Open Access Research

One thing that really struck me about the way that the writers presented their blogs and themselves was their openness. The writers were upfront about their topics, presenting their arguments in what was often a very easy to follow manner. I think part of this is because they are aware of the relatively new manner of the digital history field. The writers were also very open about their credentials and often included links to their work that they had published online.

For example, in Trevor Owens‘ piece on Sunrise on Methodology and Radical Transparency of Sources in Historical Writing, he explains the shift from text-based work towards big data and online research tools. He highlights the benefits, from ideals of transparency and collaboration to simple but powerful improvements in access to finding sources and increasing scholarly accountability. He mirrors some of this accountability in his “Bio” section when he describes the numerous roles he has held and currently holds.  This not only establishes his credentials, but lays out his fields of expertise and biases.

Other others do something similar on their sites. W. Caleb McDaniel lists all his qualifications as well as the years and institutions he acquired them at. He also links to the free online introduction to his book. By doing so, he is promoting his Open Source argument and reinforcing his argument about the benefits of open intellectual exchange and the value of hyperlinks.

McDaniel’s article raised many questions for myself and my classmates. Primarily, they seemed to focus on the concerns about intellectual property, copyrights, and “stealing” ideas. Ktamg’s annotation does some work to clarify things, writing that the author is most likely alluding to version control rather than modification of the original. Natalie214 raised a question about other researchers taking and modifying another’s work. Csamuelson began a discussion which myself and several others participated in which focused on “messing” with other people’s notes or work because it is all publicly available.

It is through these conversations that the class began to really wrestle with the dangers and opportunities of “open access research”. One one hand, the benefits were well laid out by a variety of authors. Open access research can be verified and carefully nuanced through collaboration. It is not restricted to one person and has a much higher likelihood of being retrieved in a readable format than proprietary means. It allows remote access and avoids duplication of notes and sources, and it fosters a closer-knit community of historians and the general public.

On the other hand, our experience as history students within the traditional institution, has made us question its utility. While not explicitly taught, the emphasis on rigorous footnoting practices and carefully cited primary sources has instilled a fear of “stealing” from others or being accused of less than honest behaviour. After all, we are all quite aware of what we don’t know and what others know. That’s why we are doing research and looking through other historians’ work. The emphasis on doing primary research and compiling detailed research notes has embedded within us an understanding of the time, commitment, and effort involved in doing history and we see the unfairness of just taking that from others. We have been conditioned to do our own work and to value it as our contribution. Ian Milligan touches on these concerns in his blog posting and Kathleen Fitzpatrick criticises the way we were taught: to work in opposition to other historians by criticising their methods and arguments, unpacking their findings and by presenting parallel histories. Finally, Sheila Brennan’s honest discussion about the difficulties she has had in producing her publication Stamping American Memory highlights the challenges that still exist in making digital history understandable to traditional publishers and fellow academics, while also exploring the practical challenges yet to be resolved.

So, when I consider the dangers and opportunities of open access research, I am pretty evenly torn right now. I see the dangers of stealing others work, of losing credibility from poorly thought out ideas or badly researched theories, of trying to get publishers and others on board, and of all the ethical and practical quirks still to be worked out. I also agree with others who are excited about more collaboration, safer data storage, increased access to data and new opportunities. I guess for me a student, at this point in my career, I see open access as a tool to add to the ones I already use. I would love to embrace aspects of it like increased collaboration with colleagues and see this as especially useful for working internationally or across vast research topics. I like being able to access my work from any appropriate internet-enabled device and I like having easier access to the thoughts and conversations happening around me. I also like the physical work of reading old newspapers, of visiting with people or buildings, and of taking the time to deeply immerse myself in a particular research question with all the complexities and context surrounding it. I guess I’m also a bit concerned about how applicable this approach is in the moment, especially as people are still using “old” methods and are “stuck” in the binary of “my research, my work, my findings”.

I think for digital history as we have been discussing it to really catch on, we would need to introduce it into more history classes, work seriously on the logistical, ethical, and legal questions it raises, and wait until my generation (or the next) is ready to jump wholeheartedly into the field. Who knows, by then the field may have shifted again. So, I say, it seems interesting. Tell me more and let’s give it a try and see.

Learning Curves are Steep

This week I spent countless hours working through the readings and the exercises. I got about three-quarters of the way through Exercise 4 before calling it quits for this week. I experienced a steep learning curve, with feelings of accomplishment, of failure, of frustration, and gratefulness.

First, full disclaimer: I have the added benefit of having an incredibly helpful younger brother who is in school for web design and other techie things. He was kind enough to look at my mistakes and point out where I went wrong so that I could fix them and move on.

