Tag Archives: Digital Scholarship

Making Numbers Legible

What do you do with numbers? I mean this in the context of writing, not research. How do you incorporate quantitative evidence into your writing in a way that makes it legible for your readers? I’ve been thinking more and more about this as I write my dissertation, which examines the role of the nineteenth-century Post in the American West. Much like today, the Post was massive. Its sheer size was part of what made it so important. And I find myself using the size of the Post to help answer the curmudgeonly “so what?” question that stalks the mental corridors of graduate students. On a very basic level, the Post mattered because so many Americans sent so many letters through such a large network operated by so many people. Answering the “so what?” question means that I have to incorporate numbers into my writing. But numbers are tricky.

Let’s begin with the amount of mail that moved through the U.S. Post. In 1880 Americans sent 1,053,252,876 letters. That number is barely legible for most readers. I mean this in two ways. In a mechanical sense we HATE having to actually read so many digits. A more conceptual problem is that this big of a number doesn’t mean all that much. If I change 1,053,252,876 to 1,253,252,876, would it lead you, the reader, to a fundamentally different conclusion about the size of the U.S. Post? I doubt it, even though the difference of 200 million letters is a pretty substantial one. And if instead of adding 200 million letters I subtract 200 million letters – 1,053,252,876 down to 853,252,876 – the reader’s perception is more likely to change. But this is only because the number shed one of its digits and crossed the magic cognitive threshold from “billion” to “million.” It’s not because of an inherent understanding of what those huge numbers actually mean.


Actual and perceived differences between 853,252,876 vs. 1,053,252,876 vs. 1,253,252,876

One strategy to make a number like 1,053,252,876 legible is by reduction: to turn large numbers into much smaller ones. If we spread out those billion letters across the population over the age of ten, the average American sent roughly twenty-eight letters over the course of 1880, or one every thirteen days. A ten-digit monstrosity turns into something the reader can relate to. After all, it’s easier to picture writing a letter every two weeks than it is to picture a mountain of one billion letters. Numbers, especially big ones, are easier to digest when they’re reduced to a more personal scale.

1,053,252,876 letters / 36,761,607 Americans over the age of ten = 28.65 letters / person

A second way to make numbers legible is by comparison. The most direct corollary to the U.S. Post was the telegraph industry. Put simply, the telegraph is a lot sexier than the Post and both nineteenth-century Americans and modern historians alike lionized the technology. A typical account goes something like this: “News no longer traveled at the excruciatingly slow pace of ships, horses, feet, or trains. It now moved at 670 million miles per hour.” In essence, “the telegraph liberated information.” But the telegraph only liberated information if you could afford to pay for it. In 1880 the cost of sending a telegram through Western Union from San Francisco to New York was $2.50, or 125 times the price to mail a two-cent letter. Not surprisingly, Americans sent roughly 35 times the number of letters than telegrams. The enormous size of the Post was in part a product of how cheap it was to use.


Cost of Telegram vs. Letter, San Francisco to New York (1880)

This points to a third strategy to make numbers legible: visualization. In the above case the chart acts as a rhetorical device. I’m less concerned with the reader being able to precisely measure the difference between $2.50 and $0.02 than I am with driving home the point that the telegraph was really, really expensive and the U.S. Post was really, really cheap. A more substantive comparison can be made by looking at the size of the Post Office Department’s workforce. In 1880 it employed an army of 56,421 postmasters, clerks, and contractors to process and transport the mail. Just how large was this workforce? In fact, the “postal army” was more than twice the size of the actual U.S. Army. Fifteen years removed from the Civil War there were now more postmasters than soldiers in American society. Readers are a lot better at visually comparing different bars than they are at doing mental arithmetic with large, unwieldy numbers.


Almost as important as the sheer size of the U.S. Post was its geographic reach. Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States. A liberal postal policy meant that almost any community could successfully petition the department for a new post office. Wherever people moved, a post office followed close on their heels. This resulted in a sprawling network that stretched from one corner of the country to the other. But what did the nation’s largest spatial network actually look like?


