Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Getting down to Work: My Internship at The Rooms Part I

 Wow, it’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly four weeks since I started my internship. Moving to St. John’s has made me realize that I have zero desire to move via train or plane ever again. There is nothing particularly refreshing about lugging around three bags of varying size and a backpack.

But now that I’m in St. John’s everything is looking metaphorically sunny. I mean metaphorically as most days look something like this:

You can't tell but this is where I work.

Shot of the Harbour from The Rooms.

My internship at The Rooms started on May 5th and will continue on until the 25th of July. The Rooms has only been open since 2005 when the Newfoundland Museum was moved over to the new building to include the provincial archives, art gallery, and an updated museum space. The institution’s mission is to share Newfoundland history and culture with the community and the world at large.

There are nice days here, I promise. Look! This is where I work!

What The Rooms looks like from Signal Hill.

As an intern, I have been tasked primarily with research and cataloguing. The first week was mostly going through old books that had yet to be put into the new catalogue system. At first it seemed sort of dull but once I found some treasures tucked into books and in the stacks, it became a bit more like an adventure. For example, check out these sweet newspapers that were printed when the European armistice was signed with Germany in 1945 and when Japan surrendered shortly after.


  
Once that was finished, I got to get my hands dirty with the First World War exhibit that is scheduled to go up in 2016.  To help the design company visualize what The Rooms is interested in seeing, I built a 3D Sketchup model of the exhibit, following the geometry of a trench. This didn’t take too long given how much time I had spent working on trenches for my Digital History Assignment. This is what The Rooms is thinking about doing but the exhibit is still in its early stages and this design might not make the final cut.



The Rooms was also thinking about having photos coloured from the black and white originals but wanted to see examples of what that might look like. So I got to brush off some of my Photoshop skills from back in my high school days and got down to colouring like an adult. I seriously failed at getting the right skin colour for these blokes down but at least it gave The Rooms exhibition team an idea of what you can do with coloured black and white photos.

  
Since that has been completed, I have been busy researching. I just finished off some technology in museum exhibits research (thanks to a couple of excellent ladies who happened to work on a topic similar to this for their museology lit reviews). Really cool stuff is coming down the pipe in regards to augmented reality technology and how it can be used for games in museums to keep young visitors interested. Everything is grossly expensive but it’ll be really interesting to see how galleries and museums will use it in the future. So far, I’m really impressed with the CHESS project that coloured Greek statues to look as they would have when they were first constructed in ancient times.

I’ve also been researching First World War soldiers and some of their fascinating stories. In addition to that I’ve found out what the rest of the world is doing to commemorate the First World War and whether or not memory collecting projects are being done. And the answer to these quandaries is: not a lot is being done and few are talking with the public. Germany has been incredibly reactionary and the United States doesn’t feel the need to do much before 2017 as that would be the date of 100th anniversary of the war for them. Australia and New Zealand have it right in many regards with some of the coolest commemoration coinage and postage stamps as well as recreating trenches to serve as educational tools. Naturally Great Britain and France have dominated the celebration planning and have actually funded other countries to help plan their own events. GB has the most memory or story collecting projects as nearly every region has their own website that photos and stories can be uploaded to on top of the major Imperial War Museum site that is ambitiously attempting to collect all home front, soldier, and Commonwealth stories.

Besides researching I’ve been busy interacting with the public without the public knowing. Whenever I think I have a spare moment I head up to the fourth level of the building and watch how people interact with the exhibit. There are concerns that people are being rushing through the introduction because of a sightline that draws people to the back of the gallery space. In theory, this is good because it means people are enveloped in the experience and have moved away from the exit. On the other hand, people are passing by the introduction and other interesting features of the exhibit to reach the sightline. Furthermore, I want to look for whether the sightline is actually working: are people looking at the Venus figurehead when they get there or are they unaware of her presence until they are right beside her? Are people actually drawn into the space or do they take alternative roots away from the exit? This is important as when The Rooms starts to plan their design for the First World War exhibit they will need to know how visitors interact with the space presented. There is no point in duplicating the gallery space on the fourth floor if it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do and- likewise- it should be considered if it is successful. So far, my experience has just been watching people from a distance but soon I’ll be venturing into the unfamiliar territories of charting their patterns on a floor plan and making notes on how often they use the digital interactives. This should prove interesting as I don’t have much experience in stalking people without them noticing me.

