Week 7 Reflection

Oral history is another medium in which history can be recorded most prominently as eyewitness accounts.  This method has recently come back into popularity, as the recollection of events through stories have been recorded since the beginning of telling history.  Although, many oral accounts were lost due to illiteracy, these oral histories provided testimony of events that historians recorded of long past historical events.  The use of oral history lost some legitimacy with the development of the Rankean school of history in the late 19th century as the professional historians relied upon official government and documented sources to re-tell political history.  Beginning with the New Left and “bottom up” history, oral testimony once again claimed legitimacy as the untold stories of thousands of the general public were tapped for recollections of events that effected not just the political elite, but the average individual.

Historians continue to use these sources in a variety of methods.  With the advancement of recording technologies, decades of testimonial accounts are now recorded and transcribed and continue to make a presence in the writing of history.  These new methods also add a visual element to the oral testimony as documentary evidence combines the eyewitness accounts with the individual themselves that in a way, humanize the oral account by reminding the viewer of the person that is present and telling their story. Professional historians continue to weigh these accounts with varying degrees of skepticism, yet the oral testimonies are still presented to the audience that allow engaged listeners to determine the accounts’ authenticity. Of course, objectivity is still in the hands of the interviewer or recorder as historical questions can be framed in a subjective context and even pressure the interviewee to respond in a way which may be favorable for the recorder (specifically considering potential biases of the Federal Writer’s Project and slave recollections).  Additionally, these recollections can be edited and pieced together in a documentary format in which the editor/director has control over the nature of the historical message or the point they are trying to convey.

I plan to use oral testimony of the displaced citizens of the Savannah River Site by contacting uprooted residents of the communities torn down. I would also like to make their audio testimony available to the viewers of the planned website, which in general will seek to digitize all of the primary and (possible) secondary source material that allow the user of the website to form their own conclusions rather than letting the interviewer (me) or the interviewee (potential residents, or perhaps with any luck, government officials) getting the final say in the SRS and its affects on the communities lost. Some testimonies of these residents are available now online, and for those I cannot collect, I hope to collaborate with those who have been able to interview the residents of the SRS communities and publish these memories for a larger audience.

As with any historical medium, oral testimony adds to the wealth of resources available for historians to prime for data relating to their subjects.  And just as with these sources, oral testimonies need to be carefully weighed for subjectivity by the engaged reader/listener/viewer of the histories as well as that reader take an active approach (not just reading, but researching historical facts) in learning about events.  As with all historical sources, I am most concerned with the subjective nature of oral testimony, as this method specifically engages the memory of people effected by events which can carry intense emotional linkages to the person remembering them. I value the voices of those who were there and hopefully can work to prevent a total slant of objective feeling toward sympathy with the interviewees, however, that would be the ideal.  I understand realistically, that utilizing these sources creates emotional bonds between the interview subject and the audience and that oftentimes we, as human beings connect with one another and emotionally “side” with that person.  I know I will not achieve that Rankean objectivity that historians so desperately seek, yet by giving voices to the general public and those effected by the SRS, I hope to paint a more complete picture of the historical event that gives credence to both government and personal accounts and presents the event as evenly as possible.

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Week 6 Reflection-SMLC

The Social Media Learning Center is utilizing resources that weren’t available ten years ago.  As a result of the rise of social media, as Ellen pointed out, has left us with many unsolicited opinions, on about every aspect of popular culture, current day topics and historical issues. Of course, these comments by the average person are monotonous, sometimes ill informed, ignorant or sometimes seemingly unnecessary (of course, this is where an issue of subjectivity of the listener), however it does give us an interesting picture of people’s actual thoughts and feelings to current and historical issues.

Because of the relative new-ness of social media and a cultural obsession of what’s going on at the current time, I think these tools are more useful for companies to engage in new ways of marketing, better understanding of their consumer base, and certainly engages the producer into creating goods for a market of consumers that can be fit to serve, better.

