Friday, December 9, 2011

Long-term Preservation of Digital Objects

Historians producing digital objects in the course of their work may be unaware of the need to provide means for their long-term preservation. Although many of us have assumed that digital objects are eternal, they are in fact subject to degradation and decay like any other artifact.

Should digital objects stored on a single server, CD, or DVD succumb to the process of "bit rot" (, they may be effectively compromised or even lost. Damage to storage media like CDs and DVDs can also compromise or eradicate data, as can the catastrophic failure of a server, or even a single disk drive in an array.

In the case of materials digitized from analog formats, the only recourse would be to re-scan them. Born-digital objects could only be recreated in toto.

In addition, digital objects created and stored on specific media may one day become unusable. For example, I presently have in my desk drawer approximately ten or twelve 3 1/2" floppy disks containing notes for, and drafts of, my dissertation. I know of no computer on which I can open them.

Another, hypothetical, example concerns earlier materials that I created as an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s. These are of course long gone, but the point I am trying to make concerns the fact that I created them in a program called Word Perfect. If I had been prescient enough to migrate these files forward from the original 5 1/4" floppy disks into newer formats, I would still be hard-pressed to find a machine with a copy of Word Perfect, able to read twenty-five year old files, installed on it.

The task of digital preservation thus includes preventing the loss of digital objects due to bit rot or the failure of storage media; preventing them from becoming stranded on obsolete media; and preventing their loss in obsolete, proprietary software formats.

This month Northern Illinois University Libraries, where I work, began work on a project funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), investigating digital preservation options for medium-sized and smaller institutions. In submitting a request for support, my colleague Lynne Thomas (Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at NIU Libraries) noted that many large institutions, including flagship state universities and well-endowed private institutions, have implemented long-term digital preservation plans supported by significant technical infrastructure and ongoing expenditures. This presents a challenge for institutions like mine, where we have created approximately six terabytes of digital data, as much as many large institutions, but have yet to address their long-term preservation due to budgetary constraints.

In subsequent posts I will discuss additional aspects of digital preservation, as well as the challenges and (hopefully) solutions that emerge from our project work.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: Historical Marker Database App (for Android)

Roadside historical markers represent a significant source of historical information for many members of the general public, but their presentation format makes them uniquely difficult to use. I have been on many trips in which I passed historical markers, unable to pull off the road at that time, wishing I knew what they said. In other cases, I have read a historical marker, not realizing the significance of a particular piece of information that it presents until I noticed something else farther on along the road. At those points, I often wished that I could return to the original marker to re-read it, but was frustrated by the fact that it was then a great distance away. Most broadly, I am sure that there are a large number of historical markers containing information that I would find interesting, but I have simply not driven past them.

The Historical Marker Database App aims to solve these problems, and others related to the "marker" presentation format. Run by, a self-described "organization of self-directed volunteers," the project web site provides interested parties with an opportunity to add historical markers found along the road to a database of like resources. According to "A Note from the Publisher," the site especially caters to a community of individuals who make a practice of collecting and photographing historical markers the way that bird-watchers make note of birds they have seen. "If you're a collector," it continues, "consider uploading your discoveries to this site."

Since the amount of available information is quite large, I confined my attention to historical markers in my home state of Illinois. Most entries contain a photograph of the marker itself; a transcription of the text presented on it; a mention of the organization responsible for the marker's placement;  coordinates and a description of its physical location; and a list of other nearby markers. An interesting "Also See" section provides contributors with an opportunity to add additional materials, as seen in the case of "Owen Lovejoy Home" marker in Princeton, Illinois. In this instance, Bill Pfingsten of Bel Air, Maryland has taken the time to enter Owen Lovejoy's entry in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

This is a crucial feature, I think. Clearly, roadside historical markers made of iron or concrete can only present a limited amount of information. In addition to bringing these pieces of data together in a database, the HMdb provides a crucial opportunity to add to the markers' necessarily concise treatments of historical events and historically significant persons and places. In the case of the Cherry Mine Disaster of 1909 marker, located in Bureau County, Illinois (not far from the Lovejoy Home), one Tracey Ristau-MacLeod has contributed transcripts of contemporary newspapers accounts of the disaster, as well as images presented in these publications. For another entry for a marker discussing the "Potawatomi Trail of Death," near Homer in Champaign County,  Illinois, a contributor has provided transcriptions of contemporary eyewitness accounts of the unfortunate Potawatomi people's experiences. One account, that of the artist George Winter, is cited as having been published in Indians and a Changing Frontier: The Art of George Winter (Indianapolis: The Indiana Historical Society, 1993). This citation answered the first question that came to mind when reading the account:  how do I know that it is authentic? The contributor is to be commended for provided a citation. From a professional historian's point of view, it would be ideal to have a citation containing the pages of this book on which this account appeared. But another, more significant issue presents itself as well, that of intellectual property. The 1993 publication cited is still very much protected by copyright law, and I see no notice of permission sought from, or granted by, the Indiana Historical Society.

