Life Photographs

You might have found out, by now, that Google has uploaded Life magazine’s trove of photographs from the 1860s onwards onto their formidable servers. They are of decent quality – with some tags/Labels. The viewer, of course, cannot add their own notations, labels and tags.1 I would have liked to see this in Flickr with their level of user-interaction. These photos need metadata, folks. Us historians cannot make sense or teach from them, unless you let us interact with the metadata. Not to mention that I would have loved to see a “page scan” along with the photograph to get a sense of how these images were consumed upon initial reception. As it is, I am not even sure if the “Date taken” corresponds to the date of issue or not.

Still, some amazing South Asia stuff. Moslem League, Muslim League, Jinnah, and most intriguingly, Kipling’s India.

Some newfound favorites:

Tear down the Wall (via sarah)

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  1. If they did allow it, I could tell them that the shopkeepers are obviously not posing in front of their “spice store” but their local optician []

Surfing on Crowds

A week or so ago Stephen Mihm had an interesting article in Boston Globe, Everyone’s a historian now: How the Internet – and you – will make history deeper, richer, and more accurate. Mihm concentrated on the effect of crowd sourcing on history as a research/archival practice, but I have been thinking about the positive contributions to pedagogy as well.

Google Earth – the application which allows you to fly around the world and find oddities – is a case in point. Historians would be delighted to know that Google Earth has an amazing array of communities dedicated to charting out time and event in space. For example, the battles and routes of Alexander the Great which includes his route, maps of cities and sites of battles. You can download the .kmz file (aka the Google Earth file) and open it up in your copy of Google Earth. Now you can fly like a bird alongside Alexander with notes and comments from the wikipedia, from the Google Earth community, from National Geographic and host of other sources. Surely, you can see the amazing opportunity that offers as an aid-in-teaching. Or, look at the Life of Muhammad which is incredibly detailed time and place map of the Prophet. Or, Paris in 1808. Or, footsteps of Buddha. You can find your own interest at the moderated History,Illustrated forum or the broader Educators forum. You can also simply search for keywords with .kmz extensions.

Going back to Mihm, these are more than collective applications of research or documentation; they allow us to present history in altogether new formats to our students. It grants a physicality to history that often has to struggle to be taken as “real” – separated as it is with time and distance from any typical classroom (yes, I wish I was teaching Civil War history in South Carolina or Muhammad b. Qasim in Thatta). This is not simply crowd-sourcing intelligence, it is re-illuminating our solo-sourced research with crowd-generated technology.

The recent news at Google I/O was that Google Earth is coming to the browser which opens up great possibilities of creating our own versions of digital archives that adhere to the geographical spaces.

Textual Commentary

One of my favorite activity in the archive was to work on the marginalia of the manuscript – mostly just trying to decipher but often thinking through the gloss it ‘added’ to the text.

Thinking about digital archives, I have been keenly aware that this ‘conversation on the margins’ must be incorporated into the text – along with layers, annotations etc – if we are to ever fully realize the promise of hypertext. [Basically think of having the Discussion and the History sections of any wikipedia entry remaining integral to the presentation of the text while adding commenting].

We can take, at least, one step forward on that project today: The Institute of the Book’s newly released Open Source Word Press theme, CommentPress 1.0. It allows one to display a text with the unique ability that interlocutors can discuss down to an individual paragraph. The genius of course is that in breaking the text up in such a manner, it makes the text far more legible and readable online.

This is a first step but I think that the Future of the Book folks deserve a huge round of applause.

In terms of application for historians, an easy one is the ability to workshop a paper – elicit comments, suggestions, etc.

Some of us from the history blogging world will be doing a roundtable at the AHA in January. Our intention is to present our panel work at Memory Matters. On this site, in the coming months, we will expand, discuss, debate some of the themes that underline our research and which we will presenting at AHA. Hopefully, this will serve as an example – even if it ends up being a cautionary one – of extending the ways in which we share and learn.