Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Access vs. Integrity

Access is a subject that we have revisited several times over the past few months in each of our four classes. While the setting may be different - archives, museums, Internet - the argument stays the same. Who has the right to access information? Is it just the scholars, the professionals, the hobbyists, or the general public? The argument that is strongest right now is that everyone has a right to access their history and information; and that is why the Internet is such an important resource, because it allows everyone to have equal access to information. Are there still things that need to be regulated? When does access start to influence integrity?

Google recently unveiled "Street View" in The United States. It is a feature of Google Maps that takes live shots at street level. The Pentagon has recently asked Google to remove these images as it compromises the safety of the compound. MSNBC reports that Google has agreed to remove the potentially harmful images, but does not believe that by rights they should have to as all the shots were taken from the street in a public place, and there is no law against that. I find that access to that sort of information is compromised integrity. I realise that we are filmed most of the places we go by security cameras and the like; but I still don't think that Google should be able to put images of anyone, let alone a security facility like the Pentagon, up on the Internet. In this respect, I feel there needs to be a line about how much access a person can have.

In museums and archives, the artefacts and documents have limited access so as to preserve the integrity of the original object and preserve it for future generations. Does that mean that only some people should have access to it? not necessarily. This is where digital technology has a positive role to play. The digitisation of these objects means that more and more people are able to have access to information and history, while not damaging the original with over-handling.

Museum blockbuster exhibits, on the other hand, have a high access rate, but (to some eyes) a lower integrity. Blockbusters are flashy, commercial, and big income boosters. Museums are expected to have a certain integrity, a certain dedication to research, education and authenticity. They are seen as the keepers of history and with this authority, they have a certain responsibility. James Cuno, director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, told Museum News that "when it comes to exhibits that are conceived for other reasons - drive attendance, increase public profile, increase revenue - those factors alone are not enough to justify an exhibition" (Beizer et al. "Marketing the King: Tut 2 and the New Blockbuster" Museum News. November/December (2005), 41). Blockbusters don't need to sacrifice the integrity of the exhibit, Disney-fy the attractions, or fall short of thorough research in order to draw in crowds. They should still do all those things that are integral to quality museum work even when they are presenting a popular, controversial or misconceived topic.

So how do we draw a line?

I don't think there is an easy answer to this. Everyone has different levels of what they are comfortable with. Every museum, business, person, and even big-wig corporations like Google, are going to have to draw this line for themselves. Knowing your own line, however, should also include respecting the lines of others. While it seems that more access is better, that is not always the case. We don't need to sacrifice integrity in order to have access.

Friday, February 22, 2008

We come in....pieces?

This semester our big group project for our Digital History class is somewhat of a digital experiment with an overall exhibit theme of "The Sky", the website for which will be coming in April, 2008. My group is based on archaeoastronomy and will be a model of ancient Stonhenge with an interface that will allow the viewer to interact with various aspects of the model. There will be information on the Neolithic culture that constructed Stonehenge, the various theories of its usage, history of the structure, as well as various facts about other megalithic sites in Britain and Europe that will provide more contextual information.

Last weekend, my group and I finished moulding the clay stones that will come together as Stonehenge (hopefully). Moulding the clay was both fun and interesting as we all got our hands dirty playing with air-dry clay and seeing all the pieces come together. The task and greater challenge now before us is the configuration of the electronic and digital components. Apprehensively, I volunteered to work on the digital side of things along with Adam Crymble. Adam has been very helpful in suggesting different programs we could use and with showing me how to use some of them. One of the ones we will definitely be using is a program called Bryce, which is a 3D model, landscape and animation package. Adam has already made an amazing animation of the solstice sunrise at Stonehenge, and has kindly started showing me to use the program as well. I will be attempting to make an animation of Dromagorteen, another stone circle in County Cork, Ireland that is also believed to be aligned with the solstice sunrise.

This here is an image of what Dromagorteen looks like now along with the sign that explains about the site and its astronomical significance:

I took these photos last summer in Ireland in a relatively unmarked off-road historic site that was filled with many interesting archaeological remains.

And here is my attempt using Bryce to digitally reconstruct it:

My group and I are also trying to figure out a way to present all the information about Stonehenge and other megalithic sites in an engaging, interactive way. One program that has potential is Python, an object-oriented programming language that has a huge selling point of being relatively user-friendly. Having absolutely no programming experience I am excited to learn using a program that is more understanding of us less computer-oriented people. Reading through the guide last night I still felt like this might be something a little out of my league. So far I have not even been able to install it successfully on my computer. Not a good sign. Once I do get it working, it will be interesting to see how I fare getting it to work.

