John Lutz: History, Mystery, and Virtual Victoria: Transforming Teaching and Research

As a senior in the department of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was ecstatic to see that we were hosting one of the first major workshops in the use of digital mediums for the humanities. Internet technology is becoming more and more of a necessary tool for communication, publication, education, and archives. This was a great opportunity to see how use of digital technology could become more integrated into the field as a profession.

One of the lectures I happened to see was that of John Lutz (University of Victoria). A very innovative historian, Lutz discussed the use of history’s mysteries as a way to interest students. He explained that through this project of putting real, unsolved Canadian mysteries online with all of the known evidence, it forced the students to become “private eyes,” and use historical methods/critical thinking skills to engage the concepts more personally.

This is an abreviated transcription of the points he brought up, as well as my own thoughts.

Good teaching is keeping a razor edge balance of boredom and anticipation. For you, it’ll be the anticipation of whether or not I can get this computer to show you this presentation.

[Without realizing it, in his first statement Dr. Lutz brought up a key issue in digital scholarship: reliability. There were probably 2-3 times that the websites either didn’t appear, or the computer worked very slowly. A book can’t break down, and with as many bells and whistles as there are with websites, one has to wonder what the use is if they don’t appear on command?]

History can only be dull if we make it that way. Students say the present isn’t dull; there are terrorist attacks, corrupt politicians, natural disasters, celebrity love affairs, etc. Well, the past is composed of terrorist attacks, corrupt politicians, natural disasters, celebrity love affairs, etc.

[We all laughed with him on this concept because those of us who love history and its many stories know this.]

We give too much of the bare bones [in the classroom] when history is rich with detail. It becomes dull when we take the “mystery” out of it. We have to allow the students to do the research [in order to get them engaged]. We have to give them a chance to discover. History is too important to be boring.

History teaches us: Who we are, where we come from, and (when we are lost) where we’re trying to go.

[I would also say that history teaches us not only where we come from physically, but mentally, too. The process of learning where one’s ideas come from in the greater society is extremely significant]

New technology in the field of history invites/demands new ways of:

  • thinking about history
  • teaching history
  • publishing history

In past we’ve relied on a culture of books. This is perfect for the modernist and the structuralist process of narrative. The Internet gives an alternative medium for relaying, projecting history.

[The minute he said this I think of the Oregon Trail game. Obviously a child’s tool, it still allowed one to be introduced to the culture of the past in an interactive way that promoted learning and fascination.]

The Internet supports collaborative instead of single-person work, multiple voices instead of one voice, and an alternative reading experience. It can bring a problem solving experience for readers in ways that books do not. Instead of being led to a pre-disposed conclusion, the new technology gives them the tools to develop their own ideas. The technology allows them to combine the old way of learning a “story” with “fun.”

[Again, I think of Oregan Trail. People have to be able to relate to history to take joy in it. The mistake people often make is they don’t realize history can be as interactive as advanced math, and even twice as applicable to one’s everyday life.]

Micro history, or the study of smaller instances/events, is now popular. Recaptured by England in the medieval centuries, digital technology brings the advent of history which combines macro/micro-history. We can take these smaller, detail rich stories and look at if they are typical or not when placed the context of the greater human experience. It also brings together that modernist and post-modernist manner of thinking.

[I couldn’t see how scholars originally separated the two. Yes, one can view local/individual instances in history, but they must always be then taken and placed in the context of the wider perspective. That’s what makes these individual events important–they give us a greater insight into ourselves as human beings.]

Teachers have rediscovered student -centered learning. Students should be more active, not just taking notes and repeating it back.

The Internet allows us to rethink publishing, it opens up communication, attracts public ethusiasm. Wikipedia and YouTube are signs of this. We should use this enthusiasm to our own advantage.

[Where historians are lucky if 5oo people read their monographs, now hundreds, even thousands, might view one’s work. This is incredible! We are granted the ability to reach “everyman.” The question is, are people interested in “history websites?” I would say yes. Whether academically or for entertainment, people love history. That’s why the history channel is one of the most highly viewed channels on cable.]

The premise of his project is “Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History.” He wants to take unsolved history and put up all evidence on the Internet. The goal is for the students fo finish the history and create their own analysis using the same methods real historians do.

Who Killed William Robinson” is one such mystery. The victim had been a black man who had to flee California with other “political refugees” in 1859 to Canada. William Robinson and 2 others killed on an island outside of Victoria. The site uses both transcribed documents and images from the period. Students learned the difference between primary/secondary documents, how to compare dates, and how to compare events to the greater context.

“We realized we’d been feeding history, not showing how to think history.”

[Dr. Lutz had it exactly. The common complaint I’ve heard from those who teach history and those who take history is that much of it is too general. It’s a process of force feeding and regurgitation.]

The project has 6 mysteries now, 9 by spring, 12 in future. It will cover major regions, themes, and time perids from 1000-1950. American high school will be the greatest number of sub-users. There are 130,000 words per mystery, over 300 images, and future forensic images. This project invites to learn how we “do” history (the “unnatural act”).

[The site is beautiful. It is as visually stimulating as it is mentally stimulating. It was definately a good way to attract students.]

