Looking Forward II

Looking Forward II

“Danger gathers upon our path. We cannot afford – and have no right – to look back. We must look forward.” – Winston Churchill, 10 December 1936

A year ago, I began a new path on life’s great journey. I decided to follow my passion for history and make it a career. In the last year, I began the first step by completing a Master of Arts in Public History at the University of Western Ontario.

My overall goal was to land a job at one of Canada’s military museums, historical societies, or heritage institutions. I’ve accomplished this goal by starting my dream job as Digital Projects Coordinator at the Juno Beach Centre Association (JBCA). This was my summer internship for the public history degree. I am happy to announce that the JBCA has extended my contract through March 2019. We are gearing up for Juno75, the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. So there’s much to be done.

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I’m hopeful that this means there will still be a spot for me at the JBCA come next spring. As usual with nonprofits, it’s a funding issue, but I’m optimistic! My work this summer has seen the creation of Canada’s first Second World War podcast — Juno Beach and Beyond. Check it out! We’re just finishing up the text for an exciting temporary exhibit on Canada’s Allies at Juno Beach. I’m also taking up the task of managing a call for blog posts that we will be making public shortly.

The big project I was brought on to undertake is progressing well. We’re creating a digital map of Canadian military units in the Second World War. Visitors to the Juno Beach Centre in France will be able to follow the path their ancestors took through France. Eventually, Italy and Hong Kong will be added, along with the position of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons and Royal Canadian Navy ships.

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In related news, I have taken up the role as Historical Advisor for Project ’44. Project ’44 is the spearhead initiative in a larger effort to give us new ways to preserve, access, and examine our military heritage in Canada. It’s a volunteer position (and a great excuse to do a lot of cool research!). We’re currently focused on mapping Canada’s Battle of Normandy. My contribution will be to advise them on various aspects of the project and undertake research relating to the role of the RCAF in Normandy and beyond.

At the same time, I’ll still be puttering away promoting Eagles over Husky. I hope to have some events to announce shortly. As always, if you’d like a signed copy, I am happy to oblige!

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Making Arduino Speak

About a month ago I wrote a post about how my Interactive Exhibit Design course had me learning how to code an Arduino microcontroller to turn lights on at the push of a button. We have had some studio lessons since then. Just a few weeks ago we started playing with sound. Our kits come with a rudimentary speaker that, while attached to the Arduino breadboard, can be programmed to make noises.

We began with a basic configuration, with the speaker connected to a simple circuit on the breadboard. We then programmed the Arduino to tell the speaker to make a rather unsettling noise. We also included a photoresistor in the circuit. We programmed this to change the noise from the speaker depending on how much light the photoresistor received. This was a good way to get a basic understanding of how the speaker worked, but we were not yet at the point where we could get much application out of it. Perhaps the basic idea could be applied by an exhibit designer who wanted to trigger a sound based on a change in lighting. For example, say a passerby inadvertently covers a light source, and the sound of gunfire erupts as he or she enters the trench section of a First World War exhibit (sort of like a tripwire without the tripping part). Obviously, that would require some different coding and a speaker that could handle the audio file.   

Next, we built a keyboard instrument. We removed the photoresistor from the circuit and instead attached four buttons. We then coded each of these four buttons to prompt the speaker to emit a different tone when pressed. I had a little bit of trouble with my breadboard on this one. In a previous studio class, I’d learned that one of the lines on my breadboard (the one marked in pen) was broken. It seemed that a second line was also broken, meaning I had to move things around on the breadboard to ensure all four buttons were part of a complete circuit. This is a constraint I’ll have to be aware of as I move forward with Arduino projects.

As you can see in the attached videos, the buttons worked like keys on a keyboard, each with a different sound. If I had any musical talent, maybe I would be able to compose a short song using this new instrument. Instead, it’s given me some other ideas. You’ll recall that in my last post I wrote about using buttons to turn on lights to highlight parts of a small display, such as a map of Sicily. Adding buttons with sounds would allow me to add some sound effects to the display. Perhaps I could upload the sound of an aircraft taking off, of fighter pilots or bomber gunners firing machine guns, or the sounds of air raid sirens, flak, or crashing aircraft. Pushing a different button might highlight a different part of an aircrew’s operational sortie over Palermo, Messina, or one of the Axis aerodromes on the island.

I could also program the speaker to narrate parts of the Battle of Sicily depending upon which button is depressed. This would add another layer to the light display rather than relying on the user to read the button’s accompanying text. I believe this would require a superior speaker and different programming software. I also would need some help programming the lights and audio files to work in sync. It would be great for the light to turn on at the same time as the narration begins. The light would turn off when the narration ends, and both would end when the user pressed another button, starting that lighting and narration sequence.

Another interesting application for a setup like this could be an audio listening display. Museums use these sorts of displays all the time. I remember one at the Canadian War Museum in their Cold War gallery. The visitor can put on a set of headphones and listen to various Cold War-era tracks from recognizable artists. I keenly remember falling in love with Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ when I was there as a teenager. It was a memorable experience that I won’t soon forget – the very thing that the best museums nail.

