Monday, October 29, 2007

Themed Audio-Guide Museum Tours

I was in Paris this past summer at the Musée D’Orsay, the gallery holding French art from 1848 to 1914. I have to admit, I know absolutely nothing of this period in art history. So my girlfriend and I shelled out the €6 each for an audio guide. The guide was pretty well done and gave between two and four minute descriptions of most major pieces in the gallery, detailing who the artist was, why he or she produced the work and how it was received by the public.

Sure, it was interesting to learn about the various pieces of art, however it would have taken a year to listen to every single recording and my feet got tired far before we reached that end. Even if I had listened to every recording, I still feel I would have had only a rudimentary understanding of nineteenth century French art. Nevertheless, we listened to quite a few of the descriptions, and still, I left only knowing tiny fragments of the bigger picture. One fragment about impressionism, one about sculptures depicting Napoleon, one about Gauguin, but nothing to weave it together. I almost wished I could have taken a class or two in the museum that would have helped me make sense of what I was seeing.

And really, that’s not a huge stretch for the museum. After all, they’ve already got thousands of functional audio guides. So why not introduce a themed audio tour? Then, instead of a fragment about impressionism, I could have listened to a twenty minute guided lecture of impressionism. Isn’t that exactly what every art history lecturer dreams of? Being able to lecture students in front of the masterpieces themselves? I would have taken away so much more than I did from my fragmentary experience, and still more than I could have hoped by sitting in a lecture hall.

For those who don’t want to take the guided tours, they could still listen to the individual recordings – they’re already on the audio guides and there’s no reason that needs to change.

All such a project requires for Musée D’Orsay is someone to write some lectures that tie together the various works, someone to translate them into the half-dozen languages supported by the audio guides of the museum, and someone to record the dialogue. For a one-time cost, the Musée D’Orsay could provide an extra dimension to the understanding their visitors come to of the collection, without the need to hope you could find a guided tour in your language, speaking about a specific topic you’re interested in, that happened to be started at the moment you arrived.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Historian's Inferiority Complex

Imagine watching Superman with a physicist who can't help himself but to tell you that "That's physically impossible" as Superman leaps over a tall building in a single bound.

Imagine watching Pirates of the Carribean with a geographer who keeps insisting that the Isle de Muerte is not located where Captain Jack Sparrow says it is.

Imagine watching Finding Nemo with a zoologist who won't shut up about the fact that fish can't speak English.

Now, imagine watching Braveheart with a historian who can resist the temptation to tell you that actually, Wallace and his followers were Lowlanders and wouldn't have worn kilts, that Wallace couldn't possibly have sired the future King Edward III - who was born 7 years after Wallace's death, or that the Irish's role in the film is totally fictional - to name but three of a thousand complaints historians have with the film.[1]


[1] Elizabeth Ewan. "Braveheart" American Historial Review 100, no. 4 (October 1995):
1220 (And there are a hundred more where that came from).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bringing Publishing into the Computer Age

A couple of years ago in an undergraduate seminar class about the Enlightenment, my professor told the class most academic books published by historians are lucky to earn their author $100. I was a little surprised by this. Why spend the hundreds of hours to produce something that will bring you no monetary gain? A labour of love (tenure seeking), no doubt.

Then I wondered, if you are not going to earn any money for it, why not give it away?

That's exactly what some people have done. Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's book,Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web is the perfect example of this. The book appears on the Center for History and New Media website, which is an ongoing project of Dan Cohen's at George Mason University. If you enjoy the book and are interested in purchasing it, the site tells you places where you can do this, however, if you're a cheapskate, there it is for free.

So why don't more professors give away their work? Perhaps it's because they fear the internet's impermanence, have been taught not to trust it, or routinely teach their students not to trust it. Perhaps they have always wanted to see their name on a hardcover. Or, maybe they have a secret hope that their book will fly off the shelves and they'll be the lucky ones who make money off their efforts.

Then I wondered again; if the author isn't making any money off of the book they wrote, why on earth did I just pay $43 for it?

Either someone is making money on this book (though I can hear the publishing industry crying out that it's not them), or there is far too much overhead involved in producing these academic works. So I have a suggestion, inspired by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's book - which is an excellent example of online book-formatting, and by JSTOR, the online, password protected academic journal repository. If Universities can and do buy access to huge repositories to add to their collections, why does the publishing industry not produce and protect new academic works in the same way?

