Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Review: "Remember, Remember (the Fifth of November)"

Parkinson, Judy. "Remember, Remember (the Fifth of November): The History of Britain in Bite-Sized Chunks." (London: Michael O'Mara Books, 2008). 182p. 10pounds.

The book attempts to survey all of British history through a chronological series of encyclopedia entries, each one page in length. Each page outlines a major historical event, figure or stage in British history, beginning with the Roman Invasion of AD43 and ending with the founding of the United Nations. The title, of course, refers to the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November, 1605, still remembered with the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day.

Parkinson has succeeded in creating an abundantly clear survey, which will no doubt clear up confusion many people have as to the order of events in British history. Readers can clearly see how events influenced or were influenced by one another; no entries appear to stand out as isolated from the rest, which is a credit to the author's choice of topics.

Each entry can stand alone and the book can be used as a reference, or it can be read through from front to back. Those who elect the latter will note that at times events or persons are explained in more than one entry, especially in cases where one entry is the subset of another - a battle and a war, for instance. This repetition makes it possible for readers to use the work as a reference book and should not be considered a failing.

Someone looking for a brief survey, or an undergraduate about to embark on a British history course, could certainly benefit from this book. Its brevity and journalistic prose make for light reading. Parkinson has done a fabulous job of creating what is essentially a chronological encyclopedia without leaving the reader feeling like they have been sitting with a copy of Britannica.

As the entries are short and without footnotes, the book is not of much scholarly use - though no encyclopedia is. There are a handful of instances that used direct quotations in which even a quick footnote or reference would have been appropriate so that readers interested in pursuing further reading could at least be directed. However, the lack of references was not a major issue.

Nearly all British historians will feel that their area of expertise did not receive proper treatment; many important events are only referenced in an entry devoted to something else. For instance, the South Seas Bubble gets a single sentence in King George I's article (p. 102) and nothing of its own. Likewise, many other important aspects of British history do not appear at all. Nevertheless, the task of writing two-thousand years of history in 150 entries is a major undertaking and many worthy events must be cut to make the project doable.

Since it is impossible for anyone to be an expert on a topic so vast, I am unable to comment upon the accuracy of each entry. However, I can say that the entries are fairly consistent, with a few notable exceptions. The articles "Munich and the run-up to the Second World War" (p. 174) and "Germany Invades" (p. 177) list that Britain formally declared war on Germany on September 1, 1939 and September 3rd respectively. Even a non-historian can see issue with this claim.

The most glaring problem the reviewer noted was in the "Magna Carta" entry (p. 53). In this article, the author makes a bold claim that the Magna Carta is "the most famous and most significant legal document in the history of democracy" (p. 53). This is a very partisan claim that most Americans and a good many others around the world would certainly debate. Given that the book has limited itself and decided not to provide evidence to support such bold claims, they should not be included. One cannot assume that a reader has the time or inclination to look further into the topic to come to an educated conclusion.

Apart from these minor failings, the book is certainly worth the cost and time required to read it. It would make an excellent course reading for the first week of a British history survey. More countries could benefit from a similar survey of their own history.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Journal Articles in an RSS feed?

Has anyone come across an academic journal that releases its contents in an RSS feed that users can sign up for? Would certainly make it easier to keep up with the latest scholarship.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

History in the UWO Bookstore

I went into the UWO bookstore the other day to look for Christmas presents to myself. I had a walk around the non-textbook part of the store, which accounts for about a quarter of the inventory. To my surprise, books about history and historiography in this "popular" section included four shelves. That's more than all the fiction combined; it's four times more than the comedy, four times more than the cooking, and twice as much as the biography.

Guess there's more of a market for history out there than I thought.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Visualization of Newspaper Content

I made a quick visualization of what the people of Canada are saying about the current coalition that seems imminent in Canadian federal politics. The visualization is made with Wordle, which is a snap to use.

The first is the frequency of word use amongst commenters to the article: "Tories launch anti-coalition ad blitz." This article was printed in the left leaning "Toronto Star" on December 2, 2008. There were 264 comments in total.

This second one is the word frequency of commenters on the National Post article, "Dion mortgages federalist ideals to sign on with separatists." The National Post tends to lean to the right on political issues. There were 64 comments to this article.

Both articles essentially say the same thing, but with opposite perspectives on what makes good politics.

It's interesting to note the slight differences in the two. In the first article, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the clear focus, whereas his name is noticeably smaller in the pro-Harper National Post article.

Likewise, "Quebec" is fairly prominent in the National Post article, which suggests commenters frequently pointed to the fact that this Liberal led coalition will involve the separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois. To the right, this is akin to a deal with the devil. In The Star, "Quebec" is barely visible - you can squint to see it next to "People."

There are plenty of other assumptions you could make about the contents of these comments and the worries of both sides based on the visualizations, some of which might even be true. And, I know it's not really history, but one day it will be.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Great Example of Teaching History

If anyone is looking for an amazing way to teach school children about Canadian settlement, check out Joe Ralph's blog, which features a short video of Canadian school teacher, Mike Ward and his hands on approach to teaching history.

It's amazing what you can do with a little bit of dirt and some plastic barnyard animals.

Kudos to Mike and his creativity.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Archiving Conferences

What happens in a conference is usually lost the moment the words leave the speaker's lips. Last week I filmed a conference in the University of Western Ontario: Canadian Climate History workshop, so that what happened might be useful to others.

Just because conference presentations aren't in written form doesn't mean they aren't worth keeping.

Consider recording your next conference or conference talk. If you're looking for a place to store it, try ITunes University.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Photo Archive of One Man's World

My father sent me a link today to one of the most amazing photo archives I've ever seen.

Jamie Livingston took a single Polaroid image nearly every day from March 31, 1979 until his death in 1997. The whole collection is roughly 6000 images, which show everything from the evolution of hairstyles, to the urban regeneration of New York City, where he lived.

There are no words, only images. The people in the photos remain a mystery. But, the story the images tell are of one man's world, as he saw it. An amazing story, to say nothing of the collection's value to social historians. If you were born between 1979 and 1997, you might see what he was doing on your birthday.

Take a look:

Definitely worth a look; and extremely well presented. Archives might consider using a similar format for presenting their archival collections online. Why search with words, when our eyes are already built for searching?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Plaigiarism is not Dishonourable

Allow me to plagiarize:
Students must write their essays and assignments in their own words. Whenever students take an idea or a passage from another author, they must acknowledge their debt both by using quotation marks where appropriate and by proper referencing such as footnotes or citations. Plagiarism is a major academic offence.
This addendum came with every syllabus I received during my undergraduate degree. Irony prevents me from telling you which university I plagiarized this work from.

Teaching students what should and should not be cited, and why citing is important is admirable. But, by teaching that citation is a system of acknowledging intellectual debts, students may never learn why we really cite others. Instead, they will cite to avoid punishment, and in some cases will do so when it is not necessary. Plagiarism is bad for several reasons; however, failing to acknowledge an intellectual "debt" to someone else is not one of them.

You are not indebted to someone whose ideas you borrow, rather, the strength of your argument depends upon what they wrote and what evidence they used to support their arguments. You do not cite them as a "thank you," rather you cite them so that a person reading your work has the means to check your sources. So that they can determine if what you say makes sense and is based on a sound foundation.

Hopefully, the person you cited also cited other authors. In this manner, footnotes and citations provide an unbreaking chain of logic / evidence, which goes back to an original source. For this, citations are extremely useful.

