Digital History

Super-Aggregators as Digital History Tool

Much has been written about the usefulness of digitisation for history research and humanities research more generally.  It has been noted that the nature of history research means that history researchers use digital tools in different ways than other humanities scholars.  In their survey of 213 North American and Western European historians, Gibbs and Owens (2012) outline results that suggest that the primary use of digital tools by historians is to speed up traditional research methodologies.  They write that where digitised primary and secondary sources are concerned, historians tend to value quantity over quality: “In contrast to other disciplines like philology or textual criticism, where exact transcription is crucial, historians frequently preferred resources that offer large quantities of materials with even a crude full-text component. This sentiment likely reflects their primary use of technology, namely that finding references and information is a much higher priority than using tools to analyze primary sources” (ibid).  In 2007, the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project at Northern Illinois University Libraries was lauded for being unlike any existing historically oriented digitisation project, in that its website also included a number of multimedia and interpretive materials (VandeCreek 2007).  Most discussion on such projects concentrates almost exclusively on the question of access and how such access has led to the democratisation of history research. Super aggregators such as Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) would seem then to be a natural progression from digitisation projects that were organised around one research question or subject.  Such aggregators are by their nature hugely accessible and represent a further step in the democratisation of access to cultural heritage objects, but here I want to discuss their usefulness as a tool for historians.

The so-called super aggregators represent a new development in online digital resources and in particular of open shared resources.  Europeana was the first of such projects, describing itself as a cross border, cross domain, single access point for digitised cultural heritage materials provided by various European libraries, museums, archives, galleries, audiovisual collections and other memory institutions.  Similarly, the DPLA, serves as “the central link in an expanding network of cultural institutions that want to make their holdings more visible to the public” (Howard 2013).  According to its founder, Dan Cohen, the DPLA is not concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage objects but rather with being a connector or aggregator of digital and digitised cultural heritage content.  Both Europeana and the DPLA provide access to millions of objects from thousands of content providers.  Both have standardised the metadata provided by contributing institutions and provide basic search and browse functions.  Searchers are given access to a preview of the object with accompanying metadata provided by the content provider.  This immediately begs the question of how such aggregators are more useful than search engines such as Google.  Maxwell (2010) is sceptical about the usefulness of digital archives when compared with a search engine such as Google Books.  He suggests as assessment criteria, the number of hits for a given search, and the ease of access, which he measures in page loads and mouse clicks.  He uses a search for “Fichte” to compare Google Books to Europeana, and finds Europeana wanting.  His conclusions are based on what he believes to be Europeana’s inefficient and inaccurate interface and more significantly on the unavailability of full text search.  The reference to Europeana as an archive is to misunderstand its primary function, and I would also suggest that this comparison is not useful as it attempts to equate what are essentially two different tools.  However, his criticism of Europeana’s interface has some merit, as it is somewhat ungainly and not as intuitive as it could be; it is certainly not as intuitive as the DPLA’s interface, in fact, is.

Both Europeana and the DPLA have built an open API which they hope will encourage the independent development of applications, tools, and resources that make use of the data contained in both platforms.  The DPLA website lists completed and proposed projects based on their API, which is designed to be extensible in order to cater for the varying degrees of technical sophistication of the DPLA’s audience.  Stephanie Lampkin, a community rep for the DPLA, also explains that there are four interfaces – exhibitions, bookshelf, map, and timeline – which could be useful for research.  She suggests that the Map can be used as an excellent visualisation tool to pinpoint exactly where resources are available.  Gibbs and Owens (2010) found that the respondents in their survey were mostly interested in the availability of as many resources as possible.  They were concerned about gated access but had little interest in other tools that might help them make use of the objects they were accessing in novel ways.  In an interview with John Palfrey (2013), Dan Cohen suggested that one of the benefits of the DPLA for academic libraries was that it can be used to suggest research materials and collections beyond a home institution, to create virtual exhibits from federated sites which would serve to enhance the scholarship of students and faculty.  Aggregators use their metadata to point searchers to records relevant to their searches.  This has the effect of increasing the visibility of small and potentially unknown archives and collections.  According to Gibbs and Owens this access to a large quantity and variety of resources is typically what historians require from a digital tool.  Perhaps this is a symptom of a general reluctance to embrace digital tools among historians, however as things stand, such super aggregators perform an important and desired function, one which could not easily be substituted with a search engine, no matter how sophisticated.  Access to such a large amount of content from different cultural domains not only provides historians with access to a large quantity of both searched for and unknown digital collections, it also, by providing such access, has the potential to open up new research questions.

Bibliography

  1. DPLA. Digital Public Library of America. 2014. Web. 26 November 2014.
  2. DPLA. Meet our Community Reps: Using DPLA as a Research and Teaching Tool. June 17 2014.  Web. 28 November 2014.
  3. Europeana.eu. Europeana. 2014. Web.  20 November 2014.
  4. Gibbs, F. and Owens, T. “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward Broader Audiences and User-centered Designs.Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2 (2012). Web. 29 November 2014.
  5. Howard, J. “Digital Public Library of America: Young but Well Connected.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 60.1 (2013). 28 November 2014.
  6. Palfrey, J. “What is the DPLA?Library Journal. 7 (2013).  Web.  28 November 2014.
  7. Maxwell, A. “Digital Archives and History Research: Feedback from an End-user.Library Review.  1 (2010).  Web.  20 November 2014.
  8. VandeCreek, D. “‘Webs of Significance’: The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, New Technology, and the Democratization of History.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 1.1 (2007) Web. 28 November 2014.

Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge

Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge (LAPUHK), described by its author as a “multimedia essay” was published in web form in 2000 to accompany the December 2000 issue of The American Historical Review.  The website, the outcome of a six-year project by Philip J Ethington, Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Southern California, is comprised of a combination of visual media accompanied by a rather dense essay on the problem of urban historical knowledge.  The most basic purpose of LAPUHK is to give readers an opportunity to explore LA both in overview and in close detail, through a variety of images, maps, and quantitative data visualised on animated maps and graphs.  Ethington describes his attempt to map, in both the literal and figurative sense, the vast metropolis of Los Angeles, and by extension to anticipate the move to a more productive stage of comparative urban scholarship.  The overriding objective of the project is to answer the question of how the historian can make sense of something as historically mutable as a vast metropolis.

The site is notable for the relative quaintness of its design and presentation. Visually, it is both unsophisticated and unappealing.  The home page is a black background, with the text and main image covering less than half of the screen.  It is laid out like the title page of a book, with the author’s name, the title of the publication, and publishing details all displayed at the top of the page, above a series of sequential photographs that one has to scroll down to see in its entirety.

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There are other design issues which point to the site’s experimental genesis.  Clicking on the sequence of images on the home page doesn’t lead to a zoomed in version of the image, as one would now expect, but rather to the preface of the essay.  The white font against a back background is difficult to read and the underlining of hyperlinks is both inconsistent and more obtrusive than we are used to, 14 years later. But these criticisms serve no purpose given the age of the website, and so it is unnecessary to discuss them further.  What is, however, remarkable about the site is that despite its author’s avowal otherwise, it appears that the website functions primarily as a repository for his essay.  This essay, and indeed the website as a whole, are suffused with the language of the book.  The preface to the essay is linked to from the homepage and it is possible to download and print the entire textual contents of the site. This printed version is 29 pages long and begins with a table of contents that lists the various elements (or chapters) of the site.  In explaining how to read the website, Ethington suggests the analogy of the newspaper as a way of navigating the hypertextual structure of the site.  This direction to the reader is indicative of, firstly, the novelty of the medium, and, secondly, of what Hitchcock (2011) has called the “fascist authority” of the book format; he writes that, “In the last couple of decades, historians who are unduly fascinated by books have restricted themselves to asking only the kind of questions books can answer.”  LAPUHK represented an important step towards a new methodology, one which prepared the way for new questions and new ways of answering them.  Seefeldt and Thomas (2009 3) credit the project with establishing a different model of historical scholarship, “one that had an ambitious goal to both democratize the past and attempt alternative historical, theoretical and methodological approaches.”  The project exemplified some of the difficulties of performing urban history, in particular those presented by the obstacles of scale, complexity, historical erasure, and postmodern scepticism.  The success of the project therefore must not be judged on the achievements of the site but, rather, on the project’s situation within a new methodological impulse.

According to Cohen and Rosenzweig (2014), “doing digital history well entails being aware of the technology’s advantages and disadvantages and how to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.”  It is apparent from the layout of the site that Ethington was unaware of how to accomplish this.  The ergodic nature of the website form is not counterbalanced by an intuitive layout which would have reduced the effort required on the part of the reader.  The site is not easy to read but the application of manipulative technology to photographs of Los Angeles did achieve some interesting results.  Photos that have been manipulated to create the impression of a panoramic viewpoint provide a new perspective of the Los Angeles of past and present.  These photos represent one of the ways in which digital history projects are capable of changing historical knowledge production.

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However, there are other issues with the site that highlight Ethington’s failure to anticipate how changes in technology would impact upon the project.  Indeed, it is evident that little, if any, provision was made to guarantee its longer-term sustainability.  But given the inchoate nature of the project’s form, Ethington can hardly be held responsible for this lack of foresight.  The essay, photographs, maps, and visualised data are still available but the file format of the videos is not supported by current browsers and so can no longer be viewed online.  Cohen and Rosenzweig (ibid) have warned that, “When you move your history online, you are entering a less structured and controlled environment than the history monograph.”  This warning brings me to my only criticism for which Ethington can be reasonably held responsible, and that is to do with the accuracy of the data he provides. The Tour of Global Cities page lists some of the world’s most populous cities, with a population figure and a “Y” or “N” to indicate whether or not they are a capital city.  In a footnote that is hyperlinked to, Ethington explains the difficulty in obtaining accurate population statistics.  In Ethington’s bibliographic essay, he explains that it is “written in the spirit of an introduction for the neophytes” (Ethington 2000), and I would question then whether this inconsistency and lack of visibility of the footnote explaining these population figures would have arisen if Ethington had published these statistics in traditional print form. Despite this, LAPUHK was remarkable because it represented a significant development in digital history and was an important stepping stone towards the necessary hybridity that Zaagsma (2013 47) refers to as “the new normal”.

Bibliography

  1. Cohen, Daniel J., and Rosenzweig, Roy.Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Web. https://www.library.cornell.edu/research/citation/mla Accessed 10 Oct. 2014
  2. Ethington, Philip, J. “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge”.   2000. http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/history/historylab/LAPUHK/index.html Accessed 6 Oct. 2014
  3. Hitchcock, Tim.“Academic History Writing and Its Disconnects.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1 (2011). Web. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/academic-history-writing-and-its-disconnects-by-tim-hitchcock/ Accessed 10 Oct. 2014.
  4. Seefeldt, Douglas, and Thomas, William G. “What Is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects”.University of Nebraska-Lincoln: 2009. Web. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1097&context=historyfacpub Accessed 9 Oct. 2014.
  5. Zaagsma, Gerben.“On Digital History.” BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 4 (2013): 3–29. Web. http://www.bmgn-lchr.nl/index.php/bmgn/article/view/9344 Accessed 12 Oct. 2014

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