07 September 2009

The Wonders of Digital Technology

I stumbled across an interesting Newsweek photo essay earlier today, which linked me to a Library of Congress exhibit. It's a collection of color photographs from Russia, taken between 1907 and 1915. Yes, I said color photographs!

The Library of Congress has chosen to highlight certain images, but there are certain many more to enjoy - some of which you can see in the Newsweek article, or by searching the LoC website. They're truly amazing photographs and there's some interesting details about how the photographs were taken and how they've been reproduced for our enjoyment today.

So check it out: 1907-1915 coloured Russian photography by Prokudin-Gorskii

21 June 2009

Life at OGS

Given that my internship for my public history program is already over half way complete, I thought it would be appropriate to finally share what it is that I've been doing.

I'm working for the Ontario Genealogical Society (a real mouth full when you try and answer the phone!) as an Image Technician. Basically, I travel around and digitize records of genealogical and historical importance. The idea behind this project is to digitize records that genealogists would find useful, as well as provide a second copy to historical societies.

I've been trained to use a book scanner - which is a bit misleading. There's no real scanner to it, instead it uses 2 digital cameras to digitize a book. It's been designed to cradle a book, without damaging the spine, and turns pages automatically through the use of air. A portion called the 'fluffer' blows air out to separate pages, and then a vacuum head comes over, and sucks up the page. You can see it in operation here. It is possible to move this machine, though it’s a tad on the cumbersome side – certainly not something to be taken lightly! Depending on the situation, either I take myself and the machine to the organization, or the records come to the office in Toronto.

After the physical scanning is complete, the editing begins – I figure for every hour of scanning that I do, there are likely 2-3 more hours of editing to do. This includes rotation of images, adjusting brightness and contrast, and cropping the photographs. The editing stage makes the digital record look like the original format – even down to the original colouring. Have a 100 year old book with yellowed pages? You can choose to have the pages cleaned up, to make them white again, or they can keep their yellowish tinge. It’s pretty neat.

It’s been an amazing experience so far – but there’s still much to learn! Tomorrow I’ll be trained on a copy stand – useful for larger books and maps.

Got anything you want digitized? Maybe I can help!

29 April 2009

Digital History in Review

Eight months ago I began the Public History program at the University of Western Ontario. I was wide-eyed and had no idea what to expect from any of my courses – especially digital history. It was the course that intimidated me the most, as it was the furthest from my comfort zone.

The first lesson of that class: Don’t panic. Professor Bill Turkel made it very clear that the year was going to be entirely manageable and that he would be there for advice and consultation whenever necessary. He encouraged us to sign up for various roles on our course wiki – anything from project manager, wiki editor, hardware specialist, or presenter, among many others. For my two roles, I chose wiki editor and hardware specialist. I can safely say that I am not a specialist just yet!

Wiki editor was by far the easiest of my two positions. There were straight forward directions available online from other wiki users on how to go about changing various things – adding in links, making sure your links went where they were necessary, etc. That I caught onto fairly easily, and even if I didn’t, I could fake it with all of the tutorials available!

The hardware specialist, meanwhile, was completely outside my comfort zone. Bill encouraged us all to sign up for something challenging and kept reminding us that if something didn’t work, that was okay, because we would still learn. I started Lady Ada’s Arduino tutorials to make sense of the tiny little computer I was given. I became quite comfortable with making a light flash – that seemed easy. But then I had to learn how to program the Arduino to respond when a button was pressed on a model, so that the Arduino could communicate with my computer and the Processing program.

This communication between the Arduino, my computer, and Processing was what really tripped me up. Thank goodness though for my classmate Chris Waring. He really saved the day and got my Arduino troubles all sorted out. Chris completed an undergraduate in engineering and is currently working towards a degree in history – an unusual combination perhaps, but I’m ever thankful that he decided to do the unusual!

Under Chris’s direction, I quickly figured out how to make the Arduino respond properly when a certain button was pressed. Now, where were these buttons coming from? Glad you asked.

The group that I worked with, as a part of our overall exhibit on William Harvey, was a model of the operating theatre at Padua University, as Harvey would have experienced it. There were three areas on this model – the anatomist, the body, and the student. The idea behind the exhibit was that individuals would be able to learn about the roles of the three individuals. My group worked to construct the theatre, with its six levels, out of foam core and I figured out how to make 2 inch figures out of papier-mâché. These little dudes initially looked like aliens, but after a quick paint job, they looked like people. The body on the operating table even had his chest cut open. I was especially proud of that one!

