Clio Wired Final Project: Civil War Photography Wiki

The final project for my Clio Wired class at George Mason University is a grant proposal for a new Digital History project. The generous and benevolent Professor Michael O’Malley has released a call for proposals, funding up to $500,000 for projects which use the internet, information technology, and the skills we learned in class to reach new audiences with historical information or resources. Given my recent scholarly and professional interest in Civil War photography, I have decided to propose a Civil War Photography Wiki database.

Potential banner image: Civil War Photography Wiki

Potential banner image: Civil War Photography Wiki


The Civil War Photography Wiki will be a crowd-sourced database of photographs taken during the American Civil War era. The project’s goal will be to create this database online using existing tools and architecture, and then to encourage contributions from interested individuals and institutions, eventually culminating in a complete digital collection of all known photographs from the Civil War period.

Each record for a Civil War photograph will feature a high resolution digital image and metadata information of the type most relevant to scholars of the subject, including photographer, date taken, location taken, subject, process, provenance, current owner, and alternate versions. The site will be hosted on the servers of and maintained by the National Museum of American History, the Principal Investigator of this grant, but institutional partners will include the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Archives, National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Center for Civil War Photography, among others.

The funds requested in the grant will primarily be used to launch the site and to encourage contributions and use among the community of enthusiasts and scholars who are its primary audience. The site will combine the tools and potential of internet technology and accessibility and transparency of online communities to foster a lively and authoritative community-centered base of knowledge to support and nurture research in this exciting field of history.

Project description

Historians frequently cite the American Civil War as a watershed moment in the history of photography and photojournalism. The war came some twenty years after the first photographs were taken in the United States following the unveiling of the Daguerreotype process to the world by its eponymous inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. By 1860, the United States had a burgeoning photography industry, with practitioners like Mathew Brady making small fortunes taking portrait photos at studios in major American cities and a smaller number of photographers venturing outdoors to make images of ceremonies, events, and notable places. Technological innovation, especially the invention of the wet collodion process, made photography cheaper, shutter speeds shorter, cameras and dark rooms more portable, and opened the practice to increasing numbers of artists and entrepreneurs who foresaw a growing market for images.

The Evacuation of Fort Sumter, 1861, albumen print from a photograph attributed to Alma Pelot. Metropolitan Museum of Art accession no. 2005.100.1174.13.

The Evacuation of Fort Sumter, 1861, albumen print from a photograph attributed to Alma Pelot. Metropolitan Museum of Art accession no. 2005.100.1174.13.

In the days following Major Robert Anderson’s surrender of Fort Sumter, Charleston photographer Alma Pelot rowed out to the fort with his camera and equipment to record the aftermath of the first major action of the Civil War. Mathew Brady, sensing a business and historical opportunity to make images of what many thought would be a brief war, was caught in the fighting and driven into the woods outside Bull Run with a sword to protect himself while attempting to photograph the battle. Throughout the war, photographers expanded the visual encyclopedia of their craft, capturing vivid portraits of military and political leaders, incredible photographs of the vast machinery of war, and haunting images of destruction and corpses on battlefields that shaped the public’s understanding of the war.

The famous photographs of the Civil War are essential to the public memory of the era in the United States. Newspapers reprinted photographs of battlefields and leaders, stereoview series brought the carnage of war into people’s parlors, and popular gallery exhibitions and books like Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War gave individuals a direct a realistic window on the fighting like no other medium had before.

Still, as with any historical event, as the years passed, Civil War-era photographs became scarce. In the decades following the Civil War, stereoviews, albums, cased photographs, and albumen prints were stashed away in attics, archives, bureau drawers, and antique shops while the photographers, publishers, and subjects of the photographs moved on and passed away, taking with them their knowledge about the works. A few notable examples remained in public imagination – many of the images from the era used in history textbooks and documentary series like Ken Burns’ popular The Civil War were reproduced from the large and relatively accessible institutions like the National Archives and the Library of Congress – but the vast majority of surviving Civil War photos are in private hands or archives physically accessible only to accredited researchers.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress Call no. LC-B812- 9773-X [P&P]. One of the most well-known Civil War photographs because of its accessibility in the Library of Congress collection.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress Call no. LC-B812- 9773-X [P&P]. One of the most well-known Civil War photographs because of its accessibility in the Library of Congress collection.

All that began to change at the dawn of the internet age. Now, as Roy Rosenzweig wrote in his “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” the problem of scarcity has transformed into a problem of abundance. The low cost of digitally imaging and storing photographs has allowed museums, archives, and libraries to scan and upload their Civil War photographic collections to the web, where vibrant communities of scholars, genealogists, and reenactors delight in every new image or detail discovered in a photo.

The newly-abundant information, however, is dispersed, fragmentary, and often conflicting.

Attribution is a difficult and contested task, requiring one to have studied the work of many of the Civil War’s leading photographers and comparing photographs in multiple collections. Some members of the Civil War photograph community are experts at this task. Given their long careers poring over the works, many can visually and accurately identify the photographer of a particular piece within seconds, either from pure recall of similar works or reference to an exact copy in another collection. Too often, amateur or untrained individuals have attributed works to the best-known Civil War photographers, Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, which have been positively identified in other collections as the work of more obscure practitioners.

As Metropolitan Museum of Art Photography Curator Jeff Rosenheim wrote in his recent exhibition catalogue Photography and the American Civil War, “The past quarter-century has been a dynamic period for everyone interested in the history of photography, especially of the American Civil War. Intense and often collaborative research has provided historians, independent scholars, collectors, dedicated amateurs, and members of the general public with frequent changes to the titles, image dates, and attributions for many of the thousands of photographs of the era.” [Jeff Rosenheim, Photography and the American Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 3.]