It seems so simple. The author researches and writes. The publisher edits and formats and uploads an unchanging version of the work to a repository. The university buys rights with instructions to password-protect the content from outsiders - just as JSTOR and other repositories such as Early English Books Online are protected. Academic integrity is maintained because the publishing house applies its logo just as it would to a hardcopy version of a book and promises not to alter the content.

RSS feeds could be set up to search the internet for randomly selected sentences from the work; any time the sentence was found on an unauthorized website, the publisher could quickly check the site to see if copyright had been infringed upon. And for those private citizens who are interested, e-copies of the book could be sold online much as MP3 files are sold.

Libraries already have budgets for purchases, and by the sounds of things, libraries and a few professors around the world are the only ones likely to buy your book anyway. So in stead of a research library spending $50 on one book, they could spend $50 000 to have access to all works published by a certain publishing house. Library content would swell without taking up space; the future generation of increasingly computer savy researchers will be happy they don't have to trudge into campus to go to the library to get a book for their research; the publishing industry doesn't disappear; with less overhead, there might be more money to pass on to the author. And, there might be a few more trees.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

History is Boring, Irrelevant and Made-up

I'm currently sporting a finger injury sustained in a rough frisbee game last night, so I'll have to be briefer than usual today. I was monitoring traffic to this blog the other day using Statcounter, and I was surprised by one of the Google searches that landed some poor soul at my blog. I see all the time people who search for "Canadian War Museum" end up here (often, it's the Canadian War Museum checking to see what I'm saying about them). I can understand why such a search would land someone at my site, since I have two posts on the topic.

However, I was shocked to discover someone in London England found me with a Google search for: "history is boring irrelevant and made up." In fact, my site is ranked fourth most relevant on the web for such a query (probably higher after this post).

Granted, my blog does contain the words "history" "is" "boring" irrelevant" "and" "made" as well as "up" - though not in the same post, let alone sentence. This leads me to wonder exactly how Google's magic searching formula works. A couple of weeks ago, we discussed in our course a few readings about how Google works.[1] But, apparently they havn't got the process completely refined just yet.

I hope that the person was disappointed and was unable to find evidence to support their beliefs while they were at my page. Although it's always interesting to see what people are looking for out there on the web.

[1] Cutts, Matt. “How Does Google Collect and Rank Results?” Google Librarian Center Newsletter (19 Dec 2005).

Cutts, Matt. “How Does Google Determine Which Websites are the Most ‘Trusted’?” Google Librarian Center Newsletter (19 Jan 2006).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Web Review: "Ontario History Quest"

Part of our course work this term was to review a website that contained historical content. Here is my review:

Ontario History Quest . Created and maintained by the Toronto Public Library in conjunction with the Archives of Ontario, the City of Toronto Archives and the Ontario Government. Reviewed September 23-24, 2007.

Ontario History Quest was developed jointly by the Toronto Public Library, the Archives of Ontario and the City of Toronto Archives to be a teaching tool for Ontario history teachers and a learning tool for students. The site aims to expose students to primary sources, rather than secondary sources traditionally used to teach history in school. The aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly interface was designed by ecentricarts (Toronto, Ontario), and the learning content was created by an educational consultant, B. Rubenstein.

The website is split into two major sections: the learning content and the database. The first section consists of a series of online, interactive projects designed to follow the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum; these projects are targeted at grades 7, 8, 10 and 12. Each project starts with an introductory activity to ensure students understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. Following this, students are shown a primary source, or a series of primary sources that centre around one topic related to their field of study. Open ended questions such as, “If you could ask the painter of this painting one question, what would it be?” compel the students to become engaged with the sources they are viewing. Very little in the way of the traditional memorization of dates, or the narrative telling of political history is evident in the website’s content. The emphasis is clearly placed on learning to think critically, rather than on learning a series of historical facts.

All of the information students need is available on the website, which ensures no dead links arise as external websites are changed or taken offline. The majority of the information on the site is found in the second section of the website: the database. This database includes over 3000 online primary sources relating to Ontario history in a variety of media, ranging from photographs, to video, to scanned documents. The records have been carefully chosen for relevance to the curriculum and have been uploaded from the collections of the Ontario and Toronto Archives and the Toronto Library. The database is very easy to use, and includes many options for searching, including well-organized drop boxes to search by place, subject or type of media, as well as the opportunity to use more advanced search techniques. A detailed tutorial aids any unsure students, and the lessons give helpful hints on what types of searches the students should try when looking for materials for their projects.

