High-hanging Fruit

Accessing digital resources is arguably the biggest problem facing historians today. This issue is multifaceted and works against us on multiple levels. Though the most broad problem is lack of access to computers and or service providers due to geographic location or poverty, my main focus on this issue will be the hurdles facing researchers- predominantly in the first world. These issues include: translating documents in foreign languages, accessing resources in foreign countries, retrieving and digitizing resources from antiquated formats, and circumventing prohibitive costs (a factor that applies to all these issues).



Google Translate has improved immensely in recent times and has proven to be an extremely accessible and useful tool. Above is a screenshot of Google Translate at work. The text was ripped from an Argentinian news source, and as a non-Spanish speaker, this tool allows me to access foreign news. This could be used for foreign textbooks, letters, e-mails, photograph captions, etc. Problems with Google Translate:
Though this tool is incredibly useful, some documents do not translate as well. Poems and song lyrics, whose meanings are much better understood with precision, are at times lost in translation. However, for simply getting the gist of how an event played out, then Google Translate will be acceptable.



Translating isn’t the only way Google is helping researchers. What may be one of the greatest boons to students, educators, and researchers alike in the past few years has been Google’s efforts towards digitizing as many books as they can. Books in the public domain, or books whose author has permitted full access can be viewed in their entirety. However, authors who don’t give full access usually offer previews of about 20% of their book’s total content. Google Books offers suggestions on where to buy or borrow a book, and any book can be viewed in plain-text which aids those who are visually impaired1. Books that are not in the public domain, have unclear copyright status, or whose author does not have a deal with Google Books are viewable in “snippets”. When used in conjunction with a search engine, the snippets are searched using key words or phrases that limit a researcher’s use to only what they need. This snippet aspect of Google Books has generated considerable controversy. Many authors have argued that Google Books Library project goes beyond the realm of fair use and limits creative rights. After over eight years of legal proceedings, Judge Denny Chin has dismissed the lawsuit against Google Books. The esteemed Judge even went on to advocate the project saying: “In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits,”it advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders.”2

1Google, “Google Books Settlement Agreement with Authors and Publishers”, Youtube video, 5:03, June 23, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J16juV1acCI
2Albanese, Andrew. “Google Wins.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/60006-google-wins-court-issues-a-ringing-endorsement-of-google-books.html


Professor Rwany Sibaja received his Pd. D. in History from George Mason University. His research is centered on 20th century Argentine cultural with an emphasis on athletics. Professor Sibaja’s utilization of digital tools largely characterize his approach on teaching. The focus of his current research is on the effects of soccer on society in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Marshal Golden: What kind of projects have you worked on that required sources from foreign countries?

Prof. Rwany Sibaja: The major project has been my book manuscript which stemmed from my dissertation. The types of sources when I arrived to Argentina I knew that I’d be working with…newspapers, that I would be working with sports magazines and that I would try to be working with the official records from both the Argentine Soccer Federation as well as from some of the major club teams in the country. What I found was I had no problem accessing those except for the newspapers…because the microfilm is in poor quality. The machines are in even worse quality. It made it extremely hard to read. Thankfully I had already done quite a bit of newspaper research at the U.S. Library of Congress. Their machines there are fantastic, because you can actually put the SD card inside the machine, and then with the remote control- it’s like a T.V. remote. You can just scan, zoom in, and then click. And then it takes a picture and it saves that image straight to your SD card. So I could just sit there and just go through maybe eighteen reels in about three hours. So that’s really nice. But in Argentina it was really poor…

MG: So even a country like Argentina- a little more economically developed in it’s region, in comparison to not just digital…accessing digital resources, but tangible primary documents their storage and the way that they preserve their documents was not as good as the United States.

