British Library Flickr

In the penultimate Digital History class we looked at image analysis. Anna Pegler-Gordon – an assistant professor of history at the James Madison College of Michigan State University – suggested that visual media often seem more accessible to our students than the written record. Students themselves mention that images make the past seem more accessible, giving concrete shape to a world that sometimes seems intangible.[1] As a student, it is easy to agree with Gordon, as the rise of the internet and social media has made it very easy for images to be spread and shared, so there is no reason why this cannot be used in the world of academic history. One idea that I had was a way to put to use The British Library Flickr page. The British Library uploaded all the images from their books and tagged them online according to what is in the picture. A way to use this could be to tag all the images of maps and specific areas to a larger map and therefore create a giant mapping tool for historians to view changes over time depending on the chosen area.

[1] Anna Pegler-Gordon, Seeing Images in History, http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2006/seeing-images-in-

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British Newspapers: Online

A Digital History session on searching and browsing highlighted the power and downfalls of the internet. If a historian is looking for something and knows exactly where and what to look for, their life is plain sailing. However, if one is unsure, it can be hard to find the rights words to key in and find what you are looking for – as the humorous ‘if Google was a guy’ demonstrates clearly: here – But through the use of key words and advanced fields, historians can narrow down the details of their intended search queries using the search boxes embedded all around the Web, making it easier to get to the right place. Some of these search engines are on historical websites already, as a way to divide up source material. It is then just up to said historian to find which source material suits them. We looked at two such sites in particular.

The first website we looked at was the British History Online (BHO), who brand themselves as a digital library particularly concerned with texts relating to the British history, which includes the countries that are currently part of the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland from the Norman invasion in 1169 up to the creation of the Free State in 1922.[1] The website states that they also include materials from Britain’s colonial history and materials relating to British diplomacy abroad. Our collection focuses primarily on the period between 1300 and 1800, but we have texts relating to everything from Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain to the twentieth century.[2] The second website is called Connected Histories, which holds newspapers between the years 1500 and 1900. Both websites while very similar, do have slight differences, some more advantageous than others.

Strengths

  1. Both websites have a wealth of sources, which cover different countries and newspapers. This allows historians to be able to gain wide perspective on their chosen area. For example: some newspapers are more conservative than others, so their take on a story will differ to that of a more liberal paper.
  2. After running a series of searches, it can be said that both websites take into account the changes in writing styles and lettering. ‘J’s’ and ‘I’s’ are often confused, as with ‘S’s’ and ‘F’s’.
  3. Both websites also offer, advances searching fields, which can dictate specific years, newspapers, key words or phrases and geographic area.

Weaknesses

  1. As mentioned before the websites do recognise the difference in letter over the time, but not all sources that have been scanned in have been through the OCR programming. This suggests that some source may go unrecognised. So our example of searching for ‘Irish’ and ‘Jrish’; although intended to be rhea same word came up with a different number of results. This shows how searching online for sources can be affected by the data that is imputed
  2. If a historian does not know the correct inputs in a search box to narrow searches, for example: adding ‘or,’ ‘and,’ quotation marks etc. They will be unable to properly conduct their search. Limiting them to a basic search which could miss out really precise and useful sources for them.

BHO and Connected Histories do offer a great service for academics to gain primary sources, but it does depend on their ability and almost luck to create the best search queries generated.

[1] British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/using-bho

[2] Ibid

Critical Reflection: Crowdsource Transcription

Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining information or input into a particular task or project, by enlisting the services of a large number of people. Typically via the internet.[1] A ‘citizen historian’ experience refers to a crowdsourced project which benefits or aids a historical study. Examples of this includes Old Weather and Transcribe Bentham. The Old Weather experience helps historians and scientists recover weather observations made by ships since the nineteenth century, through the transcription of the ship logs. Once completed these transcriptions are useful to the analysis of weather patterns and predictions. Historians can also track past ship movements and tell the stories of the people on board.[2] Transcribe Bentham, similarly allows participants to help historians uncover information by transcribing historical documents – Bentham through copying out using digitalised manuscript onto an online text editor.

Old Weather creates an atmosphere where users can transcribe in a light hearted environment. Gamification of the site allows it to look friendly and inviting. The use of cartoon images along with the storyline, of going on a voyage and leader boards with ranks such as ‘captain’ all add to the light heartedness of the experience. The Old Weather experience also allows its contributors to have the ability to move on from a certain ship log, even if all the information has not been transcribed. This conveys a less demanding feel to taking part. Transcribe Bentham also has this feature of not having to complete everything. It also is very simplistic in how and what it asks users to record. Bentham blends both heavyweight and lightweight peer production. [It] attracts an anonymous crowd of one-time or irregular volunteers, along with a smaller cohort of mutually supportive and loyal transcribers. The makers suggest that they created a user-friendly an interface and simplified the transcription process as much they could. However, as transcribing Bentham’s handwriting is a complex and time-consuming task which requires considerable concentration and commitment[3]

Both websites however, do have aspects which make them difficult to use. The process Old Weather, uses is complex. It has too many optional fields to fill out, the numbers in the log are hard to make out and therefore makes it problematic to transcribe the correct if any information. Transcribe Bentham on the other hand is easier to transcribe, but the setup of the site is unattractive and interested. This hinders the maker’s ability to draw in help from non-academics. Volunteers for Bentham were mostly well educated, often associated with academia or had a professional background, and had a prior interest in history and philosophy; many of the crowd also had an interest in digital humanities and were IT literate.[4]

In conclusion, only about six percent of humanist scholars go beyond general purpose information technology and use digital resources and more complex digital tools in their scholarship,[5] which suggests that crowdsourcing activities such as Old Weather and Transcribe Bentham are still not used by historians as much as they were originally aimed to. Scholars are about equally divided as to whether widespread adoption of digital tools should happen in their field of history.[6]

[1] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/crowdsource

[2] Old Weather, http://www.oldweather.org/

[3] Building A Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from Transcribe Bentham (2012), Vol.6, No.2, http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/6/2/000125/000125.html

[4] Ibid

[5] Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward broader audiences and user-centred designs (2012), Vol.6, No.2, http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/6/2/000136/000136.html

[6] Ibid

Twitter: A tool for historians?

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Traditionally, journal articles and academic conferences were enough to satisfy any historian’s need to express their arguments and findings. However, through the expansion of the internet and the growth of social media, it has now become even easier for historians to share their knowledge with the whole world. Twitter – founded in 2006 – is one of the many examples of a new platform which allows historians to breakthrough into the online world. As with everything, Twitter for historians, comes with pros and cons. Some of these include:

Pros:

  • Historians can publish information on the go, as Twitter is not limited to just a computer. It can also be accessed in app form on phones and tablets.
  • Historians are able to reach wider audiences for their work, as the internet is not permitted to just academics.
  • Through features such as the search box, #hashtags and retweets, historians are able to create and join conversations based around a certain field or subject in history.

Cons:

  • Many traditional/ older historians find the internet alien, especially to the modern ways of communication, suggesting they would be illuminated from many of the online debates and discussions between historians.
  • Twitter is limited to a 140 character word count, per tweet. Allowing only small amounts of text to be published at one time.

Overall, Twitter seems to be a good tool for historians to use as it can bridge the gap between academics and non-academics. Dan Cohen suggests that blogging can be a powerful way to provide “notes from the field” and glosses on topics that perhaps a handful of others worldwide know a lot about.