Historical questions may be applied to this field, yet the issue of democratization and the historical voice may be raised as a concern as the number of professionals greatly outnumber those who can contribute opinions pertaining to a historical study.  Of course, due to lack of context when searching out specific terms that apply to a historical question (i.e. Southern culture, Southern food, religion, etc.) still demand that a professional historian have some oversight regarding the data he is collecting to make an informed, supported and knowledgeable opinion.  While we cannot fully make the computers do our job for us, we can utilize the machinery as a tool to analyze these massive amounts of data to collect a greater variety of opinions than could have possibly been done before.

Of course, this inherently is the goal of digital history, but I think this technology is to be utilized more prominently for current events and political scientists that can track the language of the masses in relation to political events, policy creation, and reactions to government changes by amassing huge amounts of political opinions.  With time, these sources can properly be primed for historical data, yet there simply lacks the amount of material available as the medium is in its infancy.  Interestingly, we may use the social media data just as we navigate through historical newspapers and broadsides, political pamphlets and private letters for our historical past.  Simply social media has created a new medium in which more people can be engaged more effectively and has created many new sources of public opinion which, given some time, will create an efficient, massive and easily primed public record to create historical evidence for the time in which we are living today.

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Week 5 Reflection

The presence of social media is immense.  Sites like Facebook and Twitter are now common terms and are understood by almost anyone you talk to.  This new medium that has developed in the last 10 years is useful, however I find it somewhat intrusive.  Social media, along with written media denies the speaker the context of voice.  Humor, especially if it is off putting or dare say, offensive is taken at face value.  This lack of context of voice is potentially damaging to careers and social relationships, especially if the person seeing your comment is only familiar with you but may not “know” or understand you.  Twitter is something I begrudgingly may have to start doing.  The trends in social media now have absolutely eliminated any barriers between private and public life.  No longer are employers looking at your resume or work experience, but many are taking the liberty of investigating persons online in a social forum.  Social media has created an atmosphere of an ever-watching public and forces individuals to suppress what they may truly think or feel, to remain marketable to any potential employers.  Academia.edu I wasn’t aware of but understand it could be useful in the near future.  It’s professional atmosphere can foster inner and interdisciplinary links that digital historians must embrace.  In any case, social media is changing the way in which we interact with each other, I feel it will be inevitable for historians to have to embrace this medium in order to keep up with the ever growing digital age. Unfortunately, I think any expression of opinion may also easily come under fire from those who dissent and as a result, unfortunately, jobs can be lost.

Web design will be another tool that the digital historian (obviously) will have to add to his repertoire of things to know for this new medium.  A lot can be accomplished by the historian himself, but he will also have to embrace another form that is rarely explored by historians-a sense of visual art.  How I understand history in a lot of ways are visual representations that I make in my head.  Usually connections between events and places and comparisons between those events to others.  The difficulty I find is expressing these comparisons in the written word, or translating what I see in my head and communicating them effectively through writing.  Website creation helps to bridge that gap, as with my proposed project, I can lay my information out represented by a visual image.  The ability to create something in a non-linear fashion can help effectively transmit ideas that can be overshadowed or under-emphasized in the written word.  A visual element to history also can draw people in and allows them to attach themselves to the subject emotionally.  Just as a museum works, seeing the actual piece of historical evidence conveys a much different message than reading about it.

With digital history, I realize that the emphasis on collaboration with other fields is necessary.  Yet, I am often wanting to control every aspect of research, creation or writing.  Perhaps this is traditional in my thinking, but if I create something or write I book, I welcome help although I am not fully satisfied if I do not feel that it is truly my work, or even worse something may be missed because of a lack of careful oversight.  Admittedly, I’m a work control freak.

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Week 4 Reflection

Historical material based in commemoration has the power to create a variety of emotions.  The websites containing material on the Kent State incident contain mostly photograph archives and some of the official reports as released by the Judicial department, government sources, and university officials.  Additionally, the archives also provide another perspective from the stories, from the student protesters themselves.  The access to these primary source records as collected and recorded by the Kent State offer opportunities to research the event from multiple perspectives.  However, the digital collection only contains photographs and some digitized statements.  The full collection is only available in “hard copy form”, and must be accessed on-site on Kent State campus.  While Kent State is making a move to make these materials available for everyone, accessibility is still in many respects restricted.