RS: …digitization…they’re way behind. There’s just no money for it, or the manpower to do it. So, that’s a work in progress…but, as far as the actual saving of materials. Boxing them up. Categorizing them in a certain way…it’s actually pretty good…You would have to know what you’re looking for, you would have to look for a particular person, a particular team, or a particular event. Pull out the catalog, see which ones, order the envelopes. You would have to wait there, then they come out- you gotta put some plastic gloves on- they’re really hot…make your hands sweat. You have to deal with them, you have to write down tons of information. At the end of the day turn that slip in. And if you wanted them like, put on a CD, then you would actually have to take a CD, take some money, and then you have to come back like a week later and maybe they’re ready. So that’s what I’m talking about in terms of…bureaucracy and hoops to go through, but they have done a good job of preserving material, it’s just that they haven’t organized it. A lot of time they don’t even know where to find it. “Well we know it’s somewhere here”…and then they’ll just say, “well we couldn’t find it.” But they know it’s there. And so you have to go back several times, until somebody actually knows where to find it.

MG: So you definitely had to travel…it most cases you had to go to the country to access these resources.

RS: For my topic yes…now, once I got to Argentina I didn’t have to travel; everything’s in Buenos Aires- the capitol. Could I have done some research at regional libraries or universities in cities four, five, six hours away? Probably, but the media is all centered out of Buenos Aires…so it just made it easier to not have to travel when I was there.

MG: So that’s one of the benefit…you can go to the forward city, or the capitol and access probably the best collections from that.

RS: True. But it also means that I’m working with a limited amount of sources. So I have to be up front about that. A country like Costa Rica…it’s different, because everything is actually is in San Jose. There’s very little very that’s going to be outside the capitol city…it’s a smaller country.

*Interview is truncated. Refer to sound file for full interview.


One of the benefits of retrieving data from outdated technology is that there is a cult following of techies who are willingly offering their assistance to other “digital archaeologists”. An advantage to accessing data from older technology is that in many cases the tech has drastically reduced in price. As can be seen from the image below, USB drives capable of reading floppy disks are about $20.

floppyPROBLEMS: Although many older forms of technology become cheaper, some that are more rare become more expensive and harder to adapt to newer technology. In many cases, disks could only be read one side at a time. Such disks would require a manual flipping, but ” when you flip the disk over, the hole is on the opposite side and the drive can no longer position itself. There are several mechanical hacks (involving wire cutting and soldering things to your drive) that allow modern drives to read these ‘flippy’ disks, but no really elegant solution has yet emerged.”1

1Reside, Doug. “Digital Archaeology.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/07/23/digital-archaeology-recovering-your-digital-history


One of the major contributors to digital history are major universities or institutions offering open archives. Such groups are those like the American Memory Project, or the University of Michigan’s Making of America. Additionally, the Library of Congress has been quick to adapt to the trend of digitization, offering countless documents in the form of digitized books, maps, notated music, and even 3-D objects.

However, some of the largest publications require subscription access. Newspaper articles have fallen under similar circumstances as historians, and are noticing a shift towards free access articles becoming more prevalent in use among journalists and researchers alike.1

1Weber, Benjamin. “Digital Databases | HASTAC.” Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.hastac.org/blogs/bendavidweber/2012/11/18/digital-databases


From my research, the main conclusion I can come to is that sometimes the best sources of history are the hardest to find. Whether they are in a foreign language, badly damaged, written with sloppy penmanship, stored on difficultly outdated technology, are non-digital and in a foreign country, or simply are too expensive to afford. Historians who reach for “high-hanging fruit” should be highly rewarded for their efforts, as this fruit takes great effort to pick.


Albanese, Andrew. “Google Wins.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/60006-google-wins-court-issues-a-ringing-endorsement-of-google-books.html

Google, “Google Books Settlement Agreement with Authors and Publishers”, Youtube video, 5:03, June 23, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J16juV1acCI

Reside, Doug. “Digital Archaeology.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/07/23/digital-archaeology-recovering-your-digital-history

Weber, Benjamin. “Digital Databases | HASTAC.” Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.hastac.org/blogs/bendavidweber/2012/11/18/digital-databases


Set Them Loose!