Another is the “Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line: The Death of Peter Verigin.” Based on an infamous train explosion, they had forensic experts reexamine evidence and create new clues as to what could have happened for viewers to use in their own analyses. The site isn’t just for students, but it also invites scholars to make 700 word responses to questions. Each mystery is linked to the classroom through teacher’s guides to issues important to Canadians today, such as racism, child abuse, terrorism, religious tolerance, etc.

[The only concern I would see with all this evidence and the ability for students to see other analyses from other scholars is that their ideas might still be influenced. If other answers are there, how are they not just copying what they see?]

There is concern that this is just too much information for those in middle school to distill all of this information. So eventually they will release a site called Mystery Quest, which will help teach the same skills in a more guided manner.

These websites get a lot of attention because everyone loves a mystery. The last three launches of a new mystery was announced on news stations.

Victoria’s Victoria” is a new project being worked on. It involves a 3D reconstruction of Victoria, Canada, complete with historical maps and statistics from the city in the Victorian Age. It allows students to pose cultural questions. Things that range big and small, such as why is croquet important?

There is also a part for students to pick their own themes and write analyses based on the various documents, maps, etc., on the site. If you give them a chance to choose, often kids choose sex, drugs, alcohol, and crime, is the only problem. What’s excellent is that with the virtual reconstruction, students can assign analyses and concepts to images with a mark-up program. The students’ contributions will be added to the site for all to see. Eventually there will be a fourth phase that will allow people to use a GPS (palm pilot or cell phone) and come up with the history–who lived there, etc.–based on address. Phase five will be a total downtown reconstruction that one will allow one to “walk” through Victoria.

[The idea of virtual mark-up and everyone contributing to this project is great, but it was not said how the information would be filtered. All of the information would have to be reviewed, and how would it be organized in the most practical manner for everyone to see?]

With the technology that can create projects like “Canada’s Unsolved Mysteries,” we now have an opportunity teach and create history in a new manner that is engaging, pedagogically sound, and fun.

[Questions from the Audience]

Q1. Books create certain expectations in the narrative experience, which is to be led through and given definitive conclusions. This is ingrained from 900 years of book culture. How do we overcome this, or do we want to?

JL: As teachers, we have fed this. It will take awhile to change this culture. A project like this will allow us to change the culture of teaching in general.

Q2. Will you take this project transatlantic and connect it to a similar project being done in Victoria, England?

JL: No. There is a corner part of the website dedicated to global Victoria, England. The current project on Victoria has grown more micro in the process, with primary interest in Canada.

Q3. Can this approach [way of thinking and exploring in a historical manner] be directed at current, larger public events and people involved, so that the critical process will get people to think about those above in control?

JL: Yes, the goal is to get them to think about greater things, and how it trickles down into everyman. By building skills as teachers, and learning how to realtes these issues.


Janice L. Reiff: “Urban Web: Cities as Hypertext”

Reiff suggests that hyperlinks may be interpretations and states her fascination with using the web to tell stories and create narratives.

Encyclopedia of Chicago based in story of a metropolitan area, Chicago, emphasizing interconnectedness, synthesis of scholarship, and electronic manifestations of links, structure and malleability of categories.

Pullman is another of her another projects that offers a powerful example of place as a site of conflict and vision; yet her research de-centered that notion. George Pullman and strikers portrayed a fundamentally different place, yet a place separated by only four blocks.  She contrasted her sense of mutable space with Ed  Ayres’ fixidity (in his Thursday night keynote address).  Discusses planned space, lived space, and perceived space, drawing on Lefebvre’s scholarship (I believe Henri, but just not sure).

Plays with scale of LA versus Chicago and notions of particular “schools” – LA’s featuring the prominence of Pacific Ocean and internationalism.  Chicago’s emphasis is on growth out from the center, at least as the model with a static notion of neighborhoods and population groupings.  LA is a network, especially when viewed by freeways.

Theodore Nelson “everything is deeply intertwingled.” Cities as hypertext.  When viewed in digital medium the differences between LA and Chicago dissipate.

Encyclopedia was at once a static text and an electronic medium, a hypertext.

Links: Growing out of belief in interconnectedness, if any entry did not have any connections to other items, it was deemed not significant enough to include.  No individual entries (on people), instead a biographical dictionary that was based on references in other entries.  Index also links individuals throughout the text.  See alsos (found at end of entries, e.g. see also Transportation, Railroads) further function as networks.

Reiff returned to contrasting LA and Chicago schools through two maps of Chicago, one that shows broad development over time, and another, more postmodern, that charts nodes.  Although both are maps of Chicago, the latter evokes LA, thereby suggesting that the digital medium allows one to re-imagine long held beliefs.

Reiff acknowledges the cost, some 2.5 million dollars total for the Encyclopedia, one million of which was just for web-based version.  Raises the question of what returns can justify this expense?  Should the costs give scholars pause as to what projects they pursue?  Is digital history a field of dreams or a potential boondoggle?  Are there less costly solutions or options?  And more importantly, how shall we judge, who should judge, and what are the standards?

