters.

Are video games the next step in using the digital medium for scholarship? It’s worth thinking about.

Review: The Flint Sit-Down Strike

One of the first major labor conflicts following the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935, the 1936-1937 Flint sit-down strike holds an important place in the American labor history. A group of faculty and students at the University of Michigan-Flint, led by political scientist Neil Leighton preserved many precious details of the strike in a series of oral histories from 1978 to 1984. Michael Van Dyke and David Bailey of Michigan State’s MATRIX partnered with the University of Michigan-Flint in 2001 to digitize and present the interviews on the Internet as one of MATRIX’s Historical Voices audio galleries, creating The Flint Sit-Down Strike.

While the project does serve as an archive for some Leighton’s oral histories, The Flint Sit-Down Strike audio gallery does more than simply post audio clips to a website. The project has edited, arranged, and added context to more than one hundred audio clips from fifty-one people, in the process making several scholarly arguments. In hoping to preserve and present the oral histories of the Flint sit-down strike, the project argues the strike is an important moment in American history and the general public should have greater awareness of this event. The curated galleries and accompanying narratives also present a more traditional historical argument that the Flint strikers used the Wagner Act and the new tactic of a sit down strike to improve working conditions at the General Motors facilities. Calling the strike “a classic case of David versus Goliath,” the project takes a sympathetic stance towards the strikers, who form the majority of the oral histories.

The backbone of The Flint Sit-Down Strike‘s argument is its collection of oral histories which are edited, organized, and contextualized. Occupying much of the main page’s focus, and signaling to the user importance, the chronological audio essays, Organization, Strike, and Aftermath, couch topically organized audio clips within text narrative. Each audio essay focuses on the oral histories as the main medium for the story, as it should, providing only a paragraph as context to each series of audio clips. While these essays are individually well designed for user consumption, the navigation lacks an easy way to move from one essay to the next. The user must return to the homepage or click on the Help section to move to another audio essay or one of the other interactive resources.

The Flint Sit-Down Strike has three “interactive” presentations of audio clips, an audio timeline, slideshow, and strike map. The audio timeline consists of a handful of clips selected to mark the strike’s major events. Since the audio essays are already chronologically organized, the timeline is the least useful of the three interactive presentations. The slideshow presents some pictures from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University with voice-over narration of basic information, like short descriptions of main actors in the labor conflict. Though informative, the slideshow is not interactive as the only choice the user has is which slideshow to view. The strike map’s spatial organization of audio clips nicely utilizes the visual elements of the digital medium. The zoomable map has building descriptions and relevant audio clips available by clicking on the map, privileging the user’s discretion, avoiding the clear linearity of the timeline and slideshow, and making the strike map the most interactive of the three features.

Regardless of how the audio clips are accessed, they are very useful to high school and university students and members of the general public, audiences to which the project’s creators explicitly hoped to appeal. The project’s clear and concise audio essays provide a good overview of the strike, its causes, and its meaning for those unfamiliar with labor history. In addition to a solid narrative, the project serves as an accessible archive of quality primary sources, which could easily comprise part of a student project. The full list of audio clips and searchable transcriptions is especially useful for students, though the complete list is not prominently displayed within the navigation. The project also lists resources for more information, such as Sidney Fine’s Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 for those interested in learning more about the strike.

Although a useful resource, The Flint Sit-Down Strike has some major sustainability issues. In order to access the audio clips, audio timeline, and slideshow, any visitor to the project has to download Real Player to her or his computer. The ability to simply click play and listen or view to the project’s content is not a reality for the majority of the project’s potential users. Without a compelling interest to continue downloading Real Player or reading the transcripts, many casual visitors will likely go elsewhere rather quickly. Given the project’s reliance on a specific media format and company, the future of this quality project seems much less stable than other projects. Though The Flint Sit-Down Strike‘s transcriptions and textual narratives are still useful if the media does not function properly, the uncertainty of future accessibility places three of the four purposes outlined by the project’s developers, adding the “personal touch” of actual historical actors’ voices, providing “several levels of interactivity,” and presenting the oral histories in a “relatively permanent and easily accessible” form, in serious jeopardy. The project can achieve its fourth purpose, educating students and members of the public about the strike, without its media clips. However, The Flint Sit-Down Strike is much more persuasive with its media working.

The Flint Sit-Down Strike skillfully collects, presents, and narrates the history of the 1936-1937 strike of at the General Motors factory in Flint through the voices of workers who participated in this important historical moment. Provided the media remains accessible, the audio gallery will continue to serve as a valuable resource for both students and members of the public.

On Sustainability

Though sustainability may seem like a problem unique to digital projects, print materials have had issues (acidity, humidity, fire, etc.) of sustainability throughout their existence. Over time archivists, publishers, scholars, and others have developed ways to prolong the lives of print materials (acid-free paper, climate control, fire departments, etc.). As more and more “stuff” is produced and stored digitally, the sustainability of digital materials is becoming a pressing issue that needs someone (archivists, publishers, scholars, others?) to develop solutions. I use two digital history projects to raise some issues of sustainability, though I omit many other important aspects (version control to name one among many).  Although I have more questions than answers, I think a good starting point to making any project sustainable for the future are clarity and simplicity.

Clarity: Does anyone still use Real Player?

A good comment on my What Makes a Good Digital History Project? by my colleague Jason Heppler suggested adding sustainability to a key ingredient to a good Digital History project helped get the idea of sustainability into my head, but a project review for my digital history seminar really forced the issue. I am reviewing The Flint Sit-Down Strike Audio Gallery, a good collection and presentation of oral histories of the sit-down strike at a GM plant in Flint, MI in 1936-1937. I actually used this project a few years back as an undergraduate and found the project very useful, but I was surprised to see that I could not readily access the oral histories or other multi-media on the website when I visited the website recently. Firefox could not automatically find the missing plug-in and I was a bit concerned that the project was no longer accessible. However, the project meticulously noted what programs and standards they used so I could find that I needed to download Real Player to use any media on the project. My next thought was then “Does Real Player still exist?” (it does).