Although the HMdb is the product of a not-for-profit organization, the matter of copyright and permissions may represent a potential problem for the project, and its developers may want to look into it in greater detail. Incidentally, the transcription provided concludes with "(GWMSS 1-17 [38b])" which certainly appears to be itself a citation of the materials from a George Witmer manuscript collection. These materials, as original manuscripts, are, to my mind, not protected by copyright law, and hence can be used for the primary citation, thus solving this particular issue.

The HMdb web site provides users with a variety of means by which they might review the large number of historical markers submitted to the resource. Upon launching the application, it immediately sought to discern my geographic location, in order to present the marker closest to me. A lengthy table of themes and states, as well as countries, presented at the right side of the site, provides an opportunity to review specific sets of markers, and is absolutely necessary in the site's general usability. A link to a list of counties within individual states provides another, very helpful, layer of specificity for users. Finally, a search box presented at the upper right of the page provides an opportunity to identify markers containing specific words or strings of text.

I find the general concept of the HMdb to be sound and significant. I believe that historical markers are generally an underutilized resource due to the fact that, unlike published materials, they have only appeared in a single physical location, often quite geographically remote. As such, they do not allow individuals enjoying them to return to them for further reference (without returning to the marker's geographical location). Their  locations also often prevent users from relating the information provided on one marker to that furnished by another, due to the fact that the vast majority of users simply stumble upon markers by the side of the road.

The HMdb turns the materials presented on historical markers into a far more useful collection of historical data subject to a more thorough investigation. I would suggest that the volunteers who have done such a good job of building this resource consider the possibility of arranging the markers presented into specific tours, in which travelers might visit the actual, physical markers in a specific order, while also possibly visiting other relevant historic sites.

In addition to making the information originally presented on roadside plaques more widely available to web users, the HMdb presents an important opportunity to supplement and expand upon these necessarily terse summaries of historical events in far greater detail. The presentation of related primary source materials can do much to add to the historical learning of HMdb users. I would also encourage HMdb contributors to add links to interpretive/secondary materials as well. Since transcriptions of books protected by copyright are likely to lead to legal difficulties, it may be wise to concentrate on links to books already presented online by Google books (or like projects), as well as historically-oriented web sites aimed at a public audience. As time allows, I intend to contribute links to the web sites that we have developed at Northern Illinois University to the entries for relevant historical markers. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Review: "Cleveland Historical" App

Cleveland Historical, an app developed by the Center for Public Humanities and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University, provides a wealth of information describing and documenting a large number of historic sites in the Cleveland, Ohio area. In addition to short, original text materials describing the history and significance of selected locations, the application provides users with an opportunity to review period images (including photographs and prints); sound recordings (including excerpts from oral histories and scholars' commentaries); and, in some cases, video materials (such as newsreel footage).

Cleveland Historical presents such a large volume of materials that I was probably unable to view all of them in the course of preparing this review, but I can say that, based on my limited experience with the resources, they comprise a striking example of what the combination of digital technology, wireless technology, and the Internet can provide to members of the public interested in learning about the history of specific places.

The use of a Google maps platform, capable of using GPS technology to detect a users' exact location on the ground, suggests that Cleveland Historical is meant to be used by individuals and/or groups moving about the city. As such, it represents a do-it-yourself historical tour.

Rather than presenting cultural tourists with a discussion that they cannot revisit, as would be the case in a tour guided by a human being, the resource allows for repeated review of interpretive and primary materials. Unlike audio tours sometimes available for historic places and museums (I used one at the Gettysburg battlefield about fifteen years ago, and again at the Field Museum in Chicago last year), Cleveland Historical presents historical materials in a variety of media types. Most importantly, the arrangement of interpretive and primary sources for use on a hand-held device like a smart phone can allow users to learn about historic places at their own pace, in the order they prefer. It is my sense that individuals accustomed to living with digital and wireless technology increasingly expect this flexibility in every aspect of everyday life. Cleveland Historical puts historical learning into this format.

