Optimal search

It’s interesting reading the chapter on marketing in Cohen’s “Digital History”. Nothing against him or the book, but you can tell it’s already outdated, in spite of it’s valuable information. Cohen talks about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), yet he focuses on Google Ad-Words, something only the larger (i.e. – wealthier) organizations use. If he were (re)writing that section today, Ad-Words would barely rate a mention. Instead, my guess is Cohen would focus on low-to-no cost promotional methods, including social network sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), blogs and blog posts utilizing tags, and a myriad of other SEO techniques that are readily available online.

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Museums need to get social

The way I see it (in my naïveté …), museums, and their curators, need to embrace social media and the emerging technologies they’re available on… and they need to do it now. Utilize a (knowledgeable) grad student, take a course, scan the web for free tutorials, ask a colleague, or simply look at what other similar organizations are doing. There’s so much potential to generate hype, spread the word about exhibits, engage online viewers and museum visitors alike, NOT doing it is, it seems, more damaging to the museum’s longevity.

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“Power to the People”

The more we read, the more it seems like the logical, and unavoidable, direction for museums is crowdsourcing. With funding at a premium, it makes sense to utilize as many free or near-free resources as they possibly can. As noted in the article, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” , there are a large number of untapped “experts” in the world who are just itching for the opportunity to utilize their skills. For some, these skills are self-taught, making them “hobbyists” (which, in my opinion, is a loaded term; but that’s another matter). Still others have had extensive schooling and even, possibly, work experience in the field; economics may be the only thing preventing them from working “traditionally”. To me, crowdsourcing is a “win-win”: museums save money, while contributors build experience and network.

So, how does one address the issue of uncontrolled tagging versus the systematic process “honed and developed over centuries” by experts? Again, whether or not this is an issue is a matter of perception. And good luck trying to change someone’s mind, one way or the other! I can, however, understand the viewpoint of Harmel, the professional stock photographer. With prices on digital cameras dropping dramatically, computers and digital editing software becoming cheaper and portable (and, in the case of software, sometimes free!), ubiquitous tutorials and how-to videos on YouTube, forums, and even by “Liking” pages on Facebook, it’s almost impossible for a producer to sell their high-end content to “low-end” consumers… and that’s OK. There will (hopefully) always be people and/or companies who look for/need and are willing to pay for high-end content. This frees up the rest of us to find, use and even produce content for “the 99%” (sorry… I couldn’t resist).

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I found David Weinberger’s article to be both amusing and insightful, as well as congruent to my pwn feelings on tagging. Certainly, as with (seemingly) every aspect of digital history, allowing for collective tagging has it “pitfalls”. But, I do believe the pros outweigh the cons here.

First of all, tagging is limited only by an individual’s ability, or lack thereof, to ‘think outside the box’. For commercial purposes, e.g. driving traffic to one’s website, the author(s) would want to get creative and tag their posts, products, etc with tags that are even tangentially related to their wares. However, as Weinberger pointed out, this could cause a glut in search results for something specific (his example of “SF” on Flickr comes to mind), if left to the public to tag. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily…

Allowing a user to tag a picture, for example, with a word that the original poster didn’t think of accomplishes two things: 1) it widens the cirle of of search terms, thereby increasing the photo’s chances of being found; 2) it provides an opportunmity for said photo to be ‘discovered’ by someone unaware of it’s existence while looking for something ele (we’ll call this “The Columbus Curiosity”). Now, this person may feel compelled to tag the same photo with tags they feel are relevant, thereby exponentially improving the photo’s search engine optimization.

image courtesy of sig@thingamy.com


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“Digital for storage and quickness. Analog for fatness and warmth.” ~ Andrew Belew

From the many overlapping articles this week, the most common topics seem to be about the (potential) pitfalls of digitizing historical records and, just as importantly, WHICH historical records to digitize. Let me address the first concern…

As far as the dangers of digitizing archives, records, artifacts, etc… is it any more of a problem than NOT digitizing?? Any digital artist worth his salt will tell you there are three rules to working digitally:

  1. Back up
  2. Back up
  3. Back up

One artist I know makes a nightly back up of all his work through a program that uploads backups to a remote site. He then makes a weekly back-up onto a DVD-R. He then backs up the entire single project onto another DVD-R (sometimes two!). Finally, he routinely backs up onto an external hard drive. Point being? Just because you have a digitized version doesn’t mean an analog version is now “obsolete” or useless. You now have TWO working copies (or more!) that can be of assistance. But, backing up is also important for one’s entire website or digital exhibit. As Dan Cohen pointed out, websites can disappear or archives can be rendered useless if the owner loses money, interest or dies. Backing up one’s work to an external site, as well as to files on one’s hard drive (which should then also be backed up) provides for many more opportunities to PREVENT issues such as the one that befell the “My History Is America’s History” website.

