Online Musings of a Public Historian

Over the past few decades, various technological advances have allowed for significant expansion within the digital world in terms of both scope and accessibility.  Today, a few clicks of a mouse or swipes on a touchscreen offer users access to an abundance of digital content ranging from the intellectual to the bizarre.  In academia, the innovations brought about through this rising “Digital Age” continue to transform the research process as we know it with the introduction of new tools, methodologies, and platforms.  The advent of the online database, for example, revolutionized the traditional research process through storing and making widely available countless resources in various formats.  This increased accessibility of resource materials allows database users to locate in a matter of minutes information that traditionally required several days’ worth of planning (if not longer) a trip to an archive or institution.  Online databases additionally provide resource access to countless users of varying backgrounds and levels of academic experience, colossally widening the scope of research to reach multiple levels of society.

Today, numerous cultural institutions across the world curate their own online research databases.  One of the largest and most visited of these database sites is the Digital Collections and Services page hosted by the Library of Congress:

Library of Congress, Digital Collections and Services Homepage

Library of Congress, Digital Collections and Services Homepage.

Created in 1994, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers users access to

“a growing treasury of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books, as well as ‘born digital’ materials such as Web sites.”

These materials are categorized into eight “featured collections,” each covering  a specific medium (such as the Chronicling America historic newspaper database) and/or research topic (like the Veterans History Project), allowing database users to easily navigate their research efforts within the appropriate collection.  Hunting for relevant research sources becomes an increasingly simple task with the subdivision of several collections into specific categories and the ability to use a search tool to locate specific materials, as seen with the American Memory collection page:

American Memory from the Library of Congress

American Memory from the Library of Congress.

Additionally, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers the opportunity for users to increase their knowledge on the cultural significance of digital preservation through the inclusion of a page providing links providing further information regarding the preservation process and other online collection projects:

Digital Preservation: Digital Collections and Services, Library of Congress.

Digital Preservation: Digital Collections and Services, Library of Congress.

Unlike other leading research databases, such as JSTOR and EBSCO, which offer access to their materials only through paid membership or use through an academic institution, the Library of Congress Digital Collections site allows all members of the public to peruse the site, free of charge.  This high level of accessibility, coupled with the site’s easy-to-navigate format and educational features, makes the Library of Congress Digital Collections database an ideal starting point to gather  materials for use in the research process.

While undoubtedly a substantial tool of research, the Library of Congress Digital Collections system is not without limitations.  This is most clearly seen in regards to the collection’s overall size, which – while admittedly plentiful – does not completely encompass the Library of Congress’ holdings in their entirety.  As a result, a planned visit to the physical facility is often still a necessity, particularly for projects focusing on slightly more historically obscure topics.

That being said, the database is still an ongoing project with newly-digitzed materials regularly added to it.  As such, the database’s scope continues to expand, with the hopes that eventually the vast majority of the Library of Congress’ archival holdings will be available online.  Until that point, and even after, the Digital Collections and Services serves as a commendable, easy-to-use tool of research for historians at any level, both on its own and as a supplement to a more in-depth visit to the Library of Congress’ archival research facility itself.

Growing up a short distance from Washington, D.C., my relationship with the iconic sites and structures of the nation’s capitol is markedly different than that experienced by the thousands of tourists who frequently flock there. For me, places like the Smithsonian museums and the monuments of the National Mall aren’t simply destinations on a travel itinerary. They are familiar figures, featuring prominently throughout each stage of my life so far.

I first became acquainted with D.C.’s heritage sites and cultural institutions in childhood, from a combination of school field trips and obligatory family outings whenever an out-of-town relative paid a visit. In high school, navigating the Metro system and venturing into the city without parental supervision was a common rite of passage.  The National Mall became not just an intellectual but a social destination, serving as the backdrop for prom pictures, first dates, and after-school outings with friends.

One of my first "grown up" group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

One of my first “grown up” group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

Reading Trevor Owens’ article on “using the social web to unpack the public meanings of cultural heritage site[s],” the different layers of meaning the D.C. sites hold for me instantly came to mind. Using TripAdvisor reviews of the commemorative statue of Albert Einsten (located in Washington, at the National Academy Sciences building) as an example, Owens examines the interpretive value of online social commentary in studying public relationships with cultural sites and institutions.