Mapping 43,012 post offices gives the reader an instant sense for both the size and scope of the U.S. Post. The map serves an illustrative purpose rather than an argumentative one. I’m not offering interpretations of the network or even pointing out particular patterns. It’s simply a way for the reader to wrap their minds around the basic geography of such a vast spatial system. But the map is also a useful cautionary tale about visualizing numbers. If anything, the map undersells the size and extent of the Post. It may seem like a whole lot of data, but it’s actually missing around ten thousand post offices, or 22% of the total number that existed in 1880. Some of those offices were so obscure or had such a short existence that I wasn’t able to automatically find their locations. And these missing post offices aren’t evenly distributed: about 99% of Oregon’s post offices appear on the map compared to only 47% of Alabama’s.

Disclaimers aside, compare the map to a sentence I wrote earlier: “Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States.” In that context the specific number 43,012 doesn’t make much of a difference – it could just as well be 38,519 or 51,933 – and therefore doesn’t contribute all that much weight to my broader point that the Post was ubiquitous in the nineteenth-century United States. A map of 43,012 post offices is much more effective at demonstrating my point. The map also has one additional advantage: it beckons the reader to not only appreciate the size and extent of the network, but to ask questions about its clusters and lines and blank spaces.* A map can spark curiosity and act as an invitation to keep reading. This kind of active engagement is a hallmark of good writing and one that’s hard to achieve using numbers alone. The first step is to make numbers legible. The second is to make them interesting.

* Most obviously: what’s going on with Oklahoma? Two things. Mostly it’s a data artifact – the geolocating program I wrote doesn’t handle Oklahoma locations very well, so I was only able to locate 19 out of 95 post offices. I’m planning to fix this problem at some point. But even if every post office appeared on the map, Oklahoma would still look barren compared to its neighbors. This is because Oklahoma was still Indian Territory in 1880. Mail service didn’t necessarily stop at its borders but postal coverage effectively fell off a cliff; in 1880 Indian Territory had fewer post offices than any other state/territory besides Wyoming. The dearth of post offices is especially telling given the ubiquity of the U.S. Post in the rest of the country, showing how the administrative status of the territory and decades of federal Indian policy directly shaped communications geography.

A Dissertation’s Infancy: The Geography of the Post

A history PhD can be thought of as a collection of overlapping areas: coursework, teaching, qualifying exams, and the dissertation itself. The first three are fairly structured. You have syllabi, reading lists, papers, classes, deadlines. The fourth? Not so much. Once you’re advanced to candidacy there’s a sense of finally being cut loose. Go forth, conquer the archive, and return triumphantly to pen a groundbreaking dissertation. It’s exhilarating, empowering, and also terrifying as hell. I’ve been swimming through the initial research stage of the dissertation for the past several months and thought it would be a good time to articulate what, exactly, I’m trying to find. Note: if you are less interested in American history and more interested in maps and visualizations, I would skip to the end.

The Elevator Speech

I’m studying communications networks in the late nineteenth-century American West by mapping the geography of the U.S. postal system.*

The Elevator-Stuck-Between-Floors Speech

From the end of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century the US. Post steadily expanded into a vast communications network that spanned the continent. By the turn of the century the department was one of the largest organizational units in the world. More than 200,000 postmasters, clerks, and carriers were involved in shuttling billions of pounds of material between 75,000 offices at the cost of more than $100 million dollars a year. As a spatial network the post followed a particular geography. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the West, where the region’s miners, ranchers, settlers, and farmers led their lives on the network’s periphery. My dissertation aims to uncover the geography of the post on its western periphery: where it spread, how it operated, and its role in shaping the space and place of the region.