She closes with idea that Encyclopedia (and web-based scholarship in general) allows people to create their own narratives, perhaps this is the value of web based scholarship. And in truth, public access is difficult to quantify with discrete accounting.  However, Chicago can command a million dollars, but what about small towns and other smaller scales?  Can the costs of the web and broad based democracy co-exist?  Do the wealthy or prominent get privileged once again in a new version of the “winners” writing history?

Alan Liu, “The Future of Humanities in the Digital Age” with Roundtable Discussion

Dr. Alan Liu thanks crowd for “exhilarating discussion” over the course of the day. Feels welcome “in spite” of being an English professor. It’s true, today’s speakers have all been historians, but the projects they presented have possible applications in all branches of the humanities. GIS Mapping, databases, research sites, digital teaching tools, and the excitement of the conference makes them seem like amazing opportunities.

Liu sets context for talk by adjusting title: “Future of the Humanities in the Digital Age.” He says the problematic word in the title is “Digital” because the other words are “majestic” and trip off the tongue. “Digital” is “like a cell phone going off at a commencement ceremony.” Maybe other words could substitute: New Media, Networked, Fiber Optic, Internet, Wireless, Gaming, Surveillance, Storage, and Database. Liu offers these possibilities seemingly off the cuff, but in a way that indicates how much he had thought about the issue. “Storage” draws the most initial attention, because when terabytes are universally available, it will change in how we will store and use information.

Liu uses a quote from his book The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information to move the discussion to his point. He questions “How can society create the most inclusive, flexible, and intelligently interrelated mix of educational options?” Creating this mix is the task of the scholars here. His substitute for “Digital” is from “The Laws of Cool” = KNOWLEDGE
We don’t live in the Digital Age, we live in the Knowledge Age (Techno + logy). We must have knowledge of technique and practice. For those of us sitting here, this is further reinforcement of the importance of this type of event: if we keep exchanging ideas about using technology, we are bound to learn about new ways of doing the work, new audiences, and new tools.

What is the relation of humanities scholarship to “Web 2.0”? Liu believes that the question has practical implications that scale up to philosophical ones. Liu has been trying to introduce Web 2.0 methods into the classroom. He created a research course for undergraduates. The project, Creativity & Collaboration is an exploration of authorship and the collaborative methods inherent in a wiki-environment, which is a shared elaborate editing environment where members have access and editing powers over anyone else’s page on the site. Used same software as Wikipedia. Collaboration Team: present idea of collaboration with creativity and scholarly rigor.

Dr. Liu blended lecture courses with research workshops, it sounds like these were the opportunities he had to discuss method, theory, and intellectual property. Students created a web database related to their individual interests. They also wrote glossary definitions, research reports, other assignments.

If you want to get undergrads into IT course, make them producers, not just users: have them create biographies and get invested in the project.

Hard Lesson: have to seize control as instructor in right measure and degree. Every piece vetted by another student to maintain quality, but the process failed because of the quality of the undergraduate writing. Having read undergraduate essays, I have to say I am not surprised. I don’t want to blame the internet and the MTV, like the fogies, but it seems like there could be a link.

Greatest Disappointment:
“Uneven final project.” Quality of entries varied. Poor and more mediocre students did worse than he would have expected. Theory: Online environment fosters that because they offer poor research sources: in some cases, students used Wikipedia as only source for glossary entries. “Algae blooms where nothing else can live but Wikipedia” if undergraduate minds are the ocean.

Liu developed a policy statement about use of Wikipedia. Posted to humanist list and it was then injected into blogsphere. Picked up my numerous ed blogs and discussion all over. I think Liu’s policy seems reasonable: Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. Going the postmodernist way and believing that there is no authoritative voice is fine, but everyone needs to learn how to evaluate information and sources if they want to function in our spin-filled world.

Wiki is just tip of the iceberg, the underwater section is Web 2.0 which is known by its most common forms: Blogs, Social Networking [myspace], Folksonomical tagging, [], and Wikipedia.

Like a good teacher, Liu is ready with reading recommendations, one optimistic and one skeptical:

So, Liu asks, in the face of these ongoing changes, what is the relation of humanities scholarship to Web 2.0? He has no good answer, just a deepening appreciation and consideration that this is a real issue to confront.

Liu asks another important question: “In the age of Wikipedia and Google, is all knowledge destined to be just ‘good enough’ knowledge?” If not, how can the academy and Wikipedia/Google help each other sustain the practice of creating good knowledge?

Liu’s distinctions between types of knowledge make perfect sense. Good enough knowledge is a Rube Goldberg machine: If everything is as you expected when you built it, everything works and is good enough. Good knowledge questions assumptions and possibilities that something won’t be perfect. What if audience is different? How can I create knowledge that is robust, useful, and tolerant enough to be good?

For his big finish, Liu points out some important distinctions between Academic Knowledge and Web 2.0:

  • discipline & field specific v. world wide
  • moderately stratified v. flat
  • expertise-driven v. reputation-driven
  • individualistic (at least in the humanities) v. collective
  • slow (peer review, publication, tenure review) v. Quick (after the fact review in form of trackbacks, etc)

BUT, both are friendly to open-source, open access.