There are no victims of academic plagiarism. Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. If someone sees your work as worth stealing, it must be good. Any undergrad who can write well enough to plagiarize without making it painfully obvious is probably smart enough for a BA anyway.

Transparency in education is important for creating a meaningful learning experience. Students aren't stupid, so maybe we shouldn't treat them like they are.

Plagiarism is not dishonourable; it's just counterproductive.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Open Peer Review

I came across an open peer review request the other day. Ara Basmadjian, a UWO digital history student posted a draft essay proposal on his blog, asking his colleagues for constructive criticism.

Not only is this brave and a nice change from the defensive, secretive nobody look at my paper attitude that so many students have, but, if it works, it might prove to be a good first step into an open peer review system that helps create good, solid scholarship in a timely manner, without the need for the bottleneck of journals. I hope it works.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Doctoral Candidate Candidate

I'm a doctoral candidate candidate and I've spent just about every free waking moment of the last month trying to the read minds of committee members I've never met who will decide my fate.

I've gone to the seminars about choosing a grad school, approaching a potential supervisor, applying for grants. I've written, rewritten and rewritten again every paragraph of my applications.

I've been warned that my project proposal should be compact, doable and specific from one group of people, and warned by another that's terrible advice and I should show broad interest in a range of ideas.

I'm a doctoral candidate candidate, and it's a lot of guess work.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Most Popular Historical Topics of Year 2100?

Everyone likes to think they're unique. But, how predictable are young historians?

What are the history students of next century going to find interesting about us? Will they look into the predictable topics? 9/11 and the sudden concern about global warming? Will they look at us at all? Or will we be considered one of those boring decades that earn little study?

Here's my guesses for most popular history essay topics for students studying our current decade. Some history professor in a hundred years can check if I'm right.

1) Terrorism
2) Global Warming
3) Rise of China in the global economy
4) Fast Food Lifestyles
5) Religious Conflicts

I hope I'm wrong; be unique, students of the future!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Interactive History Displays

I've been working on some projects for Bill Turkel recently that he likes to call "Interactive, Ambient and Tangible Devices for Knowledge Mobilization." In layman's terms, that's "Interactive History Displays."

The project I'm currently working on is an interactive ice core. It's not really ice, but it's a cylinder of plastic, cooled by a device called a "Peltier Junction." When a student touches the ice core, sensors determine where the finger touched and a monitor displays relevant information.

Our current prototype is a cardboard tube, but it's going to get way better, we swear. We have recently started working with a milling machine. This machine is essentially a 3D printer. You give it directions of what you want, put in a block of material - plastic for instance - and it creates your shape in relief.

For those of you interested in the technical details or who wish to follow along with our progress, you can do so here.

But, that's not why I'm posting. The purpose of this project is to demonstrate new ways to engage students with history.

Textbooks have their place, but so many children learn by touching or experiencing. And, because it's not very feasible to truck an ice core into a classroom, we're creating the next best thing. Perhaps better, since most children lack the university degree in paleoclimatology required to decipher ice core secrets.

The interactive display also gives students and educators more control over their learning experience. Students can choose to learn about only those aspects of the core that interest them, by deciding which parts of if to touch. If they are particularly interested in the bubbles which are trapped under the surface, they can focus their attention on that aspect. If they want to know about the dirty section near one end, they can do that too.

These displays can be made relatively inexpensively. The ice core will likely cost about the same as your average science textbook and could be used to teach an entire classroom.

Bill has already started work on a tree-ring which follows the same principles as the ice core.

I think this idea has a bit more potential. So, if anyone has a suggestion for something they would like to see, or that they think would be useful for teaching history, please leave a comment here or send me an email at I'd love to hear your ideas, and perhaps we can bring them to life.

Be creative: dinosaur bones, a castle, a dress. Anything is fair game.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

No one will check the internet

I volunteered at Doors Open London yesterday. Doors Open is held one weekend a year; various sites around town, including museums, historic homes and churches open their doors to the public, free of charge. My job was to help people who came to the London Tourism Bureau by giving them a map and telling them about any of the sites they were curious about.

One of the sites had recently pulled out of Doors Open, but unfortunately the brochures and maps had already been printed. No big deal, I just made sure I told everyone who took a map to cross that one off.

Then, one man asked why they didn't reprint the thousands of brochures to prevent confusion; if he hadn't come to ask me, he never would have known the problem. I explained that it wasn't economically feasible to reprint them so late and that the change had been noted on the internet so he could get the latest information.

"Yeah, but nobody will check there" he says.

The generational line has been drawn.

I live in a world where I stopped reading my local newspaper because they redesigned their website and I dislike the result. Where the bus schedule is found with mouse clicks, and all answers can be Googled.

He lives in a world of paper and face to face contact in which the bus schedule is kept in a drawer, not a cookie.

This is not meant as a criticism towards this man. It just surprised me how different his worldview was on this particular issue. Maybe I need to get out more. And important to remember when working in public history. Not everyone will check the internet.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Thanks to the Archivist

For any archivist, archival assistant or poor grad student who digitized something today and made it available online: Thank you.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Canadianization of Zotero: Results

In June, I sent out a request for suggestions of databases useful to Canadian historians. My goal was to make Zotero - a citation management program designed for use on the internet - friendlier for Canadian history researchers.

A tool like Zotero is only good if it works when you need it to. By extending it's capabilities to include more Canadian content, Canadian researchers now have more incentive to move away form expensive or subscription software that can grab citations from a limited number of databases.

Thank you to everyone who made suggestions and told me about the databases they use regularly.

Zotero now has more translators dedicated to Canadian sites than any other country outside the US.

My focus was on making translators for archives, journal repositories newspapers and university libraries. The results of my Canadianization is as follows:

National Archives and Archival networks:

Archives Canada (
Archives Network of Alberta
Saskatchewan AIN
Manitoba AIN
Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales Quebec

Databases and Repositories:

Artefacts Canada
Archives Canada-France
Champlain Society
Canadian Letters and Images Project
Glenbow Museum
AdvoCAT - Great Library Catalogue
CARL Harvester
Eighteenth Century Collections Online


The Globe and Mail
The National Post
The Toronto Star
Le Devoir
The Hamilton Spectator
Winnipeg Free press
All newspapers hosted on
All newspapers hosted on

University Libraries:

UBC Library
UQAM Library

* note: most Canadian university library systems were already supported by Zotero. Zotero now supports 90% of Canadian university libraries.


Anyone using Zotero can now automatically grab citation information for anything from fonds, to journal articles to artifacts on these Canadian content sites and dozens of others that are already supported. Go forth and research!

Thank you to the Center for History and New Media for funding this project.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Second languages for history PhDs - JavaScript?

Most PhD history programs require students to be proficient enough in a second language to translate a one page passage of text into English. Many even require a third. Which languages a student is expected to know usually depends upon his or her proposed course of study.

At some of the more prestigious institutions, someone studying French history would generally be expected to know English, French and German. Someone studying Chinese history would need to know two Asian languages. This makes sense, as anyone claiming to be an expert on a given topic best be able to read primary sources in the language they were written.

At the Center for History and New Media, where I am currently working, I've had to learn another language: JavaScript. Some of my colleagues are also fluent in php, html, Java, python, perl and c++. In the past year by using these languages, my colleagues have created powerful tools; one helps over a million people manage their internet research (Zotero), and another powers the digital collections of museums and archives all over the world (Omeka), all for free.