Arduino – Learning and Applying the Basics

Interactive Exhibit Design is different from any other history course I have ever taken. The Public History Graduate Program at Western University takes us far beyond theory into practical applications for putting history to work in the world, but this new course is a cut above. Interactive Exhibit Design is a studio course where we are learning (slowly but surely) about how to use microcontrollers to manipulate objects in the physical world using some basic electronic components and a coding program called Arduino.

We completed our first studio projects a few weeks ago now. At first, we started by plugging an LED bulb into one of the pins on our Arduino boards and coding that pin to blink the light at a particular frequency. I tried to spell ALEX in Morse code (You might be able to make out ._ ._.. . _.._ in the video).

This could make for a fun interactive, activity. I could program the Arduino to spit out a secret message that students would have to decipher using a Morse code book. In doing so, the activity would teach students about wartime communication methods. To put some more fun into the project, maybe the light could be fitted to the photograph or drawing of a Royal Canadian Navy corvette at sea during the Battle of the Atlantic. The student could pretend that he or she is a sailor on a neighbouring ship trying to receive the message. One thing I noticed with the Morse code coding was the need to put long spaces between letters and words. Otherwise, it makes the message difficult to follow because it flashes by so quickly. Furthermore, when it’s programmed to repeat the message, it can be hard to identify where it begins.

Next, we set up and programmed the board to turn a light on when someone pushed a button. The button operates as a switch. The switch is open naturally, but when the button is pressed the switch closes, completing the circuit and turning the light on. This is a basic but handy setup. Museum exhibits use lights like these all the time. You press a button and part of a panel lights up corresponding to the button you have pressed. The button may illuminate the answer to a question posed next to the button or an element of a map that highlights one part of a battlefield.

This got me thinking. As research assistants at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum this term, Martha Sellens and I are working on a refresh of the Second World War exhibit. One of the proposed elements of this exhibit is an interactive map of Europe. Perhaps Martha and I could pull together a prototype of such a map. It could follow the events that led to Canada’s declaration of war in 1939, or it could trace the path of the RCR as they fought through Europe during the ensuing conflict.

Thinking that this could be too ambitious for a first go, I had another thought. Maybe I could make something with an interactive map that could teach people about the Battle of Sicily, the subject of my book, Eagles over Husky. I could take one of the maps in the book and PLAK-IT. This would provide me with a solid material to drill holes into and secure my lights. I could then program the lights to light up with the push of various buttons. The illuminated segments of the map could feature various bombing raids or the beaches where Allied forces stormed ashore on the early morning of 10 July 1943. I could even number the lights and have the user follow a narrative of the campaign using the illuminated map sections as a guide. This would be a neat piece to take with me when I go to sell books at book fairs or militaria shows this spring.

These ideas do raise some challenges. What if I wanted the lights to stay on for a prescribed time without the user having to keep the button depressed to complete the circuit? So far, I can code a light to stay on for an amount of time or to blink at a particular frequency, but I’m not sure how to make this work alongside a button. We did program multiple lights to blink in a sequence once we pushed a button, but I do not think we have switches that allow for a timed illumination (i.e. I press a button, and the light stays on for five seconds).

Another challenge may be that all our components need to plug into the Arduino’s breadboard and link to the Arduino Uno microcontroller itself. I will need some guidance on how to integrate these objects and the components into the map itself. I will also need to learn a bit more about wiring and circuits to make this vision a reality. This should bode well for an exciting term!

Taking Stock & Website Launch

Taking Stock & Website Launch

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Well, it’s been quite the rush but my first semester as a Public History graduate student at Western University is coming to a close. I’ve still got a few end-of-term assignments left, but I’m 80%+ complete all but one of them. The last three months or so have thrown many varied assignments my way. I’ve finished a Heritage Designation project for the City of London’s Heritage Planner, worked on a RAD inventory project at the London Life Corporate Archives, and built a promotional website and timeline for my book at www.eaglesoverhusky.ca. Please take the time to check it out and let me know what you think! You can get to the timeline directly by clicking here.

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In other exciting news, I’ve recently received my first proofs from Helion & Company for Eagles over Husky. I probably won’t look at them in detail until closer to the Christmas break, but this is really exciting. My manuscript actually looks like the inside of a book! Assuming I get the proofs turned around on time, the book should be released in the UK by mid-January or February at the latest. It looks like the book won’t be available at North American retailers until March. In the meantime, I’ll be buying plenty of author’s copies to sell on this side of the Atlantic.

I also recently received a really great testimonial for the book from one of my mentors, Professor Marc Milner, Director of The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society.

“Eagles over Husky is an exceptional debut for a young scholar. It combines excellent research, clear and evocative writing, and deep reflection to give us totally new insights not only into Operation Husky in 1943, but the whole higher direction of the Allied war effort in Europe during this critical phase.  Fitzgerald-Black provides us with a model of how the role of airpower in the major campaigns of the Second World War can best  be understood.”