Ontario History Quest also has many features to help teachers budget their time with lesson plans and evaluation tools. Students benefit from note-taking aids as well as checklists to help them write good reports. The site from anywhere since no software or licensing is required, and users can easily print screen content for offline use.The wide range of documents available allows teachers to customize the assignments to emphasize local research, assuming the class lives in a fairly major centre.

Where the site is lacking is in maintenance. It was designed in 2003 and as far as I can tell, has not been updated since. The site was designed to look best in 800x600 resolution, which is considered poor by 2007’s standards. This means the content on the site does not take up enough of the screen, resulting in wasted space. The site also suggests users use at least Internet Explorer 5.5 or Netscape 6.2.2. Netscape has all but disappeared and Internet Explorer 5.5 is now over seven years old and completely outdated. Further evidence that the site is not maintained was found when trying to access one of the primary sources. A message that “Due to copyright restriction, this image cannot be made available until after December 31, 2003. Please be sure to visit in 2004” appeared when clicking on the image. This is problematic because the Ontario curriculum changed as of September 2004 to reflect the end of the O.A.C. courses. The exercises, particularly the grade 12 assignments, no longer reflect the Ontario curriculum. Websites of this nature should have a date-stamp to let educators know the material is – or in this case – is not up to current standards.

Finally, the grade 7 and grade 12 projects are nearly identical because the curriculum formerly dealt with the same time periods for these two grades – 1820s-1850s. Only minor changes in the assignments and the number and type of primary sources appear between these two grades. Any student who was taught using this website in grade 7 would likely be unenthused to have to redo the same projects in grade 12. This reflects laziness on the part of the creators on an otherwise marvelously designed teaching tool. With a few hours of updates, and annual maintenance, Ontario History Quest would be a fabulous addition to Ontario classrooms.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Canadian War Museum: Controversy in Context

The Canadian War Museum has updated its controversial panel relating to the Allied bombing of Germany in the Second World War, and I have to say, I’m rather impressed with what they’ve come up with. The original panel, which caused uproar amongst some veterans who believed it painted them as war criminals, was terse and lacked context. As I mentioned in The Canadian War Museum Controversy on September 18, 2007, a person who did not have any previous knowledge of the bombing missions would have a difficult time coming to any logical conclusion other than that the bombing was immoral.[1]

The new panel, as found on this morning reads reportedly as follows:

The strategic bombing campaign against Germany, an important part of the Allied effort that achieved victory, remains a source of controversy today.

Strategic bombing enjoyed wide public and political support as a symbol of Allied resolve and a response to German aggression. In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives and suffered heavy losses. Advances in technology and tactics, combined with Allied successes on other fronts, led to improved results. By war's end, Allied bombers had razed portions of every major city in Germany and damaged many other targets, including oil facilities and transportation networks. The attacks blunted Germany's economic and military potential, and drew scarce resources into air defence, damage repair, and the protection of critical industries.

Allied aircrew conducted this grueling offensive with great courage against heavy odds. It required vast material and industrial efforts and claimed over 80,000 Allied lives, including more than 10,000 Canadians. While the campaign contributed greatly to enemy war weariness, German society did not collapse despite 600,000 dead and more than 5 million left homeless. Industrial output fell substantially, but not until late in the war. The effectiveness and the morality of bombing heavily-populated areas in war continue to be debated.[2]

If your motivation is to depict these airmen as war criminals for the deaths of 600,000 Germans, I’m afraid you won’t likely be happy with the rewrite. And I know not all of the many angry historians who felt a lobby group prevented the historical truth from coming out will be satisfied. However, I think this new panel does far more than its predecessor to show that historical truth.[3] And it does this by providing a balanced view of the controversy. A visitor to the museum who knew nothing of this campaign now has far more information to make an informed decision about the morality of the bombings, and the Canadian War Museum has done this without removing the facts that appeared in the original panel.

All the same controversial points are still there: the bombing campaign “remains a source of controversy today,” “600,000 [Germans] dead and more than 5 million left homeless.” And, “the morality…continue[s] to be debated.” In fact, the panel goes further and adds more about the problems and shortcomings of the bombing operations that weren’t in the original panel. “German society did not collapse,” and “In its first years, the air offensive achieved few of its objectives.” You may not agree entirely with the content of this new panel, but no author is going to please everyone. In a case like this, balance is key, otherwise we risk creating a society of brainwashed zombies.