I wonder how long until the language requirement for Ancient Greek is replaced with "JavaScript, Python and one of php or html?"

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Say No to Canadian National Museums in Winnipeg

Some day in the not so distant future, Winnipeg will have a Canadian National Museum: The National Museum of Human Rights. This will be the country's first national museum outside of the capital region.

This is a terrible idea, and I do not intend to visit.

Despite this, I understand why someone would make a case for a museum in Winnipeg. Canada is one of a handful of countries in the world so big that centralizing everything in a capital region means that some people will live too far away to benefit from these institutions. This problem is only getting worse as fuel prices rise and airline ticket prices skyrocket. Underprivileged kids in St. John's and Vancouver will likely never get the opportunity to come to Ottawa to experience all the museums and monuments.

It's no secret that Western Canadians feel life is unfair and everyone in Toronto is trying to destroy the world, so the concept of having a national museum a little closer to home is a refreshing idea. But, is Winnipeg really closer?

Winnipeggers aside, nearly everyone else in the country - including many northern Manitoba residents - have to fly into this rather isolated community. It's so isolated, that the nearest major city (Minneapolis) is seven hours drive, just slightly shorter than the drive from Toronto to New York City.

It is actually cheaper for someone to fly from Vancouver to Ottawa, than from Vancouver to Winnipeg.

Prices for July 21, round trip:

Vancouver to Winnipeg: $914
Vancouver to Ottawa: $900
St. John's to Winnipeg: $1469
St. John's to Ottawa: $952
Toronto to Winnipeg: $710

The poor, underprivileged who live outside of Ontario and Quebec may never be able to afford to come to Ottawa to see the national monuments and museums, but what will putting one of these institutions in Winnipeg do to help alleviate that? Pardon my skepticism, but I find it hard to believe that anyone is going to spend a thousand dollars or more to fly into Winnipeg to see one museum, when they could spend the same to go see many in Ottawa, and even catch an NHL game while they're at it (too soon?).

Sure, the 600 000 residents of Winnipeg will have an opportunity to see the Human Rights Museum, but they aren't likely going to go often enough to keep it open and prevent it from being a drain on federal resources. And sure, those people who do go to Winnipeg for vacations or business will likely go. But, does anyone honestly believe putting a museum in the middle of a small isolated city is going to draw in flocks of tourists from thousands of miles away?

Tourists don't flock to Paris just to see the Louvre. They don't go to Amsterdam to see just the Rijksmuseum. They don't go to New York just to see the Museum of Modern Art. Nobody is going to go to Winnipeg just to see the Human Rights Museum.

The decision to decentralize Canadian museums has other negative effects. The biggest cost associated with most history research is getting to the resources. If the collection you need to study is in Ottawa, you've got to get to Ottawa to look at it. This is why professors go on sabbatical and spend a year far from their universities, spending travel grants paid for by tax payers.

Library and Archives Canada is in Ottawa; that means most researchers studying Canadian topics will have to make the trip to Ottawa already. Anyone studying something related to the Human Rights Museum's collection will now have to stretch their research budget further and make a trip to Winnipeg.

The only argument for decentralizing these records is that Ottawa is under constant threat of nuclear attack and if everything is in Ottawa during the attack it will be lost. Despite what the American media would have us believe, I don't think this is a real problem at the moment. If we are worried, digital copies of the records can easily be stored on computer servers across the country to make it harder to destroy all traces of our collections.

And that leads me to my final point.

If the decision to put a national museum in Winnipeg was made to make Canadian National Museums accessible to more Canadians, then we should build the museum in Ottawa, and work towards becoming a world leader in online museum experiences. There are very few exhibits, lessons and resources that can't be effectively put online, with a bit of creativity. This will bring the museums to all Canadians. Building in Winnipeg will not.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Washington DC, the ultimate History Mashup

I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C. doing some family history research for someone I know. I went in with a single name and to my surprise, came out with a very complete picture of three people.

The Washington library has a lovely little shelf of books for genealogists to do their one-stop shopping for information, almost all indexed by surname. It turns out, nearly everything a genealogist in D.C. could want has been indexed this way by a couple of dedicated archivists. My research was just a matter of flipping through the index of each book, looking for the name I wanted, or a close variation thereof. I was essentially Google searching the old fashioned way.

Not only did I find marriage records, death announcements and a transcription of a will, but I found what was essentially a phone book for 1822 D.C. listing most of the 13 000 residents, and abstracts of the newspaper, the National Intelligencer from 1800 to the end of the Civil War. Each one of these works is an amazing feat in itself, but together they paint an amazing and rather comprehensive image of what Washington DC was like during the 19th century.

Based on the information available in the books on this shelf, it would be quite feasible to map exactly where almost all of Washington D.C.'s 19th century citizens lived.

The woman I was researching lived at the "n side I n. btw 19 & 20w."
Here's where that falls on a modern map. Plotted for me by Google Maps.

The David Rumsey Map collection has already been working with Google Earth, and overlays of historic D.C. maps can be viewed using Google Earth. This means that KML markup (the language that allows people to add their photos/comments/links to Google Earth) can be applied to these historic maps.

Using the City Directories, available from the Washington Public Library, the residents of 19th century Washington could be plotted onto this map. The directories were published every 5 years or so, and the migration of citizens could be plotted over time.

Each entry could include all of the documentary evidence still available about these people, much the same way people add photos to Google Earth.

Such a project would be a fabulous finding aid to genealogists who are searching for relatives who lived in the D.C. area.

It would also be one of the world's greatest Mash-ups, making evident a huge number of relationships to historians. Everything from patterns in crime, to trends in migration, to whether or not people married outside of their neighbourhoods would become open to the data mining of historians, using techniques not unlike Bill Turkel's Naive Bayesian project using the Old Bailey Online database.

Perhaps a future CHNM project?

Monday, June 30, 2008

"I know nothing of Canadian history"

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of fighting D.C. rush hour traffic a with one of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media. For anyone who doesn't know D.C. rush hour, that means we had a really long time to chat.

She is a Russian foreign exchange student; when I found this out, I instinctively went over everything I knew about Russian history in my head (I know, only a history buff would do something like that).

I recalled the book I read about Catherine the Great for a first year history essay; the battle of Stalingrad, which "Enemy at the Gates" brought to life; the communist regime which dominated sections of nearly every 20th century history course I've ever taken, and a dozen other facts.

When I mentioned that I was a Canadian foreign exchange student she said, "You know, I hate to say it. But, I know nothing of Canadian history." "We don't learn any of that."

This surprised me a little. I figured since we both shared soul crushing winters, that might evoke some interest in how we had coped with the bitter cold. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. That very same day at the George Mason University bookstore I had noted that you could buy history books on everywhere from Eithiopia to Finland, but not one on Canada. Last time I checked, even Harvard doesn't teach anything about Canadian history.

She probably thought of most of it as British history, I informed her. Prior to 1919, Canada had never even signed a treaty in its own right. That doesn't leave for much history to know, really. We found some common ground in the 1972 summit series between Canada and the USSR, and shared a laugh that Americans take so much pride in the 1980 "miracle on ice" (a tournament in which the best hundred or so Canadian players were too busy being paid in the NHL to compete).