My project rests on the interplay between center and periphery. The postal network hinged on the relationship between its bureaucratic center in Washington, DC and the thousands of communities that constituted the nodes of that network. In the case of the West, this relationship was a contentious one. Departmental bureaucrats found themselves buffeted with demands to reign in ballooning deficits. Yet they were also required by law to provide service to every corner of the country, no matter how expensive. And few regions were costlier than the West, where a sparsely settled population scattered across a huge area was constantly rearranged by the boom-and-bust cycles of the late nineteenth century. From the top-down perspective of the network’s center, providing service in the West was a major headache. From the bottom-up perspective of westerners the post was one of the bedrocks of society. For most, it was the only affordable and accessible form of long-distance communication. In a region marked by transience and instability, local post offices were the main conduits for contact with the wider world. Western communities loudly petitioned their Congressmen and the department for more offices, better post roads, and speedier service. In doing so, they redefined the shape and contours of both the network and the wider geography of the region.

The post offers an important entry point into some of the major forces shaping American society in the late nineteenth century. First, it helped define the role of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, for many Americans the post was the federal government. Articulating the geographic size and scale of the postal system will offer a corrective to persistent caricatures of the nineteenth-century federal government as weak and decentralized. More specifically, a generation of “New Western” historians have articulated the omnipresent role of the state in the West. Analyzing the relationship between center and periphery through the post’s geography provides a means of mapping the reach of federal power in the region. With the postal system as a proxy for state presence, I can begin to answer questions such as: where and how quickly did the state penetrate the West? How closely did it follow on the heels of settler migration, railroad development, or mining industries? Finally, the post was deeply enmeshed in a system of political patronage, with postmasterships disbursed as spoils of office. What was the relationship between a communications network and the geography of regional and national politics?

Second, the post rested on an often contentious marriage between the public and private spheres. Western agrarian groups upheld the post as a model public monopoly. Nevertheless, private hands guided the system’s day-to-day operations on its periphery. Payments to mail-carrying railroad companies became the department’s single largest expenditure, and it doled out millions of dollars each year to private contractors to carry the mail in rural areas. This private/public marriage came with costs – in the early 1880s, for instance, the department was rocked by corruption scandals when it discovered that rural private contractors had paid kickbacks to department officials in exchange for lavish carrying contracts. How did this uneasy alliance of public and private alter the geography of the network? And how did the department’s need to extend service in the rural West reframe wider debates over monopoly, competition, and the nation’s political economy?

Getting Off The History Elevator

That’s the idea, at least. Rather than delve into even greater detail on historiography or sources, I’ll skip to a topic probably more relevant for readers who aren’t U.S. historians: methodology. Digital tools will be the primary way in which I explore the themes outlined above. Most obviously, I’m going to map the postal network. This entails creating a spatial database of post offices, routes, and timetables. Unsurprisingly, that process will be incredibly labor intensive: scanning and georeferencing postal route maps, or transcribing handwritten microfilmed records into a database of thousands of geocoded offices. But once I’ve constructed the database, there are any number of ways to interrogate it.

To demonstrate, I’ll start with lower-hanging fruit. The Postmaster General issues an annual report providing (among other information) data on how many offices were established and discontinued in each state. These numbers are fairly straightforward to put into a table and throw onto a map. Doing so provides a top-down view of the system from the perspective of a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. For instance, by looking at the number of post offices discontinued each year it’s possible to see the wrenching reverberations of the Civil War as the postal system struggled to reintegrate southern states into its network in 1867:

Post Offices Discontinued By State, 1867
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1867)

The West, meanwhile, was arguably the system’s most unstable region. As measured by the percentage of its total offices that were either established or discontinued each year, states such as New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana were continually building and dismantling new nodes in the network.