What catches your eye in the picture? What draws you into the space?

That’s all I’ve been doing so far but soon I’ll be getting even more involved in the roadshow that is happening all over the province. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to go anywhere but in the middle of June The Rooms will be opening their Level 2 Lab show. Here visitors can interact with mini displays and bring in artifacts that pertain to the First World War. I’ll be up in the gallery space for about two weeks helping with the processing of artifacts. I’m really looking forward to talking to people and hearing the stories they have to tell.




Enjoy what you’ve read and want to know more about my internship? Tune in four weeks from now to hear about my detective work on soldiers, the fun had reading the museum guest book from 1911-1918, my experiences with the Lab Show, and my time shadowing some excellent education programming.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Recreating Historical Landscapes: Vimy Ridge Memorial

There was sleet that morning but that was hardly an excuse for the newly formed Canadian Corps to yield their assault on German lines at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Weeks of preparation had gone into that moment and, despite the weather, nothing was about to stop the attack. Since that fateful day when the Canadian Corps took the ridge, the landscape in northern France has changed from the muddy, water-filled craters and trenches to that of memorial. However, it has also captured the results of the war, preserving those trenches and encapsulating the cost of war with the colossal monument. Some may never have the opportunity to visit the historic national site but with the aid of digital technology, users of history will still be able to view and study it with the hopes of gaining a general understanding of the memorial park. Such an example of this use of technology was created for a project in Western University's History 9808: Digital History course. The methods used for its creation, the benefits and limitations of using said methods, and the story that was created through the curating of primary sources will be discussed further below.

The goal of the project was to compare the modern day landscape to the terrain that the soldiers of the First World War faced. The images were selected with the intent of conveying the way the historical landscape has changed over the last 96 years from a battlefield to that of a mingled landscape, containing both memorialization and reflections of the past.  However, articulating this change was not the only story being told through the digitization of Vimy Ridge. A social history was created by using only images of the battle from the perspective of a soldier instead of utilizing only aerial shots which would have ignored the purpose and significance of the Vimy Ridge site. To properly articulate that story, certain digital tools had to be utilized.

The project was created using a number of digital resources, the most prominent being Trimble’s Sketchup. Sketchup is a 3D modeling program which allows users to design and recreate buildings or landscapes. In the case of Vimy Ridge, the monument had been previously built and stored in the 3D warehouse (Figure 1 and 2). This allowed for more time to be given to recreating the surrounding landscape of the memorial park and the preserved trench system. Although it was challenging to learn all the tricks to the program, Sketchup provides a medium for historians to recreate historical landmarks and display the results in a digestible format as seen in the video below. However the project would not have been nearly as successful had it not been for the digitizing of Library and Archives Canada’s holdings of Vimy Ridge photographs. Without the digitization of these photographs, the project would not have contained the comparative aspect that brings purpose to the 3D model of the ridge. Finally, the use of this blog makes the findings and comparisons accessible to those who wish to seek it out and use it, a method of sharing that academics are wary to use but provides the most traction for spreading ideas on a wide basis.

Figure 1: 3D model of the back of the Vimy Ridge Monument. Found in the Trimble 3D warehouse.

Figure 2: 3D Model of the front of the Vimy Ridge Monument. Geo-referenced through Sketchup.

This is what the final product looked like: 

video

Picture 1: Canadian troops advance up the ridge through barbed wire and under artillery fire.
Picture 2: Canadian pioneers fell trees in the post-battlefield.
Picture 3: Artillery was used to smash through the wire before the battle to ease the advancement of troops.
Picture 4: Canadian troops advance over the crest of the ridge. Picture taken from either a trench or a crater.
Picture 5: Canadian troops search German trenches for enemy soldiers. Note the amount of water in the trench.
Picture 6 and 7: View of Petit Vimy and the battlefield to the east from the ridge.