Not only has the uninformed visitor benefited from the change. Thanks to the new panel, a visitor who came into the museum as a supporter the bombings does not witness a panel which vilifies the airmen, but it does not blindly support what this visitor already believes. As an educated reader, this visitor must confront the facts that challenge the campaign and question his or her belief. Conversely, if the visitor believes the attacks were immoral and ineffectual, he or she likewise must pause to consider the evidence in the panel which does not support that position.

And perhaps most importantly, this new panel is far more likely to spark interest in the debate over the effectiveness and morality of the Allied bombings. By showing both sides, a visitor might be more prompted to learn more so that they can come to a conclusion themselves. By pegging the airmen as immoral as in the former panel, the visitor has no incentive to look more deeply; it’s just too easy to accept what the panel says and keep walking on to the next exhibit.

All it took was an extra 122 words and a little more care in the writing process to put context to a controversy. And that’s a sign of good history.

[1] Adam Crymble. “The Canadian War Museum Controversy” Thoughts on Public History. “

[2] Paul Gessel. “War Museum Produces New Wording for Controversial Text” (accessed Thursday October 11, 2007).

[3] The old panel’s wording can be found at Adam Crymble. “The Canadian War Museum Controversy” Thoughts on Public History. “

Monday, October 8, 2007

Bringing Academic Integrity to the Web

The internet has opened up a whole new arena for historians and public historians to disseminate knowledge. Academic journals, online classrooms, and hobby sites are everywhere on the web and seemingly, no matter what your historical interest, you can find something to read. And, with each year that passes, more and more undergraduate students instinctively want to turn to these websites to do research, but, while each passing day brings flashier graphics and more entertaining interactive content, few websites incorporate formatting styles that allow undergraduates to properly cite what they find.

Books, on the other hand, make citation simple. If I use the paper version of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, I can tell you that he teaches us how to make a crude, rather foul smelling explosive on page 193; I could properly cite this paraphrase using the Chicago Manual of Style guide in my footnotes as:

[1] Abbie Hoffman. Steal This Book. (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002), 193.

This has all the important information: author, title, publishing info, and page number. Anyone could, in theory, find the exact paragraph that I used to assert this claim and see that I did my research well.

If I try to do the same, using a website that contains the entire e-text of Steal This Book in one 67,538 word chunk – without any page numbers, all I can tell you is that my source is.

[2] Abbie Hoffman. “Steal This Book”

Since I paraphrased in this instance, it wouldn’t even be possible for my reader to find the proper point in the text and check my reference. Websites like this necessitate the writer to use direct quotations else the reader is left crippled to verify the source. While this may seem wonderful to undergraduates who havn’t done their homework well and who stuck in a made up source to appease the professor, this undermines academic integrity.

Now, the Steal This Book website is very old – I read the book on this same webpage almost ten years ago and it hasn’t changed since then. But, even though most new websites break up content into more manageable chunks, they often still neglect offering the tools researchers would find in a printed book.

Page numbers are an excellent example of this neglect. Page numbers are almost unheard of on a webpage, unless the site is offered in PDF format. I would argue that by being transparent with how many pages your site has and showing your reader how much of the content he or she has already read, it would make it much easier for a reader to make sure they have not missed important, relevant content. Imagine reading a book or journal article in which you could not be sure you had found all the pages. As a bonus, they also makes it much easier for a researcher to cite you as a source.

Footnotes are another essential element of academic writing. On the internet, they are slightly more common than page numbers, but still many webmasters shy away from them. Perhaps they fear, as in publishing, that footnotes will scare away non-academics and shrink their readership. But, there are so many ways a designer can hide the footnotes from anyone uninterested in or bothered by them. They could appear as endnotes that could be easily linked to using HTML tags such as this 1. Or, they could appear in a frame at the bottom of the screen, as in A.M. Syverson’s template for how to present an academic paper on the web, created way back in 1996. 2. A savvy web designer could even give users an option of hiding the footnotes frame by clicking a

Syverson also tells me other important information about her site: where it was published (The University of Texas), and when (1996). Almost like a book, isn’t it?

