Category Archives: Digital History

Expertise=Pre-Holocaust Germany?

In a new article by the Lone Star Report, available here, Cynthia Dunbar of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) states that “I actually had a call from Norwegian International Radio, and I asked them why they were so interested. His response was this is very foreign to us because we have appointed experts who deal with this and they tell our students what they’re going to learn and it never becomes political. And I said well yes, when you have a representative body it can become very political and controversial because you’re giving the electorate a voice as opposed to having certain people tell the rest of the country what they’re going to believe — like in a pre-Holocaust Germany.”

The answer is NO, it is the SBOE that is like pe-Holocaust Germany!!!. The reason is simple. In a process that took over a year, not ONE historian of any type was consulted as to the accuracy of the changes instituted by the SBOE this May. Instead, they had a Dentist and a Pastor. Sort of like Heinrich Himmler, a defunct Chicken farmer, and Josef Goebbels, who wrote his Ph.D thesis on 18th century romantic drama. What is so shocking is that Dunbar has created the exact environment that she has accused other of doing. They have created an environment where history has become politicized and censorship reigns supreme. Hitler would approve.

While history has many components. It is the ever increasing inquiry that adds to the very essence of what is history. The SBOE has stated that in their new standards, Thomas Jefferson was NOT influenced by Enlightenment thinkers. A historical un truth. I think Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke would disagree. All one has to do is look at the Declaration of Independence and READ the “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Gary Wills who wrote a whole historical work on those who influenced Jefferson’s ideas would also disagree with the SBOE. This whole controversy has served to galvanize historians. It is clear that the SBOE thinks that historians don’t “do any real work”. That historians are only out to set an agenda. Well, they are only partially correct. Historians are interested in finding an explanation that a set of facts reveals. Historians of merit are not interested in twisting facts to make it fit a preferred explanation. Those that try are up against peer review ask Martin Bernal about his attempts to refocus the knowledge of Ancient Greece. While his work has some significant problems, at least it can be scholarly argued and his point of view can be discussed. The SBOE has just merely censored information. Goebbels would be proud that Dunbar has followed his line of thought. If you are in the majority, then your history rules.

The problem with that argument is that there certain areas of truth that are beyond the reach of majorities. Constitutionalists call this negative freedom: that there are certain liberties that the government is not allowed to do listed plainly in the Bill of Rights. Whether we agree with certain aspects of these amendments, these liberties are beyond the reach of majorities and not subject to the fluctuations of elections. The same argument can be taken to math and history. 2 +2 is 4 and no matter how many people may think it is 5, it is still 4. History, in the same vein, is not just a matter of interpretation. That makes it sound like history can be manipulated whenever one wants to do so. However, like math, history is an interpretation that must follow a line of argument that is based on facts, theorems they are called in mathematics. If you have a set of evidence that points to a particular line of argumentation, no amount of manipulation, aside from censorship, can alter those facts.

What the SBOE has done for Texas students is to provide a new alternative universe. They have not disadvantaged their high schools students in the rest of the 49 states. They have provided a new curriculum that is no longer fact based. Rather it is based on the preferences of a fickle electorate. Democracy is a great system. And in a Constitutional Republic like ours, it is great that we can debate. However, what Texas has done is not for the purpose of intellectual stimulation. The SBOE has subjected and degraded all historians by leaving the new social studies and history curriculum to the expertise of a Dentist and a Pastor. I think when I retire I will have the time to become a Dentist.

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The Future of Preserving the Past

In his article of the same title, Dan Cohen have managed to illustrates some of the problems of digital archives. First, he illustrates how new technologies have managed to provide larger archives that are more accessible to historians and the average person. Secondly, he illustrates the concern about the fragility of digital media. It is something that needs to be addressed, and all agree that it needs to be addressed, yet; no ideas have emerged.

Cohen’s first analysis of the the new technologies illustrates how in a 60 year period technology has evolved from the documentation of Pearl Harbor to the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 attacks Cohen describes preserving all sorts of media from voice mails, to text messages, instant messages, emails, and the photo evidence. This is a far different world than December 7, 1941 when the call went out for historians to record people’s reactions. At the same time, i do think that while there has been skepticism about oral histories, technology can preserve those histories and even provide a richer structure with less intervention on the part of the historian. As with all oral histories, one must take it with a grain of salt. It is that person’s memory whether it is historically accurate or not.