As someone who has struggled to build an online resource including these types of materials, I know that the integration of such a large volume of materials into a technical framework represents a truly staggering amount of work. The developers are to be commended for their efforts, as well as the quality of their product. My review of the resource found no non-functional links or other such problems.

Inspection of the application's primary source materials reveals that the project developers have secured permission to use images from, in addition to Cleveland State University Libraries Department of Special Collections, the collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society and other local organizations. Once again, the securing of such permissions represents a significant amount of work.

With all of its many virtues, Cleveland Historical does present a few problems for the user. First, the documentation presented for image materials, which popped-up onscreen as an image loaded, closed too quickly for me to read and review all of the data presented. This is a minor matter.

More significantly, the Google Maps platform is difficult to use for individuals interested in learning about the Cleveland area from a location somewhere other than the streets of Cleveland themselves.  As someone at least somewhat familiar with Cleveland (I attended college about forty miles from the city), but unable to travel there anytime in the near future, I enjoyed Cleveland Historical in this manner. I am familiar with and curious about a number of specific places in Cleveland, but was unable to locate them in any way other than a process of trial and error, clicking on push-pin symbols on that part of the map where I supposed a place might be.

Cleveland Historical is detailed enough to serve as an unofficial reference work on Cleveland history. As such, it deserves a user interface best suited to this function, rather than a GPS-only interface. An already outstanding project would be that much better if it provided a list (perhaps in alphabetical order or something like that) of all of the individual sites/locations discussed.

Finally, as I read dozens of descriptions of individual places in Cleveland, I found myself sensing a truly significant historical narrative within the entries themselves, a story of the decline of an industrial America rooted in manufacturing and union labor. Resources as luxuriously rich as Cleveland Historical present both public and academic historians with a rare new platform from which they can share their understandings of these themes with a variegated public audience. Realizing once again that Cleveland Historical is a very valuable resource just as it is, I believe that the project's interpretive materials could address this historical arc, as well as other major themes in American history. In lieu of this large task, which would have added significant new work to an already ambitious project, I conclude that a brief introduction, perhaps presented in text and audio formats, can acquaint such users as might be interested in a larger overview with major historical dynamics evident within Cleveland Historical's abundance of source materials.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Remote Upload of Materials to Southeast Asia Digital Library

In addition to the American history projects that I have described in this blog, Northern Illinois University Libraries host the Southeast Asia Digital Library ( This online resource, which was developed with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Title VI/TICFIA (Technological Innovation and Collaboration for Foreign Information) program, presents a variety of library materials from Southeast Asian nations in a searchable format.

Our project began in 2005, using TICFIA funds to digitize and present materials contributed by collaborating, contracted institutions in Southeast Asia. Our second request for funding, submitted in 2009, expanded on this approach. In addition to funds for the digitization of additional materials at Southeast Asian libraries, we requested support for the development of an application that would allow additional contributors, such as individual scholars and researchers, to send materials to us directly for possible inclusion in the Southeast Asia Digital Library (SEADL) repository and website. Upon receipt of a second round of TICFIA funding, this initiative became a part of our larger conversion of the SEADL web site from a custom-built LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) architecture to a platform using Fedora Commons, Drupal, and Islandora.

Our reasons for developing this application, which we call SEAnet, are several. First, we sought a way to insure our project's growth after the eventual end of federal funding. Our first round of TICFIA support produced a large volume of digital materials, but this project model remained utterly dependent on the receipt of future grant funds. We sought a way to collect materials from contributors not acting as formal, contracted partners of the Southeast Asia Digital Library project. In short, we sought a way to collect materials for free. Little did we know that the entire TICFIA program would be discontinued due to major cuts to the Title VI program resulting from the March budget deal between Congressional Republicans and the White House. We are now doubly happy to have a remote loader apparatus in place.

We also perceive that individuals and institutions in Southeast Asia may be very interested in contributing to our repository and web site. Many may lack access to secure institutional repositories providing long-term preservation of digital objects and/or the ability to share materials via the web. Of course most would prefer the opportunity to use SEADL grant funds to digitize materials and contribute them to our web site and repository, but in a context marked by a lack of grant funds for this work, many may possess born-digital or already-digitized objects for which they seek a means of secure storage and free dissemination. If we cannot offer these contributors grant funds, we can provide them with the technical infrastructure necessary to preserve and share their materials.

