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.

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Analog/Digital/Death/Rebirth

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.