The Importance of Self-Reflection

Ok, I’ve put this assignment off long enough.  I think reflecting is an important thing to do, but it is always a bit tough to think critically about yourself or your work.  Especially when you are reflecting publicly on work that people have read.  However, without further ado, here on my thoughts on blogging and my use of Twitter:


When I learned that I would have to write a blog this year (while in my former life as a legal assistant in Winnipeg), I was a bit concerned.  Being out of school and the field for awhile, I didn’t know what I was going to talk about, who was going to read it or who was going to really care.

Fortunately, once I actually started this program and got in the habit of blogging, I started to like it. I always write with an audience in mind, but I am less concerned about saying something profound and what people will think and more focused on working through the topic or problem at hand. For me, blogging is always a method of reflection.

Most of my blog posts are about digital history, although most overlap with public history, archives or the study of history more generally.  A lot of my blogs reveal an emotional and passionate approach to matters of history.  I think this has the unintended affect of making me sound naive, which is not actually the case.  I spent all of my undergrad writing formally and thinking objectively and this blog has finally provided me with the opportunity to really connect with the study of history. I think I will try to make sure I don’t sound too corny or sappy, but I’m not going to try to divorce my feelings from my work.  That’s just not who I am and that’s not what I want to do.

Many of my posts discuss education, both formal and informal.  Posts such as Grain of Salt and Paris – a sleepy little town, discuss different types of skills and knowledge that I think could be incorporated into school curriculum (which is sort of odd, because I have no experience teaching, so I’m not sure why I think I can comment on curriculum, but there you have it).  Other posts, like Beware the House Hippo, discuss skills that I think we should work on individually and informally.  Education is so important to me and I think people should always strive to learn.  This belief seems to be making its way into my blog.

In looking back through my posts, I’m a bit disappointed in some of the ones relating to Digital History.  In Historical Data in the Digital Age and The Trouble with Numbers, for example, I spend most of my blog chronicling my experience with different digital tools.  This is fine, except I don’t think that I really explored the implications of these tools with respect to historical research, which I suspect was sort of the point of the exercise. In both posts, I end with a fairly vague conclusion that “it is difficult to use these tools” and I fail to examine the more theoretical problems and questions that exist.  I don’t exactly know why this is, but my best guess is that by the time I experiment with the digital tools and work through the technology, there’s not much time (or energy) left to write an insightful blog.  That’s not a very good excuse, though, so I will try to improve on this in the weeks ahead.

Also, I have not commented on my classmates’ blogs as much as I would like.  I read everyone’s blog regularly and have often started to write comments, but very rarely have I submitted them.  I think I fear that my comments won’t contribute to the conversation.  However, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m sure an “I agree” or “good post” (if that’s all I have to say) won’t particularly bother or offend anybody, so I will try to do at least that and attempt to contribute to conversations generally.

In general, I’m pleased with my blogging progress so far and I am happy that I have identified some weakness that I can try to improve.  I think I’m definitely working towards the goal of my blog, which is to “find my voice.”  It’s nice to have my thoughts documented, so I can look for commonalities and themes and start to understand myself.


Before this class, I only thought of Twitter as a frivolous social networking tool.  I knew that people used it to post quick, status updates (“waiting at the airport,” “going to a movie tonight”) to their followers and I never felt that I would have much use for, or interest in, such a tool.

However, I very quickly learned that many people use Twitter in a much more productive way.  People use it to exchange ideas, share news and, most importantly, connect with others who have similar interests (or contrasting interests, for that matter), but who they may not actually know.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are academics and all, I’m sure, are very knowledgeable in their field and successful at what they are doing.  However, as is sometimes the case in real life, there doesn’t seem to be any arrogance or snobbery in Twitterland.  Most people have their guard down and seem genuinely eager to learn and share information.  I find this to be an encouraging and exciting atmosphere.

