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?