I felt a bit wounded that this Russian girl knew nothing of my nation's history, but then I recalled that I know almost nothing about New Zealand's history. Even less about most sub-Saharan African, South and Central American, Scandinavian, Adriatic, South East Asian, and South Pacific countries.

In fact, I really only know the histories of a dozen or so nations. And perhaps only three or four well. The ones I do know tend to have had rather unwelcome influences on the world at some time or another, be that British colonialism, German expansionism, or American cultural dominance. So maybe no publicity is good publicity when it comes to history? Maybe we're just not obnoxious enough to be studied.

At least, that's what I'll tell myself.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Living Historic Documents?

You'll all be happy to know that citizens of D.C. were given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday to walk around with handguns (District of Columbia v. Heller). It turns out that the law previously preventing this was in violation of the U.S. Constitution's second amendment that allows Americans to arm themselves.

I know Americans love their constitution, but when it comes down to it the US Constitution is just a historic document, written by people with different hopes and dreams and needs than anyone alive today.

This 2nd Amendment was written generations ago by men who likely associated the right to carry weapons with the privileged life of the nobility back in Europe. Eighteenth-century European riff-raff couldn't carry guns, and these men wanted to show they were gentlemen. Carrying a gun suggested equal status with nobles. And of course it made it easier to ward off the danger of British invasion - which could still happen at any moment.

The whole situation reminds me of a book I'm currently reading: "The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs. The author tries to live for an entire year without breaking any of the rules of the Bible. His book repeatedly makes it clear that living literally by a historical text results in some ridiculous outakes. My favourite so far was the story of the old man who Jacobs was forced to throw pebbles at in Central Park to uphold the biblical rule to "stone adulterers." A close second is the ritual of stealing a pigeon's egg - quite clearly outlined as a rule in the Bible.

Excuse my lack of zeal for the U.S. Constitution - not being an American and hating guns - but it seems to me that this quest to live by a historic document (the U.S. Constitution) that has been taken out of context by the passage of more than a hundred years, is not far removed from Jacobs' liberated pigeon egg. Which, I would hazard to suggest breaks the "Thou shalt not steal" rule. But, maybe that doesn't apply to pigeons.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Spoils of an ongoing Afghanistan war, in a National Museum?

The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is currently exhibiting "Hidden Treasures from the National Museum in Kabul." The collection on display was saved from the wrath of the Taliban by the Afghan curator and hidden for several years before being smuggled to Washington for this temporary exhibition.

The artifacts are beautiful, and the gallery has done an excellent job on the show, but something felt distasteful seeing these artifacts in the United States, especially while NATO troops are currently engaging combatants in Afghanistan.

I realize that these artifacts - mostly elaborate gold jewelery -would have been destroyed by the Taliban who seek to carry out their interpretation of the Qur'an. I realize that the American people have an opportunity to learn a little bit about Afghani culture and history. And I realize that these artifacts will one day, God willing, go back to Afghanistan for as a record of the past for future Afghani's.

But, why now?

To argue that the museum is neutral in this conflict is hard to swallow. The Smithsonian - of which the Gallery is a part, is an American national institution. The conflict in Afghanistan is everything that post 9/11 American culture stands for.

It is one thing for the Americans to help safeguard the collection during a time of danger, and entirely another to put it on display. If the tables were turned and the insurgents held the U.S. Constitution in a museum in Kabul, the American people would surely see the situation differently.

I applaud the National Gallery of Art for helping to preserve these priceless objects. But, let's not rub it in anyone's face. It wasn't Andrew W. Mellon who brought these objects here. It was bullets. Good intentioned bullets, perhaps. But bullets none-the-less.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Taking Interactivity Into Your Own Hands: Touching in the Museum

"Daddy, I want to touch him."

"Him" is a rather large fellow who lived approximately 65 million years ago. In this case, the skeleton of a T-rex standing in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The young boy's father looks around coyly to check for security and quickly picks up his son. Excitedly, the boy reaches over the Plexiglas barrier and places his hand on the dinosaur's leg-bone. His eyes light up.

We learn by touching. Babies are the best evidence of this. They'll put things in their mouth that even the dog would turn its nose up at, just for the chance to learn a little bit about an object.

This boy, now about six years old, has graduated from licking things he wants to learn about and has moved on to touching them. And I can't say I blame the kid for his choice of object to touch. If he is anything like I was at 6 years old, he knows that the T-rex is the most scarriest, most meanest dinosaur ever, and it could chomp him in one bite. Who wouldn't want to touch him while he's in this less harmful, yet awe inspiring state?

It will be many years before he realizes that the leg he touched was made from a mold. Meanwhile, that experience he just had will remain the coolest, most precious thing he's ever touched - until he gets married, and not a day sooner.

After about a half-hour in the dinosaur exhibit, it became clear to me. People want to touch what they see in the museum. They want to connect with it in some way. The little boy and the dinosaur now have a relationship: they touched once. And if they ever meet at a cocktail party, at least they'll have something to discuss.

What is more, on the most fundamental level, the little boy turned what was a static display into an interactive experience. Sure, not too much happened to the casual observer, but for the little boy it was magic.

I saw evidence of this touching all over the Natural History Museum.

This object, prominently labeled "Cast" is situated so that the front few teeth on the bottom jaw are within arms reach of anyone over three feet tall. Even though it's not authentic, the teeth have either been created to show extreme plaque build up on these front teeth, or thousands of hands have brushed them over the years, wearing off the paint until only the white cast remained.

I stood and watched for less than a minute and nearly everyone passing this skull touched the teeth. Even the adults who were able to read the sign - or who knew better than to think the Museum would put a real T-Rex skull so carelessly close to visitor's hand - couldn't resist at least grazing the tips of the teeth with the palm of their hand.

Understandable. Dinosaurs are cool; they bring us back to our childhood when we read stories about them and were able to recite endless facts about them to any grown-up who would listen. Did you know that stegosaurus have spikes on their tails and that diplodocus is a plant eater?

However, that doesn't explain this:
This poor couple in the Western Civilizations wing of the museum are in serious need of restoration.

These aren't artifacts, nor do they pretend to be. They don't have nearly the same 'wow' factor as the T-Rex. Nevertheless, thousands of fingers - mine included, have worn away the paint.

I'm inclined to suggest that this is a cry for help by the visitor. The museum has provided such a rich assortment of visual stimuli, that people take the first chance they get to change that up. They touch it.

It's a harmless action that fulfills that need for an interactive experience. It may sound silly, but I would rate my nose-touching experience among the most memorable of my day at the Smithsonian. If nothing else, it was a little bit naughty and it was a change from walking around with my hands neatly folded behind my back.

I must thank the Smithsonian for including these interactive, tactile exhibits. Though they weren't overly complex, they allowed me and everyone with a little boy still inside them to get some pent-up energy out. They gave my eyes a momentary rest, and let me contribute to the slow, meticulous destruction of objects in the museum with just a hint of oil from my fingers.

Oddly enough, there was no evidence of the same wear on text-panels. And nearly all of them were within touching range.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Canadianization of Zotero

Zotero is a pretty amazing computer program for historical researchers using the internet. What makes it even better are the translators. Translators allow you to click on a little icon in the address bar and automatically save all the bibliographic information found on the website. This is a great time-saver as those of you who use Zotero for this purpose already know.

If you're not familiar with this feature and already have Zotero installed, go to, search for your favourite book, go to the entry and click on the little blue book icon on the right hand side of your address bar. Then take a look at what got saved in Zotero. Pretty nifty for one click of a mouse.