Our choice of the name SEAnet for the application speaks to the several factors informing this initiative in our project. The letters S.E.A. represent our project's focus on Southeast Asia. The use of the term net has two meanings. First, the initiative can be described in terms of our project casting our nets, via the Internet, seeking to secure additional content for our repository and web site. The initiative can also be described as an effort to provide scholars and institutions in the field of Southeast Asian Studies with a net designed to catch and secure fragile, rare (or even one-of-a-kind) digital objects before they fall victim to decay or loss.

The SEAnet application itself is comprised of a series of PHP pages offering users who have received login permission from our site administrator with a set of options. The first of these presents users with a choice of uploading files or reviewing uploaded files. Those selecting the upload option face an html form asking them to select the type of file they seek to upload, either a single or a complex object (like a manuscript or a book) comprised of multiple images. Identifying an object as single leads to another form asking if it is a photograph, video, book, or monograph (selection of the last two options identifies the materials as being in pdf format). Identifying an object as complex leads to a request to identify it as a book or a manuscript. At present, our project restricts potential contributions to the following file types: tiff, jpeg, jp2, .avi, .wmv, mpeg, and mpeg4.

After identifying the object to be submitted, contributors are asked to attach it to a parent collection. For representatives of our partner institutions, this means selecting from a drop-down list including all of the SEADL's separate collections (generally identified by their subject matter and institution of origin). For potential contributors not attached to one of our grant-funded initiatives in Southeast Asia - the very type of contributor we are trying to attract, this means attaching materials to the SEAnet collection, or that group of materials collected from individuals and non-partner/contracted institutions.

After attaching an object to a parent collection, potential contributors are asked to enter metadata in the Dublin Core format via an html form and, after reviewing materials, submit them for consideration by project staff members.

Upon receiving a contribution via SEAnet, project staff members at Northern Illinois University, working with scholars specializing in Southeast Asian Studies as needed, review materials to determine their suitability for the Southeast Asia Digital Library. Upon making the determination that submitted materials are appropriate for inclusion in the SEADL, the administrator of the project repository and website first uses the loader's online interface to launch a script written in PHP, which creates XML from the metadata originally submitted in Dublin Core format. This script also creates additional versions of a submitted object, depending on its type, such as thumbnail images, DejaVu images, and jp2 files.

When the administrator finally moves to add submitted materials themselves to the SEADL repository, the project's Fedora software follows links to the files provided in the XML and ingests them into the project repository.

In recent weeks several representatives of partner institutions have uploaded digital objects to the SEADL via the SEAnet apparatus, demonstrating its functionality. We had originally planned to devote some $10,000 of TICFIA grant funds to the task of bringing SEAnet to the attention of scholars and institutions, especially in Southeast Asia, in hopes of securing the contribution of additional materials. At this point, without these funds, we are considering alternative means by which we might inform potential contributors of the opportunity that SEAnet provides them.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: "Progressive Era Politics"

This is a review of "Progressive Era Politics," a resource available on the web site ( and as an App for iPhone and Android platforms. In it I will discuss both Shmoop's larger approach to the work of bringing American history to a general audience and the resource's more specific analysis of the subject matter at hand. I would like to begin by discussing's discussion of its mission and origins. itself is the product of Ellen and David Siminoff, who describe themselves as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors who met while students at Stanford Business School. A review of their particulars on Wikipedia (linked from the "About" section on the web site), reveals that Ellen Siminoff was a co-founder and Senior Vice-President of, "where she ran business development, corporate development, and the small business and entertainment business units between 1996 and 2002." David Siminoff describes himself as a founder of the EastNet "global syndicate barter company" who went on to work as an analyst at Capital Research, focusing his efforts on the technology, media and telecommunications sectors. presents itself as a purveyor of "Rollicking homework help, teacher resources, and online test prep. Homework help lovingly written by PhD students from Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley." (This is the text appearing with the site link on the web page produced by a Google search, in essence the brief description of itself that the company would like you to see before you even visit their web site). A little further digging on the site reveals a more specific discussion of the identities of Shmoop contributors: "A majority of our writers are Ph.D.s and Ph.D. candidates from top universities....85% of our writers are graduates or students from top Ph.D. and Masters programs.... 2/3 of our editorial team come from Ph.D. and Masters programs at Stanford, Harvard, and UC Berkeley...."