In the face of ongoing debates and questions about the future, Liu offers some examples that may lead to good knowledge in Web 2.0: the Citizendium Project is the “progressive fork of Wikipedia.” In mirroring Wikipedia and imposing editorial structure on top of it, there is authority and accountability. He suggests reading Larry Sanger “Toward New compendium of knowledge.”

ROUNDTABLE: “Teaching the Humanities in the Digital Age”

William G. Thomas, III, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, moderator
Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara
Edward L. Ayers, University of Virginia
Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

Mary Beth Norton:
Dr. Norton believes she is at the Pauley as the token user, not creator. She does use computers for teaching and research, and is impressed by what everyone has done, but has some caveats. Teaches using Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project from UVa. She also used the site doing research for her book, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. Early transcriptions of trial records were flawed, and having page images from the original documents meant she could do research while in England. She has also had her students use the documents as research tools and several of them have had the biographies they completed from these documents added to the site. Norton is absolutely right, this is a wonderful site, the quality AND quantity of sources is amazing. Go look at the maps, particularly the GIS renderings.

Dr. Norton believes the sequential nature of digital files makes it harder to skim/scope/go through quickly, particularly if it is a long source on the web. Computers give us information that can answer lots of questions, but don’t necessarily give us context or all the information we need.

Like many, she finds it difficult to read extended argument or piece of prose on web; is this a concentration issue? We are wedded to the book format and the ways we interact with them. Like Norton, many people believe they haven’t read it unless they have annotated it. Norton does acknowledge there are ways to annotate digital docs, but for someone so into books, this may still be a problem.

She recommends Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America for a discussion about ways to think about how computers have changed our lives and the ways we use information.
We have become rigid thinkers who value rationality over emotion and simplicity over complexity. Norton fears the effects of computers and the Web on students: they have developed Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder and can only think in soundbites. She worries they can no longer do sustained analysis or the focused reading and research needed for courses.
Can they still do sustained analysis?

Ed Ayers:
Responding the Norton, Liu, and the Symposium generally, Ayers states that there is a paradox at the heart of discussion of the last day and a half: Things have changed drastically in the last in twenty years. There are no more card catalogs, we have books to search instantly, and cheap computers are everywhere. Computers have outstripped expectations. Yet, it says something about our time that there is always sense of unfulfilled promise and frustration.
How can this be?

Ayers believes there are deeply-rooted challenges and problems. Institutional and disciplinary resistance and lack of programs have created a generation of grad students who are not able to engage in digital scholarship and there is no pipeline for next group. For me, as part of that generation of grad students, the privilege of studying at Nebraska, with its strong departmental and institutional support for digital humanities, is keenly felt.

Ayers makes the point that twenty years ago we would not expect education to be falling so far behind of every other form knowledge transmittal in our society. Every day we are seeing communication and entertainment outstrip scholarship; If a professor’s website does not meet Halo standards, it does not impress students. Excitement, anxiety, and dread are all at play


Abdul Alkalimat:
Michigan restructured the MI School of Information and it is a diverse department now, reflecting content and technology in combination. This is an exciting development, given that the digital scholarship project is only 10 or 12 years into this. Need to use the Pauley Symposium to raise our questions and express our questions, but recognize that institutions of higher learning are addressing these questions with lots of time and money.

Allen Liu:
We need to face issues about who will control resources and have editorial control. Also need to think about copyright, access, and authorship. Need to create a bridge by delivering quality to the public and get support and feedback from them. Suggests a look at Who Owns Academic Work?: Battling for Control of Intellectual Property by Corynne McSherry. Academics are complicit in the dilemma over intellectual property rights as university faculty – -particularly in science departments: copyright, patents, etc are historically given to academics with assumption that they are giving it back. Can’t be entrepreneurs just like everyone else.

Mary Beth Norton:
Intellectual property comes up at Cornell. Online publication program at Cornell, copyright controlled by Cornell.

Patrick Jones:
These are all great questions, but there is a fundamental question that the variety of presenters may have confused: What is digital scholarship? What isn’t? How do we determine what it is? Can you help us figure this out?

Like many academics (and graduate students), Jones is used to standards used for books and journals, but unclear of criteria for digital projects. Jones’s query is a common one, given the novelty of true digital scholarship and the prevalence of enthusiast websites and projects.

Edward Ayers:
If it doesn’t have an argument it is not scholarship. This applies to all academic production and is no different for digital work.

Ayers and Will Thomas proved the possibilities of digital scholarship with their American Historical Review article “The Differences Slavery Made.

Digital scholarship today should be about experimenting with notions of scholarship: we build, experiment, model, simulate. There will be differences between disciplines, but we can all benefit from others scholars’ experiences. Liu quoted Marvin Minsky, who is prickly regarding many things humanistic: “with all the money that we are throwing away on humanities and art – give me that money and I will build you a better student.”

Tim Borstelmann:
There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom and he is concerned about it on multiple levels. Worried about what is being lost in this increasingly visual age. What is being lost as far as thinking linearly and logically. Recommends Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death; although the focus is television, it is likely applicable to computers, given their prevalence.