However, they're not as easy to make as they are to use. The translator for only works for Each website that is supported - and there are a lot - have a custom-coded translator, specific to that site.

Right now, most of the sites that are supported are American. I say it's time for a change.

So, in the interest of promoting Canadian history research, I'm offering you a chance to get the translator of your dreams, free of charge.

I am taking requests for translators for sites that are used by CANADIANS for research.
These sites can be in English or French (or both), and priority will go to historical databases, and requests made by UWO history professors who gave me good grades.

If you know of a site that fits these criteria that you would like a translator for (or if you operate such a site), please post your request HERE, and include the word "Canada" somewhere in your message.

I will do my best to fulfill all suggestions, provided they are posted prior to July 15, 2008.

To be eligible, the site must contain:
  • a large database of records (1000+ entries).
  • each entry must have its own page with a stable URL (if you can cut and paste the URL into a blank browser's address bar and it takes you to the entry, then it's stable enough).
  • Each entry must have a title.
  • The entries must be searchable via a search box.
  • I must be able to access the records. (That means if it's password protected, it must either be accessible to me via the library at the University of Western Ontario's subscription, or you must provide me with access.)
  • The site cannot be under construction, or planning changes to its structure/design in the near future.
Examples include:
  • Glenbow Library and Archives
  • the Globe and Mail
  • CAIN
  • BCain
  • UWO Library
Please forward this request to any of your colleagues who may find this helpful.

Remember, only until July 15, 2008. After which time I'll be on to other things.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Colonial Williamsburg: Experts or Actors?

Colonial Williamsburg has brought one small town in southern Virginia back to 1775. According to the man out front of the cobbler's shop on the main street, this living history museum employs over 3000 people, 1500 of which are costumed re-enactors.

Personally, I've never seen anything like it. At least not on this scale. There are scheduled events you can witness as they would have been like in 1775. My girlfriend and I watched a mock-trial, and caught a bit of a reenactment (essentially a play that occurs in and around the tourists in the streets), and took a few guided tours of old buildings. It's like Disneyland for colonial America history buffs.

While I enjoyed my tour and watching people walk around dressed in silly outfits say Old Tymey phrases, what I really enjoyed was talking to the craftsmen. Colonial Williamsburg has all of the shops and tradespeople you might expect a small Virginia town in 1775. There was a wigmaker (she was a bit looney if you ask me), a tailor, a brickmaker, a blacksmith, a gunsmith, a cooper, a carpenter, a cabinet maker and just about anything you could think of. And these craftsmen work away at their trade while they chat with tourists - in character of course.

I wondered what happened to the products that these craftspeople were making after they were done. Unlike in Disneyland where mechanical elves simulate hammering a nail over and over again until the gears in the machine break down, these people are actually working on what it looks like they're working on. And their labour actually goes towards projects to expand Colonial Williamsburg.

The cobbler informed us that the books he was making would be used by a new employee as part of his costume. All those barrels the cooper was shaping were being used as trashcans on the side of the road. The blacksmith informed us they had an order for 3000 nails to construct a new building in town, which he was making one by one - in between answering tourists questions. Whatever excess they produced found its way into the gift shops.

On the plantation just outside of town, we talked to a man making shingles from a log. He split the wood into boards with an axe, then used some medieval looking tool to split the boards into the proper shape. "Nobody else in the world makes shingles like this any more" he told us, adding "we get orders from museums all over the world looking for authentic style building materials. We asked him how long he'd been there. "9 years." We began asking the other craftsmen similar questions. It seemed like they'd all been there for quite a while. The cabinet maker had been there 25 years, and he wasn't even the senior cabinet maker. These people had devoted their careers to a particular craft, the way it had been done two hundred years ago.

Sure I know they're not really ghosts from the past, and I know the guy in the gunsmiths shop is probably tired to death of telling tourists "You can pick up that rifle, but please don't cock it." And I'm sure there are days when he would rather be drinking a beer and watching the game than answering dumb questions, but when it comes down to it, there isn't a book in the world that can tell you more about eighteenth century craftsmanship than any one of those senior craftsmen.

Sure the researchers found the right tools to put in the cabinet makers shop. And they found examples of eighteenth century cabinets for the tradesman to use as models. But after 25 years of using those tools and building from those patterns, that maker's expertise has far outstripped anything any academic has found in a book.

These are living, practicing experts. They may not have a background in academic history - most were tradesmen before joining the museum - and part of their duties is to act a roll in a grand play for tourists, the Colonial Williamsburg tradesmen show that you can in fact practice history. And you can do it well.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

the Problem with Telling your own History: The Newseum

I went to the Newseum in Washington DC last weekend. For those that don't know, this museum, dedicated to the history of news media opened last month.

History is a bit of a stretch, since 95% of the content is from the past 65 years, but that's a minor point.

The exhibits themselves are quite visually stimulating, the technologically cutting edge and some of the display techniques rather innovative. From an experience standpoint, I'd say they earned my $20.

But what struck me repeatedly was how obvious it was that the members of the news media had created this museum to give accolades to themselves. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the world's spin-doctors have decided to put a little spin on their museum. But, if I didn't know better, after my visit, I'd be sure that if it were not for the media, all truth would vanish and tyranny would envelope the earth.

At the Newseum, you too can learn important life lessons such as:

The problem with the Soviet Union was that they did not have a free media.

The East Germans lived their lives solely to watch and listen to the Western Media secretly at night.

And the reporter who brought to light the Monica Lewinski scandal had performed a great service to America by shedding light on the truth.

I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. The boogie man is not trying to get me, and your reporting did not save me in the nick of time. You did not do the world a great service by bringing us the O.J. Simpson trial 24 hours a day.

The media exists only to sell advertising. And if you don't believe me, you've clearly never written a SEO article for a website, or read an advertising media kit for a magazine. Where were the exhibits on that I wonder?

Rather ironic that an outlet that promotes bias-free reporting of the truth would turn towards such shameless self-promotion.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Importance of MetaData on websites

As Bill Turkel noted in his recent blog post, I've been doing a summer internship, part of which involves making translators for a program called Zotero.

If you're a historian or a history student and you don't know what Zotero is, you should definitely look into it. It allows you to save and collect bibliographical information for just about anything you find on the internet, often with the click of a button.

For example, if you go to a webpage about the United Irishmen, you can use Zotero to save a snapshot of the page (kind of like a bookmark), you can attach notes to it, create tags to help you remember what the page is about, add the author's name, date, publisher...just about whatever you want. You can then export that bibliographic data in proper Chicago/MLA/APA format and save yourself writing it all out.

Some pages are even easier to use. These are pages that Zotero has translators for. On these pages - for example, a little icon will appear in the address bar of the page. If you're looking at the entry for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, when you click the little icon Zotero automatically saves all the relevant bibliographical information for you. You don't have to type in a thing!
Unfortunately, these translators have to be made one by one. Each and every page on the internet has to have its own translator. Because of this, only the most important historical repositories are currently supported.

You'll find them for websites such as JSTOR, Amazon, even the University of Western Ontario's library page. But there are several important (often Canadian) pages that are not yet working.