Undoubtedly, “traditional” source materials are necessary components of any research project. Knowledge of a site’s background — the motivations behind it, the message it conveys, its purpose in existing at all — is necessary for an accurate understanding of how (and why) the public interacts with that site. These can be found in any number of primary or secondary sources relating to a site, both online and off.

"History and Culture" page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website

“History and Culture” page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website.

While these materials certainly help historians in figuring out the why of a site, they only provide so much detail on how the public connects with it.  For this, Owens argues, we should look to the social web for assistance.  Visitor reviews, such as those featured on TripAdvisor, and social media posts can be incredibly helpful not only in discerning how the public views cultural heritage sites, but also in determining the types of interactions people engage in.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

Some believe that sources drawn from the social web are not as “legitimate” as those taken from more traditional avenues.  Others feel that the experiences individuals describe via social media, such as the use of the National Mall  as a venue for prom pictures, are “disrespectful” or “irrelevant.”

Reflecting on my own experiences, both formal and informal, with the cultural sites of Washington, D.C., I feel that Owens’ piece makes a valid argument.  Part of the entire premise behind public history is an understanding of how the public connects with the past.  Whatever their nature, posts made on social platforms offer valuable insight into how people create these connections through interacting with such sites.

Cultural heritage sites carry a number of different meanings. Visiting these sites and interacting with them — whatever the context — allows people to develop their own relationships for them.  In doing so, these places become a part of their lives.

What could be a better asset in this digital age than an online platform where you can store all your research information in one place?! Zotero allows users to create an online library for both individual and group projects, where they can upload pdf documents, URL links, and all sorts of citation information.  Check out our group’s Zotero Library for our Resurrection City project here!

The Legalities of Culturomics

In previous posts, we’ve discussed issues of fair use and taken a look at the Google Books corpus and the new trend in culturomic analysis. Now, let’s do a mash-up of the two as we examine the legality of the TIME Magazine Corpus of American English:

Entry Page for the TIME Magazine Corpus

Entry Page for the TIME Magazine Corpus

Working with Mark Davies, a corpus linguistics professor at Brigham Young University, TIME Magazine has put together its own text database through which users can:

…quickly and easily search more than 100 million words of text of American English from 1923 to the present, as found in TIME Magazine.  You can see how words, phrases and grammatical constructions and see how words have changed meaning over time.

Compared with the size and scope of the Google Books corpus project (5.2 million digitized books spanning a period of several hundred years), the 100 million words and eighty year timespan (1923-2006) featured in the TIME corpus appears positively miniscule.  This small scale is not necessarily a setback, however, particularly when it comes to matters of copyright and issues of fair use.

Part of the reason for the smaller scope of the TIME corpus, for example, is due to the fact that all of its featured data is culled from the TIME Magazine archives. As such, all of the data within the corpus is also owned by the entity maintaining it. This allows TIME to share such data without worry of violating copyright ownership, and to additionally provide users of the corpus the opportunity to read the highlighted text in its original context, offering access to full articles as they were initially published.

With ownership of all of its content, along with the resultant ability to offer further access to previous publications, the TIME corpus functions safely within the parameters of fair use. This is beneficial for corpus operators and potential users alike, allowing for the corpus to provide a meaningful research experience for all involved.

Can tracing linguistic changes over time reflect shifts in cultural trends?

According to Jean-Baptiste Michel and the other minds behind the culturomic analysis movement, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Working with the team responsible for the Google Books online collection, Michel and his fellow researchers constructed a corpus of almost 5.2 million digitized books.  Using this Google Books corpus, the team of scholars conducted a quantitative study analyzing the relationship between shifting linguistic and cultural changes over the period between 1800 and 2000.  Referring to this quantitative approach to measuring cultural trends as “culturomics,” Michel and company used their findings to produce the Google Ngram Viewer, an online tool of research through which everyday users can conduct their own studies within the Google Books dataset.  Users are instructed to simply enter a word or phrase (called an “ngram”) into the Viewer’s search bar, resulting in the creation of a line graph data chart chronicling that particular ngram’s level of usage within the corpus throughout the two-hundred year timeframe the study samples.