So once the theatre looked presentable, the group concentrated on wiring the model, so that the buttons at the three individuals would be able to relate the appropriate information to the visitor when pressed. Meanwhile, the appropriate slides were also put together, so that the visitor would be presented with visually interesting material. Putting this all together was perhaps the most difficult project of the year.

Our efforts to get Arduino to talk to my computer and to talk to Processing was complicated by the fact that I was running an out of date copy of Processing. Arduino communicated quite happily with my computer – the buttons sent the appropriate ‘1,’ ‘2,’ or ‘3’ when each was pressed – but Processing was rather non-communicative. Enter Chris to the rescue! He figured out that it was the out of date copy of Processing that was causing us grief (I should mention that this was all in the 2 hours before our public presentation). Once we got the right version of the program all was right in the world.

At our presentation of the Harvey exhibit, everything went off without a hitch – so long as you were there about 5-10 minutes after the exhibit started! Our visitors were able to press the button at the body and learn about where students and doctors got their bodies from (either dead criminals or snatched bodies), what the anatomists role was in instructing students, and what student life was like when Harvey attended Padua.

The end result of the exhibit was fantastic – it was nice to see a year of work come together, and work like it was supposed to.

I must admit though, I faked it was a hardware specialist – I couldn’t have done what I needed to without Chris’s help, so thank you sir! I appreciate you saving my skin and letting me fake it as a specialist!

02 April 2009

Technology, Nature, & History

In their respective articles, Rebecca Conard and David Glassberg discuss environmental history and preservation of both the natural environment and the historic environment.

Conard, in her article “Spading Common Ground” is especially critical of the various preservationists – historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers – for not fully communicating with each other and collaborating on projects that have similar end goals. Too often these three individual groups fail to network with each other, fail to pool their resources, and ultimately fail to achieve such similar goals.

For example, she discusses something as simple as a pier: One group of individuals wanted to make an accessible pier, so that all individuals could access the water to fish. Meanwhile, another group wanted to restore a historic stone pier that was still heavily used. It was somewhat accessible, but not without great difficulties. The two groups clearly had the same goal of allowing access for all to the water. Their approaches were different, as the first group wanted to construct an entirely new pier, while the second group wanted to restore an existing pier. Adaptive restoration to the stone pier would have satisfied all involved, but instead a new pier was created – all of the money and effort that could have been expended to modernize, while preserving, the existing stone pier went towards constructing a little used, modern pier.

In this instance, it was very clear after the fact that the two groups had a similar goal, but because of a lack of communication between the two, the historic pier didn’t receive the money it needed and instead a new pier was constructed, that simply is rarely used.

Conard also discusses the idea of ‘natural heritage’ and the establishment of American national parks in the 1930s. These places of ‘nature’ were not so natural, as the landscapes preserved had been manipulated and changed by Native American inhabitants.

Glassberg also discusses the ideas of fabricated nature in his article “Interpreting Landscapes.” Just as technology affected the development of cities and towns, technology impacted the establishment of the national park system. He argues that the landscape tourists experienced in the park setting was manufactured at the same time Native American reservations were established out west. The park system would not exist without the removal of Native Americans from the land, nor would it exist without the careful management of wildlife “to encourage picturesque megafauna and discourage pesky wolves.” (Glassberg, 25)

He also discusses the difficulties in preserving both natural heritage and built heritage. In the urban landscape, it is obviously much easier to preserve one building of historic significance, but much is lost if it’s just one building and the environment around it changes. In the urban setting, it’s much more beneficial, but also that much more difficult, to preserve as much of the neighbourhood as possible. In doing this, the heritage of the buildings and the people who lived in them will be properly preserved for future generations.

Along with preserving the built heritage of buildings, Glassberg also argues that historians can learn much from the buildings about the social, political, and economic standing of the peoples that lived in them. The structure of a neighbourhood can provide a historian with a wealth of information about the lives of previous residents – for example, he suggests that historians can learn about segregation during the time of the Jim Crow laws by the set up facilities in the American south, or that historians can learn about race relations through the development of reservations in the west.

