The Digital History Playbook

The Digital History Playbook

The first term of my Public History graduate degree is wrapping up rather quickly. My classmates and I have something like four major project deadlines between now and the middle of December. So it’s only natural that I am procrastinating by writing this blog instead of working on those various assignments this evening.

Tomorrow is our last official class in Digital Public History. It’s going to be a bit of a show-and-tell whereby we will present the progress we’ve made on our independent projects. Each of us has explored a digital technology and its current and potential applications for public history. That’s the great thing about this course. It has really opened my eyes to many possible applications where the modern and the historical can come together to produce something better than the sum of their parts.

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Take online archives for instance. Using the cloud, we now have the potential to gather, preserve, and provide access to historical records we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. The Memory Project is one example. Canadian veterans’ stories from the World Wars, the Korean War, and various Peacekeeping missions are recorded on audio and transcript. The September 11th Digital Archive captures the stories of those who experienced the worst terrorist attacks in American history whether they were at Ground Zero or waiting at home for loved ones who never returned. What’s great about these websites is that they record, preserve, and share memories and historical records that otherwise may never have survived. They reach out to engage their audiences in growing their collections.

Digital technologies also have the potential to transform how teachers educate their students. Learning history doesn’t need to be about names and dates. Students can also learn the skills of historians through archives’ education outreach programs like DocsTeach, an online tool for teaching with documents from the US National Archives. By doing history, not just learning it, students can practice their analytical and communications skills using actual documents that are part of the historical record. Perhaps teachers who use tools like these will help inspire a new generation of scholars, or maybe they’ll just be better, more aware, and thoughtful citizens. Either way, society benefits!

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Other digital technologies can give us a better perspective of the past — sometimes they can provide us with perspectives we couldn’t see even if we had been present. Geographic information systems and spatial history have loads of potential. Check out this brilliant 360° 3D recreation of Halifax at the time of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. In it, you’ll find a 3D video recreation of the events that led to the disaster followed by a map to explore the tragedy’s aftermath.

Public historians can also make use of digital tools to help manage projects. Social media helps academic and amateur historians engage and interact with other researchers to support one another’s projects or contribute a coordinated effort. Zotero is an example of free software that allows researchers to collect, organize, cite, and share research sources. Even tools as evident as Dropbox or Google Drive can help project members coordinate their efforts to improve project results.

Finally (and this is not an exhaustive list), digital tools can help historians present new ideas in readily accessible and digestible ways. In short, they can help us enhance our storytelling (backed by robust analysis) in ways that enhance the experience for the consumer. For instance, Canadian military historian Terry Copp has recently launched MontreatatWar.com, presenting his new book in an online format. The website is promising, with links to footnotes and primary documents referenced in the text. A more modest approach is TimelineJS, an open-source tool that enables anyone to build clean-cut, interactive timelines.

TimelineJS is one of the digital tools I’ve used for my independent project. I’m almost as excited to see what my classmates have produced using various digital tools as I am to showcase my work. My project consists of a new website and interactive timeline supporting my book, which I now understand should launch by February 2018. I can’t wait to reveal this work to the public in the next few days!

I’d like to finish this short reflection with one overriding principle that our professor, Timothy Compeau, has urged us to heed: engineers create these great tools, but it’s up to us to make the best use of them. Digital history isn’t about technology; it’s about how we can use technology to help us tell a compelling story and craft an experience that is memorable, fun, and educational.

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GIS and Spatial History

GIS and Spatial History

A few weeks ago now our Digital Public History class had an opportunity to visit the Map and Data Centre at the D.B. Weldon Library on the Western campus. There, we were given an introduction to GIS (geographic information system) software, including Story Maps, a series of ArcGIS-enabled applications. Story Maps is a great way to use GIS to tell a place-based story digitally. You can send people on tour across countries or even continents from the security of their own home. There is also a Cascade application which essentially allows the user to create a scrollable website. I started experimenting with this app to build my book website but decided to go elsewhere when I found that it was not meant for commercial use. In the future, I look forward to pulling this tool out of my toolbelt in the service of a different project.

I did not have much experience with GIS before this, but the workshop reminded me of work one of my fellow MA candidates did at the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society back in 2013. Matthew Douglass was studying the New Brunswick Rangers, a support company in 4th Canadian Armoured Division, and its role in closing the Falaise Gap. Matt used a map from C.P. Stacey’s The Victory Campaign, the official history of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, to help get a better understanding of the radius of fire for the company’s mortars and machine guns.

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Image Courtesy of Matt Douglass

Matt notes in his thesis that in spite of the good coverage these weapon systems had, “the various small hills were able to conceal German formations who were able to evade the ever-watchful Allied gaze, though much of their movements were limited to the hours of darkness.” Taking things a step further would see Matt using GIS in the form of topography maps to get an even better understanding of the impact those small hills had. The terrain is a primary document when it comes to military history, and there’s much it can tell us about how events took shape.

This brings up an essential point about spatial analysis. GIS and mapping software are great tools for enhancing the narrative, but they can also be great tools for improving historical analysis. As Richard White wrote in “What is Spatial History?”

[V]isualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.

Spatial history helps historians to pose and answer questions they may not have thought about before. Here are just a few that could take my work on the Allied air forces and the invasion of Sicily further:

  • What were the spatial limitations imposed on Allied fighter cover over the Sicily beaches? How far did they have to travel just to get to their patrol routes and what implications does this have on the fighter cover schedules, which were heavily criticized by the US Army and US Navy?
  • Similarly, what was the actual effect of forcing German and Italian bombardment wings north to central Italy instead of being based nearby the landing zones in Sicily? How many sorties were prevented merely because of the flying distance was expanded?
  • What was the spatial impact of Allied bombing on the Italian railway system in 1943? How long did it take a supply train to travel from Rome into the Italian toe in peacetime and how does this compare with the conditions the Allied air forces imposed? This one would be more difficult because it would require getting hold of the raw data in the form of railway timetables for the locations and periods in question.

For now, I’ll have to stick with using maps to communicate by research rather than enhance it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have engaged an excellent military cartographer for the maps in Eagles over Husky.

Here’s an example:

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Convoy routes for Operation Husky

In chapter two of my book, this map helps readers visualize my discussion of air protection for the various convoy routes involved in landing Allied troops on Sicily.

That’s it for today. We’ve got a busy month ahead in the Public History MA program at Western. I’m most excited for my independent Digital History project, in which I’ll be designing a website to promote my book and a timeline to help tell the story.