How a translator works, is that a JavaScript program is told to check if the webpage you're currently on is one of the webpages that Zotero knows how to find bibliographic data on. This often entails checking the website's address. For example:

If this webpage's address starts with then,
I should load the translator for

The next part is quite a bit trickier! Zotero is just a program. It doesn't know anything about what it is reading. We have to teach it how to recognize which piece of information on the screen is the title, which tells us the author, etc. And I've noticed two distinct trends: those sites who provide this information in metadata and those who do not.

Metadata, for those who don't know, is helpful, clearly formatted information about your site. Go to any webpage, click on the "View" menu, and select "Page Source." If the website in question has metadata, you'll notice quite near the top several lines of code that read something like this:

This essentially tells us that there are some keywords that you might find helpful in remembering what this website is about. They include "Adam Crymble, history".

We can also tell that the author is "Adam Crymble" and this website was last revised in "spring 2008."

If a webpage contains this data, it makes it MUCH easier for other people to use the data on your page. Zotero can easily be taught to recognize that the words after the meta name=”author” tag should go in the bibliographical field "author." It is also quite easy to tell Zotero that words after the meta name=”keywords” should be separated and made into "tags" which you can then use to organize your work.

However, many...rather, most webpages do not have very good (or any) metadata. In these cases, it requires extensive work to tell Zotero what it is looking at. Rather than simply associating one metatag with one entry in Zotero, the person must analyze your page's HTML code, figure out how your page is structured and write a customized line of code called an XPath that looks something like this:


Don't worry, it looks like gobbledigook to me too. Each and every part of data that Zotero wants to collect needs a custom written Xpath like this. This one would find the title of a book in's repository.

What could have been 3 lines of code had there been Metadata on the page now requires dozens of lines.

None of the three websites I have been working on translators for include metadata. In two of these cases - well known Canadian museums, the websites are almost brand new. They're visually stimulating and engaging. Yet the information is hidden in complex code and confusing paths.

In the 21st century, websites are not merely a static representation of one person's work. Especially those that hold information for others to use, such as libraries, archives and repositories. Designing your webpage to incorporate metadata makes the information you have put out there easier for others to use. It makes people more likely to use it. And it encourages people like those who use Zotero to help your site stand out, with exciting add-ons that are changing the way people do internet research.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Canadian History for Sale!

We all know Canadian history is boring. We live in a new country, where nothing happened until 1914 when the Germans attacked us. Then nothing more until 1939 – Germans again. Naught else worth knowing really.

Nothing man-made worth seeing either. In Vancouver, the only nice old building in town is the Christ Church Cathedral, built way way back in 1895. That’s roughly 2413 years after the Greeks finished the Parthenon. It’s even younger than the Eiffel Tower, the modern addition to the Parisian skyline.

So how are we supposed to compete with the French, who can convince twenty thousand visitors a day to stand in line for three hours to get into the Palace of Versailles? Or what about the Egyptians, who attract throngs of tourists to see the Pyramids despite the travel cautions warning visitors to beware of kidnappers?

How about the same way toy companies convinced us we all needed a Furby, or a Tickle Me Elmo? Make it talk back. Make it make noise and shake when I push its tummy. Make it fun. Sell it to me! This isn’t a case of Canadian history being boring, but a case of Canadian historians not knowing how to sell it.

Historians learn how to analyze, write and present history, but let’s face it, most couldn’t sell a loaf of bread in the midst of a famine – though they might give it away for a donation. Canadian museums and historic sites quite often operate in the red. Too frequently it’s government funding, and your tax dollars keeping these places afloat.

Historians learn how to write grants, not business feasibility studies. They’re taught to write clearly, not passionately. They look for evidence that illustrates their thesis, not that make little boys shout, “Whoa!” and little girls shriek, “Ewwww!”

Happily, this year’s our big chance.

Quebec is 400 this year. And tourist season is just about upon us.

I can only hope that the cheesy reenactments will be out in full force every night – drunken sailors in the pubs, soldiers patrolling the old city and a man with an olde tymey hat and a bell – a loud bell, pointing tourists to the next great historical show.

Not history you say? Too Disnified? Absolutely!

But hey, I don’t remember the last time Walter Disney submitted a grant proposal to the government. And no one has taught me more about pirates than the good people at Disney. It’s a skewed view about pirates, but at least it’s a view. And that's more than most people have of Canadian history.

Quebec 2008 is all about getting our foot in the door with the billion dollar historical tourist market. Because like it or not, tourists don’t want to read journal articles. Most don’t even want to read your text panels. They want to be entertained.

They want to see executions, the changing of the guard and the governor’s wife stumbling around her garden in a drunken stupor. Ok, maybe the executions will have to be dramatized, but you get the idea.

Canada’s a big place. If we can hook them with Quebec, they’ll come back and spend more money; perhaps in a different region of the country. Perhaps even in a local museum. And they’ll tell their friends, who will come too. But, they’ll only come if it’s cool. If it shakes and laughs like Tickle me Elmo, or talks back like Furby.

This isn’t a case of who killed Canadian history? but of who is going to bring it alive?

If we can’t do it this year, it can’t be done. But hey, the government will always be there to bail us out financially, won’t they?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

For those who think History should be interesting

Maureen Ogle's recent article in Historically Speaking is an lively tale of someone who saw the light and embraced the life of a 'loser' - erm, popular historian.

Give it a read. Hustler magazine did.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Interested in UWO's Public History MA?

I'm noticing quite a few people coming to this blog via the UWO public history webpage, which leads me to believe they have been receiving/are expecting offers of acceptance to the program for next year and wondering what it will be like.

Please feel free to email me at acrymble [at] if you have any questions about the program. I'm not on staff so I can tell you the truth. And I'm sure most of the other students in the program would be happy to answer questions as well.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jstor, meet Kindle: Simulated Page-Turning

I've essentially gone paperless over the past year. No longer do I print off articles to read; especially if they're available on the internet.

However, I've always hated the way most websites with articles on them are set up - especially sites that scan in images of journal articles or old books such as Jstor or Early English Books Online. More often then not, users are forced to click a tiny little "next" button at the bottom of the page. Call me fussy, but the 1/18th of a second it takes me to move my mouse to that itsy bitsy button makes me hate using these sites. It's even worse when the next page loads and to find the button, I have to scroll my screen down. Set-ups like that just reinforce the complaints of the book-lovers who would rather trudge into the library and use a hard-copy than use the online databases.

Amazon's new electronic book-reader, Kindle came up with a rather novel way of dealing with the fact that most readers like to quickly turn the page, rather than click a little button. The Kindle has two large buttons that run the length of the 'page'. The one on the left, predictably takes the reader to the previous page, the one on the right goes to the next page. Not only are the buttons placed where the readers thumb will likely anyways be - to avoid any effort on the reader's part at all - but they're the best way I've yet seen of a simulated page turn using an electronic device.

Apparently, the people at Jstor took notice. The scrawny little next buttons and clumsy navigation are gone and instead, large Kindle-like buttons appear on every page. They're the tan-coloured bands in the image. Rather than having to scroll around looking for the button, I can see it no matter where I am. Sure, the change probably hasn't saved me that much time - in fact, they've so far cost me the time it's taken to write this post - but they've made the interface that much more user-friendly.

I'm sure in a few years everyone will be on board and this style of navigation will be the norm. But for now, it's a nice step in the right direction.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stonehenge Videos

Here are the two videos I created for our class digital history project.

Originally, Stonehenge was aligned with the Summer and Winter solstices. On the summer solstice at sunset, someone standing at the central "altar stone" would see the sun rise and appear to float between two "slaughter stones" 80m from the centre of the circle. (The names "altar" and "slaughter" are modern tags and don't represent the stones' actual purpose).