Something that I identified the most with was Glassbergs discussion of how groups of people can interpret the same building or community so very differently. Simply by examining how a group of tourists see a church versus how the locals see that same church is very interesting. Having grown up in a small, tourist-trap of a town, this different interaction is very visible. Perhaps the best personal example is the issue with a new bridge in that town. Tourists did not want a new bridge, as it would alter the ‘charm’ of the town, meanwhile town councilors (my dad was one at the time) wanted a new bridge, as the old one needed to be replaced. For the sake of the town, a new bridge was necessary. Enter the tourist voter. Any councilor (including my dad) who voted in favour of the new bridge, which was constructed, were voted out of office. Did the ‘charm’ of the town change? Not really – the bridge looks the much same, it’s just modernized.

The key for both Conard and Glassberg seems to the be that there is much to be learned from both natural and built heritage. Society can better understand the past very simply through the type of heritage preserved: not every building or natural landscape passes muster. European-American created buildings were demolished to make way for the national parks, and the nature created by Native Americans was preserved instead. In urban settings, the houses of the elite have been saved, while the tenement houses are torn down in favour of parking lots or new houses. What’s been removed from the historical landscape is just as important, if not more so, that what has remained.

Conard, Rebecca. “Spading Common Ground: Reconciling the Built and Natural Environments.” Public History and the Environment. Ed. Martin V.Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino. Florida: Krieger, 2004, 3-22.

Glassberg, David. “Interpreting Landscapes.” Public History and the Environment. Ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino. Florida: Krieger, 2004, 23-36.

25 March 2009

Google, on your phone?

Obviously if you have internet access on your phone, you can access google. But did you know you can call google and search it that way?
Try it for yourself - 800-GOOG-411 - Just say the business name/type and the city and it will give you results and will connect you automatically if you so wish.
Neato! (See, these are the things you can find out on TED!)


Twitter came up in class the other day and I just ran across this talk by the co-founder about how the concept of instant updates came to be, and how it has evolved in such a short time.

Enjoy! And while you're on TED, check out some of the other talks!

23 March 2009

Fairy Tales

O the stuff fairy tales are made of. Like many children, especially little girls, I grew up on stories of princesses being rescued by knights in shinning armor. The two would ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. As a child, I never put much thought into exactly what that happily ever after might be. It’s interesting to see how Hollywood has portrayed the lives of princesses and how historical figures have been dealt with.

The film Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst, is a good example of happily ever after – almost. Marie’s life was certainly one of opulence, parties, friends, and generally having a good time. Of course there were a few small difficulties associated with being the Queen of France – the traditions of morning dressing for instance at Versailles, or her troubles consummating her marriage with Louis XVI. Her life goes along fairly well in this movie, until of course the French Revolution takes place. Then things go down hill. But for a while, it looked like those fairy tales of my childhood might have actually taken place in history according to Hollywood.

Recently I watched Keira Knightley in The Duchess, and while her character Georgiana isn’t a princess, her lifestyle is certainly close enough. As the movie started, it was somewhat clear that Georgiana would later fall for a male character, Charles Gray, introduced in the opening sequences. At the same time, though, she was thrilled to become the Duchess of Devonshire and didn’t pout to her mother that she wanted to marry Gray instead. The film quickly devolves from the typical fairy tale to almost a horror story. Obviously there isn’t a monster or something after Georgiana, but her marriage quickly turns out to be a bit of a sham. Her husband isn’t overly interested in sexual activity, at least with her. He seems to have several mistresses, until he takes Georgiana’s best friend as his live-in mistress. Her joy for life quickly dissolves from there.

I don’t recall anything spectacular in the special features of the Marie Antoinette that dealt with the historical accuracy (or inaccuracies as the case may be) of the film. Meanwhile, I was pleasantly surprised by the special features for The Duchess.

Part of the special features was obviously devoted to costume development, but another section was an interview with Amanda Foreman, the author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. In this interview, Foreman discusses the collection of Georgiana’s letters that are available in the archives at the Cavendish family home in Chatsworth. In talking about these letters, Foreman reveals to the viewer the maturation of Georgiana – visible in her hand writing and in the topics she discusses. It’s also interesting, as Georgiana’s letters were censored by her friend (and her husband’s mistress) Bess Foster. Bess either scratched out or ripped out certain parts of letters and apparently only left select letters for future generations.

I was thoroughly impressed to see this section in the special features. It was a somewhat shameless plug for tourists to go to Chatsworth, but at the same time, it made archival history interesting and relevant to a movie viewer. How often do you really think about the evolution of a person through their handwriting and the subject matter of their letters?

Check out the movie if you’ve got a chance. It’s not too bad. Typical in many ways, but still a pretty good flick. If nothing else, the costumes are great!