Geographic Information Systems and History

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have become increasingly popular among historians.  Various online research sources are using GIS to show history in a new and interesting light.  Geographic Information Systems is used in history to show data in a special context.  By adding data to a map layers can be created to show the frequency of different events or compare similar events that happened in different areas of the world.  Instead of looking at history in a chronological manner, GIS allows historians to look at the past in a different way.  GIS creates a visual.  In Writing History in the Digital Age, Stephen Robertson explains how he developed Digital Harlem, a GIS site that explores the history of Harlem.

Digital Harlem started with the organization of different black newspapers that were popular in the area.  The newspapers were scanned and then categorized based off of the events that were seen throughout every single article.  The events were then charted on a map based off of the address that accompanied the article.  Crime for example, was broken down further into the charge that was pressed.  Not only was crime charted but other events were as well.  Parades, different sporting events, and even night clubs were placed on the maps.  Robertson states in his chapter that looking at the map of night clubs map him think differently about the history of Harlem.  He states that nightclubs and speakeasies were usually accompanied by white patrons.  Buffet flats were more for just black customers.  Mapping black nightlife “helps identify an unrecognized black response to Prohibition’s impact on Harlem: the creation of places apart from whites who appeared in increasing numbers in the neighborhood’s nightlife” states Robertson.

GIS sites such as Digital Harlem allows the user to search for specific events in Harlem’s history.  You can then create different layers and have them placed on a map of Harlem.  This technology opens doors for historians.  We can more easily look at differences and similarities of different spaces during the same historical time period.


New Britain, CT Tour Research

This week I wanted to discuss the research I have done for my final project in my Digital History class.  For our final project we are working with Connecticut Humanities to develop various walking tours that can be taken through an app you can download onto your smart phone.  I recently just moved to Connecticut for graduate school so I decided that I would create a walking tour of the area I know best: New Britain.  I live in New Britain, my school is in New Britain, and my historic Preservation class is attempting to get Downtown New Britain placed on the Nation Register of Historic Places.

During the hey-day of New Britain, the area flourished in wealth and industry.  The little city had multiple factories and was considered to be the “Hardware Capitol of the World.”  A few prominent men founded steel factories as well as plating factories.  The factories started with using horse power manufacturing and as manufacturing techniques developed other people were employed.  My tour will be located mostly in the downtown district.  A few stops will be of old factories from the Stanley Company.  Other stops will consist of looking at houses in the Walnut Hill Historic District.  These houses were the homes of the owners of the companies.  These gorgeous mansions look out onto the downtown.  The next stops will be of houses and businesses located in downtown.  I am hoping that this will give different perspectives of the working/affluent life styles and how they differed.

As far as my research is going, I have been mostly focusing on engulfing myself with secondary sources.  I want to learn everything I can about the major industries and their workers.  I also have visited the New Britain Public Library’s Local History Room.  I have looked through their inventories of the buildings.  This will help me locate where workers lived as well as other sources for further information.  City directories well also help me to discover employees of different industries.  As far as my online research has gone… Ahhh the joys of the Web! Due to having a virus on my computer my internet research is only just beginning since my computer is still out of commission.  It will be fixed soon and I look forward to keeping you updated with my progress.

Preserving Digital History

Since the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 collecting historical information has changed drastically.  Not only has material like records, radio broadcasts, letters and diaries changed to emails, blogs, and text messaging but the way historians collect this information has also changed.

Daniel Cohen’s article “The Future of Preserving the Past,” and Cohen’s and Roy Rosenzweig’s book Digital History both explore how collecting material has developed with the influence of digital history.  The book and the article compare how historical material was collected form Pearl Harbor to how material was collected after the 9/11 attacks.  Instead of face to face interviews, like the ones that took place to gather memories of Pearl Harbor, interviews today are through email or instant messaging.  The growing popularity of smart phones make the ability to take a picture and post it on the web instantaneous.  After 9/11 the American population began to create blogs and other forums to express their feelings and memories about the attacks.  The web even has free programs that easily organize materials that are collected.  Omeka is just one of these sites.  I enjoy Omeka because it easily categorizes information and organizes the meta data all in one place.  You can create different collections.  For example, you can upload census papers and have a collection just of that, or you could have a collection of “Pictures from 9/11,” etc.

Although the web helps collect historical materials more efficiently, there are some issues with using the web for preserving memories.  Blogs that are created are sometimes forgotten about.  Blog writers may stop posting and the blog quickly becomes inactive.  Also, some contributors to memory websites may not be reliable.  How do we know they were actually involved with a particular event?  We must be cautious.  The last concern is that if our memories and histories are only stored online it must be backed up.  We must also try to determine a format that will be able to be read 50 years from now.  With our quickly changing technology preserving history digitally can bring up various issues.

Online Personas

Throughout the course of the semester, my Digital History class has discussed various topics regarding how the web has changed history.  We have discussed the uses of Wikipedia, blogging, digital archives, and the benefits and draw backs of social media.  Professionals use social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to promote themselves.  Whether it is a blog of a single historian like Dan Cohen, or a museum’s Twitter like the Smithsonian these keepers of history have established an online presence for themselves.  With a more relaxed environment and language than academic books or scholarly articles, social media helps establish an audience.