Allen Liu:
As his response, and to wind-up the evening, Liu used the example from Plato’s Phaedrus of Hermes (or Thoth), the inventor of writing, presenting his new technology to the pharaoh. The inventor says “Look at what I have built!” The pharaoh tells him that his invention is not a good one, because if people don’t need to remember things, they no longer will remember things. But learning continued, and societies continued to develop.

We want people to be free, part of what that has always meant is that people should be free to choose or be emancipated from their history. Now they are also free to break out of linear sequence, they can be free-floating if that is what they want to be because information is free in ways it wasn’t before.

Ending the evening on the idea of free access to knowledge, new ways to express that knowledge, and new techniques to uncover more knowledge is a good idea. Although participants and attendees have raised legitimate concerns about the role of computers in academia and the impact of the digital world on students and our culture, the quality of work demonstrated in each presentation and the possibilities offered by new scholarship, combined with ongoing technological innovations encourages a sense of excitement and hope for the future of digital humanities computing.

Peter Bol, “Creating the China Historical GIS”

While waiting for Peter Bol’s talk to begin I can’t help but think that this massive project will be decades to complete. The amount of data – China has been keeping censuses for over 2000 years – is staggering, and GIS is hardly the easiest software to manipulate. Professor Will Thomas began the morning session introducing Bol and his work. Behind him, on the screen was the CHGIS website: Thomas explained that UC-Berkeley was sponsoring CHGIS, adding that Bol’s work was “crucially important,” and Bol professionally is a “great practitioner of digital history.”

Bol says that he is here to explain the basics of and hint at the high-end possibilities of CHGIS, but noted that. “I’m not going to try and match Ed Ayers from last night.” Who would try? Ayers’s talk last night was captivating, inspiring, provocative, but considering the ambitions of CHGIS, perhaps Bol is being a little too modest.

Bol displays a late sixteenth century map of China. He explains that in paper maps multiple kinds of data are displayed, but the data exists in the aggregate. GIS dis-aggregates map, meaning that the user can strip or add information and more closely examine the source data. CHGIS says, “let’s treat it [data] as layers.” Bol adds layers to the sixteenth century map and rivers appear magically. The map displays how political history in China worked. County seats invaribly emerged on rivers, while higher-end administrative centers were placed on junctions of the same rivers. Graphically, CHGIS reveals the geographic structure of political system in sixteenth century China in ways a manuscript cannot. The information came, unlike in a book or paper, with a simultaneity that was impressive.

Next Bol brings up a map of western China generated by GIS. The screen fills with numbers. Numbers everywhere, and it strikes one as a bit overwhelming. Bol is quick to remind us that a historical GIS map is not a map, per se, but rather a database. This must be kept in mind, he cautions, otherwise we will find that the best features of GIS will be obscured.

Bol shows us what he means and displays a giant database of Chinese counties and then the map the raw data subsequently generates. Again, the map is extremely busy, but I suppose there is a zoom function that would allow the interested scholar to focus in on an area of interest. The database, Bol explains, allows one to take different moments in time and compare them in ways. The technology allows the scholar to make connections that would otherwise be obscure. For example, Bols shows us prefectural boundaries in 1102 compared to prefectural boundary in 1550s. He then shows the same map, but this time with county seats, ranging from 1086 to 1550. County seats, however, do not disappear, but they get added, map shows. Why? Bol cannot say, but notes that it is an interesting question, one that would not likely have been raised without CHGIS.

Bol’s shows what he claims to be one of the most important maps in human history – the earliest grid, carved into twelfth century stone. We don’t see the real thing, but like everything else, see its image (or rather data that represents its image) on the screen. The great thing about this map or any map, according to Bol, is that it represents something that no one else can see. Maps represent that landscape beyond what anyone can experience. They are not reality, but rather arguments; attempts to convince others, the emperor for example, that this was what China really is.

Bol riffs: “Oh by the way emperor, this is what the empire you rule over looks like.” It’s a provocative point, one that Bol will return to later. Maps, as I concluded an enterprise of human imagination. We imagine what China, or anywhere else ought to look like. To me, this does not render illegitimate maps or the CHGIS project, but is rather another statement of how humanists get at truth. We are not scientists who believe that we are just trying to describe the reality that’s “out there” in the objective world, but we instead use our creative and intellectual powers to pierce through a potentially deceptive reality to find a truth.

Bol turns next to tracing the changing paths of rivers through time. This endeavor is essentially a history of Chinese maps that also makes use of archeological data, and historical texts. The example shows how interdisciplinary and intellectually challenging digital map making can be.

Bol makes a bold claim, stating that what he and his colleagues are creating not only will be but already is more authoritative than any print atlas. If you want authority, you have to turn to the GIS. Now, it is generally understood that CHGIS has replaced any and all print atlases. demonstrating the power, potentially of digital history and geography.

Now the discussion turn to a GIS question that I’m more familiar with: does one simply create a database or try for something “more.” How, in other words, does a digital scholar take advantage of the web to exploit the peculiar features of this medium. Bol comes down on the the second option. He says that to fully utilize the collaborative nature of the web, that he sees the CHGIS as an infrastructural GIS project that provides a base to allow other users to build on work you’ve done. Bol namechecks Will Thomas and me in this regard, and I enjoy being pointed out. We, along with a whole group of others, are trying to do “something more” with the Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Bol offers all the CHGIS databases for free so that anyone can join their data to his stuff. This sounds like a true community of scholars via digital work.