Post Offices Established or Discontinued as a Percentage of Total Post Offices in State, 1882
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1882)

Of course, the broad brush strokes of national, year-by-year data only provide a generalized snapshot of the system. I plan on drilling down to far more detail  by charting where and when specific post offices were established and discontinued. This will provide a much more fine-grained (both spatially and temporally) view of how the system evolved. Geographer Derek Watkins has employed exactly this approach:

Screenshot from Derek Watkins, “Posted: U.S. Growth Visualized Through Post Offices” (25 September 2011)

Derek’s map demonstrates the power of data visualization: it is compelling, interactive, and conveys an enormous amount of information far more effectively than text alone. Unfortunately, it also relies on an incomplete dataset. Derek scraped the USPS Postmaster Finder, which the USPS built as a tool for genealogists to look up postmaster ancestors. The USPS historian adds to it on an ad-hoc basis depending on specific requests by genealogists. In a conversation with me, she estimated that it encompasses only 10-15% of post offices, and there is no record of what has been completed and what remains to be done. Derek has, however, created a robust data visualization infrastructure. In a wonderful demonstration of generosity, he has sent me the code behind the visualization. Rather than spending hours duplicating Derek’s design work, I’ll be able to plug my own, more complete, post office data into a beautiful existing interface.

Derek’s generosity brings me back to my ongoing personal commitment to scholarly sharing. I plan on making the dissertation process as open as possible from start to finish. Specifically, the data and information I collect has broad potential for applications beyond my own project. As the backbone of the nation’s communications infrastructure, the postal system provides rich geographic context for any number of other historical inquiries. Cameron Ormsby, a researcher in Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, has already used post office data I collected as a proxy for measuring community development in order to analyze the impact of land speculation and railroad construction in Fresno and Tulare counties.

To kick things off, I’ve posted the state-level data I referenced above on my website as a series of CSV files. I also used Tableau Public to generate a quick-and-dirty way for people to interact with and explore the data in map form. This is an initial step in sharing data and I hope to refine the process as I go. Similarly, I plan on occasionally blogging about the project as it develops. Rather than narrowly focusing on the history of the U.S. Post, my goal (at least for now) is to use my topic as a launchpad to write about broader themes: research and writing advice, discussions of digital methodology, or data and visualization releases.

*By far the most common response I’ve received so far: “Like the Pony Express?” Interestingly, the Pony Express was a temporary experiment that only existed for about eighteen months in 1860-1861. In terms of mail carried, cost, and time in existence, it was a tiny blip within the postal department’s operations. Yet it has come to occupy a lofty position in America’s historical memory and encapsulates a remarkable number of the contradictions and mythologies of the West.

AAHC Recap (Morning)

Today I attended the American Association for Historical Computing‘s 2009 annual conference, hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. For someone interested in the field of digital history, it was a phenomenal opportunity to meet fellow enthusiasts and explore a variety of topics within the field.

The first session, a presentation by Amanda French of NYU on “Basic Digital History Skills for Historians,” came from her experience in teaching courses in digital history, many geared towards archival and library studies. Of particular interest was a survey she administered to 25 students that measured their comfort and ability in a wide variety of digital skills – everything from using social media to knowledge of metadata systems. She spoke about the fact that there was a gap between the skills being taught to public historians and archivists, and those being taught to traditional historians. Namely, those in the former group usually gain a stronger digital literacy. One of the major action points she drew from the survey was the need to teach students in the following fields: website creation, metadata, and multimedia.

Besides being the first conference presentation that I’ve live-tweeted, it brought up some interesting questions. The biggest one (that recurred throughout the day) was the question of teaching students what I’ll term hard vs. soft skills in gaining digital literacy. Should teachers expect their college students to have a basic skill set (uploading videos onto YouTube, using RSS feed readers, etc.) already? Should you spend the majority of your time teaching the skills and habits that they can then adapt to specific platforms? Is it possible to impart broader concepts of digital history without a concrete base in technical proficiency? My first instinct was to come down on the side of a liberal-artsy instruction of soft skills and underlying “big-picture” principles. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that for many people, the best way of learning these soft skills is by putting on your work gloves and diving into starting a blog, using Zotero, or generating a KML file.