Some of the major breakthroughs and successes I experienced this week were probably quite simplistic at one level, but represented a step forward for me. I’m hoping it’s a process and that I will continue to understand and build on what I started to understand this week. This week, I was introduced to Markup and through the two tutorials, I began to understand why it was important and how to use it. Significantly, I learned to use several symbols to differentiate the text, as I demonstrate in this document. However, I had trouble with this task, especially with adding images. Using the free search tool linked by the professor, I searched for “bookshelves” and chose the picture I wanted. I copied the link into Markup, but it only showed up as an image icon and not the actual image. My brother examined my commands and noticed that the link was incorrect (not a huge deal, but still). After putting in the correct link, it formatted correctly and I felt like I understood the tool and its uses. This isn’t to say I don’t still get confused, but a quick reminder is all it takes to format **bold**, # headings, and so on.

I was able to translate some of that knowledge and the experience into Exercise Two, which focused on using the DHBox. Luckily, I was familiar with the concept of command lines and typing in strings of text because of the fact that I use a Linux computer. However, I still made simple mistakes such as typing in the wrong word “get” vs “git”, or forgetting to “add” before “committing” a new file. For this reason, my file is most likely unnaturally long and includes many lines of useless commands and backtracking. See my fail log command lines here. I understand the concept, but would like more practice, which I’m sure I will get.

Exercise Three was fairly easy and it made sense to me. I just haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. I plan on figuring out how to make sub-folders or something to separate all the files that will be in there by Module. Right now I find it hard to navigate. Perhaps I just need to work on my naming conventions.

I found this week challenging and that it took up most of my after-work hours. I’m hoping that as I get more familiar with the technology, I will be able to work quicker and more confidently. I think I also need to stop relying on my brother for some of my questions. As the professor is always pointing out, we have classmates to rely on and work together with. It’s important to learn to work together with them and build those more professional relationships. It will also take some time to remember to do my notes and brainstorming in Markdown and I noticed that I still took notes in LibreOffice. Looking forward to doing better next week and collaborating more.


Digital History as an Aid

In the past few years and definitely throughout my degree program, my professors have been doing their best to argue that anthropology is an interesting, vital, helpful, ever-changing, and unique field. This makes sense because as a major in anthropology, the majority of my professors have been anthropology professors. Luckily, I have also had some professors who have argued for taking an interdisciplinary approach, explaining that in order to fully understand a culture, we need to know about their past, their economic system, their language, and so on. In addition to encouraging my love for history, hence my minor, I strongly believe it helps to root the anthropology we do and makes it more valuable and meaningful.

This is kind of the way that I see digital history and the way I understand the readings that I did this week. Digital history is not separate from “academic” history, nor is it better than regular old university history. Rather, as Graham, Milligan, and Weingart explain, digital history as expressed through the ideas of the macroscope and its application to “big data”, allow us to explore much larger amounts of information at once through a variety of different lenses. The example focusing on the Old Bailey records explains this well. Using various data analysis and mapping programs that I do not yet understand, the data can show and be combined with almost countless other data sets to really broaden the picture of any particular criminal case. The posting on Historyonics: Big Data for Dead People illustrates this further as the author explains how by focusing on the case of one women within a big data set, he was able to gain a fuller understanding of all sorts of trends about the prison system, politics, publishing, women and so much more.

However, classmates bethanypehora and sarahmcole rightly raise concerns about the over-reliance and misinterpretation of the use of big data. They stress that big data is useful when used alongside micro histories.  JW Baker’s blog post about soft digital history and sarahmcole’s clarification of his argument support this position and speak to the ways that  I am beginning to understand the usefulness of digital history.

I am excited to be taking this class. Originally, I was not quite sure what it would entail, but chose it because it was a summer course that could accommodate my coop placement by being online. Delving into the material this week, I see that the class will be much more technical than I had realised. Coming from a family of open-source, Linux users, I should be more tech savvy, but I am not. I am interested in learning, but my current experience ends with basic computer and internet literacy and a vague ability to use the terminal function when prompted by more technologically-gifted family members.

My interests in history heavily tie into my love of anthropology and I argue that in order to do good anthropology, historical awareness is key. I enjoy cultural history focusing on people and their everyday lives and really enjoy documentaries such Victorian Farm. I can see that an analysis of big data would be very useful in public history projects such as this.

I am excited to be learning new ways to think about data and the relationships between events, people, historical trends, and places. These emerging technologies and ways of questioning how academics operate will help me to become a more inquisitive and explorative anthropologist as well. I am sure it will open up new doors and career opportunities as well.

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