As noted above, the purpose of the project was to show the difference between 1917 and 2013 landscapes. The animations seen in the video were meant to highlight the selected photographs and show the change sustained by panning past the photograph to show the 3D landscape. Particular features that I wished to address were the reforestation project the Canadian government undertook (seen in Figure 3), the change that the trenches experienced through their preservation (Figure 4) and the destruction of war versus the memorialization of the past (examples in Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 3: Reforestation project undertaken by the Canadian government to replenish the destruction French forests suffered.

Figure 4: Preserved trench system to the south west of the monument

Figure 5: Land covered in barbed wire with explosion; Vimy Ridge Memorial in the background.

Figure 6: Artillery bombardment to break up barbed wire with the grass and tree covered ridge in the background.

However it must be acknowledged that digitally reconstructing historical sites provides limitations. The first is the difficulties of retaining accuracy. In the case of Vimy Ridge, there was no way to visit the site and measure the trench systems precisely or know which trees were planted where. When viewing the model, there is no way of knowing if the trenches were that deep or if that many oak trees actually existed on site. As well, since the site is in a digital format it must conform to the confines set by the program. When using Sketchup, memory and processing power must be considered when recreating sites. The Vimy Ridge Park is 107 hectares, covered in trees and an impressive, towering monument. When placing all of the landscape into the program a severe lag appears which distorts the image of the site and diminishes the quality of viewing and understanding the conveyed message. Thus, compromises had to made regarding the number of tress and other alterations to the terrain. Given these limitations, when digitally recreating historical sites historians must consider what they are willing to sacrifice or adapt to achieve their task.

While there are limitations to using programs like Sketchup, this should not overshadow the benefits of digitally recreating historical landscapes. After all, the digital reconstruction of the Vimy Ridge Memorial Park has its advantages to historiography and users of history. It has been acknowledged that digital history provides accessibility that scholars and other users of history lacked in the past. Recreating Vimy Ridge allows those with the interest in the site to explore its features and the conclusions made by the creator. As well, projects of Vimy Ridge recreations, such as this one that examined the change of terrain over time, can be examined and engaged with on a broader level, especially when considering the utilization of the blog format to share it.

In addition to accessibility, the 3D model and the photos create a historical moment frozen in time. Weather will affect the landscape within a few years and technological advances will render the model outdated and obsolete. However it will still provide some insight for those studying the comparison made between the digitally recreated model of 2013 and the photographic evidence of 1917. It offers a primary source for future scholars, whether it is to study the model itself or the digital tools monopolized during this time.

Nothing in either the digital or material world is without its flaws and often those flaws gain much attention. Although the produced Vimy Ridge model for this project is not perfect or wholly accurate it still offers a primary source for studying change over time and the technological skills at our current disposal. Arguments can be made through the visual communication with use of photographs paired with the 3D model. Could this project have been done differently? Certainly; that is the benefit to the digital and technological advances being made every day. However, it is how historians use these formats that will determine how successful the conveyance of their arguments and messages are.


Bibliography

“Canadians advancing through German wire entanglements- Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.” Photograph. Library and Archives Canada. April 1917. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/ index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3404765&rec_nbr_list=3194488,3394738,178448,3379688,3379695,3397815,3404765,3194785,3397842 (accessed November 29, 2013).

“Canadian Pioneers felling shatter trees near Vimy Ridge. October, 1917.” Photograph. Library and Archives Canada. 1914-1919. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3405562&rec_nbr_list=3405562,3194322,3379699,3241489,3403081,3395321,3404770,3397830,3520900,3213530 (accessed November 20, 2013).

 “Canadian searching Captured German trenches for Hiding Germans at Vimy Ridge, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge”. Photograph. Library and Archives Canada. April 9-14 1917. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3194789&rec_nbr_list=3259716,3233068,3233067,3329414,2837452,3194757,3194789,3194784,2836024,2890448 (accessed November 28, 2013).

Castle, W.I. “View over the crest of Vimy Ridge, showing the village of Vimy, which was captured by Canadian troops.” Photograph. Library and Archives Canada. May 1917. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3192998&rec_nbr_list=3395330,3397007,3192998,165633,165653,3405563,3623100,3521863,3623102,3395246 (accessed November 29, 2013).