The second session was Dave Lester‘s “Mobile Historical Landscapes: Exposing and Crowdsourcing Historical Landmarks.” Dave explained his ongoing project (History Plot) to create a means for people to contribute to a geolocated database. He compared it to Yelp, in that he dreams of a centralized platform through which people can look up historical landmarks and their metadata (primarily their location). In order to start seeding History Plot, Dave turned to 80,000 historic sites listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Other resources could include Wikipedia, Flickr, and partnerships with local historical societies.

Dave’s enthusiasm was downright infectious, as he spoke about being able to walk down a city street, use your iPhone to locate a nearby historical building, look up information about it, then take a photograph of it and immediately upload it to the database. Possibly the most exciting aspect, for me, was his idea of leveraging community-based history volunteers (he calls them “street teams”) to crowdsource the project. I think this has tremendous potential. History remains one of the foremost fields for armchair enthusiasts, as legions of geneologists and Civil War re-enactors would provide an incredible resource for this kind of geo-based crowd sourcing. It’s easy to imagine groups of history buffs meeting up on the weekends to explore cities and sites, snapping pictures and contributing research tidbits. I’d love for this to get off the ground, and would jump at the chance to found a local chapter.

Dan Cohen brought up a good point at the end of Dave’s talk: that the issue is finding an incentive structure so that people will actually participate in the project. In particular, there’s a gap between the (usually) younger tech-savvy crowd that lacks a strong interest in local history, and the (usually) older, less tech-savvy crowd that could potentially be the strongest source for knowledge seeding. I think it’s a manageable problem, but one that increases the need for highly accessible mobile technology and platforms that makes the barriers to entry as low as possible, even if it has to come at the cost of losing some technical robustness.

The last session of the morning was “Teaching, History, and Digital Tools: A Roundtable Discussion,” by Jeremy Boggs, Jeff McClurken, and Josh Sternfeld. All of them brought different perspectives to the topic, although each of them came from the similar experience of having taught a digital history course. It was a similar presentation to the one given by Jeremy and Jeff at the AHA convention, and it reinforced a lot of the lessons they had previously given (chief among these is Jeff’s great refrain about trying to make students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed”). One point that it made me think about was the issue of how to value historical scholarship. I’ve been thinking a lot more about not only how the historical academy values research in digital history, but how it values teaching in digital history as well. Does listing “Creating History in New Media” on your C.V. as a course you taught carry more weight than listing an American history survey? Would a tenure review board be impressed with your tech-savvy literacy, or put off because they don’t understand it?

Scattered Links – 3/16/2009

I’ve been closely following the history blogging roundtable examining Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar kicked things off with Should politics be historical? Should history be political? Then Historiann kept the ball rolling with Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it’s distant, anyway)? A call to arms. This week Claire Potter at Tenured Radical posted part three, Teach This Book!, with part four appearing soon at Blogenspiel. I’ve found the series instructive, given my embarrassing lack of knowledge of historiography in general, and feminist (not to mention medieval feminist) historiography in particular. A lively comment-debate about generational issues followed Notorious Ph.D.’s posting, which Historiann expounded upon in part two (and included an interesting suggestion of social history’s potential for comparative women’s studies). Tenured Radical delves into why feminist historians might gravitate towards more recent history, while championing queer history as a partial solution to some issues that Bennett raises. The history/academia blogosphere could benefit from more roundtables such as these.

Deviant Art supplies an amusing cartographic comic on the progression of World War II. My favorite part? “We talked about this before, mon ami.”

Lisa Spiro at Digital Scholarship in the Humanities gives a great two-part wrap-up of Digital Humanities developments in 2008. Part One sounds a triumphant note, including “Emergence of Digital Humanities” and “Community and collaboration,” while Part Two is more sobering, discussing continued resistance to open access and other new scholarly models, along with the erroneous and Grinch-like litigation by EndNote against Zotero.