Teaching History in the Digital Age, by T. Mills Kelly, engages how teaching and learning have been changed by digital media. The internet itself has changed rapidly from 2000 to 2014 as more content becomes produced by viewers of a medium, which has initiated a new outlet for creativity. Mills argues that it is to a student’s benefit to open them to digital content creation, and that it commonly produces surprising results.

One of the most debated aspects of teaching history has been content knowledge. Namely: what events are important enough for students to learn? The view of teaching history as a factual body of information is the prevailing approach. Basically, historians choose which facts are important, the students learn the facts, and then we can draw conclusions about what can come in the present. However, memorization is not enough to draw conclusions. Students must learn to “think historically”. This line of thinking requires scrutiny of a source (whether it’s secondary or primary, who created the source, etc.), the ability to create original thoughts based off of evidence, and the ability to triangulate sources.

In the digital age, historical sources are widely abundant. Students often draw from sources unknown to teachers, and teachers are no longer forced to make students draw from a shallow pool of information they assign. With the help of a search engine, students can find ten sources in the time it might take to find one by traditional analog procedures. The question then arises: with so many sources, how do you connect them? With the addition of data-mining software help link names, locations, and dates together in a way that could never have been done before. This triangulation took much effort in the analog age and is creating new discussions about history that were not previously postulated.

In this modern era, the writing style of historians has shifted from narrative to analytical. Historians still enjoy a good “story”, however, students and historians of the digital age are expected to analyze and extrapolate information into much more grand historical context than before. The connection of writing and history creates an interesting effect. The process of organization for the purpose of making our point clear to others forces historians to analyze their sources and data from a different perspective.

In closing, T. Mills Kelly states that he believes history will never disappear from school curriculum. Besides the scholarly value of understanding history, people are just too interested in events of the past. He believes the secret to keeping history alive and well given competition from STEM is to “turn students loose” while still maintaining baseline standards of tradition.


Collection of Objects vs. Ideas and Events

More often museums are asking for personal input on their experiences of an event or simply on their opinion of their exhibitions. Some outlets utilize a survey or request a phone number for an oral report. Others request that photographs and video be sent in. Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly note that Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig claimed “that collecting history through digital archives can be far cheaper, larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives.” Participatory history shows a unique experience that is lost when given a more broad scope. An example of how participatory history gives such greater detail can be seen when studying the Lodz Ghetto in WWII German-occupied Poland. When reading a personal testimonial from the diary of Dawid Sierakowiak a historian can learn how little food the Jews of Lodz were given, how they got their information about the war, and where they worked to fuel the German war machine. In keeping with the theme of the Lodz Ghetto, Sheila A. Brennan notes in “Getting to the Stuff…” that the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project of the Holocaust Museum has gone out to request information on potential survivors of this particular Ghetto. Since there were so few survivors and little information surrounding their fate, this type of crowd sourcing has worked to fill in the gaps in history.

Technology Enhancing Exhibitions

Dr. Meringolo notes in one of her blog posts how a tool called “ThingLink” can enhance an historical image. Tags can be placed, for instance, over an individual’s face. When a cursor scrolls over the tag, additional information information is shown. This makes a picture say far more than a thousand words. Additionally, Dr. Meringolo mentions “Map Warper”, a tool that overlays old maps with more recent ones. In a physical museum, if a tablet with these tools was presented alongside an object, a greater level of geographical and biographical context can be reached through interactivity.

Museums: a Marketplace For the Exchange of Ideas

What we begin to see with participatory history is the opening of a dialogue. The discussion is not just between the curator and the contributors. Contributors are being brought together and drawn into discussions about their common experiences, or the validity of other contributors information. This process not only improves quality, but builds a community that breathes new life into a project. Martha A. Sandweiss notes how metadata, especially when relating to photographs, is often “uneven” in quality. A solid community can improve metadata quality by citing a photographer or ameliorating copyright information. A dedicated community seems to be the most essential part of undergoing a digital history project. Once accomplished, the work seems to be done for you.