The second point Cohen brings up is the fragility of digital libraries. The fact that technologies go out of date and are not converted. The early music CD’s from the 1980s, it was found that they lose some of their playback ability and deteriorate over time. This was solved by new CD technologies in the 1990s. At the same time, Cohen provides a good example of the problems of fragility. For example, a photograph that fades one can still make out faces or information in the photo. If a digital file gets corrupted or deteriorates, it is lost forever. Sometimes forensic computer rescue can save some of the material. However, it just illustrates the point that once it is gone its gone forever. Another problem is the ability to convert data from old technologies to new technologies for readability. This is something that historians and archivists have not considered in their drive to preserve electronic materials. Moving forward, it is a consideration that must be addressed. It is not just a matter of backup its a matter of preserving the past format for future use.

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Social Tagging a Mixed Bag of Chaos and Anarchy

One of the assignments for this week was reading an article written by Susan Chun, et. al. and it raises as many questions as it provides answers to accessibility of the public to the museum. I am in full agreement with past writers that, very often, curators and museum/library personnel forget that part of their mission is to educate. Indeed, one cannot begin to educate if one does not have access to materials. However, the notion of tagging overlooks the aspect that tagging can be a uniquely individualistic observation that is not shared by others. Thus, the term social tagging could be considered a misnomer. In the list provided by the authors for the object by Joachim Friess “diana and the Stag” has several tags that just would not fit: clockwork, chain, mechanical, woman, saddle. etc. The problem illustrated here lies in the interpretation of the person who tags the object. Hence, the next person could have a completely different tag. Thus, instead of expanding the ability to find information, one is making a more chaotic system. Wasn’t that the reason for the development of classification systems???

While I like the idea of museum’s making their materials more accessible to the public, There comes a time when the appeal to the lowest common denominator needs a bit of adjustment. This requires a policing of the tags for many of the objects within a museum. At the same time, an interface that provides the social tags and the classification data of the curator would help in improving one’s knowledge of how to find objects. The use of social tags could does appear to enable one to find materials. However, it should never the sole basis for or replace the curatorial methods established. While the folksonomic method serves the useful purpose for the general public to find what they are seeking. But, for professionals attempting to use the facilities it could end up being a burden. Just as a list of terms to describe some object are important for taggers, the established classification systems serve a much more coherent purpose for professionals and researchers.

In the end, the use of “social” tagging, could be a useful addition for the museum. but It cannot replace the curatorial methods of classification. Instead, these two ideas that appear to be at odds with each other, should work together to enable all individuals to be able to find what they seek.

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Boycott Texas History Book Publisher

Jefferson not influenced by Enlightenment Thinkers!?

Calling all college history professors and instructors. It is time to use our clout as history professors to make a statement. According to the New York Times article the Texas Board of Education is making significant changes to the history curriculum for high schools students. We need to come to the aid of Mary Helen Berlanga and use our clout as academics to boycott the rewriting of history for political purposes. If it were just Texas, I may not suggest such a boycott. However, because publishers have become so economical in the past years, the book published according to the Texas guidelines will be used by other states for their classes. It is time to say ENOUGH to this blatant attempt at censorship and academic political correctness. Censorship on the part of the publisher and censorship on the part of the Texas School Board of Education who did not even have, according to the CBC news broadcast on March, 23, 2010, The Current, an academic historian suggesting changes. We need to show our support for Mary Helen Berlanga by emailing her our support at this email address here.I am proposing to spread the word to all historians who teach at the college and public school level. If they we have the power to choose our textbooks, we need to boycott the publisher, and their subsidiaries, of the textbook for Texas public schools.  Show them that we will not accept the rewriting of history.  These are not just changes to a curriculum these are calculated extractions of American history. The claim by many is that history is some leftist tool to twist facts. I am sorry but both VanRanke and Droysen would argue with that. What qualification does a dentist and a preacher have to determine historical standards? I will need your help here academics and graduate students. Boycott the publisher of this book and their subsidiaries. Let’s illustrate that historians can use their clout to stop the abuse of history by agenda seeking loons who think that history is merely interpretation. It is not just interpretation. It is an informed analysis determined by factual evidence. I shutter to think what they will want to exclude next, the holocaust? That will be the next step if we do not take a stand now. All those who support this issue can make a comment below and I will respond. Let me know what more we as historians can do to prevent this gross malfeasance of history on the part of the Texas Board of Education.

It must be stated that censorship is NOT academic freedom. Academic freedom means that one should be able to choose resources for inclusion within an academic setting. What the Texas School Board is doing is excluding, that is censorship.

