My Treatise has Linkrot

The internet is like a library in a nuthouse: there’s lots of good stuff out there, but sometimes a Crazy has drawn on or ripped out the pages.  I’m talking about linkrot, the disease that plagues professionals who try and make the web a safe place for all scholars.  If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m a semi-lucid, raving baboon.  You also know that I am a huge proponent of digitization and internet access of historical data.

That’s why linkrot kills me; it undermines everything that I hope to see come from the web.  As a researcher, nothing is more important than reliability of sources.  Like a scientist historians have to provide proof for their conclusions, otherwise they will be accused of falsifying data, or worse, relying on an undergrad to sort through documents.  That’s why hard copies are so difficult to replace: a book will be in a library, some library, somewhere.  An internet site?  Not so much.

Linkrot occurs when a web site is linked to (or referenced to , such as in a journal article) but no longer exists, or leads to another location.  The source of the data is gone, and cannot be retrieved unless a cached version of the page can be found somewhere.

Servers go down.  I’ve known podcasts that can’t handle the traffic of their patrons, so why would a site devoted to historical research be exempt?  Funding may cease, data may be lost…then where does all of that stored goodness go?  Into oblivion, just like the hopes and dreams of art majors.  How can we avoid this disaster?  I’ve said in the past: redundancy is the key.  If you find a file online that has all of the census data you need, for Pete’s sake, save a copy for yourself.  Then you know you’ve got it.  You can also download an entire web page, or an article.  PDFs may be bigger than some other files, but at least you know you’re safe from dreaded linkrot.

This is why I think entirely web-based journals are bad, and PDF articles are good.  PDFs are simple.  It’s one file, all of the information and the article is there, in its entirety, whenever you need it.  A web-based article has to be kept in its own folder, if you are even allowed to download it, which you may not be.   Whatever the case, there are ways to safeguard yourself from linkrot if you’re careful enough to back up your internet sources.

So put a profilactic on your paper, and help prevent linkrot today.


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Tagging: These Colors Should Run

Tagging.  It’s fun, can be informative, maybe even considered an art form.  It’s also illegal, and if the cops catch you with a can of spray paint nearby you’re goin’ to jail.  Unless you’re tagging a museum piece you know nothing about, but think it’s purdy.  Then you’re OK.

Now why is that so?  By tagging, of course, I am referring to the new fad of being able to place classifications on museum pieces online, letting you interact with the exhibit to the extent of categorizing it.  Like a can of paint it’s fun, but should it be done?  Nope.

“What’s wrong with tagging, you hippie-hating troglodyte?”  The answer is simple: people don’t know what they are doing.  I used to be an archaeologist.  Let’s say I find a flint Folsom point on one of my many successful digs (all you archaeologists are sniggering at this point).  “Wow!” I cry, as I photograph it and put it up on my museum’s website.  My expert buddies all agree: it’s a flint Folsom point; and that’s how I tag it.

Well, two days after I get the sucker online, the public tagging begins.  First some guy looks at it and says: “Durrr…that’s a cool arrowhead!”  Tag: Arrowhead.  Next, some dude sees it and says: “I say!  That is no Folsom!  That’s a Clovis, by George!” Tag: Clovis.  Some lady geologist takes a gander and says: “By that tiny picture I can surely tell that material is chert and not flint.  What troglodyte put that tag up there?” Tag: Chert.  By the end of the day I have this list of trash:

Flint, Folsom, Projectile Point, Arrowhead, Clovis, Chert, Pretty, South America, North America, Napping, 9500 BCE, Mexico, Mammoth Hunter, Neanderthal, 1932, Native American, Bifacial, Elves, Spear, Hunting, Frodo Baggins

Ok, some of that is good.  1932 is the year the first Folsom point was found in New Mexico, dating from 9500-8000 yBCE.  It is bifacial, and was probably halfted on a spear and thrown by something called an atlatl.  However helpful some of the posts are the three original posters were wrong, not being the experts that I am, and the rest is little to no help either.  Oh, and knapping is spelled with a K, dumbass.

My point is this: the experts tag or LABEL this stuff for a reason.  Susan Cairns comments that museums who used this process found ways to classify things that they had not though of before.  Guests can label items in ways departing from traditional classifications.  Good idea…for incoming graduate students who have some semblance of understanding about the pieces they are tagging.  For Joe Public, who has never seen a Folsom point in his life but fancies himself an Indiana Jones-esque archaeologist, the possibility of making an asinine, or just plain wrong, tag is too great.  Then you’ve got the rest of the public that wants to actually learn something about the piece losing out because Indy thought he was smarter than the people that put the piece up in the first place.

I am a firm believer of leaving things to the professionals.  If you are a damned good amateur archaeologist, and you know you can contribute, talk to the museum itself.

Otherwise my Folsom point’s webzibit is going to be covered in graffiti, and I don’t know a cleanser that can get all the stupid out of flint.