While the presence of commemorative websites are wonderful, I do not believe that proper historical interpretation can take place in these environments.  The Kent State website has provided an excellent archive to the material, and properly has kept itself free from interpreting the event either positively or negatively.  This absence of opinion, I view to be important in an archive.  Other websites that we viewed have taken a stand on interpretation by providing student’s accounts and remembrances of where they were on May 4, 1970.  Commemoration should best be left for people to remember, rather than politicize the event.

Bias in the blog created by Mike Alewitz is apparent.  However, the blog is used as a forum of remembrance, and without fail an open invitation for anyone to write has of course made the blog politicized.  While Dr. Alewitz himself was a participant in the Kent State riot, the goal of the blog is seemingly to remember the victims and in some respects to tribute the radicalization of the student protest in 1970.  He seems to maintain a slight bias, however his urging to others to contribute to his blog has seen given us an interesting example of a radical that has not changed since she was a teenager.  That example of course is Dr. Manuel Barrera who refers to capitalists as “petty” and their contributions to society not as positive but “blight”.  Another poster has now been employed in Labor and Employment relations and the great majority have commented on their participation of the movements in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  I think a site like this, can also hold valuable information on who the people involved in these radical movements have shaped to be and what positions they may hold now.  Due to the rise of the New Left-historiographically speaking and their perceived domination in the field since the 1960’s, it is apparent that academia has indeed housed many of these activists, Dr. Alewitz and the above mentioned Dr. Barrera, as well as Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.  While biased, historians can use these also as pieces of evidence to get a better picture on public opinion.  While they may not be full in perspective, and not all cases stand that the participants are/were extreme radicals, it speaks of an era that could foster these feelings of individuals towards their government.  Historians, commemorate and tribute as well, but research needs to stress empathy towards historical events, while maintaining an air of professionalism that stresses empathy over sympathy.

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Week 3 Reflection

The readings for this week highlight a number of key issues that I mentioned in last week’s post.  Of these issues, economic viability in the creating and sustaining digital history archives and websites and the acceptance of digital history websites by scholars created by those both in and out of the profession, I maintain will continue to be the most prominent issues that historians in this first generation of digitizing sources will face.

Of course, without repeating too much of what I said last week, the economic issue is two-fold.  First, the amount of time and money that has to be set into a large scale project such as JSTOR has ensured that high subscription rates will be maintained to recoup and sustain the project.  Second, the funding for such projects that in the end will guarantee open and free access to the digitized materials would, I imagine, hold little attraction for investors.  Historians are put in a compromising situation, by spending their own time and money on these projects they can truly create something that adds scholarly value and provides access to an endless amount of materials, yet the only compensation for which is credit, unfortunately that doesn’t always pay the bills.  Additionally, this can lead into the second issue, that credit attributed to those who create digital projects is not equivalent to the same historian advancing the same ideas entailed in the digital project as he could have in a traditional manuscript.

Employment in the field, as far as university scholars are concerned, continue to rely on the traditional method of published work. Questions of how digital studies compare to published manuscripts threaten the advancement of digital projects.  This in short, due to the amount of time researching and writing and the time it takes to create a digital history study leads to conflict in the creators’ schedule.  When the profession insists upon published works, historians are left to focus on digital projects that are narrowly defined to a small group or area of people.  If the scope of the project is large, one that focuses on national events or trends of people in regions of the United States, it may lead to delays in completion of the project.  This trend must be addressed to ensure that digital history projects have scholars full commitment.  In turn we will find that those commitments lead to projects that are exceptional, provide information from a variety of sources and offer unique interpretations of the areas in which they encompass.