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The Madness of These Deluded People

As I relaxed on the couch last night, I watched a re-broadcast of the PBS documentary Looking For Lincoln hosted by Dr. Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. It struck me how this documentary to reconcile the seemingly conflicting aspects of Lincoln’s political beliefs related to the internet and history. It is not really that big of a leap but it illustrates the worry historians have about the way history is already twisted and used by individuals. This feeling of worry is furthered by the internet’s ability to spread these twisted histories. Consequently, this documentary both affirmed my belief that history must get on the internet and confirmed my fears of the democratic features the internet provides. I arrived at this conclusion during the latter part of the documentary Looking for Lincoln. Dr. Gates went to a Sons of Confederate Soldiers convention looking for various points of view on President Lincoln. He affirmed that he did not expect to find a favorable opinions about the President who save the Union. To my surprise, and Gates too, his suspicions were confirmed in terms that were surprisingly hostile. One of the members interviewed called Lincoln a “war criminal”. I was astounded. Granted, I did not think that Lincoln would be embraced en mass; but war criminal! While I am not an expert on Lincoln, I have studied enough of the Civil War to sit down and ponder this superfluous point of view. War Criminal???? How on earth could this be the case???? I understand that being brought up with the mythical cult of Lincoln as savior that my bias might be challenged. Indeed it was. But, War Criminal!!! I just cannot get past that one. I can see how Lincoln’s approval of the way the War of the Rebellion was executed would solicit bitter feelings from those whom it was inflicted upon. Yet, this is over 150 years since the “Civil War”. All I could think was . .. “the madness of these deluded people”. As a historian I certainly can see that Lincoln would not hold a high opinion in the South, but the twisting of history to perpetuate a mythical victim psychology by southerners is the best example of what historians dislike about the idea of “democratic” principles of history. First, it’s factually wrong. Lincoln prosecuted a war to save the Union because the SOUTH rebelled. And during War there are things that armies do that are unspeakable, on both sides, but are necessary to win. Should Sherman not have marched to the sea? If he had not would the North have won the Civil War?? This was key to the reelection of President Lincoln. We can imagine that if Lincoln had not won George B. McClellen would have become President negotiated a peace and maintained the institution of slavery. Plausible assumptions all. Secondly, historians cannot let the perpetuation of this type of twisted history to continue. This is where the problem of “democratic” history perpetuates prejudice and falsity. Democracy is fine for some governing institutions. Even in a Representative Republic, to allow these voices to be heard is necessary in contradistinction to censoring materials. However, to allow history to go unchecked by someone who has studied the subject exhaustively, does not spell good history. It spells history by consensus where a version of history emerges that reflects all the OPINIONS of the extremes. Hence, it becomes a mathematical formula whereby historians must write history to gloss over some areas of historical work so as not to offend others. This is DANGEROUS. Sometimes as we learn from history and new evidence emerges to explain past actions, evidence emerges that is incontrovertible and no point of view pro or con can doubt its authenticity. While I am all for democratic systems within the republic we live, some academic areas cannot be conducted by consensus. And the claim that eventually the democratic process gets it right reminds me of the Death of Socrates. Here a jury afraid of his methods, the method we use today, condemned him to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates did not bow to the consensus so he was silenced. That is the dangerous road we take when we bow to consensus. If this is allowed, every area of history will be subject to consensus review rather than peer review. It’s a far leap, but so was the internet 15 years ago. I saw one glimmer of hope in the documentary Looking for Lincoln. Dr. Gates interviewed an African American woman who was a member of the Confederal Sons auxiliary, forgive the mis-naming of the organization. Dr. Gates reaction to her presence remained surprise. Then the woman explained that: “I am hear because if I am not here nobody will discuss the history of African Americans” A noble objective indeed. The organization also had a ceremony to honor a family whose slave ancestor served in the Confederate army. That was also surprising. Though I cannot help thinking that if the South had won what kind of compensation those slaves would have received? Emancipation? It is a question? Consequently, I have started to arrived at some conclusions. First, historians do need to become more active in providing information on the internet to counter all the wacko theories out there. Secondly, there is not time enough to go around and edit all the incorrect problems out there. Therefore, historians have to start somewhere else. Beginning with blogging and with online publication, historians can start to counter all this crap. Third, in order to obtain correct information Americans must overcome their problems with intellectuals. Intellectuals while not omnipresent do have the training and expertise to provide informed historical works. This does not mean that all amateur historians should stop dabbling in history. In fact, amateurs often find and pass along information to academics who would not have thought of the idea in the first place. Hence, they deserve credit for bringing ideas to the table. In that sense, historians should be more democratic. The notion of ideas being democratic remains a frightening prospect. I like the idea that people can believe what they want. However, sometimes we have to be told we are wrong. Hence, historians must confront the two types of democracy on the internet. There is democracy where intellectual equals can exchange ideas; there is anarchy. What Wikipedia represents is a form of “organized mob rule”. Where the mob reaches a consensus of opinion. This is not an intellectual exercise in obtaining information it is twisting facts to not offend someone’s sensibilities. Do we allow those with the opinion that Lincoln was a War Criminal to perpetuate the historical record. Granted it might sell books but it is not history. It’s fiction that passes for historical interpretation. As a historian, I accept that Lincoln made mistakes. However, I cannot negotiate a consensus on the notion he was a War Criminal. It is as if the makers of Wikipedia believe that history can be likened to negotiable instruments. As Leopold Van Ranke asserted, some aspects of history are non-negotiable due to the inherent nature of the basic foundation of things called facts.