On the winter solstice at sunset, a person standing at the central "altar stone" would see the sun set on the opposite side of the monument. The result is a dramatic display of shadows.

This sunrise and sunset are the only two of the year in which the shadows line up in this fashion. Contrary to what you may have been told, the sun does not merely rise in the east and set in the west. It moves throughout the year. And the builders of Stonehenge were able to capture that.

The videos were created using "Bryce 3D".

These stills show the shadows formed.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Deliberately Writing to Future Historians

Dear Future Historians and English Professors,

I am writing to make your job easier. I know how difficult and frustrating it can be to figure out what people in the past may have been doing or thinking, so I present you with this letter that imparts all the facts (free of bias) about the history of Harry Potter’s readership.

As I’m sure you already know, Harry Potter was the most famous protagonist of the early 21st century. His author, J.K. Rowling, went from rags to riches from the enormous success of the series; children and adults around the world read of Harry’s adventures. But what you may not know is who didn’t read Harry Potter, and why they refused to join in Harry’s magical world.

There are three kinds of people in the twenty-first century that have not read Harry Potter. The Cannot’s, the Must Not’s and the Will Not’s.

The Cannot’s are people too poor, too busy earning a living, illiterate, or unable to read one of the many languages into which Harry Potter has been translated. This group is large and is spread across the world. The absence of Harry Potter in their lives comes of necessity and nothing ill can be spoken of them. The latest estimate is that 4.5 billion people fall into this category.

The Must Not’s are people who are able to read Harry Potter, but choose not to on moral grounds. These people are often – but are not exclusively – Evangelical Christians. They believe witches and wizards are evil and homosexuality immoral; consequently these people choose not to read the books. If you would like to see the passion with which these people reject the series, please see the documentary Jesus Camp. Because I – being an unbiased presenter of plain facts – believe people are entitled to their freedom of religion, I will speak no ill of their decision not to read the books. At this time approximately 300 million people are Must Not’s.

The Will Not’s are people who have the time and money to read the books, have no moral objection, but choose not to read the series because they think this decision makes them unique. They love to tell you how proud they are that they have never read the books. How childish it is to read books targeted at adolescents. And how much they hate what they have never experienced. These people – factually speaking – are unhappy with their lives. Their refusal to read Harry Potter is a cry for help. What they’re really saying is, I want to read them. I want to join the club of fans, but I’m afraid it will rob me of the only thing that makes me unique. The Will Not group is quickly diminishing as they break down, one by one, relinquishing themselves to the wonder and magic of the Harry Potter series. By the time of your reading this note, far off in the future, the Will Not’s will almost certainly not exist. At last count, there were 47 of these people.

You now understand all there is to know – just the facts – about the readership of the Harry Potter series. I hope this letter has helped you in your endeavour to understand what we of the early twenty-first century were like.

Respectfully yours,

Adam Crymble

P.S. Historians write of the past in the hopes that people in the present will understand.

Journalists write of the present in the hopes that people in the present will understand.

Who writes to the people of the future? Ridiculous content aside, can we talk to future historians? Or will we just be considered another source amongst a sea of sources? Is there a difference between a contemporary account (such as a newspaper article), written for contemporaries, and an account specifically generated to explain ourselves to people not yet born?

And more importantly, have YOU read Harry Potter yet? You don’t want the next generation of historians to categorize you as a “Will Not.” I’ve just seen to it that the future will see these people in a negative light.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Our Public History Blogs: a Waste of Time?

I know a few of my classmates think blogs are a waste of time. Some complain that nobody reads them, others think it's an outdated format, a couple don't want to contribute to the growing amount of crap already on the internet, and some just don't feel like it.

There's not much I can say about the don't feel like it crowd; however, I do agree with one criticism: a lot of people do write at least some crap - myself included. But that's just why blogs are important for this program. You don't become proficient at a skill by avoiding it. History is a literate discipline, and unless you plan to be a ticket-taker at the local heritage centre, you will likely write in some capacity during your public history career. That writing might be on text panels, brochures, or in magazine articles. It might be part of your job or a supplement to your income. And if you don't practice, you aren't going to get better.

Poor grammar on a text panel will get your museum a bad review. A sloppy or ineffective style on a brochure might mean no one will show up to your event. And an inability to come up with a good angle will quickly get your magazine article shuffled to the bottom of the pile. So, why not practice now?

Chances are, you won't write anything award-winning on your blog; most of your thoughts won't be as complete as the Cliopatria "best post" written by a member of UWO Public History last year. But, a blog offers you an audience - albeit modest, and a chance to practice your writing. No matter how professional your clothing, or how friendly you are, there's a good chance you will be hired for your ideas and your ability to communicate them.

Chances are you haven't mastered it yet. I find it amusing every week when a few of the teaching assistants in my seminar class complain about how terrible their students' essays are, and then these same teaching assistants proceed to read aloud a terribly written presentation, word-for-word from their notes. I can only imagine our professors, sitting in the lounge, are making the same comments about the overconfident Masters students' poorly written papers. You can always improve.

And, while you might think it's a waste of time to blog because nobody reads it, who, I wonder, was reading your academic essays? Was that a waste of time? If your blog traffic is anything like mine - which is nothing to brag about - more people have read your blog in the past month than all the people that have ever read one of your academic history essays. While I concede that what you write on your blog may never get you a job, or even an interview, it will give you a chance to work out a few kinks in an important skill. For that alone, the blog is not a waste of time.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Assignments and the Internet

I had an assignment earlier this year to use the internet to find archival materials relating to the beer industry. It was a lot more frustrating than I had expected because the wording of the assignment hadn't made it quite clear if I was doing what was expected. Then, I went to google, and typed in the professor's exact question in quotation marks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a former student's responses to the same assignment popped up on my screen. I already had more than enough to submit my response, but I was able to use what I found from my search to reassure myself that I was doing the assignment correctly.

The fact that the answers to this assignment are on the internet rather compromises the integrity of it as a learning experience. But, who is to blame in this case?

Is it the student, who has self-published an answer key to an assignment? Or is it the teacher who has tried to save time by reusing something that is now obsolete?

This year, I have been encouraged to publish everything I write on the internet or otherwise. It is certainly an excellent way to produce a portfolio of work that could be used to get further in academia or in the writing industry. Yet, I know in many cases, by posting my work I will ruin an assignment for a professor and force them to either do more work and think of something new, or continue to use what is now a poor test of critical thought.

Right now, I am working on an assignment that asks me to write a compare and contrast review of the only two histories written on the eighteenth century trial of Mrs. Rudd for forgery. These two histories also happened to be written within a year of each other, and it appears neither author knew what the other had been working on. This certainly doesn't happen every day, and it provides a unique and important exercise for students trying to learn more about historiography. But, if I post my review, next year students will be able to use it as a guide. Be able to quote it even. The assignment won't require the same level of critical analysis.

Journals won't publish an article that too closely resembles something they've already published, because it's already been done. Scholarship exists to fill in the gaps in knowledge, not to repeat it in slightly different words. And if I publish it, I will have done this topic.

But, is this my concern?

It has become very clear this year that many students are better with the internet than are their professors. I'm sure my professor this year was entirely unaware that a google search of his question would lead me to someone's responses. But, if unchecked, a problem like this can practically ruin an entire course.