Sample Ngram Viewer study tracing the name "Abraham Lincoln"

Sample Ngram Viewer study tracing the name “Abraham Lincoln”

As seen in the sample Ngram Viewer study above, users can additionally use the data provided in the line graph to link particular peaks in ngram usage to significant historical events and/or cultural movements.  Using the name of one our nation’s more well-renowned leaders, “Abraham Lincoln,”  as an example, we can see that the initial spike in usage of his name in published works falls (predictably) within the period of his election, presidency, and duration of the Civil War.  Subsequent spikes occur in the years following World War I – a period of intense nationalism, during which Lincoln and other figures came to looked upon national heroes – and during the time surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, when associations with the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of slavery in the U.S. were strongly linked to the mid-20th century struggle for racial equality.

While the arguments laid out by Michel and company highlighting the benefits of using the qualitative methods associated with culturomics in gaining fuller insight into traditionally humanist topics certainly make a strong  point, it is clear that the field still has a long way to go.  Glancing at the Culturomics FAQ page set up by the project’s participants,  one can see that there are still several kinks to be worked out with this particular method of study, particularly in relation to the quality of data.

Despite the undoubtedly large size of the Google Books corpus, the 5.2 million digitized works still only make up for around four percent of all published materials.  Similarly, the study focuses primarily on the years between 1800 and 2000 (despite the presence of materials dating as far back to the 16th century), since the data originating in those periods has proven most reliable.

Do these constraints undermine the quality of data produced by the Ngram Viewer? What can be done to widen these parameters? What should we as historians bear in mind while using the culturomic approach in our own work?

1968 was a big year in American history.  In April, the assassination of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., rocked the country. Tragedy struck again in June, with another assailant taking the life of popular politician, Robert F. Kennedy.  That year, the war in Vietnam experienced several major developments, particularly in the form of the infamous Tet Offensive. With so many substantial events occurring within the space of that one year, it is not surprising that other issues of significance run the risk of becoming eclipsed in the broader scheme of the national historical narrative.

One such instance is that of the Poor People’s Campaign, the brainchild of Martin Luther King, Jr.,  intended as a “multiracial coalition of poor people who would confront Congress and the White House in…a nonviolent insurrection in the nation’s Capitol” (Terry Messman, “The Poor People’s Campaign: Nonviolent Insurrection for Economic Justice,” Race, Poverty and the Environment 14, no. 1, Spring 2007: 31).  Working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King envisioned the Poor People’s Campaign as a second March on Washington of sorts, culminating with the construction of several “shantytowns near the White House, to make poverty visible” (Messman, 31).

An unexpected wrench was thrown into preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign march, however, upon King’s assassination on April 4th, 1968. Following the appointment of Ralph Abernathy as leader of the SCLC in the aftermath of King’s death,  plans for the Poor People’s Campaign and its occupation of Washington resumed at a heightened pace.  The first protestors arrived in Washington a little over a month following the King assassination, and within a week a shantytown consisting of “tents made of plywood and yellow tarp [was] constructed on a sixteen acre site near the Lincoln Memorial” on the grounds of the National Mall (Robert Houston and Aaron Bryant, “Most Daring Dream: Robert Houston Photography & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” Callaloo 31, no. 4, Fall 2008: 1273). Popularly referred to as “Resurrection City”, this encampment grew to house thousands of people through the campaign’s duration.  Featuring its own zip code and mayored by Jesse Jackson, Resurrection City quickly became its own community, with an identity separate from that of the city on whose grounds it stood (John Kelly, “Before Occupy D.C., there was Resurrection City,” The Washington Post, December 3rd, 2011).

Jill Freedman, Resurrection City, 1968. Higher Pictures.

Jill Freedman, Resurrection City, 1968. Higher Pictures.

Unfortunately, Resurrection City was not devoid of the “riots, protests, and violent repression that had followed King’s assassination” throughout the country (Messman, 32). One particularly nasty encounter on the evening of June 20th, a few days before the camp’s land use permit was set to expire, included the deployment of a Molotov cocktail within the vicinity (whether it was thrown at or by Poor People’s Campaign members remains a matter of debate to this day) and culminated with D.C. police officers “fir[ing] more than a dozen tear-gas canisters into the encampment (Kelly).  Four days later, on June 24th, the permit authorizing the Resurrection City encampment expired and the site was deconstructed and cleared.