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Response to Roy Rosenzweig’s: Can History Be Open Source?

In the June, 2006 edition of the Journal of American History, Roy Rosenzweig makes a very good case for why historians should begin an assault on inaccurate history as perpetrated on the internet.  At the same time, he also makes two particular errors that need to be addressed.  In his article “Can History Be Open Source?  Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” he urges historians to get on the internet.  First, Wikipeida, for all its faults and successes is NOT peer reviewed, despite the claims of Dr. Rosenzeig.  Secondly, History cannot be compared to open source software in the sense that he describes.

First is the issue of peer review.  Let’s define peer review.  Wikipiedia defines peer review as “the process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field.”  However, this not what Wikipedia does.  Wikipedia defines its process as:

“Wikipedia’s peer review process exposes articles to closer scrutiny from a broader group of editors, and is intended for high-quality articles that have already undergone extensive work, often as a way of preparing a featured article candidate. It is not academic peer review by a group of experts in a particular subject, and articles that undergo this process should not be assumed to have greater authority than any other.”

This is NOT peer review.  This is review by a mixed bag of individuals who may or may not have the qualifications to determine whether the material in question is good or bad.  This is history by consensus and illustrates all that historians loath about Wikipedia.  It is, indeed, the heart of the debate of history on the internet and is a dangerous precedent.  History by consensus within this format opens the way for some very inaccurate interpretations.  For example, the FDR article that Rosenzweig mentions is very well written; it has well noted citations and is supposedly neutral.  That is until we look at the issue of Pearl Harbor.  What Wikipedia has allowed is this consensus board to allow the allusion to prior knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The allusion, while subtle, is inaccurate and a misconception of the facts in question.  The article in questions states that “On December 6, 1941, President Roosevelt read an intercepted Japanese message and told his assistant Harry Hopkins, “This means war.”  However, the question remains WHAT WERE THE CONTENTS OF THE TELEGRAM???  The article leaves to the reader some sinister allusion that is both a misconception and false.  As many notable historians have noted and include “Frank Friedel, Aurthur Schlesinger, Jr., James MacGregor Burns, and William Leuchtenberg.” (my apologies for any misspelling)  In fact, Burns notes that intelligence had a whole slew of telegrams that were confusing at the time and reported movements in the South Pacific.  The notion was that the Japanese were going after the oil reserves in Singapore and the Philippines.  Roosevelt was prepared to go to war over these movements, as he had been looking for an excuse to get into the war.  However, the candid historian would note this misconception, it appears that the Wikipedia reviewers did not.  While I agree that Wikipedia is a good place to start for students, it is also full of problems that do not get fixed right away.  As Rosensweig notes the case of an individual who was added to the conspiracy section of the JFK sight and it was not changed for several months.  While he is correct in pointing out that other online encyclopedias have mistakes in them, they do not rise to the same level as the open source environment of Wikipedia.

The other aspect that Rosenzweig approaches is that history should be available on the internet like open source software.  That is a dilemma.  First, it could be open source.  Putting history on the internet is not a problem.  The problem is how?  Do historians use a format like Wikipedia where anyone can author an article?  The thought does raise some strong red flags.  If history is subject to academic peer review where a historian must provide credentials as in the case of the new Citizendium, then many objections could be mitigated.  However, the problem with the Wikipedia method is that history is agreed to by consensus.  A group of editors who may or may not have the qualifications to determine the reliability of sources or lack the training to adequately scrutinize or vet legitimate articles, determines by consensus what material will be allowed into the article.  The problem remains that history turns out like Wikipedia where the information may be correct but still has certain elements within their articles that remain factually untrue.