As with my blogging life, I haven’t contributed much to the conversations in Twitterland.  Most of my tweets are to my classmates and sometimes a link to something I find interesting.  I have only on occasion tweeted to someone I didn’t know.  I do, however, check Twitter regularly and often follow links / conversations that people tweet about.  I am quite happy with what I have received from Twitterland, so I suppose it is my duty to try to give something back.  This will be another thing I will try to work on in weeks ahead.

Paris – a sleepy little town

I just came across this article, which discusses what is believed to be the first photograph ever taken of a person (1838).  Although earlier photographs exist, it was difficult to capture humans because the long exposure time would require a person to stay perfectly still in order to appear in the photo.  The only reason a human appears in this photo is because he was getting his shoes shined and stood still long enough to be captured.

This may be obvious to some, but this article was a bit of an “A-HA” moment for me as a historian.  I realized how important it is to have an understanding of the technology and the history of the sources you are examining.  The author of this article notes that there were likely many people in this Parisian street, but that this man was the only one who appeared.  Without understanding the technology of photography, it would be extremely easy to misinterpret this photo and to assume that this was a very quiet street.

Even though I’m a graduate history student, I have had surprisingly little experience with primary sources until this year.  During my undergrad, I only had one major paper that required the use of primary sources, and I chose to examine American magazines in the 1950s.  I have also used newspapers and journals, but they were integrated into papers that relied mostly on secondary research.

I’m not sure if this was just a weakness of the university I attended, but it seems that there should be an undergrad course (possibly mandatory) on primary research.  There is so much to know, as this article indicates.  I would have appreciated a course that discussed different types of sources, how and why they are produced, their value for researchers, how to find them, etc.  We went over this briefly in our Archives class the other night and I realized how useful a broad understanding of primary sources would be when conducting research and deciding what sources to consult.

Without it, I might end up going around telling people that Paris in the 1830s was just a sleepy little town…..

Will Qiqqa make me Smarta?

Well, so far it hasn’t made me more clever – my apologies for that lame title….

As an assignment in Digital History, I have been examining the pdf document manager Qiqqa.  The first order of business was to determine how to pronounce the name.  Fortunately, the Wikipedia page advised that it was to be pronounced “quicker.”  I had trouble looking at the word Qiqqa and saying “Quicker,” but then I watched a tutorial that was led by a man with a British accent and I understood what was happening – Qiqqa is to be the British pronunciation of “Quicker” (ie. “Quick-ah”).

Whew. With that aside, I was ready to tackle the program.

I’m not sure about everyone else, but the transition to reading articles/journals/papers/blogs on the computer has been a long and painful one.  During my undergrad, I generally printed off any online articles, grabbed my trusty three hole punch and highlighter and started reading.  However, other times, I would read an article online and make notes on paper.  That was problematic because my notes weren’t kept with the reading.  In grad school, almost all of my readings can be found online and I just can’t justify spending the money (and wasting the trees) to print off all my readings, anymore.  I’ve started saving all of the articles to my hard drive and making notes in a Word document.  However, this is also difficult, because I’m constantly switching between the reading and the word document to make my notes.

I told you.  It’s been a long and painful process.

That’s why I was anxious to try out a document manager for this assignment. Qiqqa looked very promising and I was willing to try anything that would remotely help me with this transition. To watch a tutorial on Qiqqa, you can visit the website – there is a video that highlights some of the features (it’s about 10 minutes long – might be Qiqqa than reading this never-ending blog).

Qiqqa is still in its alpha phase, meaning that it is in test mode and this is the first version made available to the public.  Right now, it is very easy to download a free version of Qiqqa from their website. They welcome feedback from users and when you open the program, the main welcome page actually highlights all of the changes they have made based on user feedback.

It is very easy to get started with Qiqqa, thanks to a very clean and well organized interface. The first step is to add a document to the Qiqqa library. The pdf needs to be on your hard-drive, so this does feel slightly redundant. As you import your document, Qiqqa engages OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to recognize the text.  OCR allows Qiqqa to identify the document’s metadata (author, title, year), create bookmarks based on headings in the article and it even allows Qiqqa to read the document out loud in a fairly scary robot voice.  I think I will set this up on my front porch for Halloween to give the kids a good fright.