CCWP's Garry Adelman has proven that the Civil War enthusiast community is willing and able to help professional historians uncover new details and help attribute maker, location, and date information for Civil War photographs like this one, posted on his facebook page.

CCWP’s Garry Adelman has proven that the Civil War enthusiast community is willing and able to help professional historians uncover new details and help attribute maker, location, and date information for Civil War photographs like this one, posted on his facebook page.

Meanwhile, photo historians like the Center for Civil War Photography’s Garry Adelman have made careers out of their detailed explications and analyses of photographs from the Civil War period. In lectures, symposia, and lively discussion on his facebook page, Adelman zooms in, crops, and enhances high resolution images of glass plate negatives from the Library of Congress and other publicly available collections to uncover previously-overlooked details revealing much about the context of the photos and Civil War material culture. When enthusiasts and historians are given the ability to view these formerly inaccessible photographs in such high detail, their observations and discoveries, each colored by individuals’ particular expertise and life experiences and tempered in a crucible of positive discussion, are a model of crowdsourcing historical analysis.

In one of the major successes of this new type of high resolution image analysis, Garry Adelman was able to prove that a well-known panoramic photograph at the Library of Congress was taken at Camp Winfield Scott, not Cumberland Landing, as had been previously recorded.

In one of the major successes of this new type of high resolution image analysis, Garry Adelman was able to prove that a well-known panoramic photograph at the Library of Congress was taken at Camp Winfield Scott, not Cumberland Landing, as had been previously recorded.

The community’s efforts to properly identify which photographs were made by which artists, in what order, and where, aids historians in understanding artistic intent, technological limitations and innovation, and photographers’ practices at a crucial point in the development of photojournalism and war photography. In a series of essays for the New York Times, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris recently proved the worth of this type of information about historic photographs. He attempted to resolve one of the enduring questions of photographic history: whether pioneering war photographer Roger Fenton staged his “Valley of the Shadow of Death” by moving cannonballs around a desolate road in the Crimea. The project hinged on Morris’ analysis of time of day and exact location of the photograph, the kind of information which information technology and the internet have given scholars the ability to determine and share with their colleagues.

The nonprofit education and advocacy group the Center for Civil War Photography has long sought funding and partners for a comprehensive digital archive of Civil War Photographs. This project, which has been postponed for lack of funding and partners, was intended “to digitally secure, preserve, organize, create a database of, and make available online every image pertaining to the American Civil War,” according to the initiative’s mission statement on the CCWP website, which includes the following goals:

  • A comprehensive digital archive of Civil War images that will include all formats of photography as well as select sketches, drawings, woodcuts and engravings. The emphasis will first be upon Civil War-era documentary imagery but will be designed to expand temporally and spatially to include post-war imagery of battlefields and Civil War sites as well as portrait photography in all formats. The project will expand over time.
  • A broad database application that will include at a minimum:
    • The ability to organize the database and search by image title, keyword, photographer, studio, location, campaign, date, repository, and more.
    • Cross-referencing with contemporary and modern catalogs.
    • Thumbnails of each image with direct links to high-resolution files when available.
    • An online library of reference materials for Civil War researchers.
    • The images will be scanned in high resolution digital format. All backmarks or other identifying information on the images will also be scanned. All imagery will be stored on a computer and backed up on two external hard drives housed in different locations.
    • Images will be made available for viewing and, when partnership arrangements allow, for use in published or exhibition materials. Fee structure will be a function of partnership arrangement, but CCWP is committed to making imagery available free or inexpensively.

This project, the Civil War Photography Wiki, will adopt the general intent and aspiration of the CCWP Digital Archive project, in conjunction with the Center for Civil War Photography. The goals stated in the description of that organization’s stalled digital archive take full advantage of the internet’s potential for opening access to the world’s archives, providing the ability to search, view, and download images of historic photographs for research and productive work. The Civil War Photography Wiki differs from CCWP’s original proposal, however, in its open-source, volunteer labor foundation, seeking to foster accurate, transparent, and accessible collaboration in the vein of Wikipedia.

Audience and Reach

The Civil War Photography Wiki will serve as a valuable resource for several constituent groups. First, enthusiasts of Civil War photography, including collectors, hobbyists (alternative process photographers included), museum and archive professionals, and historians are expected to not only use the site but to contribute to it. These highly motivated and educated individuals will be actively courted by the Wikipedian employed by the grant to help populate records and add metadata information to the website. Social media accounts of groups like the Center for Civil War Photography have become invaluable discussion boards for knowledgeable individuals to discover and disseminate new details about Civil War photographs, but this information may be lost if it is not recorded in a more open, searchable, and permanent archive. The Civil War Photography Wiki will harness the collaborative spirit displayed by the community on these sites and in conferences and seminars to crowdsource and maintain a new database of knowledge about these photographs and the topic.

Secondly, the site will serve as an educational and research resource for people seeking visual evidence to investigate the Civil War period. This group of people, perhaps less interested in the history of photography, includes reenactors, historians, and amateur scholars who routinely seek historic photographs as primary sources for their inquiries. Genealogists, too, may perhaps be less interested in the Civil War as a scholarly topic and more motivated to find an image of their ancestors. These users will be encouraged to contribute to the site as well if, for instance, they should be able to identify an individual who has not been previously tagged in a photo, or recognize an unrecorded location, but they will also be able to view and learn from the metadata provided by other users. As will all users of the site, they will also be able to access high resolution image files of any given photograph to research the scene or individual shown, and will learn the location and context of all of the photographic objects in order to continue their research at the given institution.

