historian, author, film producer

Tag: digital history (page 1 of 1)

Valley of the Shadow Project retrospective on the Civil War

Last week at the American Historical Association meeting, my friends and colleagues from the Valley of the Shadow Project met for a panel discussion on the state of the field of digital history and a retrospective of the Valley’s Civil War project after 20 years. The gathering was a wonderful experience and the discussion exciting and interesting. One participant, a librarian at the Library of Congress, said about the Valley Project that “there may not be anything like it again.” I agree. The panel included: Edward L. Ayers, Anne S. Rubin, Amy Murrell Taylor, Andrew Torget, Scott Nesbit, and me.

Here are some of the highlights of that discussion. Amy Murrell Taylor’s advice to historians, “Think Big! the Valley taught me to to think big.” Marvelous and so true. She talked about how the project emphasized “connections” among individuals that we could not see otherwise and that are difficult to see, those of families and relationships among families. As Amy explained, in the project the life of the individual in history became more visible; despite the complexity of history and the scale of the Civil War, the Valley project approach managed to create an environment in which the individual always emerged somehow for its readers. She talked about we can see these individuals in multiple dimensions and “rebuild” or “reconstitute” their lives and experiences. This is powerful history, full of complexity, agency, and contingency not easily pulled off in narrative form.

Ed Ayers talked about how the “logic of the architecture” of the Valley project was “tied to the animating idea behind the project.” This in many ways made the Valley project look and behave like an “App.” It was, and is, self-contained, yet it draws its readers in because its design so neatly fits its animating idea.

Andrew Torget explained that when he came on as project manager, the Valley project was an “enterprise” with teams of students and historians working on different aspects of the project. To him the central lesson of the Valley project experience was that it demonstrated the “power of collaboration.” Students working with faculty and technologists and librarians created an intense and powerful model of scholarship in action. Dozens and dozens worked on the project over the years, with care, purpose, and dedication both remarkable and inspiring.

Scott Nesbit described how the Valley taught him “the virtue of openness” and at the same time “the virtue of parasitism.” Here, he explained how the Valley shared and freely disseminated its work and how it also borrowed heavily on technologies and data in the open source environment. Anne Rubin noted that the Valley taught her the value of audience, of opening history to a wider audience and how important it is for historians to connect with, understand, and talk to the public broadly. Again and again, these lessons shape our work in digital history.

Valley of the Shadow team reunion

Valley of the Shadow project reunion, January 7, 2012, Chicago.

On Open History

For the last fifteen years we have been building digital history projects, web sites, and archives, and as we take stock we can see that the change has been momentous in the practice of history. Back in the 1990s we talked about the digital movement as “democratizing history” and that idea still resonates and excites. The early Valley of the Shadow project aimed to open up history by providing access to sources and including more people in our story of the past. The work at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media continues to inspire as it brings citizens into the making of history on a range of projects.

We still need to find more ways to open history. The digital technologies allow us to do this now more than ever, of course, but it remains unclear just how far historians will move in this direction. At the University of Nebraska our (HIST 970) graduate students in the digital history seminar have been forging ahead this term exploring how they can use digital tools either to explore the past in new ways or to represent the past in new forms. Their digital narratives integrate sources and analysis, and weave historiography, evidence, and data together. Their work inspires me that we will see younger scholars use digital tools in ways we could not have predicted a few years ago.

The idea of open history, however alluring, is not easy to achieve in our current mix of proprietary and public domain sources. We need only to consider what has happened to scholarly practice in an environment now dominated by Google Books.

The Google project has certainly enabled the discovery of new data, information, and links in the past. As an example, let us look into a little-known, but nonetheless important, Supreme Court case in 1873, Catherine or Kate Brown v. the Washington and Alexandria Railroad. Other than Kate Masur’s excellent 2010 book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., there are almost no monographs that cover this case. I am interested in the case because Brown was one of the first women to challenge segregation in the American South. She rode a railroad across the Potomac River in 1868 from D.C. to Virginia, and once in Alexandria, Virginia, she was forcibly thrown out of the white ladies car. What’s remarkable was that Brown’s experience was not unusual–thousands and thousands of African Americans began riding the railroads in the days, months, and years after emancipation. We have little sense of this movement, but Brown’s case included affidavits from black passengers, and we might use other sources to learn about how black freedmen and women moved, when, and under what conditions.