As you read your pdf, you can highlight sections, make notes/annotations and add tags.  Any tag that you add to a document (“Digital History,” “Archives,” eg) allows Qiqqa to index your library based on those tags.  That way, not only can you sort your library by author, title and date, but you can sort it by the key ideas or main concepts you identified in the tag.  You can also filter your documents by combining tags, so you can easily see, for example, all of the articles that discuss both “Archives” and “Public Memory.” Very cool.

You can also run a report based on the notes or annotations you make as you read.  You can choose to run an annotation report on your entire library, a particular article or based on any number of tags.  Using the tag feature again comes in handy, as you will be able to see all of the notes you have made on a particular subject.  When making annotations, you actually add your comments in a box over the relevant text, so the report will show the article’s title, the relevant text, your notes and any tags you have added.  Clicking on the article’s text, will open the article for you (right to the page where you made your annotation).

Qiqqa also has a brainstorm feature, which allows you to map out your ideas.  You can add links, images and even documents from your library into your brainstorm.  I haven’t spent much time with this feature, as I don’t generally brainstorm, but it seems like a good way to map out your thoughts or even organize a paper.

Qiqqa also has a built in web browser, which allows you to type in a url or search a few different sources, like Google, GoogleScholar, Wikipedia and JSTOR, being the most applicable for me.  You can also use the web browser to fill in the meta data of your document using BibTex, if the OCR didn’t quite get it right (which I found to be often).

As much as I was impressed with Qiqqa, I didn’t see it solving all of my problems.  What about all of the electronic documents that aren’t pdfs? What about webpages, blogs and online journals? I did a quick search in Google to see if there were any free programs that could convert my documents to pdf (I knew you could get versions of Adobe to convert documents, but I also knew they could be pretty expensive).  Fortunately, there seem to be several websites that will do this for you.  I chose this one and it worked perfectly! I converted a blog, saved in to my computer and imported it into Qiqqa, all within just a couple of minutes.  I was very impressed to see that Qiqqa’s OCR worked even on this document (I tested the scary robot voice).

In general, I’m pretty impressed with Qiqqa, although here are a few of the problems I’ve identified so far:

– The program uses a fair amount of your system’s CPU.  I don’t quite know what this is, but I know it slows down my computer and makes it extremely hot, causing me to be yet another victim of “toasted skin syndrome.” The CPU usage can be decreased by turning off the OCR feature, but I still find that it slows down my system a bit.

– I haven’t quite been able to figure this one out yet, but Qiqqa keeps a copy of your document (with all of your notes), so that the original one is unchanged.  Doesn’t this mean that there are two versions of each document somewhere on my computer and taking up space?

– Although there are many ways to quickly sort your documents, there is no way to organize them into folders.  This is a bit of a problem for me.  Without folders, there isn’t a great way of keeping track of my weekly readings for class (short of giving them all tags like “Digital History Week 6,” which I guess will actually work).  Maybe this isn’t a huge problem after all.  I’ll keep you posted.

– The annotations can be a bit distracting.  At first, I was adding them in the margins, but when I ran the annotation report, I realized that the point was to put them directly over the relevant text.  This can leave you with a giant blue (or pink, or yellow – Qiqqa lets you choose the colour!) text box over your article.  Although it fades and your comments disappear once you move the cursor away, the blue box is pretty conspicuous.

I don’t think any of these problems will be deal-breakers for me and I’m definitely going to give Qiqqa a decent chance.  I will be sure to keep you all posted as I dig deepa with Qiqqa (sorry – I just can’t help doing that)!


Qiqqa update #1 – I sent an email to Qiqqa (mostly to test their responsiveness) to request that the background on the annotations be lightened a bit, so they aren’t as distracting when reading the document.  I just got an email back (3 day turnaround – pretty impressive) to say that my “wish will be granted” in the next release, anticipated in the next few weeks.  I wonder what other wishes Qiqqa can grant…..

The trouble with numbers

This week in Digital History, we are looking at (quite literally) data visualizations.  Our entire world seems to be changing with the Digital Age, and historical scholarship is no exception.  Historians are trying out new tools and new methods for retrieving and presenting their research.