When I started this blog for my Digital History class I was hesitant.  Yes, I have worked on blogs before but they contained information about research updates.  This blog is different.  I hope that I am successful addressing the pros and cons of Digital History and other relating topics.  I attempt to be professional by giving my posts a style that is easy to read but discusses serious topics.  I have formatted my blog itself with simplicity.  I strive to make it easy for my few (if any) readers to find the information that they need.  The format that I choose for my blog is a free format available on  The layout is simple, classy, and yes, even pretty.  I am aware that I only have a few followers but we can all learn how to get more traffic to our twitters and blogs.  By using hash tags throughout or tweets, others searching for the same hash tag will be directed to our Twitters, and might even start following us!  Using tags in a blog promotes search ability.  For example, someone typing “Digital History” in a Google search bar may find my blog because of a tag I have created.  To receive more followers we need to self promote ourselves using hash tags and tags in a professional way.  We need to establish our professional online personas by following other professionals, discussing serious topics, and gaining more notability.  

The Open Access Debate

The internet has made an enormous amount of information available to the public.   However, not all sources are accessible to everyone.  Jstor, for example, is an online database of scholarly journals that is not available freely to the masses.  Universities, colleges, and even high schools, pay large sums of money every year for their students to have access to these journals.  Open access to material such as scholarly journals has become a topic up for debate.  There are pros and cons of open access to scholarly material on the internet.

Granting access to journals, books, and other scholarly sources can be valuable.  If everything was obtainable freely online communities that could not afford highly priced databases like Jstor would not suffer.  Also, it has been proven that free websites have more daily traffic than private websites.  This traffic causes authors to gain more recognition with the general public.  More acknowledgement and readership is not always enough to win the debate on open access.

Although there are some positives to open access of materials there are also many downfalls.  Jstor, Ebscohost, and other databases spend huge amounts of cash on up keep of their servers.  These sites also spend loads of money on digitizing material that is located on these sites.  Lastly, these online databases charge for something that is unique from other sites: their search engines.  Jstor, along with others, have search bars that are incredibly specific.  Money that is obtained is used for better searching features and to digitize more materials. 

Open access to literally everything online is most likely unrealistic.  But, authors that are on the open access wagon do have options.  Authors can self archive.  Meaning, they can post their articles and research on their own site.  Authors can also pay publication companies or online fees for their work to be digitized and made available to the world’s public. 

Digital Archives

For this week’s post I wanted to discuss the webs affect on researching.  Today, researchers do not need to sit for hours in an archive sorting through papers only to sometimes leave feeling unsatisfied.  The internet and Digital History combined has paved the way for easy access to a wide variety of sources for researchers.  For example, the digital archive gives researchers a simple method for discovering primary and secondary sources.

Connected Histories is an archive that contains information on the history of Britain dating back to 1500 up until 1900.  If you know exactly what you want to search for, the main page has a quick search bar where names, dates, events, and key words can be typed in.  If you are just browsing, the digital archive has a “Resources” page that gives blurbs about the various sources available.  It shows what resources are free and what may cost a little extra (the majority of which are free to anyone).  Connected Histories also has a “Guide” page.  If you know what subject your research is in such as criminal justice, families, local history, religious history, etc. this page breaks these topics down into different sections.  Each section contains subject related photographs, documents, maps, and other materials.

Repositories of open access primary sources have changed research techniques that historians use.  Instead of having the possibility of not researching something that interests you because you are not local to an archive or historical society, these sites create a doorway into large amounts of documents that may not have otherwise been accessible to you.  Now, you can be just about anywhere (as long as you have a smart phone, computer, or tablet) and have incredible amounts of historical documents at your feet.  However remarkable tools such as Connected Histories are it is still important to learn how to properly do research the “old fashion” way at an archive.  Remember, not everything is available on the internet.  Also remember, that sometimes getting lost in the history with actual documents that people of the past have touched is an incredible experience and must not be forgotten.  

Wikipedians Unite

In recent posts I have touched on the popular website called Wikipedia.  Anyone can create a UserID to either generate a new article or make edits to already existing articles found on the site.  You may not think that Wikipedia is a very reliable source because potentially millions of people have access to editing an article, but surprisingly, it is.   A video called “Heavy Metal Umlaut,” explains how quickly incorrect facts are corrected and vandalism erased.  The video looks at the very beginnings of the page and fast forwards through time showing the changes and developments to the current page.  Text, pictures, links, and sources were quickly added to the Umlaut page.  Vandalism only took a matter of minutes to be deleted.  This video as well as the talk section of article pages on Wikipedia shows details of changes as well as debates about information needed.

Having done much research on the development of the early music industry I decided to compare the talk sections of three related articles on this topic.  The first being Thomas Edison’s Wiki article.  Thomas Edison was the inventor of the phonograph, considered (and debated) to be the first recording machine.  There are a few major issues within the talk section.  The first is that a Wikipedian brought to light that some of the sources that a referenced do not exist.  This is a serious issue but, if a researcher looked at the talk section first they would cautiously analyze the article.  Another major issue that multiple users bring up is that there is no reference to the possibility that Edison stole his ideas from Nikola Telsa.  This probably is not included because it is not a fact.  Lastly, Wikipedians critique proofreading problems.

The next topic I viewed was the phonograph.  The most apparent problem raised in the talk section was the debate about what year it was actually invented.  Many users also criticize the lack of citations within the article.  It appears that a few have been added throughout the some of the sections.  What is different between Edison’s article and the article on the phonograph is that users are asking to elaborate on a topic such as how the invention of the phonograph disrupted the live music business.

One of the first record companies was the Victor Talking Machine Company based out of Camden, New Jersey.  Because Victor was one of the first companies to develop from the invention the phonograph I choose this to be the last talk section to observe.  There is a demand for more sources and writing style is a main concern for Wiki users.  But, more importantly the main debate is the founding date of the Victor Talking Machine Company.

When using Wikipedia as a source or a starting point be sure to check out the talk section.  This section will make readers aware of the problems within the article and what the article is lacking.