Scientists compiled a clickstream map of “scientific activity” (along with other disciplines) that creates a visualization of how users moved from one academic journal to another. The visualization shows how different disciplines tend to cluster around one another, and I was impressed at the degree of interaction in the humanities and social sciences (although I would have loved to see more fluidity between humanities and more “hard” disciplines).

It reminded me of Sterling Fluharty’s insightful take on using quantitative methods to rank history journals based on citations, which the clickstream map avoided due to inconsistent nature of citations across disciplines.

Finally, the Economist’s Technology Quarterly profiles Brewster Kahle in “The Internet’s Librarian” and his quest to build “Alexandria 2.0,” a free digital archive of human knowledge.

Methodologies and the (Digital) History Major

Stanley N. Katz and James Grossman recently led a working group backed by the National History Center and the Teagle Foundation, and drafted a thought-provoking report titled, The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education. The paper got some decent play on the history and education blogosphere, and with good reason. It brought up a variety of interesting issues, but chief among, from my perspective, is one of methodology.

In the report, Katz and Grossman point out that the history academy tends to be moving away from traditional methodological categories – “political history, economic history, social history, intellectual history” – and towards categories of people and places. I would tend to agree, although the line between these two methodological approaches tends to be rather blurry and fluid (and I’m guessing the authors would not imply a distinctive break between them). It makes me wonder – are historians truly engaging in a large-scale shift in methodologies? Or is the academy coming up with new phrases to describe pre-existing approaches? A work such as Erskine Clark’s Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, could be read as a traditional work of “social history,” or it could be read as (obviously) African-American history, family history, rural history, or some combination of all three. Do “traditional” methodologies simply imply broader, umbrella categories?

Instead, I would argue (with freely admitted bias) that an equally important shift will take, and is currently taking, place within the academy: the transformation of analog to digital scholarship on a methodological level. Tom Scheinfeldt wrote a particularly incisive blog post on this topic provocatively titled, “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?”: “I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now, that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work.”

Unfortunately, many in the academic blogosphere took the post as an attack on the validity of cherished theoretical “-isms” in the field. Too much focus rested on this aspect of the post, which Tom admitted in its comments was not the aim or intention. Instead, what gets lost is the bold assertion that the next big change in historical scholarship will come from the nuts-and-bolts of how we “do” history.

Katz and Grossman touch upon this change: “Liberal learning in the twenty-first century must include an emphasis on information sifting, the ability to work through massive quantities of data and references to identify what is useful and reliable.” While they offer a few other references to this new paradigm, they don’t spell out exactly how the skills of a history major relate to a liberal education in a specifically digital context (this is not the point of their paper).

I’d like to look at Katz and Grossman’s conclusions through a digital lens, and spell out specifically how I believe some of their observations and suggestions can be specifically linked to Tom’s “sunrise of methodology”:

– “History is thus inherently (though not necessarily for any individual historian) a multidisciplinary field and one in which inquiry begins with the problem and the historical context, not the discipline or dominant theory.”

Digital historians are necessarily engaging in interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary) studies, as they not only need to know technical skills (programming, statistics, GIS, etc.) but also the broader issues prevalent in these fields. When creating maps for my history thesis in GIS, I not only had to learn how to import shapefiles, but also the background of coordinate projections, issues with small-scale vs. large-scale mapping, and basic tenets of cartographic design and layout. When utilizing a wide range of tools and techniques, a digital humanist is forced to learn not only “hard” skills, but their accompanying “soft” skills as well.

– “History places a premium on the capacity of synthesis.”

I couldn’t agree more. I feel that this will truly be one of the distinct advantages a history major might have over other scholars: the ability to efficiently and effectively sift through mountains of source material in order to extract content, recognize broader patterns, and evaluate their metadata (both traditional and digital). These skills form the basis of historical inquiry, and as our collections of digitized sources grow ever larger the proper utilization of these skills will be placed at a higher and higher premium, especially when paired with new media tools and techniques.