For our exercise this week, we were encouraged to look at IBM’s Many Eyes for some existing examples of data visualization.  With this tool, you are also able to upload your own data set and create your own visualization.

I played around with Many Eyes for awhile and tried to upload data that I obtained from various sources on the web, like Stats Canada.  However, I quickly grew impatient (and memories of my struggle with TAPoR crept into my mind). With Many Eyes, you are not actually uploading your data – you are pasting into the browser, which makes it a bit tricky.  For the most part, the tool was able to quickly recognize the table of data, but when it came to the visualization part, it often wouldn’t work.  I decided to look for some nicely formatted data on my hard drive and, unfortunately, this is the best I could come up with.
This is a visualization based on a spreadsheet I created last year, when I was planning a trip to Vegas (these are the types of things you can do with your evenings when you aren’t in school).  Unfortunately, and ironically, the quality of the visualization is poor, so I will have to provide a bit of textual analysis to explain my data.  For the trip, I was flying to Vegas from Winnipeg and I was meeting my sister there, who would be flying from St. John’s.  Obviously, the most logical thing to do, was to create a spreadsheet to compare the costs for both of us, to figure out what flight / hotel package made the most sense.  The Y axis is the cost of the trip from Winnipeg and the X axis is the cost from Newfoundland.  The size of the circle corresponds to the hotel rating, as provided by Travelocity (the bigger the circle, the higher the rating).

Based on my visualization, it seems that the best option would have been to go with the travel package I highlighted in yellow, which was for the Trump Hotel.  However, the Trump Hotel is located off of the strip (a major downside when visiting Vegas), which was a bit of a deal-breaker for us.  We ended up staying at the MGM (the circle below and to the left of the text box) and were quite pleased with our choice.

What can we learn from my lesson in data visualization?

#1) No matter what the numbers say, there still needs to be some kind of contextual analysis.  If I had relied purely on the data, we would have stayed at the Trump and spent either time or money walking to and from the strip.

#2) It is very difficult to change your mind frame to use these types of methods for historical research.  I actually did try to think of a historical question I could examine with data visualization, but I ultimately returned to a familiar type of data set.  I am fairly comfortable with analyzing numbers in a mathematical/statistical way (thanks to my former boss who was all about metrics and constantly had me creating charts and graphs).  However, to think about using data for a historical analysis is something I am finding to be quite difficult. The readings this week seem to confirm that introducing these types of methods into historical scholarship will require a bit of a paradigm shift, for both the writer and the reader.

Who cares?

“Historical fodder: Cannon find fires up historians in Newfoundland”

This article popped up on my Twitter newsfeed recently.  I followed the link because a) it was about a historical discovery and b) it was about Newfoundland (a two part Venn diagram of things I like, if you will).  The article discusses the archaeological discovery of a 400 year old cannon at the community of Cupids, Canada’s oldest British colony.  The discovery is important, as it provides physical evidence of the defensive tactics taken by early colonists that, up until now, has only been supported through documentary evidence.

However, what struck me the most about the article was one of the comments left by a reader:

“A complete waste of taxpayers money. Over 400 yrs ago. What purpose does it serve to dig these things up other then to provide acdemics with jobs?”

Good question.  And, as historians in training, we need to be able to answer this question. In this case, I don’t think the “we need to know about the past in order to understand the future” line would cut it with this guy (or gal).  It seems we are entering a time (or perhaps it is just me entering this field) where academics are having to justify their work more and more.  People want to know why your research matters; what implications it has for the present; how it contributes to society; why they should care.

Right now, I don’t think I have an answer that would satisfy this person.  But I hope to have one by the time I finish this degree.