Hucker, Jacqueline. ““Battle and Burial”: Recapturing the Cultural Meaning of Canada’s national Memorial on Vimy Ridge”. The Public Historian 31 no. 1 (2009): 89-109.

Munroe, Susan. "Smashing Barded Wire at the Battle of Vimy Ridge." About.com Canada Online. http"//canadaonline.about.com/od/ww1battles/ig/Pictures-Battle-of-Vimy-Ridge/Smashing-Barbed-Wire-at-Vimy.htm (accessed November 1, 2013).

“(W.W.I- 1914-1918) Canadians advancing over the crest of Vimy Ridge April 1917” Photograph. Library and Archives Canada. April 1917. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam _archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3521852&rec_nbr_list=3521995,3329245,3194252,3403082,3521922,3521842,3521932,3395332,3522072,3521852 (accessed November 30, 2013).


“(W.W.I- 1914-1918) The battlefield as seen from Vimy Ridge looking towards the German lines. May 1917). Photograph. Library and Archives Canada. May 1917. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.phpfuseaction =genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3521934&rec_nbr_list=3521964,3379684,3521844,3521864,3521934,3521884,3194778,3521858,3521928,3521898 (accessed November 30, 2013).

Monday, 18 November 2013

Canada's History Forum 2013: Don't Fear the Technology

I just finished a couple of sessions on the Canada's History Forum 2013 and all I can say is: “Wow, what an experience!” I’ve never tuned into a live conference before so the experience was foreign yet highly enjoyable. Despite watching through a computer screen, I still felt connected to the speakers and the audience and I suspect that the ongoing Twitter conversations helped develop that bond.

Originally I planned to tune into the 2:30 session only but when I checked if the Livestream was working I ended up watching most the forum from the opening remarks.  Shortly after 1:00 p.m. the audience was introduced to the winners of the 2013 Young Citizens Video Project. Students, ages 11-14, were asked to create videos on the history of northern Canada and Aboriginal people. One video that was particularly jarring was by an eleven year old girl who discussed residential schools with a frankness reserved for adults and included an oral history component. The section in the program was called “Are Our Kids Better at This Than We Are?” Based on these videos, I would say they are better than me, maybe not so for some of my colleagues who build entire penitentiaries in their spare time but impressive none the less.

Abandoning chronology to make a point, later in the day at 2:30 pm Daniel Davis and Shawn Graham discussed how technology has changed the way we present history. More importantly, they discussed the significance of being engaged with technology. Shawn Graham stated that he experienced a “glorious failure” by asking students to play Civilization 4 and create a game diary, only to realize that students needed to write their own game to understand the “world view” and logic of the game they were playing. Daniel Davis echoed the necessity of people’s involvement in the creation of technology and doing things first hand when discussing crowd sourcing. One particularly interesting examples that he used was “SmithsonianMobile”, an app that allows visitors to post information about the museum themselves whether it be experiences or events. From Shawn Graham’s and Daniel Davis’ presentations we should be able to see that individuals, young and old, are able to learn more about history through technology by being involved in its production.

The involvement of individuals in the creation of technologically driven history isn’t just a benefit to students and visitors of museums who are trying to learn it but to those individuals who are attempting to reconnect with their heritage. Earlier in the day, keynote speaker Kate Hennessy discussed the role of Aboriginals of the Inuvialuit group helping name and rename artifacts part of the MacFarlane Collection. Traveling up north, Hennessy and the rest of her team discussed with elders of the community what particular artifacts were called and what purpose they had. The pieces were then digitized and made part of an online exhibit where anyone could view the artifacts. Teachers of the North West Territories could access lesson plans to incorporate the exhibit into their curriculum. The inclusion of the Inuvialuit was critical for reconnecting the people with artifacts that had been taken from them and acknowledging the power of the people when developing exhibits.