– “The single most important contribution that training in history can make to the liberal learning of undergraduates is to help students to contextualize knowledge, offering an antidote to naive presentism.”

One hallmark of the digital age is the ephemeral nature of information. Lacking the inherent stability and traditional gatekeeping of the analog era, it becomes more and more difficult to “pin down” knowledge. Without assurance that a website will exist tomorrow or next week or next year, knowledge and authority become much more fluid, and users will be even more inclinated towards presentism (whether naive or not). Historians will need to offer their skills in contextualizing and framing a constantly shifting corpus of information, at the very least in order to provide a sense of temporal perspective.

-“We need to be more thoughtful in locating history in relation to other disciplines, and in relating to the ‘historical turn’ in other humanities and social science disciplines.”

History has a lot to learn from other disciplines, and vice-versa. Just as digital humanists use a multidisciplinary toolbox, their utilization of these tools also tends to blur the traditional lines between disciplines. When a historian engages in complex statistical analysis using computer software to examine tax records, where does the line fall between economics and history? There needs to be a dialogue about how to most effectively employ and engage history within these other disciplines. In industry terms, the academy needs to figure out a “value-add” system of mutual benefit. And one key to this process (which Katz and Grossman describe) is that of cross-departmental collaboration, both in research and in teaching.

All in all, this is an excellent report that brings into focus far more important issues than I touched upon here. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an active interest in the current state and possible future of the field.

Towards a “History This” Command Line

Mozilla Labs recently released the 0.1 version of Ubiquity, a Firefox extension that allows the user to interact with and direct their browser through intuitive, written commands. Ubiquity has met with largely positive and excited reviews from the tech community, from folks at Lifehacker to Hackaday to Tools for Thought. The extension currently allows for a variety of commands. The common example that everyone likes to point to is the “map these” command, where you select text, hit the keystroke to bring up ubiquity and type “map these,” which brings up something like the following:

From there, you can do a variety of things with the map itself, including navigating and moving, or inserting it into a separate page. And of course you can also highlight text, and in Ubiquity type “email this to _____,” which then searches through your Gmail contacts and sends the highlighted text to them. The most common example I’ve read is if you are looking for a restaurant at which to eat with a friend. You can highlight or type in the restaurant name, map it, look for reviews on Yelp, check your calendar for conflicts, and email an invitation to your friend with all of this information included.

Ubiquity interacts with a wide variety of sites through APIs, including Youtube, Weather, Yelp, Twitter, and Flickr. In addition, you can translate and define words, run calculations, export events to your calendar, count words in an article, or convert units. In many ways, it seems to blur the earlier function of Hyperwords (which I covered in a previous post) with the intuitive command line structure of Quicksilver (for Mac users) or Launchy (for Windows).

I immediately thought of interesting commands someone could write for engaging in historical research. Developing a Ubiquity command set for historians would go a long way towards encouraging traditionalists to finally break into digital history. Instead of reading scary words like Python or machine learning, a researcher with little technological background could hit a couple of keystrokes and be off in running with relatively in-depth analysis of digitized archival material. In many ways, Ubiquity could potentially act as a “gateway drug” for digital history. Of course, this all hinges on at least two things:

1) Quality, standardized digitization of source materials combined with quality, standardized open API’s. Dan Cohen has great arguments for the importance of a digitized collection like Google Books not only having an API, but having a good one.