A review of the larger site prepared by Appscout. com suggests "If you really want to get into history, poetry, or classic literature but find it just too thick or intimidating, never fear.... Shmoop is revolutionizing the way readers interact with literature. The service is designed to provide students, teachers, and everyday readers with a resource to help them get engaged." 

As the name might suggest, these resources' developers apparently believe that humor is a tool that can help users to get engaged with the material at hand. Cheeky asides abound; the "About" page states "Shmoop will make you a better lover (of literature, history, life).... We want to show your brain a good time" and "Shmoop Guarantees Better Grades* (*not an actual guarantee)."

I want to begin the review portion of this post by stating that I think that a resource like is a great idea. My own work at Northern Illinois University Libraries may be described as an attempt to help non-academic web users to "get engaged" with source materials and interpretations of American history. As a stuffy academic, I don't find the use of humor to be off-putting, and can imagine that non-academics might find it endearing.

Both versions of "Progressive Era Politics" contain citations; those provided on the web version are available by hyperlink, while the App requires users to back out of individual essays in order to navigate to a "Citations" page. It remains unclear to me why the App version does not use linked footnotes as well.

Both versions of the resource also make extensive use of hyperlinks to outside web sites. Placed within the interpretive text, these links apparently serve to provide additional information on individual subjects and themes. For example, within the the "Analytic Overview" provided, a sentence reading "Meanwhile, blacks, Native Americans, and Chinese were increasingly excluded from the growing opportunities for wealth and freedom" contained a link to a racist cartoon (apparently from the period, but provided without citation), a BBC-prepared lesson plan about "The End of the Native American Way of Life" and another racist cartoon, identified as being from Puck, but again presented without citation, respectively. In another sentence reading "In the first decade of the twentieth century, national economic output increased by 85%," the words "national economic output" were linked to a Google Books version of the Cambridge Economic History of the United States.  I found these links to be quite haphazard and confusing. At the very least, the period cartoons should be fully cited and accompanied by a brief caption. While there is nothing inherently wrong with providing a link to the multi-volume Cambridge Economic History of the United States, I find it to clash with a larger approach that ostensibly seeks to provide non-specialist users with a more accessible type of resource. What are users of "Progressive Era Politics" to do with the massive Cambridge History? Is there a specific page or passage to which the author refers?

Finally, I am troubled by the fact that the interpretive materials presented in "Progressive Era Politics" are not signed or credited to a specific author or authors.'s web site goes to great lengths in an attempt to establish its author's professional credentials, but only in the very general sense of dropping the names of well-known graduate programs from which authors are often apparently drawn.  Without signed essays, these materials' credibility remains uncertain, however.

On to the resource itself.

In addressing the subject of Progressive Era politics, Shmoop's scholars have chosen a difficult subject. Nearly thirty years ago, Daniel Rodgers noted, in a review of the historiography of the field, that many scholars "attacked the whole notion of a coherent Progressive movement as a semantic and conceptual muddle." (Daniel Rodgers "In Search of Progressivism" Reviews in American History 10 (4) December, 1982, 113).  To their credit, Shmoop's authors acknowledge this fact, describing a "movement (that) was an extremely complicated endeavor involving a diverse cross-section of people" and the period's "varied legacy."

The authors provide a multi-layered analysis, providing an introductory "big picture" supported by discussions of five major themes: politics; economy; ideology; law; and labor. My immediate reaction was to wonder what had happened to the discussions of race and gender. At this point an emphasis on race, class, and gender is so central to the literature of American history as to have almost become a cliche. Yet the Shmoop authors largely overlook two pillars of the trinity.

The authors frequently note that African-Americans suffered through a period of miserable race relations, often thanks to Progressives like Woodrow Wilson. They also mention the work of women reformers at several points. Yet I must insist that more than enough scholarship exists on the relationships between race,  gender and Progressive politics to inform separate discussions of these subjects. 