Another group which the site will target is owners and holders of private Civil War photography collections. They will be able to search the site to identify and authenticate their photographs, and also to post images of their photos for assistance in generating details and metadata. As the site is intended to aspire to a complete database of existing Civil War photographs, the contributions of holders of previously unknown and inaccessible photographs will be welcomed, whatever the motivation. It is assumed that experts in Civil War material culture – uniforms, for instance – will be able to help photograph owners positively date and better understand their photos. If the owners prove unwilling or hesitant to upload high resolution files of their images, exceptions and restrictions on use may be granted for these database entries. Still, however, the Civil War photography community will be the better for its knowledge of the existence of and basic information about these photographs, which may aid scholarship.

Finally, the Civil War Photography Wiki will be a central clearinghouse for images from the Civil War which may be sought by filmmakers, researchers, publishers, and educators as illustrative material. As all of these photographs are out of copyright protection, it is hoped that the existence of this collaborative and educational database will encourage the free flow of information and usage of these photographs, which are sometimes kept behind restrictive institutional or private barriers. As these images have entered the legal public domain, so too should they enter the collective ownership of the American people as part of our shared heritage. So far as possible, contributors will be encourage to upload their image files and contribute information under unrestricted licenses to foster creative and knowledge-seeking fair use.

Partners and Participants

The National Museum of American History will be the principal investigator for this grant and project. The site will be hosted on NMAH servers, maintained by NMAH and Smithsonian New Media and OCIO staff, and the project will receive all other administrative and incidental support from NMAH. The webmaster, likewise, will be a temporary Smithsonian Trust Fund employee working at the National Museum of American History supervised by the Curator of the Photographic History Collection in the Office of Curatorial Affairs.

However, this project is intended as a collaboration between institutional partners with Civil War photographic collections or compatible missions, as well as individuals who will use and contribute to the site.

The Smithsonian Institution has forged a model of interdisciplinary, pan-institutional collaboration in recent years through its Grand Challenges Consortia, an internal granting body which seeks to stimulate intellectual exchange within the Smithsonian and beyond. The group has awarded small Level One and larger Level Two grants to “incubate, develop, and launch collaborations that along with our museums, research centers and programs, address [the Smithsonian’s] Strategic Plan’s four Grand Challenges: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Valuing World Cultures, and Understanding the American Experience.”

One of the recipients of several Level One and Level Two grants from the Consortia for Understanding the American Experience over the past several years is the Civil War 150 Working Group, comprised of curators, archivists, historians, and other staff from 12 Smithsonian Museums, including the National Museum of American History, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Archives, National Museum of African American History and Culture, American Art Museum, among others. This group has a demonstrated history of success in working collaboratively to increase and diffuse knowledge about and improve access to Civil War collections in the Smithsonian’s museums and research centers. The group conducted a review of Civil War collections across the Institution, organized scholarly symposia on topics in Civil War studies, published a material culture-based book showcasing Civil War collections, Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection, and contributed to the Civil War 360 series of television programs on the Smithsonian Network.

The group’s latest project has been a comprehensive survey and inventory of Civil War photography collections across the Institution. The culmination of this effort will be the publication of a paper detailing the scope and content of related collections in the Smithsonian’s museums and archives, including information on subject, process, maker, size, condition, and location of every object, and unprecedented pan-institutional inventory. This document will guide not only the further cataologing, care, and digitization of these collections, but will also form the foundation for the collections portion of the Civil War Photography Wiki; the Smithsonian’s Civil War photography objects will be first uploaded and available on the site.

As the webmaster creates the Civil War Photography Wiki, he/she will join the Smithsonian Civil War 150 Working Group, and seek guidance and support from the group for conceptual planning and implementation/creation of the site. Using the Civil War photography survey, existing catalog records, and digital images of Civil War photography collections from all Smithsonian museums, he/she will populate the first set of pages in the Civil War Photography Wiki with metadata and images. The webmaster will continue to work with the guidance and supervision of Smithsonian staff members associated with the Civil War 150 Working Group after the Civil War Photography Wiki is launched.

Wikipedia page for George Barnard's 1866 photograph of the ruins of Atlanta's railroad roundhouse. This page, populated with information about the maker, date, alternate versions, process, and location of this object in the Library of Congress collections, offers a glimpse of the potential for crowdsourced metadata cataloging and database creation via wiki project.

Wikipedia page for George Barnard’s 1866 photograph of the ruins of Atlanta’s railroad roundhouse. This page, populated with information about the maker, date, alternate versions, process, and location of this object in the Library of Congress collections, offers a glimpse of the potential for crowdsourced metadata cataloging and database creation via wiki project.

The webmaster will also be tasked with recruiting and managing relationships with and data from institutional partners. Much of the webmaster’s early tenure will be spent working with the following institutions to request portable database records and images of their Civil War photography collections with which to populate the site: Library of Congress, National Archives, Center for Civil War Photography, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Park Service, United States Army Heritage and Education Center, and the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation. These institutions have already largely digitized and imaged the majority of their Civil War photography collections, and this data will form an invaluable seed and example for other museums and archives to contribute to the site.

The webmaster will also seek advice and support of George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. The center’s staff, well-versed in the latest scholarship and legal considerations of digital history, will help guide the project philosophically. The center’s digital history fellows will also be asked to assist with technical considerations and be welcomed to help edit and moderate the site.


The Civil War Photography Wiki will be a very cost-effective project, utilizing the open-source MediaWiki web infrastructure and volunteer labor to create its final product. The team seeks $125,000 to create and implement the site, which will be allocated as follows:

Wikipedian/webmaster= $120,000 (2 years salary at GS-09 Step 1 with benefits)

The Smithsonian Institution has had previous success employing a temporary Wikipedian-in-Residence as its outreach official to the Wikipedia community, digital historian, and editor of Wikipedia entries relevant to the Institution and its mission. The Civil War Photography Wiki will be created, promoted, and maintained for two years by a wikipedian/webmaster with specific technical knowledge of wikis and collaborative online projects, training as a digital historian, interest in Civil War photography, and links to the Civil War community.