The second concern is a bit trickier… while digital storage methods are simultaneously becoming larger and cheaper, it still costs money to do the work of digitizing whichever records you want digitized. And, as has been illustrated, lack of funding can lead to a project’s premature demise. While crowd-sourcing and/or crowd-funding are workarounds, they are not fool-proof and present their sets of issues (as Cohen discussed). Ultimately, it comes down to each historian’s preference, as well as logistics (cost of one record over another, fragility, equipment availability, etc.). Unlike the first concern, the question of which records to digitally preserve doesn’t have a clear solution. Unfortunately, inability to decide could leave one with an even bigger problem: losing a precious historical record before being able to digitally preserve it.

“Soon it’s all going to be digital anyway. It’s all going to be saved on a little coin somewhere.” ~ Richard Donner
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“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

In Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” article, he opens by showing how Amazon, even in it’s eaely days, was able to utilize the power of digital media and social networking to breathe new life into a nearly dead book. Through it’s “Recommendation” settings, Amazon was able to introduce a whole round of new readers to a very good book that was, apparently, ready for a renaissance.

What does that have to do with digital history? My initial thought was, “Imagine the possibilties for obscure scholarly works to be ‘re-discovered’!” But, the flip side is, the possibilities are now ENDLESS for new works. Even the more obscure subjects have a small number of people interested in them. By being related, sometimes even tangentially, to another book/magazine/movie/item, etc., the chances for an author’s work being “found” grow tremendously.

Now, this certainly opens up the debate for who can publish what types of historical works… scholarly or amateurish? Deeply researched (over years), over done within a year through keyword searches on Google? Maybe the real question is: does it matter? Maybe, as part of this digital revolution, we will need to re-evaluate what exactly constitutes a “scholarly” versus “amateur” historian’s work. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get a clear answer on it, though.

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“Let the Wiki win…”

Many people, especially educators, seem to have a “it’s okay…” view of Wikipedia. During my 1st year of teaching, my department head (subsequently, this was done throughout the school) had us all spend a class expounding the pitfalls & dangers of the dreaded Wiki-monster. Ironically, only about half of my Freshmen students (100+) were familiar with and/or used Wikipedia; the rest had only heard about it. Did this lesson help the kids understand why they shouldn’t use Wikipedia? Or did it have the opposite effect by bringing the proverbial golden calf to the unknowing students? 

The answer is both. The kids (we’ll call them the “College Prep” level) who had been familiar with Wikipedia now understand it’s potential use as a modern scientiae compendium, and will utilize it much as we used our dusty old encyclopedias in school: as a reference point or springpad from which to launch further investigation into our topic of choice. The students who were lower performing however, were not dissuaded by my lecture, and the students who had never used Wikipedia before now were (in their minds) handed a tool to accomplish all of their work. To them, unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia is written, literally, “by the People, for the People”; in other words, in simple, straightforward language that a high school Freshman can understand. High school students, in general, cannot understand the language used in more scholarly works or journals, such as those found on JSTOR. For the student writing out their first “research” paper, Wikipedia is a boon. Each Wikipedia entry presents concise information, written in the vernacular, with links to more detailed sections and cross-references. The student never has to actively choose their sources, instead relying on Wikipedia’s vast network of editors to do the work for them. Unfortunately, for all of the same reasons, some students learn the hard way about plagiarism.