Within these five categories of analysis, the authors provide a wealth of historical detail, but a true paucity of interpretive perspectives. A lengthy discussion of party politics, entitled "Populists and Progressives" sketches out the familiar links between the two reform initiatives, providing the usual discussion of the Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson administrations. A discussion of "Economy" devotes the vast majority of its words to the events of the Gilded Age, with the apparent intention of establishing the fact that Progressive reforms were a response to the preceding era's rapid economic consolidation (another staple of textbook analysis for decades). A section identified as "Ideology in Progressive Era Politics" devotes itself entirely to a discussion of the question "Who were the Progressives?" As a scholar interested in the period's intellectual history, I found this especially distressing. Major works by Rodgers, James Kloppenberg, Dorothy Ross, and Eldon Eisenach (just to name a few off the top of my head) provide a rich literature examining ideas that informed Progressive Era politics.

Wrestling with the hoary question "Who were the Progressives?"  not only overlooks an important aspect of the period's politics, it implicitly defines them as a movement and restricts the resulting discussion to considerations of "reform." At numerous points in the analysis, the author(s) of the piece return to an analysis of the period's politics as public-spirited reformers organizing to demand that the federal government step up to regulate the period's economic activities and their attendant social changes, especially the rise of big business and dangerous working conditions. For example, in an introductory essay entitled "Progressive Era Politics: In a Nutshell" the author(s) conclude that in this period "Average citizens quickly reacted against what many saw as the unjust influence of the wealthy and powerful on their lives, and they demanded government intervention on their behalf." This "people vs. the interests" approach to Progressive Era politics overlooks other varieties of Progressive experience that are by no means new additions to the literature, including declining participation in electoral politics and rise of interest-groups, and the emergence of large institutions emphasized by scholars of the organizational synthesis. Robert Wiebe and Samuel Hays, two lions of the latter approach, appear briefly in the discussion of the Progressives' true identity, but only as proponents of an approach moderating George Mowry and Richard Hofstadter's original identification of Progressives as members of threatened elites "by describing Progressivism as a broad framework of bourgeois professionals who sought to improve and reorder their society and government." This is to miss the upshot of the organizational synthesis, which emphasizes the rise and impact of a new generation of national organizations, entirely.

In the end the author(s) of "Progressive Era Politics" often seem to come down on the side of a New Left analysis concluding that, despite the efforts of reformers, the Progressive movement was "co-opted by mainstream politicians" (See "Progressive Era Politics: In a Nutshell") and/or "co-opted by businessmen seeking to enact symbolic or less radical reforms" (See "Populists and Progressives," the resource's discussion of party politics in the period).

An analysis identifying Progressive Era Politics as a reform movement, and principally concerned with determining whether that movement produced effective reforms or was in fact captured by the forces of reaction, marks this as a resource that easily could have been written thirty years ago, when Daniel Rodgers wrote his influential review of the literature, or even forty years ago, when the New Left interpretation was really new.

My disappointment in the contents of "Progressive Era Politics" perhaps stems from my initial sense that this resource might more fully reflect the existing literature in the field. I jumped to this conclusion on the basis of two facts. First, provides another resource on the general subject of Progressive politics: "Muckrakers and Reformers of the Progressive Era," also available in web and App versions. Thus I surmised that a resource identified as a review of "Progressive Era Politics" would be more in keeping with my view of subject as defined by the broad array of political dynamics taking place in this time period. Imagine my surprise, then, when this second resource returned to the theme of Progressive reform.

I believe that the founders of are to be commended for making an attempt to bring the literature of American history (and, apparently, many other fields in the humanities) to the general audience using the web and apps designed for hand-held devices. Having paid all of $1.99 for the App version of "Progressive Era Politics," I cannot recommend it for purchase. This is in part a result of the fact that all of the app's contents can be found free of charge on the web site. I can understand that the company's founders and staff would be remiss to overlook the opportunity to generate some revenue from the sale of apps, but at this point the use of the App format adds nothing to the materials. My non-recommendation is also a reflection of the bad job that the resource does of conveying the variety of the existing literature on Progressive Era politics, however.