Server maintenance costs and administrative overhead

The Smithsonian Institution will be granted $5000 to help cover administrative overhead and server/hosting costs for the site, which will be hosted on the existing NMAH servers.

Implementation/Information architecture

The Civil War Photography Wiki will use the Mediawiki program and wikitext markup language to make it a simple, transparent, and accessible database of information about its titular subject. Mediawiki is a “free server-based software which is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). It’s designed to be run on a large server farm for a website that gets millions of hits per day. MediaWiki is an extremely powerful, scalable software and a feature-rich wiki implementation that uses PHP to process and display data stored in a database, such as MySQL. When a user submits an edit to a page, MediaWiki writes it to the database, but without deleting the previous versions of the page, thus allowing easy reverts in case of vandalism or spamming. MediaWiki can manage image and multimedia files, too, which are stored in the filesystem.”

The Wikipedian will create the site, working with NMAH New Media and Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) staff to create and host the site, as well as to populate it with well-cataloged data and images of Civil War Photographs from partner institutions. The Wikipedian will then spend the next year promoting the site and recruiting volunteers to help upload and improve data, in essence seeding the community which will help to sustain the site over its useful life. The Wikipedian will be tasked with researching and establishing procedures to moderate and authenticate comments and data entry, including the exclusion of spam and unrelated discussion and contributions. The community on Wikipedia has proven remarkably accurate and quick to purge useless and unsubstantiated information from the entries on that site, as scholar Roy Rosenzweig wrote [“Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” The Journal of American History Volume 93, Number 1 (June, 2006): 117-46]. It is hoped that within the two years provided for in this project, the community will become self-sustaining and self-policing, and that new information and attributions discovered and shared by users of the site will begin to influence and impact scholarship of Civil War photography.


The Civil War Photography Wiki project will be evaluated on its progress toward the stated mission of creating a comprehensive, accessible, and authoritative database of Civil War photographic collections within 2 years. Among the final tasks of the Wikipedian-in-Residence in his/her tenure at NMAH will be to create a report on the successes and failures of the project. He/she will be tasked with writing detailed responses to each of the stated objectives of the project given the progress of the project over the preceding years. This report will be presented to the Smithsonian’s Civil War 150 Working Group, which will review the project and keep the report on file for future research and potential grant applications to extend funding for the project, as necessary.


Reading a book in one hour

In the midst of reading some very thought-provoking essays published in the novel digital humanities work Hacking the Academy, I found one of the most practical and useful pieces I’ve read in graduate school. Larry Cebula’s “How to Read a Book in One Hour” should be recommended reading for every student entering graduate school in the humanities, not because Cebula encourages laziness or inattentiveness in advising students to skim academic monographs methodically, but because his pragmatic method insidiously reinforces the pedagogical goals of a graduate education in history.

When I started my graduate history program at George Mason, I found it hard to communicate to family and friends exactly what this course of study was going to teach me. I think that the general public believes that a post-secondary education in history involves intense memorization of facts and figures, a training to be able to recall famous names, dates, places, and speeches and to speak to the obvious greatness of the same. Few outside of the profession know that in fact historians view their job as interrogating evidence and formulating arguments to make amongst themselves.

Several brilliant professors I’ve had the opportunity to lean from at Mason have stressed the importance of understanding historiography, and I’m much the better for it professionally. I realize now that it’s nearly impossible to make a worthwhile argument about a scholarly monograph without understanding where the author is coming from – who s/he’s read, is responding to, agreeing with, or challenging. In an age when historians had faith that their treatment of a subject could be the complete, objective telling of a story, a reading of previous authors’ works might only serve to confirm facts or one’s own mastery of the subject to others’ detriment. Post-modern historians, however, recognize that theirs is but the latest in a revolving and sometimes cyclical series of arguments, that their role is to explore new facets and neglected sources with novel methodologies to reinterpret and come to a greater understanding of a topic or concept. This work is necessarily predicated on an understanding of historical work in context.

All this is to say that I’ve changed the way that I read given what I look for now in a scholarly work, and Cebula’s article was a justification of my evolving methodology and philosophy on the subject. As he wrote, “plodding through a book one page at a time is not the best way to understand a book in graduate school.” Instead, he advises, students should spend their time reading the introduction, conclusion, and table of contents, and then skimming the body of the text for useful arguments and interesting methods and sources. Most importantly, he suggests taking good notes and reading two scholarly reviews of any work, essentially creating an annotated bibliographic entry and comparing one’s thoughts to those of important scholars in the field. These steps make the entire exercise useful beyond the single class period for which the harried student might be cramming; the useful notes and check on one’s analysis make this an exercise in flexing the academic muscles and preparing for comprehensive exams and future papers.

As much as I agree with this method and its simple effectiveness, I’ve found that my persistent problem in employing it is my inherent interest in the material. More often than not, I take Cebula’s advice to read the introduction thoroughly, then forget to take the next step of skipping to the conclusion, getting bogged down in compelling anecdotes and details while forgetting to keep my eye on the bigger picture of the author’s thesis and methods. Well, as this is my last regular response post for Clio Wired, I’m going to consider this a New Semester’s Resolution. I’m going to follow Cebula’s method, take good notes, and then let myself get lost in the details as soon as I know what I want to talk about in class!

