History in the Digital Realm: Good or Bad?

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The Pyramids of Skkarah from the North East. From Historypin. Pinned by HistorypinNGSC. Francis Frith Al Maryouteya Rd, Al Badrashin, Giza, Egypt 1858 Accession no. PGP R 175.7 Medium Albumen print Size 36.50 x 49.30 cm Credit Gift of Mrs. Riddell in memory of Peter Fletcher Riddell, 1985 Image from the National Galleries of Scotland Commons on Flikr, uploaded by Historypin.

This week we explored two different websites that demonstrate how history can embrace the web.  Historypin allows users to place pictures on a map.  You can search around the world for historical images and unlike other databases, the images are not divided by time. This means you can look at an image from 1850 alongside one from 2015.  Another site with a similar concept is PhilaPlace, a site designed by the Historical Society of Philadelphia.  I was fascinated with the potential Historypin presented.  Historical societies and small museums that typically operate with shoe-string budgets could use this site to post images from their collections without having to pay for an online database.  So, I decided to take a Historypin trip to Egypt.  As I clicked through the surprisingly small collection of images from Egypt, some of the words from Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History came floating back to me.  Rosenzweig and Cohen’s pivotal piece is cited time and time again and there is good reason why.  In their book, they present both the advantages and the disadvantages of history going digital and show that many fears – issues of quality, ownership, longevity – are not strong enough reasons to not adopt technology.  Historians are a detailed-minded group of people and we look for accuracy and provenance, or origins, in the world around us.  Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss one belief that the internet is filled with errors that are only perpetuating people’s misunderstandings about history.  This concern is one that is expressed strongly by Rebecca Onion in “Snapshots of History:  Wildly Popular accounts like @HistoryinPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you.”  But for all the inaccuracy (that certainly does exist) there is more information that is factual, as shown by Cohen and Rosenzweig in their study of Gettysberg vs. Gettysburg Address. (Gettysburg is the correct spelling and their study showed that the correct spelling appeared more times on search results than did the incorrect spelling.)  Unlike @HistoryinPics that Onion found to be so offensive because of the lack of contextual information for the images they post, Historypin allows a user to caption the item, and like this lovely picture of the pyramids at Saqqara (Sakkarah), the caption is quite detailed, everything a historian could want!  Sadly, this is not the case for many of of the pictures I found.  Right beside images from WWI are pictures from people’s family vacations to Egypt – NOT what I wanted to see.  I also stumbled upon an artistic(?) project photographing different chairs around Cairo.  As quickly as I had jumped on the bandwagon of Digital History is Wonderful, I just as quickly fell off and became a cynic.  There was too much non-relavant information!  Now I understood what Jo Guidi and David Armitage meant by “a crisis of long-term thinking” and information overload in The History Manifesto.  The issue we face today in a world of short-term thinking, history has a lot of big data to condense and analyze to produce something that is easily digestible.  Historypin creates one type of (free! accessible!) timeline that allows the user to look over a long history in a specific location and time-frame, but even with those parameters and the power of the internet, the information can still be too much.  As intimidating as big data may be, it can be manageable with the help of other digital tools.  Guidi and Armitage offer other solutions for research that allows historians to study huge swaths of history in a productive manner, such as Paper Machines, described as “an open-source extension of Zotero.”

The question becomes, is there a way to solve these grievances we historians have when it comes to history online?  Should historians be more proactive about what they see and read on the web?  When I saw people’s family vacation photos on Historypin should I have clicked the “report” button?  What I wanted was a regulator – someone to decide what was ‘history’ and what was not and what should be removed from the site.  But who is to say that picture of an overturned blue chair on a Cairo street isn’t history?  And that is a whole other can of worms and a conversation for a different time….

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2 thoughts on “History in the Digital Realm: Good or Bad?

  1. Alexandra,

    I really enjoyed reading your post and you bring up some important points. Should historians be these regulators you mentioned or is this not our place? I agree that family photos are not what I want to see on Historypin either, but I’m not sure if that warrants us reporting them. It might depend on what the explicit mission of Historypin is and if these images violate that. However, I think that there is a difference between Historypin and @HistoryinPics. The former invites people to pin their own images (theoretically, no matter how irrelevant) whereas the latter is run by people who choose what to display. Although neither pretends to be the work of a historian or even to be an expert, @HistoryinPics blurs that line a bit more because it comes from a single source. The internet has so much potential for improving history, but it is still a relatively new invention and we need to tweak it a bit more.

    Misunderstandings and misinformation will always abound; books spread inaccuracies just as easily as the internet. At least online people can quickly search for the truth. As I said in my own post, I believe that instead of trying to change the way others use the internet, we, as historians, should try to improve our own methods. If we can reach audiences in an interesting and legible way, then maybe we will become the go-to source, not the last resort.

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    • Hi Anna,

      This is a long over-due reply! Since this first week of class we have discussed many different ways historians should be using the internet to spread history. Looking back at @HistoryinPics vs. HistoryPin, you are right to look at the mission of each of these programs. I think I am now more accepting of non-historians practicing history on the internet so long the site does not promise its audience authentic history. I agree with you, the key to successful (factual!) history is getting more historians participating in digital history.

      Like

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