While everyone would benefit from digitized archives, books, and letters and the availability of primary sources right off hand, the capital investment would unfortunately outweigh the money, if any, that would have to be taken in from the final product.  Of course if subscription fees are deemed necessary, in which almost all cases are, accessibility to archives and the like is greatly lowered.  Digital historians are put in a precarious position in that they would have to be willing to devote their time and resources with the potential of not getting monetary compensation for their work.  Of course we would depend on those whose passion for history fuels this effort, yet in a lot of cases those people are amateur historians, whose work would have some concerned with the authenticity or lack of investigation that professionals pride themselves on.  The availability of a number of open source programs put digital history in the hands of the masses.  Of course, this has caused some ripples in the professional world, just as sites like Wikipedia have caused a stir and in many cases are not to be used in a classroom setting.  But historians can take note of attempts made by the Wikimedia foundation to establish uniformity in the contributions made to Wikipedia.  An increasing reliance on cited works and more importantly notations that indicate conjecture and question sources engage the reader in active rather than passive reading.  It is up to the reader to disseminate what has been written.  Just as authors have written books based on a single sentence or even a paragraphs from C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the South many interpretations can come from different people.  Professional historians need to oversee these digital history projects, to maintain professionalism and adherence to academic standards.  It is a balance that must be struck and standards established to confirm that digital history is useful, acceptable, and acknowledged by amateurs and professionals alike.

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Week 2 Reflection

Digital history most assuredly will be an advancment in the creation of a history more accessible to the masses.  Cohen and Rosenzweig explain the history behind digital history as well as present a number of issues that continue to trouble historians as they create and display public digital history projects.  Of the qualities of digital history presented on page 3 of the introduction, two appear most troublesome.  Accessibility or inaccessibility to historical websites and the accountability of those who created them appear as both pros and cons of digital history.  In the digital era, the internet has opened doors for historical research that the historian can perform from the ease of his computer chair rather than an archive across the country.  While this is positive, there are limitations to access as well.  Many archival sites charge expensive membership fees, which limit the ability of many to get their hands on primary sources.  Additionally, the digitization of primary source documents require vast resources both economic and in labor that companies assume as an investment.  As in any other business, the investment of these resources by companies are protected by copyright and serve as limitations to the sharing of information.  I’ve been burdened not by material but the legal restricitions of using information that are copyrighted by companies that led to delays in projects.  This could also lead to an incomplete presentation of a digital project as a result of a legal barrier, or even a scrapped project completely.  Legal issues are the foremost problems that historians will have to work around as they construct digital history archives and projects.

Another problem we face is the issue of organization and credibility.  Due to the plethora of different digital history sites we lack a coherent way to categorize them.  History projects are all thrown together in a search engine.  Additionally there is no way, without looking at them individually, to differentiate the types of projects from each other.  As Cohen and Rosenzweig point out, traditional methods of organization (subject, area, time) are not as well defined for digital history projects which tend to be very narrow, topic oriented.  New categories, perhaps that define the nature of the digital history project, need to be devised to be utilized more effectively by researchers, historians, and amateurs alike.  We need to focus on the intent of the creators of the digital history projects and create several different ways to categorize the mass of projects that already exist.  In short, a 21st Century, digital Dewey Decimal System.

Because of the open ended environment of the internet, anyone can create any history website whether they are students, teachers, enthusiasts or professional researchers.  This leads to two concerns, first, is the information provided on this website or computer program credible?  Second, how can we differentiate the “professional” historian works from the “amateur”?  While this open forum between scholars and the average person is excellent in terms of accessibility, all users involved need to keep in mind who is creating these projects and bear in mind that some may be more credible than others.  Just as I wouldn’t take car repair advice from somebody working the fry line at McDonald’s.  Not to say there aren’t intelligent people that exist outside academia, but amateurs, as Cohen and Rosenzweig present, or even some professionals may be unfamiliar with arguments and evidence once presented years in the past and are bringing outdated ideas again to historical discussion.

A number of things we must keep in mind when analyzing digital history projects as we investigate them and as we create them.  Similar to writing papers or books we need to consider the audience, our purpose in telling the history through the projects we devise, what it can bring to the historical discussion that simply words and paper cannot and also how to make the history we present engaging, interesting, and accessible to the general public.

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