Another feature that makes CHGIS and GIS projects different from their print counterparts is that the databases allow one to exhibit all of the sources used to create the map. All primary sources used are documented and available for inspection. Geographers’s big problem, says Bol, is that they give you the map and say “believe me!” Bol gives you he sources. You can check him out and verify for yourself. Perhaps the humanities are becoming more like the sciences, allowing users to reconstruct our work and replicate it, like a scientific experiment. Still, this does not in any way refute Bol’s earlier assertion about maps being a product of human imagination, informed, of course, by data.

Bol, like everyone else, is impressed by Google maps.

China not only possesses about 20 percent of the world’s population, but has also had a bureaucratic organization that has complied data for thousands of years on just about everything that population did, which means the amount of data available is staggering. China is a great HGIS candidate. But what can one use CHGIS to learn from these ancient bureaucrats’ scrupulously-kept records? Bol picks South China an example, pointing to Guangdong’s experience. For mysterious reasons, the official record shows that over time, there were fewer county seats in the province, contradicting other data that shows China’s population doubling from 750-1050. This is a historical problem. Bol initially thinks the problem to be a local rebellion. Guangdong was a great commercial center and rebellion targets foreign merchants. The rebelling kills 100,000 merchants thus wiping out the provinces main source of wealth. The local government, however, was withering before all this violence and commercial suicide. The answer is perhaps obscure but the CHGIS gives Bol and the rest of us an intriguing question. I guess the questions are more important than the answers; others can attack those.

Now Bol displays a map that shows the divergence of the economic and the government hierarchy in the 11th century. It is, the most important event in Chinese history and because of CHGIS it is now graphically represented.

The best part of the CHGIS, according to me, is the biography database. On the screen appears a timeline, showing the number biographies completed in specific historical eras. This raises a whole bunch of historical questions, such as: when were biographies were written and where; what historical events lead to an increase in biography? I would like to say that those officials living in a time of declension would be more apt to document their times, the fall. But I’d have to test that against CHGIS data. Biographies form backbone of narrative history, but certain times have a glut and others a scarcity. This is significant because it distorts history. The biography database allows us to recognize this and work to correct it.

Bol has only given two more minutes and spends it discussing the relative merits of polygons. Much of Bol’s explanation is beyond me, but I think I get the idea that the boundaries are artificial, imaginary, and potentially misleading.

Questions from the audience (only one): Can you show significances not immediately visible? Bol, being facetious, notes about digital mapmaking: “Isn’t it great that we can lie, but now we can lie in diverse ways.” Maps allow us to lie because we create things outside our experience, that are essentially products of our imagination, not replicas of reality, so one should be careful making and using maps. I agree, but would add the caveat that lying and subjective truth are not that far apart. For artists, lying is a great thing. The most creative among us are often the best liars. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon explores the issues of lying, storytelling, creativity, perspective, and truth much better than I can here. Then Bol turns to American history and argues that race and class are less variable than spatial narratives in U. S. history, meaning that where you live in a city is more important than issues of race or class in public health issues. Now that’s a provocative point that’s just left hanging there. I guess it’s sort of out of the range of this discussion, but boy. How about we combine race and space? I would think that race (and class too) structures spatial organization in U. S. cities.

Patrick Manning appears behind the lecturn and its on to the next presentation.

Abdul Alkalimat, “Malcolm X: Cybertechnology and the Black Experience”

Professor Patrick Jones introduced the lecturer, Abdul Alkalimat of the University of Toledo. Jones pointed out that Alkalimat is currently working on a book about cybertechnology and the black experience.

Alkalimat was here to talk about his Malcolm X website, located at He’s worked on the site for the past several years, and while there is a large body of information currently available to look at, Alkalimat and his colleagues still update several times a year with any new information that comes their way. One of the most impressive things about the site is the large amount of audio available. Alkalimat said that before cyberspace and before Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film, there was an interest among black youth in listening to Malcolm X audio tapes. The amazing thing about cybertechnology is that anyone can access the sound of Malcolm X’s voice now; we can listen to him talk from anyplace that has an internet connection. There is no longer a necessary privilege for historical information, nothing beyond a wireless or broadband connection.

But the necessary internet connection is still an issue. There is still a digital divide that exists, and Alkalimat said that it is most salient in the black community. However, he pointed out that even though there may be less access to digital information in the black community in general, the community is nevertheless contributing a great deal to the progression of digital information. He even pointed out that the white community, in certain respects, has attempted to mimic the black community, especially in regard to music.

Malcolm X has always been a controversial figure, regarded as both a good and bad person by a variety of people. But Alkalimat’s website allows us to form our own opinion of the man, through the large amounts of media that we can analyze and browse on our own. The image of Malcolm X thus becomes less subjective through digital technology, and preconceived notions about his life can be changed.