This leads to the comparison of history to open source software.  I have serious problems with that allusion.  I use open source software, and have had no serious problems.  However, the idea of open source software is to allow individuals and developers to improve on the performance of said software.  However, they cannot change the basic premise that there are certain codes that must be adhered. Using the Wikipedia example, all content, even the basic and proven facts remain up for grabs.  While there is some review, it is not a review of academics trained in the field who have studied the subject for years.  It plays to the anti-intellectualism described by Richard Hofstadter.  At the same time, open source software is meant to improve on the basic codes.  Whereas, history within a Wikipedia environment has the possibility of becoming conjecture.  If the basic premises are flawed and contributors add to and agree on a consensus of opinion, it contributes to the rest of the noise out there.

These criticisms aside, one must agree that historians must figure out how to get out there, contribute, in a credible environment.  The Citizendium appears to be a move in the right direction.  Like the Bill of Rights in relation to government power,  there are certain areas of intellectual discourse that should remain beyond the question of majorities.  Facts are facts and cannot be changed or altered.  While I am all for a democratic discourse, there must be some way that historians can enter the internet without losing their authority or surrendering it to the masses.



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Confronting the New Frontier

Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig have issued a call to arms for historians.  With all the concerns about the internet, historians should not resign themselves to the amateurs and hacks on the internet.  Instead the challenge is to “prod historians to sit down in front of their computers and to get to work.  Historians need to confront these issues of quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility rather than leave them to the technologists, legislators, and media companies, or even just to our colleagues in libraries and archives.” (Page 13, of Digital History)  In addition, “open sources” should be the rallying cry for historians rather than cede this to for profit corporations who will control access.

I do agree with Cohen and Rosenzweig fully; I did have initial reservations about the argument first presented by Dan Cohen about why professors should start blogging.  It is not that one should discourage amateurs, the problem remains how to ensure that historians’ websites have the credibility they deserve.  The amateurs of popular history are the ones that formerly had limited representation on the bookstore shelf; they also have passionate commentaries and commitments to a historical topic.  However, as the authors point out, the problem with amateurs remains their selectivity, analysis, and quality of their work; quality refers to the content of the work not the design the page. It is the interpretation of many websites by amateurs that rehashes old prejudices and old conspiratorial theories that have long been proved incorrect.  One of the best examples is the old myth that “FDR knew that Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed and let it happen.”  An astounding charge.  These historians look at dispatches and communications from the point of view of hindsight.  They already know what happened.  Instead, on must look at how the materials were interpreted before the event happened.  The answer was plain.  The US did know about Japanese activities in the Pacific in the winter of 1941.  FDR and his advisors suspected that a major event may occur, but what they were expecting was an attack on Singapore because the US had stopped selling high octane gasoline and oil products to the Japanese and Singapore, a British possession, was a major oil producer in Southeast Asia.  These same amateurs look at possible radio communications reported by civilians who claimed they heard the Japanese Fleet.  Upon further reflection, on finds that many of these civilians “did not say that the communications were Japanese”.  They were merely strange or on an unfamiliar channel.  In addition, the Japanese fleet observed radio silence for most of their trip so chances are that what was being heard was a very good communication from Asia on a good night.  Yet, the argument still circulates and has new light due to the conspiracy theorists on the internet.  Historians now have to compete with these very professional websites and dispel their ridiculous arguments

Hence, Cohen and Rosenzweig have offered an answer to the question posed to professors, Why blog?  If one reads their article before reading their Book, the answer is not obvious. The article provided no incentive for one to really embrace the different aspects of blogging and its purpose, or lack thereof.  For many, it offered no real answer other than a new jazzy way of presenting history along with the traditional method.  Now, in Digital History, they have caught my attention and hopefully my colleagues.  Action is always the best method.  Yet, historians are not always prone to action, we are observers and interpreters.  But, in this new era of digital history, one can firmly state that historians MUST embrace the internet, because if they do not we are leaving historical interpretation to those who will continue to present history as conspiracy and political intrigue.  Acknowledging that there is a component of history that has those elements, their remains the rest of history, 99%, that does not have those elements.  Therefore, Historians cannot ignore this medium because doing so relinquishes history to the hacks and amateurs, no matter how well intended they are.

Some Links for historians to start

Center for History and New Medial

American Social History Project

History News Network Blogs

American Memory Archives at the Library of Congress

Marxists Internet Archive

Colonial Latin America

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