However, what I enjoyed the most about Hennessy’s presentation was a quote she made.
“People, not technology, change history.”
The focus of the forum today was to discuss how technology is making us change the way we present history and how we teach it. We made it appear as if technology had taken on a physical form and was holding a gun to our heads while telling us to conform to the ever changing twenty first century. We are forgetting that without you or I embracing its ability to reach wider audiences and engage people in the process of history, technology has no purpose. We are the vehicles of change and technology is but a tool to make those changes. Deborah Morrison said earlier in the day that teachers are often behind the times when using technology and they should not be afraid to use it. This goes double for historians. We should not be intimidated by the foreign land of technology but rather we should jump in feet first, get messy, and learn from ourselves and from others. After all, if an eleven year old can produce a video on the trauma of residential schools why can’t we?


Bonus: Another meme because they went over so well last week.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Benefits of the Inaccurate Videogame

“But it needs to be accurate otherwise people won’t learn anything from it.”

This is a rough quote of myself in an undergrad seminar called “Doing Canadian History”. We were learning about film and everyone in that course, including myself, sat aloft in our ivory towers, looking down our noses at the peasants and their silly little movies where the historical clothing, events, and accents were fabricated and false. Since I uttered that ignorant statement my perspective has changed but there are still historians out there who feel that historical films, television shows, and videogames need to be accurate otherwise they are useless or damaging to the progress of knowledge.



What they don’t realize is a videogame that represents history in a different way is doing exactly what they feared it would stunt. It is often forgotten that videogames are similar to controversial books in the realm of historiography. Adam Chapman in his article “Privileging Form over Content: Analysing Historical Videogames” discusses how a gamer approaches a game is just as important as the content it presents. Specifically, the way the gamer interacts with the game can create an opportunity “for engaging with discourse about the past” [1]. Gamers can interact with the ideas present with the game and make critical decisions based on this engagement. It could be as simple as determining that a fictional character probably did not assassinate the archbishop of Pisa but it is still a critical analysis of a source.



This sort of engagement is crucial for children in particular. Susan Engel notes that children do not need facts and figures stuffed into their heads but rather they need to “develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on”[2]. Is that not one of the purposes of studying history? To force people to critically think and be able to use that skill later on in life regardless of the situation? If that rhetorical question is false, pardon me for misinterpreting the point of my undergraduate career and disregard everything I've said thus far. Otherwise I hope you agree when I say that it is a good thing if a videogame is “inaccurate” or represents history in a different way so that these sorts of skills can be nurtured.

However, what I appreciate the most about Chapman’s article is the question of what is considered proper history. Why must we compare a historical video game to a book? They are of a different structure, media, and purpose. It is as if we are comparing apples to oranges or- as Diane Carr states- “…disparaging a map for not being life-size”[3]. As historians and public historians we need to be aware that videogames have their place in educating the public about events and trends in the historical narrative. If we are so concerned about the accuracy of the game- although by now I hope you agree that accuracy is not a necessity- we should become more involved in game development.



It is not as if game developers do not want us there. In fact, they seek people like you and I out. For the third installment of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed a professor at the Université de Montréal by the name of Francois Furstenberg was called into action as a collaborator for the game. He said: “In a class, you can teach 30 students, sometimes 200. With a videogame like this, you have the opportunity of getting tens of millions of people interested in history”[4]. Videogames and other forms of digital gaming should be taken seriously by us historians. For the most part, it is an uncharted land for those in academia and we need to make ourselves viable resources to gaming developers, lest the gravy train rolls out of the station without us.

[1]. Adam Chapman, "Privileging Form over Content: Analyzing Historical Videogames", Journal of Digital Humanities http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/privileging-form-over-content-by-adam-chapman/.

[2] Susan Engle, "Playing to Learn", New York Times 1 February 2010.

[3] Diane Carr, "The Trouble with Civilzation," in Videogame, Player, Text ed. T. Krzywinska and B. Atkins (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), endnote 6.

[4] Dominique Nancy "Historian Francois Furstenberg works on the video game Assassin's Creed III" U de M Nouvelles December 10, 2012.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Pinning History: My Experiences with History Pin

In last week’s class we discussed the power of digital photographs and audio clips in history. We were tasked with the assignment of “pinning” historical photographs onto modern maps using the website “History Pin.” The site is a community of shared glimpses into the past with pictures, audio clips, and video. Anything can be pinned to the map and help communities across generations come together and learn about the past.