While we can not hope to match the overwhelming accomplishment of the people who originally built Stonehenge, I am excited to see how our scaled-down version will work with all of the electronic and digital interfaces that we will be using. The pieces of the past few months are all coming together. Let's see what we can accomplish.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

It's the Little Things

For many people it is the little things that count. Those small contributions that go a long way in the betterment of yourself, the human race, and even the planet. GreenPrint World is a free version of GreenPrint software. GreenPrint has created a solution for what is seemingly a minor problem, but which has large implications. Almost everyone, I am sure, has noticed the extra pages that appear only after a document has been printed (for example, pages with just a URL or a run-over Excel column). GreenPrint solves this problem by using a technology that analyses the document and then highlights and removes the essentially blank pages. This technology also incorporates an easy to use PDF writer, a print preview called GreenView and a neat feature which reports the number of pages, trees and money you have saved every time you use it. The publisher claims that "GreenPrint Technologies creates products that help protect the environment while increasing efficiency and saving money." A mission that is both innovative and environmentally considerate.

Many digital technologies in the humanities field have similar environmentally beneficial features, though they are not often advertised as such. The number one argument it seems for having publications and other research tools available online is the increased accessibility. Saving the environment is big business right now. Maybe by putting more of a spin on the fact that digital resources mean decreased deforestation and pulp mills, less packaging, and less waste the more attention it will receive in the public sphere.

Besides being environmentally beneficial, this technology also seems analogous to the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology that is increasingly being used by archives and museums. Both scan the document for information and produce a result which is beneficial to the user for time/money saved. OCR-ing quickens the transcription process when digitising typed text (handwritten text recognition is still being developed) by scanning and recognising individual characters and placing them into Notepad where it can be formatted using HTML. This "scanning technology" seems to be everywhere in the digital humanities field and its benefits for both the field and the environment have yet to be fully realised. I look forward to more of these "little things" that seem to be making such a big difference in our world.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Museums and their representation in film: a study using 'The Da Vinci Code'

Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, was released as a movie in 2006, and is an excellent example of museum sterotypes brought to life. The film was directed by Ron Howard and starred such Hollywood bigwigs as Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, and Paul Bettany. The story unfolds as renowned symbolist, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), is called to Paris to help in the murder case of the Louvre Museum’s curator, who was killed inside the museum and covered with cryptic text. Langdon and his sexy sidekick, French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), follow the clues from the works of Leonardo da Vinci, to Knights Templar Legends, all the way to English Cathedrals, in order to unravel an apparent plot by the Christian Church to cover up the fact that Jesus was a mortal man who had mortal children by Mary Magdalene. Langdon and Neveu must decipher the mystery, while avoiding countless foes, or else this ancient truth will be lost forever. Dan Brown’s novel created such a sensation that millions of people not only bought the novel, but bought the ideas Brown presented as well. Thousands of people flocked to the Louvre; thousands more bought all the books they could on the Freemasons, the Knights’ Templar, and other conspiracy-related works. Having worked in a bookstore at this time, it was staggering to see the amount of people who took a work of fiction as some kind of historical truth. It was no wonder Hollywood decided to cash in on such a sensation.

The film opens with a view of one of the most famous museums in the world: the Louvre. And within this world-renowned museum is the stereotypical old, distinguished, male curator – except this time he is running for his life. Not so typical, but I have noticed that if there are fiction novels or films that take place within a museum, they are more often than not the scenes of murders or other scary scenarios. The depiction of the actual museum was accurate, as the movie was filmed within the Louvre museum itself. It also captured the security on the art and displays, one of which the curator pulls off of the wall to trigger the security system to keep his fanatic murderer (Paul Bettany) at bay (although it did not save him.) This is a common stereotype of museums – that the works that they keep are so valuable that they are untouchable to the public. This is often part of the deterrent for the common public to engage with the past. While preservation is important, it is equally important for museums and other historic institutions to allow the public to interact with the pieces on a real level either by creating digital copies or reproductions for handling by the public.