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The Digital Age Is Here: Suck It Up

I have to admit, I’m pretty tired of all of the complaints about digitizing collections and all of the trouble it causes.  So many historians are concerned that digital media is not all that safe and secure, that it’s too time intensive, or that it’s too complex.  Welcome to the 21st century, people.  It’s only gonna get more digital from here on in.

Honestly, I imagine  these arguments coming from white-haired curmudgeons with patches on their jacket elbows wondering how to hold the mouse.  I suppose it’s not their fault that they don’t really understand how the magic internet box works, just that it lets them get their electronic mail every day and they can watch a talkie on it.  Then again, I’m sure Henry Ford didn’t stop every person before they bought their first car and explain how the internal combustion engine works either.

Let’s take this one step at a time.  Digital media is not frail.  You drop a piece of 18th century china on the ground and you’ve got some expensive dust-buster filler, but you drop a flash drive out of a two story window into a puddle of water and you’re still good to go.  I could take a sledgehammer to a PC with a decent hard drive and still be able to recover all of my data.  People have run over their laptops, for crying out loud!  Short of a fire melting all of your components, it’s a pretty safe bet that you will be able to save any data you might lose otherwise.

Speaking of flames, people who argue that it’s “easy to lose digital data” seem to forget that if you have a flood or a fire in an archive all of your stuff is gone anyway.  There may even be instances where having it all digitized makes sense; you can store the data off-site, or in several different locations, or even on the cloud (out on a series of computers that are only linked via the internet).  Repetitiveness is an aspect that can be accomplished with digitization that cannot occur with physical media (not that I’ve tried to put a painting on a photocopier or anything, but you get the gist).

I will concede the point that it’s time consuming.  So is inventorying archives.  So is digging a trench.  Things take man hours, and time is valuable.  This is a case where the ends justify the means; it may take a lot of time to update and digitize collections, but the end result is a virtual, safe archive where people can access it from anywhere, and you don’t have to worry about it’s total annihilation (because of off-site backups).  How do we pick what is to be digitized in which order?  Valid question, except that people are paid to run these archives.  Didn’t they have to pick what went in them in the first place?  Aren’t they then capable of figuring out what is most important in their own collections?

“Ok, ok, Mr. genius.  What about the actual digitization process?  I don’t know how to hold the mouse, remember?”  Yes, I recall that there are those who are completely computer-illiterate.  How they even watch cable is beyond me.  My grandma still calls me over to her house to help her set up the TV to “watch her shows” because she pressed a wrong button on the remote and suddenly everything has Spanish subtitles.  My point is, so what if you don’t know how to do it?  You can’t operate a space shuttle either, but no one is asking you to.  Find someone who can do all this stuff for you, and you can go back to your nap.

Seriously, try interns.  College people.  Contact the local university and see if their graphic arts, Computer Science , or even their History department would volunteer for credit or something.  Young people understand this stuff, some even better than me.  You could even learn some of the tricks yourself; it doesn’t take a MA in programming to learn how to take a digital photograph and upload it to a computer.  Heck, most PCs will do everything but plug the cord in.  It’s not that complex, and if it seems so, it’s just that some people don’t have experience in it.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of, in fact it’s a damned good excuse to make someone else do it for you.

There are a lot of myths out there about digital media, but it makes things so much easier.  It’s searchable, it’s available, and it’s safe.  Tomorrow is coming pretty quick, and I doubt that the digital world will sit on it’s haunches waiting for historians to catch up.  As purveyors of History, we need to step up our game and start increasing the scope of dissemination in the digital age.

And if a smarmy ass-hat like me can write this blog, I’m pretty sure you can digitize history too.


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Journals Need To Be Bi-Curious

When I pictured an online journal, the first thing that popped into my head was something akin to JStore: a frontpage for each issue, with a table of contents hyperlinked to each article displayed in html format.  Maybe even a pdf or two thrown in…who knows.  What I did not expect was the piece produced by Ayers and Thomas, which basically was an easily navigable website that allowed me to shift from argument to evidence and back in a mouse click.

My first thought: This’ll never work.

My second thought: This is AWESOME!  It’s a website that’s all linked and stuff!  *clickety click click click*

My third thought:  This’ll never work.

“And why not, you historiological dinosaur?” you might ask.  Well, actually, for some of the reasons that Thomas himself points out.  First and foremost let me say I am a proponent of the Digital Age; I think there should be online journals, free ebooks, and every document on the face of the earth should be searchable by Google.  We have the technology.  Solid state drives are becoming more and more common-place, and storage capacities are increasing at an exponential rate.  The only thing missing is the human factor, and hey, aren’t we in a recession with over 9% unemployment?  Seriously, I know it would take a while before everything can become digitized, but it should be a goal.  It’s not a matter of want, either, it’s a matter of need.