Today, there are no traces of the Poor People’s Campaign tent city that once sprawled across the Mall’s grounds near the Lincoln Memorial.  The site once occupied by Resurrection City now houses a portion of Korean War Veterans’ Memorial, completed in 1995. Recognizing that it would be a shame for the memory of the physical embodiment of one of  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final efforts toward universal equality to fade into obscurity, the National Park Service — the agency with jurisdiction over the National Mall and its associated monuments — hopes to commemorate the Poor People’s Campaign and the ideals represented by the Resurrection City demonstrators.

For our final project, myself, Kristen Horning, and Joanna Capps are partnering with the National Park Service to create a digital forum through which the Resurrection City experience can be interpreted to the public.  We hope to create a webpage to be featured in the “History and Culture” section of the National Mall’s public website.  Additionally, we aim to increase the opportunity for interpretive connection through the development of a mobile phone application featuring a walking tour following the layout of the original Resurrection City tonight in conjunction with photographs and interpretive texts and/or audio recordings providing additional information.  In conducting the research necessary to complete this project, we will be collecting data through a number of different sources, from utilizing the collections of the National Archives, Library of Congress, and other public cultural institutions, as well as conducting oral interviews with individuals who experienced Resurrection City firsthand, whether as active participants in the Poor People’s Campaign, or as locals living in the area at the time.

Ultimately, we imagine the finished product will serve as a digital means of connecting audiences to the cultural resource embodied in the key issues, beliefs, and values associated with Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign.  A final goal for this project is the hope that the issues raised in our digital discussion of Resurrection City will resonate with modern audiences and encourage a deeper appreciation not only for the equal rights movements of the past, but also what more can be done to assist those facing similar struggles in today’s society.

Photo manipulation: we all do it. Whether it’s choosing the perfect filter for your Instagram, resizing images to crop out visual clutter, or cosmetic touches, ours is a generation of posed perfection.  These actions are commonplace, so routine that we engage in them on an almost subconscious level, barely recognizing that we are actively altering an image from its original state. I mean, what’s the harm, right? It’s the final product that matters, the one you put on display for all to see. With those small changes, that final product simply turns out looking better, carries a message more effectively.  If the end goal is to have a memorable picture that attracts attention, and manual adjustments help to do that, what’s the big deal?

New York Times columnist Errol Morris tackles this issue of photographic manipulation and its effects on public perception and the historic record in his thought-provoking opinion piece, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?.” In this series of three articles, Morris examines a pair of hotly-debated images taken by British photographer Roger Fenton in the midst of the Crimean War. Depicting the same stretch of road in a particularly battle-riddled area, the presence of fallen cannonballs off the side of the road in one picture and their seemingly-subsequent placement on the road in the other lie at the center of the controversy:

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Were the cannonballs placed on the road by Fenton and his assistant in the hopes of achieving a more dramatic image? Or were they moved off the road and harvested by British soldiers  to be fired again at the next battle? Seeking to definitively determine the photographs’ ordering, Morris travels to the modern-day Crimea to investigate.  Through personal examination of the valley’s terrain along with the consultation of experts from various fields from museum curators to forensic photography analysts, Morris ultimately draws the conclusion that the cannonballs were, in fact, placed on the road after the photograph of the cleared road was taken.  The second image was, in a sense, staged.

Do we know Fenton’s reasoning behind staging the second photograph? Not definitively.  From viewing the two images, the “cannonballs-on” one certainly carries a more dramatic impact than its cleared-road counterpart.  The possibility that Fenton was aiming primarily for an emotional impact, sending a specific message to his viewers, is very real.

Does the knowledge that Fenton staged this image affect its credibility as a resource? Perhaps not entirely.  Despite its artificial origins, the image itself remains an evocative piece, depicting the grimmer aspects of a war-plagued landscape.

So how do historians deal with altered or staged images? Do we write them off as “fake” and thus cast them aside? In a separate article, “Photography as a Weapon,” Morris argues that we actually stand to benefit from further examination of such photos. Studying these images, according to Morris, offers a prime opportunity to investigate a photographer’s motivations, audience reactions, and the relationship between photography’s dual roles as an artistic and social medium, and as a purported purveyor of historic truth.

Do you agree? Can historians stand to learn as much from an altered image than from an untouched one?  What does the present commonplace nature of photographic manipulation tell us about today’s society?