This Post Was Born Digital

Collecting history online offers many new possibilities to historians. Reaching a much more broad audience, saving documents that would otherwise vanish over time, and accessing documents that were not “born digital” are among a few benefits. When considering a category for an online history project it becomes clear that not every subject is suitable for the digital world. A topic in which most of the participants of the event already dead may lead to a lack of documents and testimonies. In addition, an event in which too few individuals participated will yield a lack of information as well. Though it may seem appropriate to avoid esoteric topics, there are at times “cult” followers of such obscure information, but it is still a gamble. From large projects to small projects, it’s always wise to find tools that cut corners for your research, storage, and display of your information. For displaying your media, a safe bet is instant messaging, or preferably e-mail as both were early forms of correspondence on the web that many are comfortable with. Attracting contributors is essential when you want to build a community around your project. Putting your best foot forward by placing your most intriguing content on the home page is a good way to attract people. Conversely, rotating your featured content on the home page works equally well by showing the diversity of your catalog. Of course, seeking out contributors on your own volition can yield positive results as well. Interaction is also important in building your community. Offering a web forum for contributors to discuss their documents and testimonies will give users a sense of unity and ways to connect with like-minded people. A final piece of advice is to always leave open the possibility of revision. If something isn’t working out, then change it. Alter your layout, the medium in which you display documents, the navigation process, etc.


Digitizing history offers many benefits. Increased accessibility, manipulability, and flexibility improve analog sources for teaching and personal use. The debate of cost typically favors digitizing, as maintenance for analog tend to weigh heavier in the cost department. In addition, durability of resources is increased by digitizing as digital media is not worn down by overuse. Some drawbacks include the cost of storage, the time it takes to store, and the lower quality of visual media. However, the matter of storage cost and the time storage takes have dropped significantly over just the past few years.

With so much of the analog world of history now put into digital formatting, historians are finding that more people are researching the past. Proving that this new accessibility appeals better to non-historians. Historians are also able to cut down on research time by word searching documents. This allows for very specific research to be done in which we may find out how many times authors and historical figures used certain words, from which we can draw conclusions about the underlying messages in their works.

There are several ways to digitize analog historical documents. For the most basic projects, such as one involving simple text documents, scanning is the easiest and most economical. However, as the project grows larger this method becomes problematic. In addition, older texts from which you make be making digital copies may not bend enough to fit into a flatbed scanner without damaging the book. Another option is OCR (optical character recognition), which is software that converts images of text into machine-readable text. Clearly, this would seem the most convenient approach, but this software does have limitations. Even with the best software only operates at 80 to 90 percent accuracy. A more tedious, but economic and accurate approach is to transcribe the document yourself with a word processor.

Some tips for starting a digital history project include looking to see what is already in the digital history community to build a schematic for your project. It’s important to further train yourself in disciplines that aid digitzing history. Workshops and seminars will undoubtedly help improve your final product. Creating a site as a “permanent beta” makes a large project feel less overwhelming. And incorporating open-source software instead of building something yourself may help you cut corners and save time.

Is It Protected?

Lawrence Lessig’s, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity tackles the concept of how the internet fundamentally changes culture. Humans once exchanged ideas largely through oral methods- street performing or storytelling, which were largely unregulated by the law. With the advent of the internet age, we see an emerging importance in the role the law plays in protecting the creative rights of innovators and artists. This protectionism serves to aid those from the past to maintain their intellectual rights and identity, while also aiding the future in not letting confining restraints limit progress. These laws largely protect businesses and corporations, as the internet has given many the ability to change the course of culture, creating threats to established institutions.

It is generally agreed upon that most artistic endeavors in modern times are recreations of older works. Walt Disney is mentioned in Lessig’s book as an example of how “rip, mix, and burn” creativity can be blatant and yet still highly celebrated as a creative method. Taking the best elements from classics and splicing them with some original elements and content evokes nostalgia and fondness while still appearing very unique in it’s own right. Early American comic books followed this approach as well, with authors borrowing moderately from their contemporaries to create. In Japan, a unique situation has emerged that shows just how different two cultures can be in the internet age. The co-existence of “manga”, Japanese comic books that chronicle not just superheroes, but all aspects of life and human experience, and “doujinshi” a copycat of a mainstream comic.These “copies” are regulated and require differences in production value and storyline, but are widely popular and accepted. The main reason these variants are allowed to exist is because they generate interest in the mainstream comic and create a mutually beneficial relationship. Many questions are raised by this instance. Is Japan a more free culture than America? By allowing contributors to riff off of mainstream ideas are the Japanese creating a more free society in relation to the masses? Or are they limiting the intellectual freedoms of the original creators and reducing the freedom of the culture?