But, as far as educators are concerned, the more “serious” issue with Wikipedia is it’s potential for misinformation. Certainly, Wikipedia  has factual errors, but so does the Encyclopedia Britannica, as demonstrated by the studies quoted in the articles. Is it because of the fact that Wikipedia is, essentially, crowd written & edited? According to one teacher friend of mine, who teaches 11th grade U.S. History in El Salvador, “ [I] don’t allow it for a source on formal research papers. Students may use it to look for initial information before finding more serious sources. As another teacher friend of mine told me – he has friends who go in and alter entries just to be funny. Not always reliable.” Another teacher friend, who teaches English & Literature in a  public charter high school in San Jose, CA, echoes the sentiment; “Agreed. Wikipedia may be a launching point for research, in that it can provide a schema for students to understand a topic, but it cannot stand as a source on its own….primarily because the nature of Wikipedia makes it difficult to ascertain the level of credibility/authority of the content.”

It is for this reason that I so enjoyed “Assigning Wikipedia in a US History Survey” . I thought it provided a wonderful opportunity for educators to teach kids about both the pros and cons of Wikipedia by putting the students in the driver’s seat (with a bit of tweaking, this assignment could be used for probably any subject in school). If we, as educated historians, don’t teach up-and-coming historians (and, in some cases, their public school teachers!) about how to use ALL resources available to them, we are doing them a grave disservice, especially in this digital age of ex vulgus scientia (lit. “from crowd, knowledge; used to describe social computing, The Wisdom of Crowds).

Yes… that is a link to an article on Wikipedia… you be the judge.

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This blog post © Virtually Historical…

The chapter in Cohen & Rosenzweig’s “Digital History” on copyrights is, at best, mind-boggling. Admittedly, there are probably very few of us that have given much thought to copyright infringement, let alone copyrighting our own work, whatever it may be. However, it is a sobering reality that at least a smidgen of copyright know-how is required in every digital historian’s toolbox. As another blogger mentioned, copyright infringement is a particularly sore subject for people dealing with the digital visual medium; namely, artists, illustrators, movie makers and photographers who, out of necessity to cooperate with the fields’ trends, put their work in an online portfolio. While the points Cohen makes in the chapter “Digitizing History” on image resolution for print versus web, watermarks, etc, can certainly help slow down the pirating of their work, a determined person with basic Photoshop skills can (and has done so) steal the work, tweak it, and call it their own, leaving the original creator without a revenue stream.
But, as Cohen points out, this does not mean that a digital historian need live in constant fear of copyright lawyers pouncing on them from rooftops like savage, urban beasts. There are still gray areas, such as Creative Commons and “fair use” clauses that can save the historian hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. One has to wonder, though, as more material becomes digitized and the use of the internet as a research tool grows, will that lessen the burden of copyright for digital historians or will it get worse, virtually forcing them to go all-analog? (yes… that pun was intended)
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Tag… you’re it.

While I can certainly appreciate the effort and passion behind Del.icio.us, one has to wonder if it was abandoned not just for lack of funds, but also because of Google’s seeming monopoly over most things web-related. While I was creating an account for Del.icio.us, I went back to Google and found their “Bookmarks” tool which, it would seem from the bookmark I had saved there, has been around since 2005, at least! There was even the option of importing my Del.icio.us bookmarks back into Google! Plus, with the widespread use of Chrome and the Android platform, both of which allow for sharing & synching of all of your browsing, the use of a “non-Google” tool is, for me at least, just one more thing I don’t need to deal with.

Regardless… the concept of Del.icio.us is, as many of the authors we’ve read have pointed out, a tool that can be very good at problem solving, and problem inducing. For example, when I imported my bookmarks into Del.icio.us, it offered to tag them for me. This, obviously, is a huge convenience for anyone who is importing dozens, maybe hundreds, of bookmarks. I don’t have to worry about tagging each and every bookmark that I’ve created; this automatically negates the common problem of capitalization and punctuation, which can often result in the same word counting as different tags, making a search more difficult. Plus, this convenience, as far as I can tell, will automatically “partner” my bookmarks with any other publicly available bookmark that has similar tags. This would not only facilitate better and more widespread access to resources, but would result in a sort of “social networking” for historiansdoing similar research! A useful too, for sure… however, what if I don’t “agree” with the chosen tags? This could completely negate the aforementioned benefit of automatic tagging.

Again, one would have to, on a personal level, evaluate each tool and weigh the pros and cons of using each tool for their work. Regardless of ones preference, these tools seem to be here to stay and are only going to get “smarter”… which begs the question: does one “put all of their eggs in one basket” (i.e. use Google for everything), or is diversifying their tools the smarter way of working?

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