Debates in the Digital Humanities

A distinguished roster of esteemed practitioners and theorists posit and argue about the definition and practice of the eponymous field in the edited volume Debates in the Digital Humanities. This unique work, published in traditional book form as well as in an online, markup-enabled version, was an experiment in practicing what was preached by these technology-saavy scholars. The book was subject to an unusual additional level of peer review online – the reviewers were known scholars but their comments and resulting revisions to the text are available for viewing like edits to a wikipedia article.

The real value of the book’s essays, to me, is the clear-headed vision of the state of the field. One insight in particular seemed to make a valuable comparison by which to understand the history and future of the digital humanities. In his essay “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?,” Tom Scheinfeldt examined how 18th century Royal Society Curator of Experiments Francis Hauksbee’s “electrical machine” – an almost accidentally-brilliant experimental toy in which a globe of mercury in a vacuum tube was made to glow – was not explained until decades later, when other scientists and engineers articulated the theory of electricity which enabled the phenomenon. As Scheinfeldt wrote:

Sometimes new tools are built to answer preexisting questions. Sometimes, as in the case of Hauksbee’s electrical machine, new questions and answers are the byproduct of the creation of new tools. Sometimes it takes a while; in the meantime, tools themselves and the whiz-bang effects they produce must be the focus of scholarly attention.

So many of the tools created for digital humanities work fit this profile, and the comparison to unexplained enlightenment machinery pops up in several other essays in the work. It is a very apt correlation to the current state of the field, as I’ve come to understand it over the course of my Clio Wired course. Innovative but comparatively untried research tools like Google’s Ngram viewer offer an answer searching for a research question (as Mills Kelly investigates in a short essay in the book)

Or perhaps, as in the case of Emily Thompson’s Roaring Twenties project (mapping and digitizing the sounds of 1920s New York), many digital humanities projects straddle the divide between an online archive of digitized primary sources and a fully-fleshed thesis. Both are tools with which an educated scholar could formulate and test myriad hypotheses, but fall short of offering that analysis themselves, meaning that for now, at least, they stand as provocative amusements as much as they are tantalizing harbingers of research potential.

My take-away thought, especially after reading Richard Thompson’s analysis of historians’ slow and tenuous adoption of information technology, is that digital humanities scholars need to make their tools and methods not only available but attractive and essential to “traditional” historians. Now, having successfully demonstrated the apparatus’ potential and made small useful gains in traditional terms, it’s time to aggressively investigate these tools to integrate them and help historians figure out how they work. In the words of Tom Scheinfeldt:

Like eighteenth-century natural philosophers confronted with a deluge of strange new tools like microscopes, air pumps, and electrical machines, maybe we need time to articulate our digital apparatus, to produce new phenomena that we can neither anticipate nor explain immediately.

New Media and Historians’ Work

Reading over Robert Townsend’s 2010 essay “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?,” I’m reminded yet again that the history profession needs to reassess the use of digital and internet technology in its work and consideration of professional standards. Townsend identifies some of the real benefits of digital scholarship in his survey and essay: “Among those who have considered publishing online, the principal benefits were seen as reaching wider audiences and speed to publication, with a slightly higher proportion indicating a preference for reaching a general audience than an audience of their peers.”

Yet the most salient finding of his survey is this: “use of new media to do something new or different with the scholarship was a very minor consideration…Less than 40 percent of the respondents who had considered publishing online listed linking to other materials, publishing additional sources, or telling their stories in a new way as part of their thinking.” As he explains, few review boards give serious attention to digital scholarship when assessing performance or tenure, and historians aren’t given training or asked to think about how they could use the tools of the internet age not only to get their scholarship in front of a wider audience but to use technology to advance their research.

Townsend doesn’t offer solutions, but I hope that his voice is just one among many seeking to convince University Departments to take digital history seriously as a tool and ethos for forging new avenues of scholarship.

Response: Web Design and the Promise of Digital History

This week in Michael O’Malley’s Clio Wired class, I read two articles on the promise, problems, and common pitfalls of digital history projects, The Journal of American History’s Interchange roundtable discussion on The Promise of Digital History and Paula Petrik’s Top Ten Mistakes in Academic Web Design. Given the practical focus of these works, I couldn’t help but reflect on my most ambitious academic digital history project to date, a website titled Coney Island and the Modernization of AmericaThis website was the product of a final group project for an American Studies major course I took while an undergrad student at the College of William & Mary. The assignment was to create a website to showcase a thesis-driven essay or digital history project using skills we’d learned in a series of clinics on web design and Adobe Dreamweaver. I convinced my team to make the project an exploration of two of my favorite topics: Coney Island and the transformation of American society at the turn of the 20th century.

Our goals were informed by our professor’s instructions to create a worthwhile, well-designed, and long-lasting site, but also by our burgeoning individual experience with the history web. They were, in summary:

  • Write a thoroughly-researched essay/set of essays on the subject written simply and engaging enough to interest our imagined audience, well-educated people who were perhaps novices but still interested in learning more about Coney Island at the turn of the century.
  • Make the site graphically engaging, using rarely-seen and topical illustrations from the period.
  • Create a site with a clean and intuitive design – easy to navigate, quick to load, and viewable in any browser.
  • Keep the site’s legacy in mind – try to avoid broken links and missing content (everything should be hosted on the WM server, if possible)
  • Make this a helpful source for those studying the topic – make it easy to both to quote and cite our text and to use our sources.
  • Stress transparency – users should know who we were, and how and where we found information and graphics.

As might be expected for a group of four upperclass History and American Studies students, writing the essay was the easy part – this had been our job for the past few years, and we’d gotten good at finding sources, analyzing arguments, and synthesizing history monographs and primary sources. I was particularly proud that I was able to find some great period illustrations and photographs using the Internet Archive and several museum and library websites, and we were ready to place them alongside our text.