Last week I was feeling particularly nostalgic and homesick and I decided to focus my interests on Saskatchewan when pinning. First, I wanted to show the construction of the Delta Bessborough in my hometown of Saskatoon. The hotel began construction at the beginning of the Depression and due to the financial downturn of the decade it was several years later that the hotel was official opened. It has become a landmark in Saskatoon’s downtown core and a site for many conferences, music festivals, and weddings since.

I had some issues with pinning the image using street view. First, the street view image of the Bes had a fish-eye filter on it, warping the turrets at the top of the hotel. Second, after I thought I was finished and saved my image I went to check my work and found the image nowhere near the location I was certain I had pinned it. After a little fiddling I was reach a final product I was happy with.

Delta Bessborough 1931



Faded out Historical Image

Despite how handy it is to have the ability to see how a building has changed over the course of its construction, I believe that History Pin is fair more beneficial for monuments, buildings, or locations that no longer exist. I decided to pin the Weyburn, Saskatchewan Mental hospital to the map. Bear with me while I get a little sappy. I grew up in Weyburn and one of the coolest and creepiest places I ever went was the old mental hospital there. While I lived in Weyburn, the mental hospital was converted into a number of things, including an old folks’ home. It was a rich part of Weyburn’s heritage but it was becoming a financial strain. In 2008-09 the massive building was torn down. It broke my heart to see that eerie place knocked to the ground. For the Weyburn Mental Hospital, History Pin provides an opportunity to see what it used to look like in its glory days, if you could call them that.


Pinned Image on the map

Street view of Weyburn Mental Hospital today.

However, was bothered me the most about History Pin was that it relies too heavily upon the street system of Google Maps. You can pin an image out in the middle of a field on the map but you won’t be able to pin it to street view because it is not on a street. This is incredibly limiting when considering military historians could greatly benefit from recreating battle fields on modern day landscapes for people to better understand the terrain.

But, I must remind myself that this isn’t necessarily meant for the academic crowd. It’s intended for the general population to interact with each other, to engage with their personal history and their community’s past. All the things I pinned meant something to me and perhaps they mean something to others as well. This is a prime example of digital history become public history and inspiring the public to become part of making history.


To say the least, I have an infatuation with History Pin now and I suspect I’ll be doing a considerable amount of pinning in the future.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

"About a 3 on the technologically literate scale": My Adventures with GIS

Yesterday we visited the GIS lab and had a workshop with Don Lafreniere. GIS is a geographic information system that uses raw data to recreate landscapes, city spaces, or buildings. Examples of recreations include “Rome Reborn” by Bernard Frischer or the military garrison in Victoria Park by Mark Tovey.

Map of Victoria Park as used by Mark Tovey in his research.

GIS is used as both a visual tool and analytical tool. Not only do GIS maps recreate a site but they can reveal trends in areas, cities, regions, or countries. As Patrick A. Dunae et alt. stated, “A relatively new tool for social historians, it offers novel way of exploring and understanding historical activities and the environments in which they took place.”(2) One can see where an area was historically filled with low-income families based on the submission of data about professions held by occupants. Researchers can also see on the same map how that area may have changed or remained stagnant over the decades. Although GIS can rarely reveal the “why” to questions, as it is quantitative data, it still has its benefits.

The Map of Napoleon's March to Moscow by Charles Minard shows how many and when soldiers died on the march to Moscow but does not reveal the cause of death. This is one of the limitations that GIS maps have.

Before reading up on reconstructed historical landmarks or GIS I had never been particularly interested in numerical data of the past. More often than not I would find myself skimming charts and other such information. Although I knew it was a critical feature of historical analysis, I didn’t really care how many servants lived in one area or what major resources were shipped out of which port. I didn’t even really care how big a monument was in square meters or the distance that a troop of soldiers covered over a two hour period in a heated battle. Why didn’t I care? I suppose it’s because I’m a visual learner and throwing a bunch of numbers in my face doesn’t really do anything for me. However, with GIS. the numbers can take on a physical manifestation that represents exactly what I need to know. Edward Tufte argues that the purpose of GIS mapping is to help with “content-reasoning tasks”(136) and this holds true for those wanting quantitative information without the monotonous chore of shifting through and making sense of numbers and statistics.