I know of a course this year in which the professor was unaware that the students had access to the textbook's solution manual through the internet. The students had been copying out all their responses without learning a thing (as their failing midterm marks made abundantly clear). And yet the professor did not seem to catch the signs. Not only were the questions from an old textbook, but the students were strikingly efficient with them. Even though the questions were handed out at the beginning of lecture and should have taken 2 hours to complete, many students had no problem perfectly completing the assignments while taking lecture notes by the end of the 1 hour class. Of course, they had just been copying out the answers and ignoring their professor.

Is this the student's fault for being lazy and cheating? Or is it the professor's for using teaching material that is obsolete and fails to engage the students?

Or, is anyone at fault?

The internet now means questions are no longer recyclable. And while I know many students are more comfortable with the internet than are their professors, that's going to have to change pretty quickly or assignments are going to become obsolete.

Will I post my double review?

I guess we'll see.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Women and Family History

In my on-going search for my family history, I've noticed one striking absence: the Women.

In my previous post, Researching Family History: It's Really Just a Title, I noted that for the most part, genealogy is just the history of a surname as it is passed from male to male in an unending line.

But, what about the histories of the women who marry and whose history is utterly ignored? It is easy to follow a male line. For me, anyone with the last name "Crymble" is almost certainly somewhere on the family tree and I need merely to find the common male in both our pasts to know what the relation is. But what of my grandmothers? Where did they come from?

I realized I know eleven generations of my family tree on the male line, dating back over four centuries.

I know two on the female, and both of those are still alive.

Even on my maternal grandfather's side, I know the history of his family name back to the 18th century. Of my grandmother: I know she was born Gertrude Wendt on August 1, 1927. Beyond that, it is lost to me. Who were my grandmothers?

Perhaps it is they whose history I should be pursuing? Whose stories I should be seeking to uncover.

Maybe I will.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Researching Family History: It's Really Just a Title

I've been looking into the Crymble family history the last month or so, and I've found the experience pretty exciting. I am lucky in that my name is very uncommon, and I know exactly from which part of Ireland my ancestors emmigrated, so I can pinpoint my search to very specific regions.

I'm also lucky in that a distant cousin of mine has already done most of the legwork and has found our relatives back to 1585. I even was able to go to the Weldon Library here at the University of Western Ontario and find a brief family history that was printed as part of a regional history of Carrickfergus, back in 1823. I was pretty excited. So, I called my father and told him all about the details I had found, which I won't bore you with here. And his response was, "Yea, but, everyone in Ireland is related."

And I began to wonder what that meant for my search. In a sense, he's absolutely right, and what I'm doing is not researching my family history, but the history of a name as it was passed between men, in an uninterrupted line.

There are 11 generations between that man from 1585 and myself. That means that (based on what I learned in health class), I am directly descended from 4094 people between 1585 and now. And, my search for the Crymble family history is only concerned with the 11 of them born with the surname "Crymble." As if the other 4083 were utterly unimportant.

Mapping where you came from is not as straight forward as I once thought. Each generation you push your search back, the number of relatives you have doubles. Each came from somewhere different, with a different background, a different family history of their own. And if you only search one line, you're only scratching the surface of where you came from.

Ultimately, what you're researching is a title. The title that you still happen to carry around on your credit cards and drivers license, today. Your family history is much more complex than that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Pre-Historic Park and Keepin' it Simple

I caught a program on TVO last night called “Prehistoric Park.” It originally aired on Animal Planet, and combines Jurassic Park with Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, and adds a little time travel in for good measure.

It’s a kid’s show, but it is filmed like a nature program, where a camera crew follows around the fearless host through the wilderness. Except, rather than seeking out King Cobra’s, or Crocodiles, the host travels back in time to bring near-extinct species such as the Microraptor or the Triceratops, into the present where they are kept at “Prehistoric Park” in what amounts to a Dino-zoo. Computer graphics bring the beasts back to life, and if you suspend your disbelief, you can easily imagine that he’s actually there.

But, what I found the most intriguing, was the way in which information was presented to the audience. I’m no paleontologist, but I’m pretty sure the level of detail given by the narrator is at best theory. Last night, for instance, he caught four Microraptors, which were “half-bird, half-dinosaur.” These Microraptors had a few feathers, which according to the host, were used to keep the animal warm, as well as for use in elaborate courtship displays such as those performed by modern Birds of Paradise.

This information was presented plainly, factually and not unlike you’d expect from Steve Irwin explaining crocodile behaviour. But, the difference is, Microraptors have never been seen alive by humans. Not even close. All we have are some impressions in rocks and perhaps some fossils. There’s no way we could conclusively know this level of detail about the Microraptor’s courtship rituals. Steve Irwin, on the other hand, spent a lifetime studying crocodiles, and was able to see first-hand how they react to various stimuli.

Does this program lie?

We, as viewers, know that the dinosaurs aren’t real (even though the graphics are pretty good). We also know he isn’t really time-traveling. So, are they merely trying to entertain us with some graphics, and some dramatic scenes in which the host routinely almost doesn’t make it back alive? Or are they trying to teach us about these creatures in an intriguing and innovative way?

I’m more inclined to say it’s the later. The content is important.

But, evidently – at least for the producers – the fact that the information presented are theories and not 100% for-sure truths is unimportant. Certainly, we cannot expect children watching this show to understand this distinction between academic theory and certitude. Even most adults probably wouldn’t pick up on the distinction.

But, does it matter?

Is the purpose of shows like these, or even of paleontologists, to brief the world on the latest research and theories? Or, is it to broadly educate those interested in some part of paleontology that they might never have known before, and to do it in an exciting and entertaining way?

There’s something to be said about simplicity.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Make Your Own 3d Graphics

One of our major assignments this year is to create interactive content for Museum London to use with their grade 5 students, on a Smartboard. The Smartboard is a lot like a Power Point presentation that allows students to move things around and click buttons on the screen. Essentially, it's a fancy blackboard.

In designing the content, I decided to make use of a graphics program I'd learned a few years ago called Bryce 3D to spice things up a bit and make my own graphics rather than relying on those created by others. Bryce is a bit outdated now (You won't see Disney using it in any of their upcoming movies), but it still makes some pretty nice pictures - especially landscapes.

The difference between Bryce and the Paint/Draw programs we all have on our computers, is that everything in Bryce is made up of geometric shapes that not only have height and width, but depth as well. In paint, you make an orange by drawing a circle; in Bryce, you make a sphere.

And unlike in Paint/Draw, where you can only look at your picture from one point of view, in Bryce, you can walk all around your objects. From the front, side, above, below, or from any angle imaginable. This freedom (though tricky to master), allows you to create some pretty detailed pictures. And once you've tried it, I doubt you'll ever want to go back to the clunky interface of Google Sketchup.

For my project, I needed an image of three vendors. One from 19th c India, Japan and Egypt.

I did some quick research on the types of clothes men wore in these countries during these times, and using dozens of individual little geometric objects, and a little help from Photoshop to add the sepia tones, I was able to come up with the three you see here.

So, if you like art, or need to make some graphics of landscapes, buildings, or even objects (people are doable, but there are better programs out there), give a 3d modeling program a try. You might like it. And you might be impressed with what you can come up with.

Note: I don't work for Bryce, it just happens to be the program I'm most familiar with. If you don't want to pay for a program, you might try "Blender," which is free and open source.