– Marc Milner, University of New Brunswick, Canada

I’m literally blown away by Marc’s comments. I can’t wait to start the rounds giving talks about my book and raising awareness for Operation Husky’s 75th anniversary this summer. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with interview requests etc. You can get hold of me by filling out this form. Keep an eye on http://www.eaglesoverhusky.com for new content leading up to the book launch and the anniversary!

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There’s a lot to look forward to in 2018. My fellow students and I will be working on an oral history project with Western University’s McIntosh Gallery. We’ll also be researching and writing a history of beautiful Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario. What I’m looking forward to most is beginning my work at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum. I’ve already been volunteering there and can’t wait to get started in collections management. It looks like I’ll be handling some artefacts donated by the estate of Milton F. Gregg, who I wrote about back in October. What a thrill!

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.

Thinking about One Day in August

Thinking about One Day in August

You’d think that a span of nine days including two weekends, Thanksgiving Monday, and Western University’s inaugural fall reading week would be relaxing. That’s ample time to rest and recharge for the sprint to the Christmas break, right?

Alas, the work of a graduate student is never done. I’m buried under readings (fancy that — it’s reading week) and 56 midterms that need to be marked by next Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I felt that I needed to post something in here, even if it’s just a brief reflection on something that stood out to me in the last few weeks. So here goes.

One theme that’s emerged recently with Charlotte Gray‘s visit to Western for the Goodman Lecture Series is the tension between history written inside and outside the academy. I prefer the terms popular and academic history — some use public history for the former, but I feel that public history is a separate field within academic history that encompasses the popular in many applications.

Anyways, this year’s Public History MA cohort got to sit down for lunch with Mrs. Gray, who argued in her lectures that academic and popular history have — or at least ought to have — a symbiotic relationship. You know, what then-Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi told the Gungan leadership in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace:

You and the Naboo form a symbiotic circle, what happens to one of you will affect the other, you must understand this…

The tension between public and academic history — or even just established history and recent discoveries — is real. Here’s an example, one I ran by Charlotte Gray at lunch.

In 2012, Historian David O’Keefe and his team produced Dieppe Uncovered, an hour-long documentary on Operation Jubilee, the infamous raid on the north coast of France that became Canada’s single worst day of casualties in the Second World War. The docudrama’s “cutting-edge research has uncovered new information that may change history books and the perception of the Dieppe Raid.” Check out the trailer below.

Just to get my bias out of the way, O’Keefe is a colleague of mine who I admire quite a bit. But I was very skeptical as I watched the film air on History Television for the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2012.

one-day-in-augustO’Keefe followed this up with a 2013 book called One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe. It was a national bestseller and was nominated for many Canadian literary awards that year. It was well-received by the book-buying Canadian public. The book was also a pleasure to read. It is organized more like a mystery novel using real historical evidence than a typical monograph with the thesis and supporting arguments stated up front.

Yet responses in the established historical community in Canada were largely negative. Popular Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke, writer of the Canadian Battle Series of books (including Tragedy at Dieppe) had a lively debate with David O’Keefe on a CBC Radio One program back in 2013. They debated whether or not the intelligence-gathering mission was the driving purpose behind the operation. Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, took issue with O’Keefe’s conclusions in The Necessary War, volume one of his recently published Second World War series:

But while the operation was expected to provide valuable information to assist in breaking the U-boat codes and gaining an upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, the failure of the Royal Navy to devote any of its large ships to the Dieppe operation would suggest that this stealth raid did not matter as much to the navy as some historians have sensationally claimed — going so far as to argue that the entire Dieppe raid was but a cover for the commando pinch. It was not.

That’s a fairly blunt appraisal.

Here’s my question. Should Professor O’Keefe (he teaches at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec) have written an academic article, say in Canadian Military History, before taking his findings to the public? Arguably his chosen course — a docudrama and then a mystery-style non-fiction book — doesn’t make the evidence he presents as accessible to scholars for their review. However, in doing so, O’Keefe may have been scooped, and his work may not have reached the broad audience that it did. For me, this is a Catch-22 — you’re damned if you go about it either way.

This leads me to a second question. Shouldn’t we be able to trust the Canadian public — or at least those interested enough to watch the film or read the book — to make up their minds about the raid? Perhaps not, if we consider that the vast majority of Canadians don’t have much in the way of historical training. Or perhaps so, if we consider that the Canadian public is as highly educated as it’s ever been in history.

What do you think? Leave me a comment below. As for Charlotte Gray, I can’t remember her response… as I said, it’s been an exhausting week.

milton-greggIn other news. This year is the Western History Department’s centenary, and they’re hosting some great events on October 27th to celebrate the occasion. One of these is the Greatest (Dead) Canadian competition. My nominee is Brigadier Milton Fowler Gregg, VC PC OC CBE MC ED CD.

Gregg died on 13 March 1978, aged 85. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest. He was an incredible leader and manager who applied his administrative skills to make Canada a better place.