Perhaps I had to download Real Player to use the project in undergrad and simply forgot, but the project’s use of Real Player raises a few issues of sustainability. Without a compelling reason to figure out how to use the website (class), I probably would have stopped at Firefox checking for, and not finding, a plug-in. How projects are saved greatly affects the later accessibility. With technology it seems that there are always new problems with formatting and eventually most formats run out of programs to run them. However, the website was made roughly ten years ago and for digital scholarship to mean something, it must last longer than a decade. One precaution certainly would have been using a format accessible by many programs, like mp3, which still would have been readable by many programs today. Taking sides in competing formats is generally not a good idea (just ask the people who went out and bought HD-DVD players), but even if projects pick the best tool at the time, that still does not solve every issue of sustainability. I am not going to solve any great issues of sustainability right now. However, every project should do one thing the Flint project did, explain, in detail the programs and formats used. Without the project explicitly saying they used Real Player, I probably would not have figured out how to access the media files at all.

Simplicity: A Project Still Kicking

One of the first major works of digital history, The Valley of the Shadow, continues to be a valuable resource and example of digital scholarship. While it is appears the project has had more upkeep than the Flint project, what really stands out about the Valley is its well executed simplicity. The project’s clean presentation prevents the project from becoming an eyesore or looking laughable years later (nothing on the title page blinks). The idea behind the project was also simple (create a digital archive of the sources of two towns), but the project achieves its goals so well that it remains a useful online archive today. Also helpful is the project’s large amounts of text and images (saved as .jpg, which seems a pretty safe format for now) are easier to preserve as long as the project remains online. Predicting the future, and what technology there will be in it, is difficult, but if a project can prove appealing and useful to others its chances of survival greatly increase.

Though the Valley of the Shadow has provided very useful for an extended amount of time and its reliance on text and images, though there are dynamic visualizations as well, bode well for its future, the “as long as the project remains online” part I glance by above is a very major issue facing digital scholarship. The Valley of the Shadow is housed at the UVA library, and libraries certainly have served as a useful storage place for print scholarship, but the issue will become more pressing as more and more digital scholarship is produced. Scholars will have to figure out what being “published” means in a digital format and whose is responsible for preservation.

Even if the how and where a digital project is preserved is out of the control of the project’s creator(s), making scholarship that is clear, appealing, and useful can only help the chances the project is preserved by someone.

What Makes a Good Digital History Project?

To me, there are three main elements, often working in tandem, that comprise a good digital history project: Analysis, Interactivity, Visualizations.

Like any piece of history, digital history needs source-based, informed scholarly analysis. Analysis in print history takes on roughly the same form for any article or book, but in the digital medium, analysis can take on a variety of shapes and sizes. When it comes to picking out exemplary digital history projects, the more innovative the approach to analysis the better. Richmond’s Voting America project, which examines election and population data from 1840 through 2008, takes an interesting approach pairing videos of scholars speaking on various topics with visualizations demonstrating what the scholar is discussing. The Mountain Meadows Massacre project uses visualizations to contribute to analysis with its narrative map. The project highlights various concepts in the documents and presents them visually, showing the user a part of the often unseen process of historical analysis.

Allowing the user the opportunity to individually experience, process, and shape history to their interests, constructs a deeper connection between the scholars argument and the user, which is why interactivity is so important to a good digital history project.  Again interactivity can take many shapes, even within the same project. Gilded Age Plains City allows users to visually explore 19th century Lincoln in an interactive map. Even without the map, however, the project’s spatial narratives allow the user to explore analysis of the city in a mutli-linear fashion. While in print, the narratives would be arranged in an ordered manner, online, the user chooses which narrative to read (although ordered navigation adds some structure). Perhaps the best part about these textual and visual forms of interactivity is that they are constantly linked. Each spatial narrative has a link to the interactive map and when exploring the interactive map the project links to the text describing spatial narratives. Voting America also provides the user the opportunity to explore the data the project has processed in different ways allowing the user to find new (or new to them) trends.

Because of the comparative ease in which digital sites can produce and display dynamic visualizations, digital history has taken on more of a visual nature than print history. Some of my favorite visualizations can be found in the spatial history project at Stanford. These visualizations do not have extensive analysis sections, but rely more heavily on the visualization itself to convey the argument. While the spatial history project does not have one clear theme (aside from spatial history), like Voting America which is essentially all about visualizing and understanding American election data, I find their topical collections useful and perhaps the digital version of an edited volume (rather than an article or monograph). Like analysis, I find the more innovative the visualization the better. One of my favorite spatial history visualizations uses a dynamic timeline and attractive visuals, as well as an interactive element, to show the changing nature of railroad leadership.

Though I attempted to treat each element separately, analysis, visualizations, and interactivity often operate in digital projects together, like the Mountain Meadows Massacre’s narrative map, or the Gilded Age Plains City’s spatial narratives. These three elements often come together in digital history projects because they are essential to doing digital history. To do history you need analysis and to do digital history you need to utilize the digital medium, which lends itself to visual and interactive elements. Without analysis the project is not history and without visual or interactive elements, how is the project different from print history?

The Social Network of 19th Century Brit Lit

I came across this interesting project via twitter. While the exact approach does not carry over to history (the project visualized a social network using the dialogue in 19th century British novels, but, unfortunately, most of the “dialogue” of history gets lost), it makes the project I am working on for my digital history seminar (visualizing social and political networks) seem more timely. I just wish they put the project online (or if they have done so, provided a link).