Using Dreamweaver, a graphical and familiar web editing tool, saved us the trouble of learning any coding languages, but it was still a persnickety and challenging program for novices. We had particular struggles with several elements of our web design, including floating navigation menus and roll-over graphics on left hand menu like many other sites we had used for research. The CSS design tools we were using would often render these elements incorrectly in different browsers, so we had to be careful. In the end, we spent more time on the design than we had thought at the beginning (several all-nighters of design and testing to get it all working correctly!).


We also made the decision to release our content under a Creative Commons license, of which I was only vaguely familiar. I had read about Lawrence Lessig, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, and other related names in the news on Boing Boing, and I thought we were being very internet avant-garde in licensing our content this way. Still, I realize now that we should have been a bit more thorough researching and contacting our sources – perhaps even seeking permission for more recent photographs we used – before applying this license. In our About page, we wrote:

“All works used in the creation of the content on these pages are cited in the sources page, and all attempts have been made to cite these sources when necessary . All images on this site are used in compliance with existing copyright laws and within the legal bounds of the licence under which they exist. Since much of the content used to create this site is available under fair use licence, the group has decided to release this site itself under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.”

The language is a bit hedgy and I know that we didn’t take the time to contact any content originators to ask for approval, even if we were careful to look for public museum and Internet Archive sources for the material. Still, I’m happy to see that we were fairly thorough in our citations, each linked to a well-formatted and accurate bibliographic entry.

Another issue: broken links. At least one video clip embedded from Youtube is now unviewable due to a copyright complaint from the rights holder.


For the most part, though, the website holds up well – a clean, enticing, and easy-to-navigate design, relatively well-written and divided text (for undergrads, at least!), and appropriate citations and references to direct the reader to our sources and further reading. By Paula Petrik’s rubric, we designed it well, and I think the contributors to the Interchange forum would agree that we picked a worthy project to apply Digital History methods and content.

Historical forensics

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, via New York Times.

In a series of articles published by the New York Times, filmmaker Errol Morris traveled half way around the world to scratch an intellectual itch. Having read Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Morris was unsatisfied by her off-hand reference to photographer Roger Fenton staging scenes during his historic stint photographing the Crimean War. In particular, she referred to a set of two images, both titled “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” both haunting shots of a desolate landscape destroyed by artillery fire. Both photographs show the same scene from a fixed perspective, but one shows an empty road while in the other, cannonballs are scattered along the path.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, via New York Times.

Photo historians have theorized that Fenton may have moved the cannonballs into the road to create a photo with greater impact. Their evidence, however, is scant; the leading proponents of the idea tell Morris that Fenton’s actions are “obvious” improvements to drive home the photographer’s message that war is inhumane, destructive to men and landscapes alike. Morris, unwilling to accept that any course of action taken in the past is “obvious” to modern observers, especially when the person of interest was self-consciously pioneering a new form of communication, makes it his mission in a series of three articles to explore the possibilities and alternate scenarios.

In his interviews with curators, photo historians, photographic technicians, and other experts, Morris attempted to leave no stone unturned in his analysis of the disputed photos (turned stones, in fact, feature prominently in his conclusion). His methods included psychological and social historical profiling of Fenton and his assistant, photographic analysis of light and shadow, on-site observation at Sevastopol, the Crimean city where the photo was taken (a luxury rarely afforded to photo historians), and a contextual/historical investigation undertaken through interviews with experts in the field. Morris’ dogged determination and verité style of writing make the entire enterprise a fascinating read. It is also, however, an excellent introduction to the methods and mindset of the best historians of material and visual culture.

Historical objects are by their very nature mysterious and unknowable. They practically beg us to try to understand them better.

Historical objects are by their very nature mysterious and unknowable. They practically beg us to try to understand them better.

Like Morris’ interviewees, several of whom compared their work to the forensic science practiced on television’s CSI, we who work in museums often employ a variety of historical tools in our efforts to accurately identify, categorize, care for, and contextualize historical artifacts. The most reviled phrase among my coworkers at the National Museum of American History is “objects speak for themselves.” If objects spoke for themselves, curators would be unnecessary, is the common refrain. Instead, objects, especially the more quotidian and broadly representative historic objects favored by curators at the social-and-cultural-history-imbued museum of the 21st century, absolutely require study, deep understanding, and contextualization to communicate their value and importance.

It is not my intention to argue that a rarefied, connoisseur model of curatorial control is the only way to care for and study museum collections. In fact, it has been my experience and I’ve written that curators with limited perspectives and pressures on their time and attention often misinterpret collections and fail to recognize what’s under their noses. Morris proves that interested and dedicated amateurs who identify and seek to answer questions about objects can make real contributions to the body of knowledge about them and the people who used or created them. Studs Terkel, Michael Frisch, Roy Rosenzweig, and David Thelen, among others, have made convincing cases for the value of sharing authority with non-experts to craft a more accurate and inclusive history, and material and visual culture are fields uniquely suited to gain from multiple perspectives due to the experiential nature of the fields.

Each of these objects (Civil War hats) represents a human story which could add to our understanding of the past.

Each of these objects (Civil War hats) represents a human story which could add to our understanding of the past.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, shrinking budgets and the ever-increasing demands on the time of museum curators makes it more essential than ever before that museums reach out to interested individuals and communities to help do the kind of investigative work that Morris detailed in his posts. I think that the detective work involved in learning more about objects is the most interesting and fun part of my job at the museum, which is all the more reason to outsource or “crowsource” this work – people will do it!

I spent a few treasured hours this week attempting to identify notable Civil War individuals in a mysterious set of albumen photographs I discovered in a drawer at the museum. Most of the prints I’ve been able to find information about are made from wet collodion negatives by Mathew Brady’s studio, helping to support my hypothesis that these were proof prints made for perusal by patrons at Brady’s Washington salon, where clients could chose a set to be made into cartes-de-visite for purchase. I think I could easily convince a few volunteers – either digitally connected or physically present – to help me with this work. Maybe, like Morris, my co-investigators could prove my hypothesis wrong, but all the participants would be better off for the forensic collaboration.

Information Abundance, Archival Fears, and Crowdsourcing

For my Clio Wired class this week, I read two essays by leading digital historians who point to some of the persistent cultural and technical issues faced by historians who utilize digital technology.

In “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” Roy Rosenzweig lamented the poor state of digital preservation and archiving in the United States. Historians and archivists, he argued, were ill-prepared for the overwhelming information abundance which accompanied the internet age.

“Historians are not particularly hostile to new technology, but they are not ready to welcome fundamental changes to their cultural position or their modes of work. Having lived our professional careers in a culture of scarcity, historians find that a world of abundance can be unsettling…Surely, the injunction of traditional historians to look at “everything” cannot survive in a digital era in which “everything” has survived.”

This inability to wrap our minds around a new reality, coupled with declining government support for archives, means that we risk losing our cultural heritage, Rosenzweig wrote.

In an article titled “From Babel to Knowledge: Data Mining Large Digital Collections,” Daniel Cohen examined technological strategies for dealing with the embarrassment of data riches that Rosenzweig identified. He suggested that creative thinking and deployment of data crawling and management tools could help historians visualize, navigate, and make sense of the abundance to strengthen their research and teaching.

One tool he advocated for greater utilization was the API (application programming interfaces), which allows for mining of databases to retrieve relevant information. I think that the most interesting characteristic of APIs is that they are often used to give non-experts or, at least, interested third parties, access to the information contained in databases like that which a historian or archivist might create as part of a digitization project. Cohen argued that APIs, when made available to the public, can pay off by bringing free, creative, and dedicated labor to projects:

Motivated by a variety of goals and employing disparate methodologies, users of APIs often take digital resources or tools in directions completely unforeseen by their owners. APIs have provided fertile ground for thousands of developers to experiment with the tremendous indices, services, and document caches maintained by Google and Yahoo, as hundreds of sites creating map “mashups” have done recently. New resources based on APIs appear weekly, some of them hinting at new methods for digital research, data visualization techniques, and novel ways to data-mine texts and synthesize knowledge.

The National Archives' Citizen Archivist project allows users to transcribe historic documents from the Archives which would otherwise exist only as images.

The National Archives’ Citizen Archivist project allows users to transcribe historic documents from the Archives which would otherwise exist only as images.

Recent successes in crowdsourcing like Flickr’s commons, the National Archives’ Citizen Archivist transcription project, and the Center for History and New Media‘s Papers of the War Department Project have proven that the internet is a powerful tool for harnessing cognitive surplus and volunteer labor. These victories seem to provide an ideal solution to the problems of processing, metadata writing, and organization identified by Rosenzweig and Cohen. In my own work at the National Museum of America History, I’m constantly amazed by the number of volunteer hours communities of historical enthusiasts are willing to give to a worthy project; from high school and college-aged interns to retirees seeking to contribute, we could easily double the productive output of the museum if we could only develop some procedures and projects to harness this willing work force. And increasingly, Internet developers have made the tools for doing so free, available, and easy to use.

So what’s keeping historians from embracing the power of the crowd? Curators, historians, and archivists are wary of giving up intellectual control. The process for getting a object-level collection record online at the Smithsonian is laborious and seemingly interminable, involving several layers of review and a legal title check by the already-overburdened registrar to protect the museum from copyright and use litigation. Introduce an element of uncontrolled community contribution to this process and you’re likely greeted by furrowed brows and a stern talking-to.

You’d be opening the National Collection to the vagaries and endless conspiratorial disputes of the great internet masses, some would argue. We’d have no control over how images and information are used, what kinds of erroneous or superfluous information people could add or tag to records, and quality control would require staff hours that we don’t have, I can imagine hearing from my colleagues.

In “From Babel to Knowledge,” Daniel Cohen makes a convincing case that “resources that are free to use in any way, even if they are imperfect, are more valuable than those that are gated or use-restricted, even if those resources are qualitatively better.” When museums have taken leaps of faith and released information and images for public consumption without complete control, I think that the majority have been pleasantly surprised by the positive and creative response. The flickr commons project has proved useful to museums and archives in helping them garner information and generate conversation about images in their collections among a diverse amateur community who comment on and tag the photos, for instance.

In one small example, I wrote a post about remembering the Battle of Gettysburg for the NMAH blog and used a photograph of a group of Union Army veterans dedicating a monument as illustration. Rather than taking an hour or two to track down the monument’s location and history (a task which would only be possible because of the large community of monument aficionados on the web), instead I professed my ignorance (giving up authorial, intellectual control for a moment!) and asked readers if they could identify the monument. Within a day, I had my answer, submitted in a comment on the museum’s blog. The submitter offered even offered to help identify any other monuments in photos that we might need help with!

Monument to the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, erected in 1879 near Spangler's Spring at Gettysburg. Identified by a monument enthusiast.

Monument to the Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, erected in 1879 near Spangler’s Spring at Gettysburg. Identified by a monument enthusiast.

Large, unwieldy projects like Wikipedia have now proven that crowd sourcing can create accurate, comprehensive, and surprisingly professional databases of information. If we public historians are to take our responsibilities to provide accurate, relevant information about our shared history seriously in an era of shrunken budgets and staff, we will have to rely on the communities that are willing and able to help. The Internet age has given us the tools to share our authority and ask for help, and our excuses for refusing to do so are looking weaker and weaker.