That brings me to Thomas and Ayers’s e-journal.  As society moves farther and farther away from a desk as the predominant place to do work, as the pen and paper mechanic are working their way into the past, our culture has to move forward as well.  I am not convinced that “The Difference Slavery Made” is the way to go.  Thomas points out that Ayers and he went for a bi-medium approach: both print and web.  All well and good, but the web version was too unwieldy for transfer to another medium; in other words, how the hell do I cite the thing?  Each footnote would be immense, as there are no page number for me to reference.  Take a look at this:

And that’s only PART of a footnote.  Anything else, like say putting “Overview” instead of the page number would get too complicated the deeper into this website you go; and that’s what this piece is, a website.   The only way this is a viable method is if I was making something similar, and could embed a hyperlink into a shorter piece of text.  That in itself would be cool; imagine typing your paper, and having a direct quote be hyperlinked to the cited work, directly to the spot where it was taken from.  The only problem is that I’ve never made a website.

I’m sure many historians have never made a website, especially one as complex as “The Difference Slavery Made.”  I’m no slouch, I understand how a good chunk of this stuff works, and I imagine I might have a steep learning curve to figure that out.  I can imagine how some people who may not be as into computers as I am trying to set that up.  Of course, maybe there’s a market in that…

I digress.  The main issue with this setup is that it looks fine on the computer, but bad on paper, if you get my meaning.  Thomas brings up the point that it is difficult to transfer from paper to web, and that’s true.  The website is srt up by breaking it into different headings, which interrupts the flow of the piece.  Sure it looks cool, but some of the prose is lost in translation.  In other words, the website sacrifices good writing for structure.

What we need is a pdf, a digitized version of the document that can be hyperlinked to all of the sources.  This way, we have an easily readable and navigable document (with bookmarks the piece can be set up in much the same way as the website) and it’s still in an easy-to-read format.  Heck, I could even load it on my e-reader and take it with me on vacation.

As much as I liked “The Difference Slavery Made,” it’s just not going to work.  Web-based articles can be effective, just not when designed in the same fashion as websites.  We need a bi-media approach, one that can work just as well with paper as well as digitization to allow for easy citation and dissemination.  The Web is a good tool for exploring sources within a paper, but trying to cite that monstrosity?

Homey don’t play dat.

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Wikipedia is a Joke



Yes, Wikipedia is a joke, mainly to professionals, businessmen, scholars, scientists…basically anyone who received an undergraduate degree more than 10 years ago.  Why is it a joke?  Well, it’s on the internet.  It can’t be accurate.  I mean, who checks these things anyway?  Some virgin sitting in his mom’s basement, underwear-clad, between World of Warcraft raids?  It’s not like Jstor or EbscoHost, where the articles represented are peer reviewed and from established journals.  Any schmo can contribute to Wikipedia, and any schmo can edit some other schmo’s contribution.   If I want people to believe that the pyramids were built by time-travelling strippers, I can edit the page myself, and lo-and-behold!  Snookie put the capstone on Khufu’s (that’s the big one).

But is that really accurate?  Can I go around, willy-nilly, and alter the past wikipage by wikipage as I see fit?  Nope.  Wikipedia is monitored by people who care about the articles that they establish.  Not only that , but generally the people who contribute to Wikipedia want to remain truthful, to add their voice in describing history.  In a sense, Wikipedia is a historical document that can be added to and modified by anyone, as long as they have altruistic means.

Go on Wikipedia right now.  Look up a news item that’s happened in the past week, and you’ll see big notifiers telling you that this is recent, subject to change, and may not be the most accurate information.  All of the articles I have seen have footnotes to verify facts made within, and when information is ambiguous a keyboard jockey usually points out the error.  Citation is the bread and butter of historians, and Wikipedia doesn’t fail to supply verification when necessary.  In fact, it is a cardinal rule that before you can even create a Wikipedia page on certain topics, there MUST be at least one documented external source to substantiate its existence.

OK, so there are errors.  Many errors.  Some aren’t caught by the thought police guarding the Wiki-gateway, some are based on citations that are themselves flawed.  That doesn’t take the value away from the resource; I mean, the Encyclopedia Britannica had errors (I know, I checked the Wikipedia entry).  You aren’t supposed to use encyclopedias as sources anyway, just as stepping stones to gain a broader sense of a topic and perhaps find actual material that you can use.  What’s the difference if it came from the pen of James Bryce or the keyboard of Larry Dudemann?  Are Larry’s facts any less valid than learned historians?

Wikipedia represents something big in the world society.  It’s not just an encyclopedia; it’s an ethnological record of what is important to whom and when, it’s a historiographical database that will illustrate how understanding of the past changes as time passes, and it’s a community of people who are dedicated to recording their world as accurately and as unbiased as possible.

Yeah, Wikipedia is a joke now.  Professors will tell their students to treat it like the plague, highschoolers will deny they used it for researching their science reports, and geeks will continue to minimize the editing window when their girlfriend walks into the room.  I don’t think that’s going to last too long, though; eventually Wikipedia may replace a paper encyclopedia, and thanks to dedicated contributors it will be more accurate to boot.  Then only the Wikipedia editors will be laughing, but only as they repair the time-travelling stripper graffiti placed on the Great Pyramids article.

Because we all know they were really built by aliens.

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