Alkalimat talked about the way in which cybertechnology can change educational methods. Instead of having students and scholars read old information from old sources, they are now able to engage in a more democratic kind of history. Information quickly travels between students and scholars, and opinions can be discussed without hindrance.

This innovation of digitization may be one of the most important themes of the early 21st century, according to Alkalimat. I agree. In the ten or so short years of digital access on a large scale, we are quickly transforming ourselves from downloaders into uploaders. Instead of just taking in information, we can put out information. Alkalimat sees this idea as a potentially powerful one, and he sees a lot of promise in “digital democracy.”

Alkalimat has taken advantage of digital technology on the Malcolm X website, and he took us through it, showing the ways in which we can access photos, audio, and books about Malcolm X. He was especially excited about the Malcolm X audio files. I agree that this is an exciting way to understand the man (imagine if there were audio files of older historical figures like Lincoln). This idea also makes me wonder if more video of Malcolm X will surface. This could be broadcast alongside the audio, giving us a further understanding of who Malcolm X was.

Alkalimat wrapped up his lecture by talking about the future prospects of digital history. He speculated about being able to see and feel and talk with historical figures one day. While this idea may seem far-fetched at the time and perhaps impossible, I certainly foresee further rapid developments in cybertechnology that will continue to change the way we understand history.

Patrick Manning, “World History and the African Migration Simualtion”

Patrick Manning, “World History and the African Migration Simulation”

Patrick Manning’s ongoing discussion of the slave trade and its lasting effects on the African continent is augmented by the inclusion of computer modeling. Using matrix analysis and algebraic calculation he continues a thirty-year quest to help define a very peculiar migration of peoples from Africa to the Americas. As always, he applies quantitative analysis and world systems approaches to the question.

Historians – using ship logs and other supporting documents – largely agree that the removal of about 10 million people from the central regions of Africa was one of the lasting legacies of the slave trade. The vexing question on the trade’s impact on the sending cultures is not so neatly documented – partly because populations are not numerically documented. Manning attempts to illuminate this space in history by modeling the growth of an estimated Africa population by starting with modern population numbers, exploring documented population growth in South Asia over similar time spans, and tinkering with assumed birth and death rates. Manning presents his projected results in population pyramids. His equations are used in lieu of censuses making his line of inquiry open to many interpretations.

Using these methods, Manning has generally revised his older numbers as he believes African populations tended to be underestimated. His new statistic will provide material to a variety of scholars examining very local and very global questions. The impact of these numbers is currently under discussion.

Edward Ayers, “Civil War and Emancipation: Visualizing American History”

Keynote Address, Thursday September 21, 2006
Welcome: Doug Seefeldt

So this is the introduction stuff—thanks to the people with the money, introduction of the theme. “History in the Digital Age”—pretty significant diversion from previous themes.

History of Pauley Symposium—honor the love of travel and adventure, “premiere gathering of digital scholars in the country”—the scholars here are from a lot of different fields, but all are held in high esteem among their peers. Consider Mary Beth Norton—one of the most well-known women’s historians in the US.

Richard Hoffmann, Dean of Arts & Sciences welcome—How do humanist scholars present their work in a digital, networked age? That is a big question, and one that I think will come up again in tomorrow night’s keynote/roundtable. Bragging on the CDRH. “Transforming the kinds of work humanists do, and the kinds of questions they ask and answer” So to what extent does the medium of presentation change the very essence of the scholarship? Does it? Hoffmann’s answer is yes, because scholars can ask new kinds of questions—Is it that they’re new questions, or that we now have the ability to fully incorporate the variety of historical documents and artifacts that can be used to answer questions in a more expansive way than ever before? Digital scholarship will now hold scholars in the humanities to the same type of “scientific” standards in the hard sciences—“experiments” can be replicated because all of the pieces used to answer the question are embedded in the answer.

Introduction of Ed Ayers—Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UVA; historian. Humor from the dean—displays Ayers’ c.v. rather than reading selections from it. How we got Professors Seefeldt & Thomas—Dean Hoffmann first met Ayers at a gathering of Arts & Sciences Deans (but the History department was already well on the way to these hires in order to build the UNL reputation for digital history).

Mobile microphone—always dangerous, but appears to be working so far. Bit of a southern accent. Quote from a memoir. Rapt audience. Who wrote it? Bob Dylan—I think a bit of surprise that someone knew the answer. Proud to say it’s a UNL history department grad student. Americans have become immune to the radical nature of the Civil War and the emancipation of 4 million people. Is the History channel to blame? Or maybe the fact that we split our history courses at Civil War/Reconstruction?

Used computers to analyze the frequency of word usage in Civil War-era newspapers. The visual display is a nice touch—the bigger the words, the more frequent the use. Same for letters and diaries (from the Valley of the Shadow project). Graph to show how word usage changes over time—shift from slavery to negro among southern Democrats. Political usage of words. This is amazing how he has visual, graphic representations of words and their importance, change over time, as a means of getting at how Americans understood the war and issues of race. “Emancipation peaked early and diminished over time.” Duty—war becomes about loyalty to a cause rather than the ideology of slavery/freedom/state’s rights. Thought: Digital scholarship has revealed a pattern among words that could revolutionize the historiography of the Civil War.