While many of the images of the Louvre reinforce stereotypes about museums, it did have the astounding affect of getting people interested in it. The Da Vinci Code instigated a huge influx of visitors to the Louvre and the works of Leonardo da Vinci, which on the one hand was bad, as Louvre employees had to deal with Dan Brown zealots determined to prove or disprove his novel; but it was also good as it got people interested in the museum and the histories it represented. The grandeur of the museum, and the renown of the character of John Langdon, reinforces the image of museums as centres of higher learning and education. I think the filmmakers (and Dan Brown) chose to create the scenes in a museum setting not only because such a setting lent a degree of authenticity and authority to the works of art and history being presented in the story, but also because the architecture of the Louvre itself is a very dramatic setting. The Louvre has dominated central Paris since the late 12th century, and has been a central piece to the history of the city itself. There was a lot of controversy over the architecture of the building – there is even a line on the film spoken by police Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) to the effect that the Louvre Pyramid was a “blight” on the city of Paris. This sort of familiarity makes the museum all the more “real” for moviegoer enthusiasts.

The film not only played on the stereotypes of museums, but of history as well. The overall storyline is about how history was manipulated, changed, and misrepresented to serve the needs of those in power, mainly the Christian Church. The role of Sir Leigh Teabing, played by Ian McKellen, perpetuated the stereotype of historians as privately wealthy, eccentric, academics that can spend all of their time pursuing their personal interests. At one point our hero, John Langdon, spouts the ever-so-popular history jib: “you are interpreting facts to support your own conclusions” at Teabing when he dares to suggest history was manipulated to cover the truth. There is a very clear message here that the truth in history can set mankind free; as if there were a sort of latent power instilled in history that can be attained and that is waiting to be discovered. Museums are popularly believed to fulfill this role of authority and that everything a museum tells the public is true. The central problem around such a contingency is the point that every history student is beaten over the head with: that history is conjecture, subjective, and fluid, with no absolutes, and essentially no master organiser. One good point that the movie makes about history, in relative contrast to its other ones, is that history is made by those who write it, and those people (whether it be the Christian Church or not) are pursuing their own agendas.

While I have serious issue with the research Dan Brown produced and passed off as fact, I believe that as a Hollywood fictitious movie, it was successful in getting people interested in museums, despite how they played on a great many stereotypes and conspiracy theories to do so. It was a successful attempt to get people engaged with the topic, as it brought up many issues concerning faith versus science versus history. And after all that, the story ended where it began – at the museum. It is at the Louvre that it is revealed that the final and most important piece of evidence has been hidden. It re-enforces the idea that the museum and its staff are keepers of knowledge, for good or evil, for seemingly many purposes. This is not a negative image, but it is an overdramatic one. I think in the end, museums are seen as keepers and protectors, but to make that work for Hollywood, they needed to add the dramatics to overcome the stereotype that museums are dull and static. There is more to the museum than the murder scene.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Canadian Genealogy

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation has long been a herald of information about Canada, its people and its past. Over the years they have produced several programs aimed at the general public including, “Canada: A People’s History,” and the heritage minutes. They are also a leader in digital archives with their CBC Archives website, which includes clips from the entire history of the CBC radio and television. It also includes a feature called “Days to Remember,” showing what it was like to listen/watch the CBC in previous decades.

The latest program in CBC’s public history endeavours is a series called, “Who Do You Think You Are?,” which features thirteen famous Canadians and goes digging in their genealogical closets. The program was created in association with Library and Archives Canada as well as the website, both of which have easy-to-use genealogical research tools designed so that every Canadian has the possibility of tracing their past.
The most recent episode was on the well-known hockey commentator, Don Cherry. The show began by taking Cherry back to his home town of Kingston, Ontario, and followed him through his discovery of some of his family’s history. They traced the records back to both his maternal and paternal great-grandparents, although the focus was on the grandfathers, as he seemed especially interested in their military and hockey involvements. The show was able to find original documents and took Cherry to all of the places that had an impact on his family history, including travelling to Gloucester, England where his grandfather was an orphan who eventually made his way to Canada, and to Vimy Ridge in France, where his grandfather would have fought had he not been sick and taken off active duty. Vimy Ridge is an important icon in many Canadians lives, and Don Cherry believes (as do many) that it is the place where Canada first became a nation. There was more to this program than just tracing Don Cherry’s family history - it brought in information about Canada’s history, and the history of millions of other people. Cherry said that Canadians “should be proud,” and I agree. We have a rich and vibrant heritage that is recognised through such iconic moments as Vimy Ridge. It was a turning point not only in Don Cherry’s grandfather’s life, but the history of this country. His grandfather came here as an orphan with no family and very little hope for the future. What he found was a nation that he was proud enough of to fight for and willingly die for – though thankfully that was a sacrifice he did not have to make as we now have another Canadian icon, his grandson, who has been and will continue to be a central figure in Canadian culture.