The Footnotes appear in the frame at the bottom

While, admittedly, Syverson’s eleven year old template is not as attractive as newer websites, that need not be the case. I’m not suggesting web designers abandon pretty pictures or interactive interfaces; I’m no Luddite and I like shiny objects as much as the next guy. But shiny objects are no trade for academic integrity.

Now, I’m not saying if you make your website more academia-friendly, it will increase your readership or fool people into believing your website has solid content. And if your site is dedicated to funny pictures of your dog, by all means format your page as you please. But, if you have created a website dedicated to knowledge that you believe to be true and a good source for undergraduates and academics alike, use the tools the publishing industry has developed over the past four hundred years to provide integrity to the academic system. It has worked so well and there is no reason a change from print-based to electronic-based media should result in its demise.

Perhaps if more people had followed the model Syverson posted in 1996, we would be in a position where academics esteem web-publishing, rather than warn their students against using websites. Had the author of the Steal This Book website taken the time to include these important pieces of information, the same citation that provided nearly no direction to a reader could have been cited:

[3] John Doe. “Abbie Hoffman: Steal This Book” (Chicago: 1998), 193.

And that would be a good step towards reconciling the internet and the inhabitants of the Ivory Towers.

1 Click me again to go back to your point in the text.

2 A.M. Syverson. “Sample of a Conventional Academic Paper Using Frames.” University of Texas: 1996.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Narrative History in the Classroom?

I’ve never been able to relate to people who describe their experience learning history as “boring” or “irrelevant.” I’d like to think they didn’t just have awful teachers, or that history is inherently, boring. But maybe they did and maybe it is. I, on the other had, had a wonderful history teacher in high school, Mr. Taylor.

He taught “Ancient Civilizations” and he had developed a teaching style that was entirely lecture based. This was unheard of at my high school. Teachers were supposed to integrate the students in discussions, group work and hands-on learning. But, Mr. Taylor had hearing difficulties and to cope with this, he found a combination of lecture, storytelling, inventive uses of his arms, legs, and facial muscles, and the odd strange sound effect, to be the most effective way to teach history. What resulted was an extremely entertaining narrative. Every day we were captivated by his tales of how Alexander the Great struggled his way through the Kyber Pass and into India during his great conquest, or how Socrates met his untimely demise thanks to a cup of hemlock.

For us, going to history class was like going to story class. Four of the students from that one course now have a B.A. in history. That’s about 16% of us; a much higher output per capita of historians than I’m sure most people think the world needs, but impressive none the less. And, I don’t think any of us would argue that this class didn’t influence our path through university. But, what we learned in our Ancient Civilizations class not what my history professors at university would call history. What we learned was Narrative History.

Rather than present history as it is, as a series of disjointed moments, documents and interpretations, narrative history presents history as a fluid story. An omniscient narrator guides the audience through the story of history. Facts are stretched; dialogues which are impossible for anyone to remember are recited as if from some magical memory bank; details that never occurred are recounted to add the human element to the story.

Because of this background, I spent the first three years of my undergraduate degree ignoring footnotes, resisting journal articles – because they were boring and didn’t tell a story – and trying to weave my courses into the narratives that Mr. Taylor had taught us. I was disheartened to find out that we don’t know what Alexander the Great said to his bodyguard, Hephaestian on September 17, 325 CE, as I had previously believed. But I got over it, and I was eventually won over to the academic history taught in university.

So, was it wrong for Mr. Taylor to teach us narrative history? We learned a lot of facts – some of them true – but we were left with no understanding of primary sources, bias, or interpretation that I have recently learned are the focus of the Ontario Secondary School Curriculum for history students.

Yet, without the stories, I never would have pursued a history degree and no doubt likewise for some of my friends in the class.

Then what is the purpose of teaching history? I have a feeling most educators would say to get students to think critically about what they see and read. To interpret things for themselves, be they primary source historical documents, or an article in the newspaper. These people would say the “facts” and rote learning are outdated ways of teaching history and they belong in the Victorian era.

I have to say, I agree. Students should be taught critical thinking.

But, I’m glad Mr. Taylor liked to tell stories. If we had spent the entire class with our noses in primary sources, I wouldn’t be here pursuing history. Maybe narrative history does have a place in our high schools? Or maybe we should try to find a happy medium, which combines the stories of Mr. Taylor with the “critical thinking” goals of the curriculum. And maybe then we’ll hear a little less often that history is “boring.”