The fact that this resource so completely overlooks such a vast portion of an important literature makes me conclude, once again, that professional historians should be organizing and doing this sort of thing themselves. While may have secured the services of Ph.D.'s and graduate students from top universities, I am left to speculate that the large scale of their operation (in the field of U.S. history alone, the company offers sixty web sites/apps for use) led the company to commission and/or accept work from individuals not specializing in, and hence not well-versed in, the field under consideration. I believe that the mass-production of such materials will very often result in oversights such as that in evidence here, which ultimately prevent the  vast public using the web and other new media from enjoying the the full scope of professional historians' accomplishments. The only viable way for historians to share their work in this very important arena is to organize an initiative identifying, recruiting, and putting top specialists in the many sub-fields of American history to work developing resources similar in concept to's "Progressive Era Politics."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Technology, Cultural Tourism, and Public History

After considerable delay, I have more to say about digital history and cultural tourism. For the last five months my colleagues at Northern Illinois University Libraries and I have been working on the development of the online cultural tourism resource that I first described here on October 19, 2010. Working versions of the materials are available at: Upon their completion next month, they will be available at:

Our project has several goals. First and foremost, it provides visitors to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site with additional information. It focuses on ten structures and lots within the site itself. National Park Service staff members already do a good job of providing visitors with an in-person tour of the Lincoln family home itself. Other structures on-site, which have been restored to reflect their condition at the time of the Lincolns' residence in the neighborhood, as well as lots where other structures stood in that period, also have stories to tell. Our project allows the Lincoln Home National Historic Site to help visitors explore them without struggling to develop and staff additional in-person tours. 

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site has recently introduced a cell phone tour resource focusing on many of these same structures and lots. Interested visitors may dial a telephone number to hear spoken-word discussions of specific structures and lots on the site. We believe that our resource differs from it in significant ways which shed light on the practice of public history.

It is my sense that public historians often struggle with the issue of audience. When creating interpretive materials for an exhibit or historic site, for example, they often feel obliged to set aside some of the complexity and nuance that makes history so fascinating, in order to appeal to the largest possible number of visitors or patrons. Public historians' concerns stem in part from the fact that they have, to my knowledge, long developed a single set of interpretive materials for their audience. I realize that public history interpretive materials may consist of tour scripts, films, signs, placards, and other media. My point is that, despite their presentation in different formats, interpretive materials presented at public history sites have almost always sought to reach the same broad, general audience. Although it makes use of a new media platform, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site's cell-phone tour remains a resource aimed at the broadest possible audience.

By contrast, we have envisioned our smart phone/hand-held device-based cultural tourism resources as a complement or supplement to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site's existing interpretive materials, using the technology available via the Internet to deliver more detailed and challenging resources to such visitors as may desire them.

The technology on which the Internet (and device-specific applications, or apps) is based can provide its users with a far more interactive, variable experience than is available via static media like placards, brochures, films, or even cell phone tours. This is especially significant for its use as related to the discipline of history.

Our resource provides Lincoln Home National Historic Site visitors with a brief video discussing each of ten selected structures or lots. In this video Northern Illinois student Ashley Michels, a broadcast journalism major, presents a script written by Dr. Jeffrey Smith of Lindenwood University (St. Charles, Missouri), which discusses the experience of an individual or family who occupied the house during the years the Lincoln family lived nearby. Each discussion focuses on how the experiences of these individuals or groups shed light on major themes in American history, from race and gender to politics and economic development.

In several cases, our project also provides users with short videos in which academic historians, including such figures as Eric Foner of Columbia University, Michael Holt of the University of Virginia, and James Horton of the George Washington University, discuss these themes.

In addition to providing visitors with interpretive materials, our cultural tourism resource furnishes them with additional types of primary sources, including period images, readings of period texts, and present-day recordings of period songs.

For over fifteen years, individuals using desktop and laptop computers have benefited from the web's great utility for the study of history. Using hyperlinks, users can easily toggle back and forth between primary and interpretive resources, and practice active learning. Smart phones and other handheld devices, matched with wireless networks, enable visitors to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site to benefit from this technology while they are inspecting the site itself.

The practice of public history is essentially the promotion of active learning, in that it provides interpretive materials which visitors or patrons may use to explore and understand an historic site or exhibit materials. I believe that our cultural tourism resource, providing visitors with an enhanced and expanded set of interpretive and primary sources, can expand the practice of active learning taking place at the Lincoln Home National Historic site in fundamental ways.

It is my hope that these materials can serve as a supplement to the interpretive resources already provided by National Park Service personnel on-site, via their in-person tours, exhibits, signage, and cell phone tour. In developing them, we have sought to reach an audience that may desire a more detailed discussion of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site than that presented in materials specifically designed to reach the widest possible audience. It remains to be seen just what the size of this potential audience really is.