2) Someone in the digital humanities would have to develop these tailored commands for different archives (Bill Turkel, you know you’re interested…) There’s already a Mozilla Labs wiki for creating new commands that looks relatively straightforward, but would probably be above most members of the history community. I’m intrigued by the idea, but unfortunately my own forays into digital history programming have presently taken a backseat to applying to grad schools. Please let me know if anyone in the digital humanities is interested in this…

I feel that Ubiquity takes a substantial next step in the evolution of online interactivity. It’s admittedly buggy (although given its 0.1 version status, this will certainly get better), but it embodies so much of what is positive in today’s digital environment: namely open-source collaboration. Mozilla Labs actively encourages anyone and everyone to develop their own commands and to share them with others. This openness combines with an intuitive simplicity that makes it truly remarkable. As of right now, Ubiquity is a fantastic timesaver and cool trick, but it lacks depth. Almost anything you do in Ubiquity could be done before – just slower and with much less efficiency or ease of use. I have absolutely no doubt that as the open-source developer community jumps on board, this will change.

But for right now what Ubiquity does best is to begin to break down the barriers between computer geeks and laypeople. Some people are writing about the irony of returning to the infant state of the computer interface: the command line.  While interesting, these two instances are fundamentally different: not many people would know how to write even a simple program when faced with earlier command lines, but just about anyone I know can type “Map this” into Ubiquity and get far more complex results. Even as programmers find new ways to write more and more advanced commands, ordinary Firefox users will adopt the basics of Ubiquity in greater and greater numbers. What I foresee in Ubiquity is part of a broader movement that shifts common computing further down the Web 2.0-blazed path of heightened and evolving user participation, control, and access. Instead of having the website developer determine how and where you can go, suddenly you are at the controls of an increasingly powerful and easy-to-use command center for accessing and manipulating data. And I can only dream of the day a grad student will be able highlight some archival text, type “history this” into their command line, and have a fully-compiled dissertation written before their eyes.

Scattered Links – 8/21/2008

Lisa Spiro has posted a great recap of her presentation “Doing Digital Scholarship” at the Digital Humanities 2008 conference. The presentation “focuses on a project to practice digital scholarship by relying on electronic resources, experimenting with tools for analyzing and organizing digital information, and representing ideas through multimedia.” All in all, I think the blog post is a wonderful introduction to digital scholarship, both as an overview and a jumping off point for further ideas. Spiro really displays that crucial trait necessary for a digital humanist: a seemingly unlimited willingness to try new approaches.

Errol Morris has yet another interesting post about interpreting photography and identifying fakes, inspired by the faked photographs of Iran’s missile launch several weeks ago. Also, if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend his three-part series “Which Came First,” which details his attempt to uncover the truth behind Robert Fenton’s famous “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photograph of the infamous Light Brigade skirmish. What I liked most about it was his microscopic attention to detail and an open willingness to crowdsource, as over a thousand people responded and lent advice, tips, and clues. He even did a recap of these comments, which shows a real embrace of the power of collective intelligence and digital media.

GOOD Magazine has put up an extremely sleek and user-friendly interactive graphic titled “Wanderlust: GOOD traces the most famous trips in history.” Included among these are not only the standard fare of Lewis and Clark, Charles Lindbergh, and Marco Polo, but also fictional accounts such as Pequod from Moby Dick, along with Journey to the Center of the Earth. Although I will point out that it’s phenomenally Euro/American-centric, I do applaud its interface and design. This rivals some of the NYTimes’ recent gold standard information graphics as far as usability, style, and depth.

Finally, if you’d like to get worked up and indignant, read Edward Luttwak’s “A Truman for our times.” His thesis is almost comical: “While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.” But what makes me downright irate is his complete hijacking of history. In a characterization that smacks of imperialism, ignorance, and borderline racism, he breezily describes eight hundred years of Chinese history in this pithy statement:

“That describes everything that the Chinese are not, and have never been. The Chinese empire was aggressive and expansionist under the Yuan dynasty and again under the Qing. But one dynasty was established by horseriding Mongols, the other by horseriding Manchus, both the products of foreign warrior cultures. The Han Chinese prefer other pursuits. Perhaps they will change, as cultures sometimes do.

Historical determinism and unprofessionalism at its worst. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he then pulled a Lawrence of Arabia and ended with “A little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel.”