Using Google Books to search the lawyers names, we could quickly discover all sorts of information from obscure county and local historical society publications held by the various libraries in Google’s project–a sequence of research that would otherwise have been largely impossible just a few years ago. This sort of immediate and detailed access is unprecedented. The same is true for Ancestry.com (which libraries do not generally subscribe to). Searching across all individual census entries for the U.S. from 1790 to 1930, we could find the jurors in the case, where they lived in city directories, their occupations, their family relationships. This work takes about 1 hour. Both of these ventures–Google and Ancestry–have problems in metadata encoding, scanning quality, and data interpolation. But taken as they are now, they and the other large data aggregation projects that digital libraries are undertaking have led to a “revolution” in how we do scholarship.

The recently issued Council on Library Information Research (CLIR) report on “The Idea of Order” cautioned that monographic literature represents only one type of text scholars analyze: “Humanities scholars will increasingly want to do much more with text than use it simply as an alternate format to print. They will want to mine and recombine it, which is not possible with the current products of mass-digitization projects. Indeed, future reading will be done in part by machines in such a vast repository of information.” Robert Darnton in calling recently for a National Digital Library project is responding to these concerns. Clearly, scholars need access to “big data” texts for research, but we are a long way from having reliable, open-source, rights-free, and richly encoded texts.

So, how can we open history? First, we need more than ever to continue to build digital projects with integrated tools, and create open access archives of historical texts, sounds, maps, videos, and images. The American Council of Learned Societies report, “Our Cultural Commonwealth,” correctly pointed out that humanities scholars will have to build the tools they need, no one else will. We can create works that allow others–readers, scholars, colleagues, students–to examine the sources and “run the data” again. Perhaps to add materials and engage with history through associations that they build into our interpretation and materials.

Second, we need to open our projects to experts in a wide variety of fields who can contribute data. In the field of railroad or Civil War history, these individuals and groups are obvious and expert. Genealogists helped us with entering thousands of individual census records for the Valley project. But there are other experts equally well-positioned to support and work with scholars. Just take a look at the “Confederate Railroads” site by Dave Bright is an example of this work by non-academic experts–it is fabulously comprehensive and detailed, but it is also an example of a supremely herculean effort in the archives that might be difficult to preserve and access as technologies change.

Open history should also come with different pedagogy for history. Here, we could turn to ways to democratize the learning process in our college classrooms. There is much to be done in this area, but we might give our students a chance to create their history and take an active role in its interpretation.

Place History: A conversation with Phil Ethington and Eric Sanderson

On March 10th and 11th, Philip Ethington (Hypercities) and Eric Sanderston (Mannahatta Project) visited the University of Nebraska, guests of the Plains Humanities Alliance and the Department of History.

Sanderson explained the remarkable and detailed mapping of Manhattan by the British, and the ecological and geological structures underlying the city. He argues that these forms and forces continue to have meaning and relevance in our lives, even if they remain distinctly out of sight. Sanderson has undertaken a massive project to map the layers of Manhattan’s ecology and infrastructure successively through four centuries. He’s been featured at TED, in The New Yorker, and in National Geographic. And the project is indeed exciting, especially the idea of reconstructing the rivers and islands of the region in 1609 as Henry Hudson would have encountered them.

But it is his long duration outlook that I find most appealing. A 400-year history of a region, a river, a place, and all that it contains.

Ethington, for his part, has undertaken a 12,000 year digital history of Los Angeles and does so by describing the way people have “inscribed” their beliefs, institutions, technologies, and ideas on the landscape. Ethington’s “deep historical regionalism” emphasizes the continuing influence of past “inscriptions” in the land, leading him to term his brand of urban history, a “ghost metropolis.” Both Ethington and Sanderson suggest the many ways that spaces places have, create, and perpetuate meaning, the many cracks and crevasses where places hold history. If want to know about the past, we should look at the ground beneath our feet.