The idea of property in accordance with creativity is the central issue that arises in copyright law. It is an intellectual ideal that “there are no second-class property owners”; that creative works, however intangible, hold the same value of ownership as more tangible and physical possessions. Lessig finds that our own constitution notes a marked difference between intellectual property and other possessions. When considering the “Taking Clause” of the Fifth Amendment, just compensation must be given for taking of any possessions (land, homes, etc.). However, after a predetermined time, intellectual property falls into the public domain in which no compensation is given. Arguing against this notion would be less a battle for creative rights than a movement for a change in our constitution. It is interesting that given how much more monetary protection the framers of the constitution placed on non-intellectual possessions, we see the possibility of more control and restraints over uses of intellectual property. This future, as Lessig calls it, is the future of “copyright code”, a world in which programmers, not lawyers, are at the front lines. The vehicle for this change would be software that limits the number of times you can access an article, restricts or negates copy and pasting of text, or word processors that auto-delete protected text as you type. Clearly, some may feel the need to exercise increased control of their work given the ability of the available technology, though it is arguable that those versed in programming could find ways around this. It may seem hostile for intellectuals to place restraints on knowledge and tools the world may desperately need. However, given that the work of an author, whose entire life’s accomplishments are expressed and stored in something so fragile as the careful combination of words, perhaps it’s best to be a little paranoid.

Digital Tool Review Final Draft: Audacity


Why Audacity?

Audacity is an open-source, cross-platform recording device that is free for download and applicable for multiple academic purposes. Though Audacity is the program I’m reviewing, I don’t recommend audacity over any other sound recording program. Below is an image of the Audacity interface, and below that is an image of the Garage Band interface:


Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 10.15.18 PM

If you look closely, you will notice that for all basic purposes these interfaces have the same capabilities. They can record, stop, pause, fast forward, rewind, manually edit by cutting and pasting, and can export files in multiple formats. Garage Band does come with many sound effects and filters built in, but for most academic purposes, these are unnecessary. In short, I champion Audacity not for it’s superior recording capabilities but for it’s accessibility.

Audacity for the educator

As a teacher, a sound recording device can serve multiple ends. The time it takes to arrange for guest speakers can be difficult given that many of these individuals may not be available during the hours a class is held. With such an accessible device, an educator could collect numerous interviews and save them for the future to apply to lecture at his or her convenience. In addition to the convenience of gathering guest speakers, a tech-savvy educator could introduce their students to alternative ways of reaching people with their views and information. An entire class could be taught via podcast, which is both fun, convenient, and fresh for students so used to conventional lecture.

Audacity for the student

Many students can attest to the difficulty of taking notes and retaining information simultaneously. With the help of a sound recording device a student can pay closer attention to the concepts their professor drives home and still have a free note-taker for review. In addition to this purpose, students can assist each other when they are unable to make it to class. Sending an mp3 file to a friend with an illness helps them get the most out of their unfortunate circumstances. Finally, in the case mentioned for the educator, a guest speaker who a student may only have access to for one day can be stored forever for future use.

Audacity for the researcher

What I would argue is the most useful purpose of Audacity (and all sound recording devices) is the oral history report. When doing research, gathering textbooks and primary sources can be an overwhelming task. However, the best primary source a researcher can utilize is person with first-hand experience in your topic. When writing a research paper the traditional way, a tremendous amount of original thought and wording is necessary for scholarly value. However, with the oral history report, the researcher must simply record and transcribe what was said. This process can be tedious, but the majority of the work is done verbally and requires far fewer in-text citations. Example; oral history report: