Alle Beiträge von Mills Kelly

Playing With History

At the end of April two dozen historians gathered at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario for a conference called Playing With Technology in History. The organizing idea of the two-day meeting was that if we take a more playful approach to the teaching, learning, and the production of historical knowledge, new ways of thinking about the past may emerge. The three most prominent themes evident during the conference were historical gaming (so-called „serious games„), mobile history, and physical computing in the humanities (see an earlier post in this blog on that topic). As a participant in the conference, I spent a fair amount of time wondering how all the “play” we talked about can be connected to the serious purposes of teaching and learning about the past. I’m a believer that there are direct connections, but I also am hard-headed enough to insist that those connections be made explicit through data (qualitative or quantitative) that demonstrate how certain kinds of learning takes place during or as a result of play. It also remains to be seen whether a more playful approach to the construction of historical knowledge will have tangible results. At a minimum, however, it seems to me that if historians are willing to be a little more playful, we are more likely to engage a wider audience for our work.

The Future of WikiHistory?

Because my friendly bot knows that I purchase books on Czech and Slovak history, I just received a notice of a new book on Slovak history titled Slovak Republic (1939-1945): Slovaks, Slovakia, Munich Agreement, History of Czechoslovakia (1948-1989). Because this title seemed so odd, and because there are so few good histories of the interwar Slovak state, I thought I would peek at this listing to see if I might want to buy it–thereby justifying the Amazon bot’s existence.

What I found was a very interesting book…but not for the reasons I had hoped. Instead, it appears that this slim volume (priced at $62 for a 136 page paperback) is nothing more than a collection of articles — „High Quality Content by Wikipedia articles!“ — from Wikipedia on the history of Slovakia and Czechoslovakia. Needless to say, this left me a bit puzzled, given that „high quality content by Wikipedia“ is available for free and because content on controversial subjects like the history of the Slovak state of 1939-1945 tends to be fairly malleable on Wikipedia. For instance, the entry on the Slovak state begins by describing the state as „a puppet clerofascist state“ but a recent version describes it as „a quasi-independent national Slovak state.“ So I wonder which of these versions is the high quality content promised in the book?

Given how odd I thought this was, I visited the website of BetaScript Publishing, the company offering this new book for sale. According to their site, BetaScript is „one of the leading publishing houses of academic research. We specialize in publishing copyleft projects,“ and annually they publish more than 10,000 titles. The site itself is not very helpful when it comes to finding out more about the company. For example, the News link takes you to a page that says „No news today!“ It seems that the best one can say about BetaScript Publishing is that the company’s business model is to take content (high quality content remember) from Wikipedia and offer it for sale as books.

While one might be impressed by the business model, as a historian one can also worry that lots of very odd versions of history will begin wandering around as „academic research.“ I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I think all Wikipedia content is bad. In fact, much of it is quite good, and I regularly assign my students the task of writing for Wikipedia. What concerns me is that by publishing a dynamic, crowdsourced article in a book, BetaScript is fixing that content in time and space, an act that might well lead to the perpetuation of what a colleague calls „zombie facts“ — „facts“ that once in the record just won’t go away no matter how hard we try to kill them.

The good news is that at $62 for a 136 page paperback, I suspect few people are going to purchase this particular book.

Collecting History Online as Web 1.5

One of the ways that digital technology is supposed to change the practice of history is through the collecting and preserving of historical content online. To be sure, millions upon millions of historical texts, images, and digitally reproduced artifacts have already been made available (and presumably preserved) on websites around the world.

But what about the collecting of historical content through open interface archives–archives that invite the public to deposit materials in their collections, either historical artifacts that individuals own and are willing to share, or „history as it happens?“ The open nature of the collecting process–one where anyone can deposit virtually anything into the archive–raises many questions for historians and archivists about the nature of archives themselves. But these sorts of projects can also raise difficult questions for the creators and managers of the projects. In a recent essay, my colleague Sheila Brennan and I try to make sense of at least a few of the lessons we learned in our work on one such project. Weiterlesen

Zotero 2.0 now available


Zotero 2.0 became available for public download on May 14. This new version of Zotero provides many exciting features that unlock the research archives of individual scholars making those research archives (or portions of those archives) available for a wider audience. Think about it this way. In what my students like to call the „olden times“ (anything before 2000), scholars collected materials into their personal research archives then sat down and wrote a book, an article, or a conference paper. That publication provided the scholar’s audience with a glimpse into the source materials he or she had collected from various archives, libraries, etc. But only a glimpse, and mostly in the footnotes. If you wanted access to those same sources, you had to replicate the research already completed by the author of what you were reading.

Zotero 2.0 potentially puts an end to this re-research process. Now, a scholar can make any portion of that personal research archive available online via Zotero’s collaborative capabilities. So, for instance, as I collect materials for an article I am perparing for a volume of essays on „getaways“ in communist Eastern Europe, I can make my Zotero folders available to anyone or just my collaborators in the volume. Once the book is published, I can choose whether or not to make my sources available to those readers who want to work with the sources I collected. In this way, the „hidden archive“ of scholarship will begin to migrate to the surface. The potential for transformation of scholarly work is, I think, quite significant.

Zotero 2.0 also taps into the potentialities of social networking for scholars. Once logged in to the Zotero server, one can create a personal profile page, create or join affinity groups, and track („follow“) the work of others who are part of the Zotero community. For a brief summary of the features of Zotero 2.0, read what Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media, has written (and will continue to write) in his blog.

Digital Media and Student Learning

The January issue of Academic Commons highlights the results of several years of research on the intersections between digital media and student learning in the humanities and social sciences. The various essays presented in this issue — and a second issue due out in February — are drawn from the work of participants in the Visible Knowledge Project based at Georgetown University. Focusing on a variety of issues related to the ways that digital media are transforming student learning and the relationship between teaching and learning, the strength of the work presented here is that it is (mostly) drawn from evidence, rather than anecdote. Too often claims about teaching or gains in student learning are made entirely from a complete or almost complete lack of evidence. The essays in these two issues offer a pleasant corrective to this tendency.

Stretching the Physical Boundaries of the Humanities

It’s not very often that someone finds an entirely new way to think about the humanities. Bill Turkel, a historian at the University of West Ontario, has managed this trick by stretching physical boundaries of the humanities. Turkel, one of the co-authors of The Programming Historian is also the founder of the Lab for Humanistic Fabrication. The Lab is the place where Turkel, his colleagues, and his graduate students experiment with ways to build „communicative devices that are transparently easy to use, provide ambient feedback, and are closely coupled with the surrounding environment.“

What does this mean in the context of the humanities? As Turkel explains, historians „have tended to emphasize opportunities for dissemination that require our audience to be passive, focused and isolated from one another and from their surroundings.“ He proposes to change this by creating new physical interfaces between the analog and digital world that will (or at least may) transform the ways we interact with the vast amongs of digitized data (text, image, sound, video) being poured into online databases every day by scholars, archives, libraries, governments, and individual citizens.

What these interfaces might look like, sound like, or feel like is anyone’s guess. But Turkel and his team have already begun to come up with some prototypes–prototypes developed in a fabrication lab — not the kind of place we typically think of humanists as working. Turkel’s work challenges us to think about how we will experience the past in the not so distant future.

Flickr Commons Expands

The photosharing website Flickr has expanded its „Commons“ project. I wrote about the first iteration several months ago describing the decision by the American Library of Congress to allow the public to start marking up images from their collection. Since that time, Flickr (owned by Yahoo!) has expanded the number of its partners to include the Smithsonian Institution, the Brooklyn Museum, the George Eastman House, the Biblioteca de Arte-Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, the Bibliothèque de Toulouse, the National Media Museum, and the Powerhouse Museum. These additions to the project have increased the number of images available through the commons exponentially and, because the images being deposited in the Commons are being chosen with some care, this collection is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting, if idiosyncratic collections of photographs available to the general public.

Making the History of 1989

I’m pleased to announce that after more than two years of steady work our project team at the Center for History and New Media has launched Making the History of 1989: The Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. This project offers users hundreds of primary sources on the events of 1989 and the end of the Cold War in Europe, interviews with prominent scholars, and a suite of resources for teachers and students, including extended teaching modules and a series of teaching case studies focused on particular primary sources.

Because this project was built from the ground up using our Omeka platform, we have been able to add some new features unavailable in some of our earlier world history projects. These include the ability to geolocate the primary sources in the database (a feature being recoded as I write this and so not available today), and the ability to register as a user, login, and then self-organize the primary source archive. Users who are logged in can save individual sources, add their own tags to those sources, and write note on their sources for later reference. Users can also create an online poster from their personal set of sources–a feature targeted specifically at students.

As with the launch of any major web project, there are still a few things to be added. We still have a few teaching modules to add, some of the primary sources still need annotations, and one of the scholar interviews is still in production. But the majority of the resources are now up and available for your use.

No project like this one would be possible without a large team of people–staff and authors–who have worked very hard over the past two years to bring this effort to a successful conclusion. A quick look at the About page will give you a sense for how many people it takes to make something like this happen. Since this is our official launch week, I want to publicly thank everyone who has contributed to the project. And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not also thank our two principal funders–the National Endowment for the Humanities and the German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C.).

Potential Digital Humanities Fellowship at CHNM

The Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University invites expressions of interest to join the Center in applying to the American National Endowment for the Humanities for one of NEH’s Fellowships at Digital Humanities Centers.

NEH Fellowships at Digital Humanities Centers (FDHC) support collaboration between digital centers and individual scholars. An award provides funding for both a stipend for the fellow while in residence at the center and a portion of the center’s costs for hosting a fellow. Awards are for periods of six to twelve months. The intellectual cooperation between the visiting scholar and the center may take many different forms and may involve humanities scholars of any level of digital expertise. Fellows may work exclusively on their own projects in consultation with center staff, collaborate on projects with other scholars affiliated with the center, function as “apprentices” on existing digital center projects, or any combination of these. The results of the collaboration may range from “proof of concept” to finished product.

The aims of the program are to 1) support innovative collaboration on outstanding digital research projects; 2) expand digital literacy and expertise; 3) promote the work of digital humanities centers; and 4) encourage broad and open access to the humanities. (For the full guidelines, see

CHNM plans to select a scholar for its application by July 31, 2008. Interested scholars should send a CV and a 2-3 pp. description of 1) their general interest in the fellowship and the Center; 2) what specifically they would like to work on during the term of the fellowship; 3) any experience they might have that is applicable to this work; and 4) how this work dovetails with any current Center projects (e.g. the National History Education Clearinghouse, Zotero, Omeka, the Bracero History Archive, etc.) Send these two documents to with the subject line “NEH Fellowship” as soon as possible. Applications will be reviewed as they come in, through July 31. The selected scholar will be notified soon thereafter, and CHNM will work with that scholar to submit a grant application to NEH by September 15, 2008.

Digital Historian, Center for History and New Media

The Department of History and Art History at George Mason University (where CHNM is located) has just received approval to hire a tenure track digital historian. We are very excited about this new position, which will be half in the Department teaching digital history courses and half in CHNM working on existing projects and developing new ones for us. If you know anyone who would be interested in applying or who should be interested in applying, please pass the word to them.

If you are interested in applying, you need to go to the GMU online application page and the number for this position is F5343z. Specific questions about the search should be directed to me, since I am the chair of the search committee. A formal advertisement will appear in the usual outlets soon.

The link to the formal posting of the position is now available.

Gulag History

The largest penal system in human history–the Gulag–is fast disappearing from the physical landscape. Of all of the many camps that dotted the maps of the Soviet Union, only Perm 36 survives largely as it was before 1991. The rest of the Gulag complex has been torn down, scavenged for scrap metal and building materials, or left to decay in isolated regions of Siberia now accessible only by helicopter.

The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the Gulag Museum at Perm 36, and the International Memorial Society have collaborated on a new new website: Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives.

This project explores the history of the Soviet Gulag through bilingual exhibits (English and Russian), an archive of primary sources, a series of podcasts, and other resources. Exhibits are presented with a thematic approach that illustrates the diversity of the Gulag experience through original mini-documentaries, images, and the words of individual prisoners. A searchable archive includes archival documents, photographs, paintings, drawings, and oral histories that give visitors the opportunity to explore the subject in much greater depth. Later this summer, Many Days, Many Lives will also feature a virtual visit to the Gulag Museum at Perm 36.

Nebraska Digital Workshop


The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has announced their third annual workshop for early career digital humanists. The goal of the workshop is to bring advanced graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and pre-tenure faculty members together with senior scholars in a collaborative environment. All those chosen for the workshop will present their work for critique by the participants and will emerge from the workshop with a more refined project, new ideas about their work, and suggestions pathways toward further funding, publication, or other means of advancing their work.

The workshop pays the cost of travel and lodging for all participants as well as an honorarium for presenting their work.

Omeka Ready for General Use (beta version)


The Center for History and New Media and the Minnesota Historical Society have justed released the public beta version of Omeka, a free and open-source software platform that provides museums, historical societies, libraries, and individuals with an easy-to-use platform for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits. Already in use at more than 150 sites, Omeka makes a variety of Web 2.0 technologies and approaches available to any user–small or large–who wants to foster a higher degree of interaction among users and site visitors. Omeka is now available for download and general use. System Requirements for this platform are:

  • Linux operating system
  • Apache server (with mod_rewrite enabled)
  • MySQL 5.0 or greater
  • PHP 5.2.x or greater
  • ImageMagick

THATCamp at the Center for History and New Media


The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University will be holding THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), May 31 and June 1, 2008. This event will be an „unconference“ on digital humanities. An unconference is an event where the participants decide what the sessions should be about on a day-to-day basis, rather than by the organizers in advance. In that sense, this will be a truly open source event. THATCamp is filling up fast, so if you want to attend be sure to visit the website now and register.

Text Mining for Historians


This summer the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University will begin work on a two-year study of the potential of text-mining tools for historical (and by extension, humanities) scholarship. The project, entitled “Scholarship in the Age of Abundance: Enhancing Historical Research With Text-Mining and Analysis Tools,” aims to determine how historians might begin to take advantage of the incredible abundance of historical content now available in on-line databases.

Many millions of original sources (texts, images, etc.) have now been placed online in these databases, but historians have yet to figure out how to work effectively with such vast quantities of information. Ironically, more and more historians are finding themselves overwhelmed by the abundance of digital sources. As a result, no one has yet figured out how to access potential new insights about the past that may lurk in these databases or in the intersections between them.

Smaller efforts, like those of programming historian Bill Turkel at the University of Western Ontario, have yielded very interesting preliminary results. The CHNM project intends to expand on work like Turkel’s and the MONK project to determine what historians need on a grander scale. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, this project will include a variety of research endeavors, including focus groups with historians who will be asked to test the efficacy of various text mining methods in their research.