First History Harvest Held–railroad materials gathered and digitized

On May 15, 2010 dozens of railroad history fans gathered at NET in Lincoln, Nebraska, to share their unique materials. Old maps, letters, photographs, and diaries were digitized at the event and will soon be up on Railroads and the Making of Modern America. For a radio broadcast of the event, go to NET Radio.

The History Harvest is

a joint project of



the University of Nebraska Department of History

The History Harvest seeks to create a popular and engaging movement to democratize and open the people’s and the nation’s history by allowing people to contribute their letters, photographs, objects, and stories for general educational use and study. This shared experience of giving will be at the heart of the History Harvest programming and movement: we seek nothing less than a public bestowal of our own history. In a time of increased privatization and commercialization of the sources necessary to do history, our project will raise visibility and public conversation about history and its meaning, as well as provide a new foundation of publicly available material for historical study.

In this way the History Harvest seeks to recover a public engagement with the past, much as did the New Deal did with the WPA history and writers programs. That public effort created the sources for a whole generation of scholars and teachers–from audio recordings of ex-slaves to photographs of migrant workers in the Dust Bowl. Our effort is public history with a similar spirit, making invisible archives and stories more visible, bringing them into the public realm for all to use, hear, and see.

The “harvest” of historical documents, sources, and materials will reveal large sets of important historical material that are currently buried in archives, attics, and basements. Both individuals and institutions can participate in this effort. A museum may wish to offer rarely seen items in its collection, or ones that often attract the most attention locally; a community history society may offer its materials; an individual or family may present their family letters or objects.

The History Harvest initially will take place in a series of communities across the Great Plains region and then the nation. Building interest and enthusiasm for the project through advertising and public awareness, we will run a major event in each community we select for the History Harvest program.

Because the History Harvest centers on the idea of asking the public to contribute to our understanding of the past, these community events would be celebratory and community building. Each would aim to explore our common heritage but recognize the real consequences of history for today. Some communities, especially native ones but also those of African Americans and immigrants, have had their histories expropriated and this program will seek to encourage dialog and preservation without appropriating the past or its material objects. The History Harvest will focus on the nature of the historical artifact and the stories that we tell from it. Much of what historians use in their scholarship comes from government or elite sources, but this program will seek to make other sources, especially family and local ones, more visible and accessible.

Individuals will be able to bring in their history, allow us to digitize it and make it available in digital form, and participate in a conversation about what these histories mean. The event will feature scanning and filming tables for print, art, and 3-dimensional objects, and the opportunity to follow up with on-site visits at other locations. We can imagine someone coming to the harvest with a homestead family letter collection, or a set of diaries from the first black principal of a school at the turn of the century, or a set of church records, or a Civil War uniform, or a railroad timetable.

Nearly every major digital history project underway at research universities has experienced the interest, generosity, and enthusiasm of the public. For the Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia, one of the first such endeavors, local community supporters sent the project in 1997 a series of original Civil War soldier’s letters as a gift. In 2001 local African American researchers contributed to another University of Virginia project on Race and Place, a digital history of Charlottesville, Virginia in the era of segregation. Construction workers, who had read press releases about the project, subsequently found hundreds of letters in house they were about to demolish–letters and correspondence over twenty years from the first black principal in the county in 1895 and his family through World War I. At the University of Nebraska anonymous supporters have sent the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities hundreds of railroad timetables to be digitized and contributed to a digital history project on the subject–Railroads and the Making of Modern America. And letters about Willa Cather, Lewis and Clark, and Walt Whitman, come in infrequently but steadily to these projects. The public will to participate in history, to contribute and engage, remains strong, and the History Harvest will support, encourage, and channel that energy for future research and teaching.

Beginning in Nebraska, our program will take advantage of the remarkably diverse communities in the state, the reach and audience for NET, the excellent graduate history program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the deep public interest in history across the state. Nebraska Studies, one of NET’s leading digital resources, offers a platform for expanding and developing the program. Numerous local history centers and libraries can be found across Nebraska. The state includes rich and diverse history of immigration, settlement, railroading, Native history, literature, and politics. From William Jennings Bryan to Gerald Ford, from Willa Cather to Aaron Douglas, from Standing Bear to Malcolm X, Nebraska’s stories and histories remain vastly important to the nation’s experience. But broader social histories of local communities and their people will only grow more important to preserve and understand.