Response: Googling Peer Review

In a series of two posts on his blog The Aporetic (1 & 2), Michael O’Malley argued that peer review of history scholarship is an outdated vestige of an earlier period in the history of academia. O’Malley thinks that printed academic journals and their double-blind peer review system fulfilled a particular historic need when printing and reading such work was the domain of the wealthy and elite, and those who controlled the process demanded arbiters to filter out the uninformed, overly-biased, and revolutionary. Peer review, O’Malley wrote, is a system of control, and while it generally promotes good scholarship, it also calcifies disciplinary rivalries and archetypal forms, discourages innovation, and diminishes historical scholarship’s potential audience and relevance.

Echoing early techno-evangelists’ predictions of the death of the author in an age of flattened hierarchies and hypertext, O’Malley thinks that internet technology can deliver a solution to the problems of peer review in the modern age. His idea is that some institution (he mentions George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media as a potential progenitor) should create a website to serve as a prototype for a new kind of electronic academic journal. Taking its cues from the user-driven algorithms of google and ‘Web 2.0′ social media, the site would allow registered scholars to post new research, works in progress, and academic papers, and to comment, question, and critique other scholars’ work in a forum linked to any particular piece which has been uploaded or created on the site.

As a junior scholar and a proponent of online collaboration, I find this a compelling if idealistic proposal, given that such a model would essentially overturn at least a century of academic practice (and most historians are not known for their bold adoption of new techniques and technologies). Certainly such a site would increase public awareness of emerging historical scholarship and promote many of the goals I have as a public historian: shared authority, a feeling of ownership of one’s history, and collaboration toward a more relevant, inclusive, and accurate picture of the past. Even if the numbers of dedicated users of such a site would be small, I can see how the community would thrive, as does wikipedia and any number of online forums; emerging and amateur historians would feel able to contribute to a community of scholars and body of scholarship in ways that they could never add their expertise to an academic journal requiring a high standard of previous achievement and accreditation; and the rising tide of scholarly standards would likely lift all boats as high-rated but flawed original arguments and perspectives would catch the attention of seasoned historians who might guide and support those with less experience.

Still, I’m unwilling to fully sign on to such a project without seeing how it works first. I’ve spent far too much time on reddit to believe that all internet users are angels and that moderation is unnecessary. I don’t think that O’Malley is arguing for a truly anarchic marketplace of ideas, and certainly his idea of using real names solves the problem of internet anonymity breeding hate, scurrilous and useless remarks, and advertising and pornography. Still, I don’t know how one might resolve an issue in which users of such a site split in to warring camps, perhaps arguing spitefully over some point of order or a historical interpretation. And what’s to stop the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, Obama birthers, or the 4% of Americans who think the world is controlled by sentient lizard people from dominating discussion? Surely some moderation and banning mechanism would be necessary. O’Malley wrote of this problem in a very precise sentence: “Very early on, that was everyone’s expe­ri­ence of the inter­net and dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy: a very poor sig­nal to noise ratio.” How do we solve this?

In the end, I am left to think that O’Malley’s blog itself (and my other favorite professor blog, John Fea’s The Way of Improvement Leads Home) is a viable solution to the problems that he outlines. Here he posts thoughts about the historical profession, American culture, and his particular research interests, inviting readers (mostly other scholars and students) to engage with his ideas and offer their perspectives. He wrote that he receives thousands of visits from around the world and clearly enjoys the discussion that his posts provoke. It seems a perfect venue to try new ideas and engage in the “life of play” that he frequently cites as the role of one engaged in the “life of the mind” as a career. Every academic paper a historian might write could start out in beta as a blog post, even including images and citations! The problem, of course, is getting the rest of the scholarly world to pay attention.

A sonic time machine

Map of noise complaints in New York City in the 1920s on the Roaring Twenties website

Map of noise complaints in New York City in the 1920s on the Roaring Twenties website

A sonic time machine

A new website called The Roaring Twenties from Princeton historian Emily Thompson and designer Scott Maloy at the University of South Carolina delivers “an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City.” It’s a blast to explore, and a really intriguing use of web technology to investigate a historical problem:

Historians have only recently begun to consider sound, but their work is already reshaping our understanding of the past in significant ways.  This new work has been accompanied by an ever-increasing number of historic sound recordings made easily available via the internet, and the opportunity to listen in on the past has never been greater.  But recorded sound presents new challenges as well as opportunities.  Of course any recording is highly mediated by layers of technology that must be accounted for, but a more fundamental challenge lies in the fact that, while people hear with their ears, they listen with their minds.  The best work in aural history is as much about listening as it is about sound, recovering the meaning of sound as well as the sound itself.  To recover that meaning we need to strive to enter the mindsets of the people who perceived those sounds, to undertake a historicized mode of listening that tunes modern ears to the pitch of the past.  The Roaring ‘Twenties website is dedicated to that challenge, attempting to recreate for its listeners not just the sound of the past but also its sonic culture.  It offers a sonic time machine; an interactive multimedia environment whereby site visitors can not just hear, but mindfully listen to, the noises of New York City in the late 1920s, a place and time defined by its din.

The best thing about this project, I think, is that it demonstrates how an inspired concept, spiffy design, and attention to usability and natural curiosity can take an extremely boring cache of historical source material (noise complaints in New York) and make it all fascinating and relevant. I presume that this site will be making the rounds of reddit, boing boing, and the like soon, and in its fun, curiosity-driven style, it will open the eyes of a certain slice of the internet-reading public to a new way of thinking about the past. This is the way to do public history online!