Environmental Scan and Review of a Project

This week our class has strayed from our traditional readings and the students were given a chance to search for interesting and applicable projects to their research, something the National Endowment for the Humanities refers to as an “environmental scan.” From the classification list provided by the Organization of American Historians, I decided hat the project I would most likely pursue would be that of an Electronic Exhibit format. After speaking with classmates and other people in my cohort, I found that Story Maps offers and often produces the type of project I have envisioned. Kayla, Mary Beth, and I are currently seeking permission to use nearly one hundred letters from a World War I and II veteran, who’s parents lived here in Orlando, to map his life via his correspondences. The project is still in its infancy due to our primary source having yet to be acquired. This past week I studied and evaluated some Story Maps that were featured on their site, as well as ones I found on my own, to help myself gain a better understand of the potential of the application.

Here are a few project I chose to look at using Story Maps:

Other interesting projects I found:

The software I chose, Story Maps, simply use geography as a mean of organizing and presenting information for the viewer.The project I plan on creating will be the map of a single soldier’s life and service, with each location holding information about him and about the larger war or event itself. The Story Map interface looks like a relatively simple tool to work within, as long as the time is dedicated to learn it’s functions, but with multiple people working with the research I believe that it can be easily handled. The Story Map application will also allow us to showcase the letter that we are pulling information from side by side with the physical locations that he is mentioning and visiting.

The project I have chosen to review is the Story Map listed above, 100 Years of In Flanders Fields. Developed by the City of Guelph’s Information Technology Services in partnership with Guelph Museums, the project is a web-based multi-media experience that uses interactive, content-rich mapping to trace John McCrae’s life and the experiences that resulted in his writing of In Flanders Fields one hundred years ago. McCrae, a Guelph-born doctor, soldier, and poet, wrote In Flanders FIelds in May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem, widely considered a classic of World War I, has been taught in history and literature classes around the world and has also inspired the use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance

The content of the project revolves around a single historical question: What events led to McCrae’s writing of In Flanders Fields? The project traces his life from birth, through medical school, the Second Battle of Ypres, and eventually his death to help the reader understand the significance of certain events in McCrae’s life that influenced his classic, In Flanders Fields. The story map utilizes primary source material, video, and sound in conjunction with the geographic data that the mapping software provides.

The form of the project is exceptionally clear, something I would contribute to Story Maps, and only secondarily to the creator. The application provide the user with a clear format and path of exploration through the project. In my opinion, this all works to make the project easy to understand. Due to the hosting of the project by Story Maps, and the mapping software being provided by ARCGIS, the project functions very smoothly, with no bugs or glitches appearing in the multiple times I have viewed it.

Due to the project being developed by a city museum, I believe the audience falls to a less academic crowd. The project fills any need that audience would require, as it clearly shows McCrae’s life and service, without filling the page with dense historical arguments or literary analysis. Ultimately, this project works as a supplementary teaching resource, something I aim my project to be as well.

The project does involve the use of new media, as Story Map allows for nearly all emerging medias to be combined on a single page. The project utilizes primary sources, secondary sources, geography and spatial data, song, photography, and film. In addition to this, all of these items can be followed back to where the author obtained them due to the citations provided.

In the end, I chose the project so i could review a possible template for my own project. I had seen and heard this application mentioned in both class and by classmates, but I had never inquired further about it.



Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past

Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past enters the readings of this class without straying from the traditional and well-established historiographic models we as historians cling to for dear life. Staley finds a way to weave important and interesting arguments into this text, most important is his argument on the visualization. The visualization is no longer just an image for Staley, but is instead a replacement or modification to writing, and is as important as writing for historians.Visualization and computing should be extremely exploited according to Staley, and should be rooted in our traditional historiographic models due to their usefulness. Much like the trends we’ve seen in job searches and scholarly requirements for those searches, Staley calls for the equation of digital work and scholarly visualizations to that of the traditional monograph or article.

Consider the map for instance. The effort to convey the information on a map solely through text in nearly impossible. To convey everything a map of Europe shows, the historian must describe all of the countries, their borders, the shape of their borders, their adjacent countries, direction, shape, location of every city, rivers, mountains, oceans and seas. The information shows and pulled form a map is nearly endless, something that words cannot better describe. While this is an easily shown visualization, Staley also argues for the use of many other types of these. Much like last week, Staley does not argue that visualization are the key and future to history as cliometricians did in the seventies and eighties, but offers visualization’s strengths and weaknesses to show were they excel above the work of the written word, and in some cases fall below. Simply put, Staley wishes to show the reader the practical application of visualizations, that they can effectively communicate large amounts of data easily, and that they are sometimes more useful than histoical prose. THe examples of visualizations given vary greatly, from word clouds and virtual reality to GIS applications. Arguably, some of these visualizations are significantly more scholarly than others, but they still easily transfer ideas. Teaching history can be absolutely transformed using visualization. Junior high and high school students often dismiss readings due to the time it takes to read and understand them, but visualizations can be used a supplemental material, either sparking interest which will make children read the history book or it will at least still communicate the important information to the student who refuses to read.



Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship

The reading this week, Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, edited by Anne  Kelly Knowles is a not only a collection of essays by digital historians in the field, but also a collection of projects and studies conducted by these scholars. Placing History challenges us as historians to take GIS seriously, rather than just a fancy mapping technique. This collection showcases the potential of GIS software by introducing the reader to key studies that show the usefulness of the approach. These studies range from the reconstruction of Robert E. Lee’s view at Gettysburg to using historical mapping and data to find new causes of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

GIS is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. This system allows for patterns, trends, and relationships to be seen and understood by the viewer, rather than imagined when read in a monograph or article. Anne Kelly Knowles addresses the potential downfalls for the historian using GIS, many of which cannot be helped except with time. The relationship between time and a single point on a map is a dilemma for historians using GIS software, as what needs to be represented at that single point can be constantly changing. Some concepts that historians deal with cannot be placed on a map also, like the influence of nation groups and resistances. Not only are some parts of research hard to display visually, the source base is sometimes difficult to work with. A historian using GIS must have sources that correspond to a place, or have spatial data. Typically, we use qualitative sources or quantitative sources, but they rarely have thick spatial data. The need for a technical and mathematical understanding of the software also will temporarily limit historians due tot heir lack of training in this area.

In Cunfer’s “Scaling the Dust Bowl” is a perfect example of how GIS software is used to move a traditional historical argument forward. Cunfer engages and adds to Donald Worster’s classic causation of the Dust Bowl: capitalistic over-development and intense plowing led to the environmental events of the Dust Bowl. Cunfer believes that is is important to recognize that drought in the area had an enormous effect on the events. He uses traditional newspaper sources and other primary source accounts, but places them in GIS to expand the scope of his study, moving from a case study to a regional analysis. He uses GIS to place these reportings and recounts of dust storms on maps of the southern plains by decade, showing that these storms are just a natural occurrence.  He concludes that dust storms are a natural part of the southern plains ecology, but the over-plowing and production present in the 1930s definitely contributed to the storms with added effect.

I think the most interesting problem/question presented by the researches is the need for the understand of your sources and your research questions. GIS is not a catch all for all research, you must have specific types of data and specific questions to produce an engaging and important scholarly work through GIS. Covered in each case study, but explicitly stated in “Teaching With GIS,” the user must have a deep understanding of the primary sources they are using, and must develop and obtain research questions and spatial sources to support the argument through a GIS application.

The Pasts and Futures of Digital History

This week’s readings consist of cluster of smaller readings ranging from digital textbooks to small articles about Digital History. The American Historical Association offers their working definition of digital history: scholarship that is either produced using computational tools and methods or presented using digital technologies. The use and development of new technologies for digital history sometimes strays far from the traditional print publication. Sometimes the work done is absolutely indistinguishable from traditional print work in everything but its medium. After reading, digital history falls into two categories for me. The first category involves the types of work produced by scholars whether it be teaching resources, online exhibits, digital archives, or any other data collection the scholar performs. This represents the part of digital history that I consider the most traditional and scholarly. The second category involves the methodological approach used to create this scholarly projects, or the technical skills and framework required to communicate with the audience digitally. Scholars need to not only find research to present, but must develop ways to present it. You can see it simply as new mediums, rather than paper.

Historically, digital history started as humanities computing, where data driven social history projects and other disciplines took an extremely quantitative approach. Historians began utilizing statistical methods upon the creation of the computer, following in the footsteps of sociology and political science. So large was the push for quantitative history that some institutions gave incentives for using these methods. For example, Dr. Beiler’s university allowed statistics to be considered one of her two languages as the graduation requirement of many M.A. programs. This quantitative approach aimed to follow the replicability and preciseness of the sciences, and definitively rooted history in the now. Through the quantitative lens, historians could pull out patterns of social mobility, family formation, crime, and economic growth. All of these aspects allowed the research to be directly applied to current studies of our own population through political scientists and sociologists. I believe digital hisotyr differs from cliometrics primarily in its purpose. While some digital history projects can be a supporting database for scholarly research, providing primary sources to reach conclusions, it also involves teaching and exhibition, or the transferal of scholarly history to the public realm.

I believe the largest peril of doing digital history, just like the broader digital humanities, is the recognition of scholarship. Due to the field’s new nature, guidelines have rarely been established and accepted by institutions. The AHA Guidelines for the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History only state the “work done by historians using digital methodologies or media for research, pedagogy, or communication should be evaluated for hiring, promotion, and tenure on its scholarly merit and the contribution that work makes to the discipline through research, teaching, or service.” While I understand this is very similar to the traditional guidelines for hiring and promotion, it is significantly more difficult to convince a traditional full professor of the merit of your work when their only standard is the monograph. Dr. Beiler brought up the process of obtaining tenure and a full professor position at many institutions, and mentioned the controversial effect the inclusion of digital histories have on certain institutions. I think the AHA Guidelines clearly lay out departmental guidelines to help solve this problem. The AHA asks for departments to hold themselves responsible for their own guidelines and hiring process, as well as keeping up to date in the current field of digital history. Ultimately, both scholars and departments need to keep up to date, collaborate, and participate in the digital history community through grants and peer-review evaluations as one of the firsts steps to including digital history.