The program used many historical resources to help Cherry find all of this information; they used archives from Canada and England, as well as military records and medical files. They visited historical buildings and places, and had photographs, documents, and knowledgeable people to help Cherry on his journey of discovery. CBC has done an excellent job of bringing history to the public by engaging them with a familiar person, whose family history reflected that of Canada itself. The best way to get people interested in the past is to make it relevant to them. By discovering aspects about their own family history, they learn the history of Canada as well because Canada is the history of its people.

For people interested in discovering their pasts, these are some excellent websites on which to begin your search:

Library and Archives Canada Canadian Genealogy Centre:

For genealogies and to build a family tree:

For Métis genealogies try the Métis National Council Historical Online Database:

For Immigration in the early 20th century, try the Young Immigrants to Canada:

There is also a great Genealogy 101 on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” website:

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Rocky 'Knol'

When I was an undergrad, my professors strictly forbade us to use such “unreliable” and “nonacademic” sources such as Google and Wikipedia. We were to only use academically reliable secondary and primary sources such as the library and archives; the only digital resources allowed were such databases as JSTOR (online storage for academic journals). But as they say, the world is changing. Google has now announced that they will be venturing further into academic credibility. Their first foray was their beta Google Scholar, a search engine that brings up articles, books, etc. that relate to particular search words. Now they are launching a campaign that ousts Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which anyone can edit/add to, by upping the ante to only accepting submissions by accredited specialists of each particular topic.
According to a BBC news article, Google has started to invite authors to write about their respected specialities on a new site that will be called ‘Knol.’ Since Google is the leader in Internet ranking, the Knol site will be the first hit on any subject that is searched and that finds a match in their encyclopedic site (which says something else about who controls the information on the Internet). Google offers this site as an open invitation to find out more about their brain child and gives people a chance to offer their opinions on it:
" is a brand new social networking community for Google's Open Encyclopedia. This is not Google's site but a Community to discuss and learn about "Knol" and take advantage of what Google is soon offering."

So what does this imply for the academic world? What will be considered a "reliable" source? Many post-structuralist profs already encourage their students to question what makes a source reliable or unreliable and what it means to be an "expert." What kind of screening process will Google have to consider? Wikipedia took a very casual attitude towards the information placed on their site as it is intended to be a public forum for anyone's opinion or view on a particular topic. Google might have a rocky road ahead to prove their validity as an academic resource. However, I think this is an excellent step in the organisation of the abundance of information that is available and provides an excellent venue for professionals to bring their expertise on a particular subject to a wider audience.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Week 12 Assignment

Alan Cooper wrote an article called "Your Program's Posture" that classified software programs into four main categories based on how they interact with the user: sovereign, transient, daemonic and parasitic. Our assignment this week for our Digital History class is to "make a list of all of the software that you interact with during a typical historical research process and classify it according to Cooper’s scheme."
I am not a computer person, so the programs I use to write a research paper are pretty standard. I use a library catalogue to search for books and the electronic journal storage, such as JSTOR, and electronic finding aids for archival sources to search for primary and secondary sources. None of these quite fit into Cooper's categories, although the recently discovered Zotero program might be considered a "transient" program as it is a tool that appears at the bottom of the screen and can disappear again when you no longer need it. I use Microsoft Word to write my paper or Microsoft PowerPoint to create a presentation of my research, both of which I believe would be considered sovereign programs as both dominate the page and are continuously used. I can not think of parasitic or daemonic programs that are running that I am aware of, though as I said, I know very little about what happens 'behind the scenes' as it were.

Software usability issues enter into the historians craft when they are trying to communicate that history to the public in digital form. Most people are able to use programs such as Word to hand in a research paper. Less people know how to programme a website to display the results of that research. What could be improved, if digital is (as it seems to be) the way of the future, is to create "humanities-friendly" programs. There are templates and easy, helpful guides to programs like PowerPoint, why can there not be more formulated programs for the not-so-computer-savvy historian? I recognize the importance of developing newer, faster, more interesting programs, but I also think that more time needs to be spent developing programs for ease of use, so that there are more sovereign programs available for humanity-type research to be displayed on the internet.