Minard’s graphic explanation of Napoleon’s march on Moscow. Makes sense of, and condenses, the chaos and magnitude of a major event. Thought: Is this one of the dangers of digital scholarship, or an advantage? “What does the history in your head look like?” Distortion: comparison between maps and history. Connection between time and space—the two go hand in hand in the process of remembrance. “Time Maps” Visualizing the connections and patterns and themes in history in our heads—how to make it visible to others? Words vs. images. Do historians have a burden to include more visual images to supplement (clarify?) their words? Need for detailed maps that do not oversimplify history. Does this still clarify and condense the past? Historians are like weathermen—terrible at predicting the future, but very skilled at analyzing the past.

The spatial environment of history—history literally takes place in a very physical space, but historians have not traditionally relied upon spatial theories as a means of understanding/analyzing the past. Maybe this is less true for urban historians, like Mahoney, Reiff, Chudacoff who use space to represent history.

In the absence of extensive written/oral accounts of freedom in the post-Civil War south, how do we as historians reconstruct that experience? What did freedom look like? Map of Barrow plantation shows shift from neatly order slave dwellings to 20 years later the scattered homes of sharecroppers. 1808 English map of the progress of abolition—looks like a tree, with each person represented by a single “tributary”; shows both Britain and North America. Visual representation of black population from 1810-1890: again, what history actually looks like on the physical plane of the United States; patterns become evident.

From the big picture to the small. Thought: Digital scholarship allows us to travel very quickly from the broad themes and experiences of history to the specific stories of the women and men who lived them. How successfully does print scholarship do this? Maybe Foner’s Story of American Freedom? This availability of primary source material in a way that connects the micro and macro makes the Civil War personal in a way that it usually isn’t. For my own purposes—thinking of assigning a writing project based on Valley of the Shadow for 201 next semester. Maybe have 2-3 essays based on digital projects?

Visual representation of marriages in Augusta County based on records from Freedmen’s Bureau. Slavery generally imagined as holding people in place, but these marriage records (at least through “L”) show that there was a great amount of mobility as enslaved people married across the county. By 1910 80% of black Virginians owned their own land. How do they achieve that? This is really hammering the ability to visualize history. How else does digital scholarship change history? Is the visual component the most important part? What about breadth of research? Access to primary sources at the site of analysis?

Lessons learned:

1. “The form and substance of the humanities are deeply related.” But how do we write such a textured history and move beyond the database collection of facts?

2. Changing the approach to sources in the humanities creates a tension in scholarship.

3. Digital scholarship forces humanists into new territories, puts them “off-balance.”

Applause. End of Talk.


1. Word analysis—what’s the importance of “white” to blacks during emancipation.
–Generally related to sharecropping contracts, etc. Whites were a central part in how blacks had to envision freedom, but also reflects the importance of blacks to the survival of whites.
–Cool thing forgotten in the presentation: Social network map ability to fully explore lives when we only have scattered references to individuals.

2. Cohabitation map—mobility of enslaved population. Theory before the image, or did the visual representation spur the new theory?
–Question upon question builds the map; now look for other sources to flesh out the story.

3. Concept of duty in the Civil War. Relative of a CW veteran. Concept of duty in the CW in the modern context and need for volunteers for war in Iraq. (I love that the audience is making the connection between past events and current events. That’s the essence of the humanities.)
–Draft riots suggest that it’s not a simple matter of ideology motivating soldiers. Military purpose isolated from the political purpose. That’s an incredibly cool way to approach the civil war, to separate the battlefield from the politicians.

4. Question about Minard from Patrick Manning. Minard’s map 45 years after the fact; is there a comparable response to the Civil War in the US?
–Absence of novels, art in the wake of the CW. Minard’s map an anti-war statement; an act of memory.

5. New York State Historical Society display on the slavery and emancipation.
–Slavery being told as a national story in the last 10 years.

6. Teaching: Quality control of student database entries in Ayers’s Southern History Database project. What did they produce? Was it good? Effective?
–180 students; HIUS 323: The Rise and Fall of the Slave South (upper division); entries approved by teaching assistants before being posted. Combination of classroom quality control with the “Wikipedia” approach. Plus the use of other’s work.
–Note, that this is one of the big questions for digital scholarship as a whole. Who are the gatekeepers? Who decides if it’s quality, worthwhile? Should we separate the professionally trained historian from the history buff who builds a website?

7. Being Ed Ayers: What are the obstacles to creating a 3-D environment that would reveal the genius of his thought?
–Talent, time, humility. Then, well, go for it. At this point, it’s the outlines of knowledge, a framework that still needs to be filled in with the expert knowledge of historians who intimately know the time/field. Inspired by the genealogies of rock ‘n roll at the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame.

8. Strategies for getting at minority voices in earlier fields, like medieval and ancient?
–“The farther away in time you get, the more inventive the historians are.” Inspired by scholars of earlier time periods in creative uses of sources as a means of visualizing history. Language mapping a way to deal with a super-abundance of sources, where earlier fields must deal with a paucity of artifacts.