It’s all history

In doing research for our (quickly!) upcoming Archives paper, I’ve been confronted with the problem of original documents vs. microfilmed (or, more recently, digitized) ones.  As paper deteriorates, space becomes an issue and as archives enter the Digital Age, film preservation (in many forms) becomes a necessary part of the archival process.  There are all kinds of debates out there as people voice their opinion and state their preference of one medium over another.  As a historian (I’m trying to get used to calling myself this – sort of in an effort to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”) I do cherish the emotional experience of working with an original document.  I like the musty smell, I like the yellowed pages and I like the old illustrations, font or penmanship.  Working with an original document gives you the true feeling of being a historian.

However, I have had these moments when working with microfilm, too.  Unless it is an absolutely beautiful fall day (such as occurred a few weeks ago), I generally enjoy spending time in front of the microfilm machine.  I like sitting quietly in a dark room, waiting in anticipation for the information I’m seeking to appear on the screen (in  the sort of slot-machine way that it does).

What’s more, I’ve had these moments sitting at home at my kitchen table, accessing information online.  I was discussing with some of my archives classmates the sympathy we felt for old Sam Duffield when the online version of the 1891 census revealed that his wife had passed away.

*Of course, this is a highly romanticized version of historical research.  Spending a considerable amount of time with any of these mediums can be painful (whether you can’t read the handwriting in the original document, the microfilm machine is making you dizzy or your computer is agonizingly slow because you have 8 pdf documents  and 15 tabs open in your browser).*

I do understand the importance of context and I know that some things (such as illustrations or photographs) simply don’t translate on a digital form.  However, for the most part, I think that the content is maintained and I would argue, against those who think otherwise, that the emotional experience of working with historical documents is also maintained.   If you are truly looking for a connection with the material, it will happen no matter where you are.


Historical Data in the Digital Age

This week in Digital History, we are examining information in the Digital Age and, in particular, how it will affect the historical record.

With all of the information that is being generated, stored and preserved digitally, historians of the future will no doubt be faced with more material than ever before (although, as Stuart Fox argues, the historical record will never be complete, because digital material will likely always be subject to a number of legal restrictions).

In order to deal with this massive amount of information, historians are starting to utilize new tools and methods to help them sift through the material. For example, with data mining, researchers can extract text from digital sources and quickly analyze  the data to look for patterns, trends or changes. After looking at a few examples of data mining, through William Turkel’s examination of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and Dan Cohen’s analysis of language in Victorian literature, we were encouraged to try a few data mining tools out ourselves.

The first such tool I tried was TAPoR.  Unfortunately, due to my data mining immaturity or the tool’s unaddressed bugs, or some combination of the two, I was unable to return any valuable research.  I could do a few basic things, like calculate how many times a word occurred in the text, but anytime I tried a more complex query, I would be faced with an error.  It seemed as though I was not quite ready for TAPoR, so I moved on to the next option.

The next recommended tool was Time Magazine Corpus. This tools allows you to run a variety of text analyses on Time magazines from 1923-2010.  After my failed attempt at TAPoR, I decided to start small.  I plugged in the word “war” into the chart option and was given a fairly predictable graph.  As one would suspect, the occurrences of the word war increased throughout the 1920s and 1930s and peaked in the 1940s, after which it declined sharply into the 1950s and didn’t increase again until the 1990s / 2000s.

For a slightly more complex, although equally predictable query, I examined the collocates around the word “travel” in the magazines from the 1930s and the 1960s.  I was presented with two charts of words that essentially demonstrated the types of adjectives used to describe the word travel in the respective decades:

In the first chart, from the 1930s, you see that such words as “railroad,” “long,” and “costs” were closely associated with the word “travel.”  By the 1960s, of course, travel is much different.  Here, you see words such as “jet,” “interstate,” and even “space” associated with the word “travel.” Although this isn’t a ground-breaking revelation, it is very exciting to be able to run queries on the text of all of the Time magazines since the 1920s.

Of course, it should not be the historian’s goal to use such methods to test or prove existing scholarship on a matter (and to do so would be to privilege scientific or empirical methods over qualitative ones).  As many digital historians or digital humanists will tell you, scholarly research is changing and it’s not enough for us to try to make new tools fit into our existing methodologies.  We now have a brand new type of historical evidence and we need to find new questions and new methods to go along with it.