However, despite the ease of utilizing a GIS map to understand a concept, the creation of such a map is far from that. As I realized yesterday at the workshop, the act of georeferencing is not my idea of effortlessness and I gained a new appreciation for digital historians. We were asked to download a set of data and plug the documents into ArcGIS, one of the preferred GIS tools. After a couple of hours of being carefully led through the programming and playing catch-up to the group after encountering a couple of hiccups that left me bewildered, I finally understood a fraction of ArcGIS. It was not an easy task but the results were astounding. I had never considered using city directories or censuses to plot where particular individuals lived to show socio-economic trends. I had never thought to look at the change over time by superimposing images over one another.
 
A fire insurance plan given to us for our recreation of downtown London.
This was just one of many raw data sources Don Lafreniere compiled for this project.

Seeing that I’m about a 3 on the technologically literate scale and accidentally saved my finished project on the desktop instead of my hard drive, I have nothing to show for all the frustration I had after today’s workshop. But I do have a new appreciation for all the work digital historians put in to compiling raw data for the creation of one picture that communicates more than a chart of numbers will ever do.

Sources:

Dunae, Patrick A. at alt. "dwelling Places and Social Spaces: Revealing the Environments of Urban Workers in Victoria Usin Historical GIS". Labour 72 (2013): 1- 37.

Tufte, Edward R.. Beautiful evidence. Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 2006.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Serendip-omatic: An Underwhelming Experience.

"Feed. Grab some text or link to your personal library. Whirl. Magically compare your research with major collections. Marvel! Be amazed by what turns up."

Oh boy was I amazed by what turned up. The quote above comes from an online resource tool called Serendip-o-matic. Based off the term serendipity, a happy surprise or accident, this online resource is used for linking users to digital materials in libraries, museums and archives. The system will use key words or phrases of your research interest and search major databases to find images or other primary sources that they believe will benefit you.

I was particularly interested in Serendip-o-matic as in my final year I had to create a museum exhibit around an obscure Near Eastern deity and had struggled to find sources pertaining to my research. The prospect of having primary sources gathered for me was exciting and slightly aggravating knowing that I could have used it during my time of need. However, after using Serendip-o-matic I was glad that I hadn’t put too much stock in the website.

Following the steps I plugged in relevant information about my deity. His name (Baal), what he was god of (fertility, agriculture, storms), where he was from (Near East), who his sister was (Anat, goddess of war and love), and a brief synopsis of his mythology. Plugging in all this information and clicking “Make some magic!” revealed nothing that I would have expected. Not only did it take words out of context (separating Near East into two words) but there wasn’t a single picture of Baal to be found. A small plaque of what could have been his sister Anat was surrounded by images of farmers, Greek gods, and one link to a book on a temple in Syria. To say the least, I was not impressed.

What Serendip-o-matic should have found: Baal with Thunderbolts.
View this stele at the Louvre

However, I should not be overly critical of the site. Once I tried searching just “Baal” I was able to see more archival records on archaeological digs and a few images that could have been to some use. Serendip-o-matic uses the basic technology it was created with and attempts to create a fuller scope of resource material based on a selection of words, regardless of the context of the words. The purpose of the site is to broaden the scope of the resources but this proves to be of little use to those with a specific query.


In short, Serendip-o-matic could be so much than it is. With such a deep pool of resources to pull from, the site could become a hub for searching topics on the Internet. For researchers to only need one website instead of searching for the best primary sources at different online archival databases, research could be conducted in a timelier fashion. However, based on the organization of the site at the moment I would suggest it not be used as a hard and fast resource tool. Although it would be an interesting tool to play around with for entertainment sake, its academic use is limited due to the formulation of its results.

Resources:
serendipomatic.org
louvre.fr