Re-Time Shifting and the Single Parent

A couple years ago Sean Takats described a process of time-shifting archival research that was a pretty good description and assessment of the power of digital tools in archives. One of his key points was that “we’re simultaneously escalating the evidentiary basis for any research project.” As he said at the time, that wasn’t news to anyone who had been to an archive in the last five years. I bought a good point and shoot digital camera in 2004 for several hundred dollars in order to collect more documents and deal with the growing cost of photocopying. It was a great investment, a workhorse that I made tens of thousands of images with.

My visit to Philadelphia archives last fall and this research trip to Austin-area archives has illustrated a countershift. Takats indicated that the Bibliotheque National de France had become just a very nice library to do research. I find as a single dad that archives have become almost the only place I have the ability to do research. The place I used to time-shift my archival reading to — nights and weekends, are no longer available. After a brief bout of exercise I pick up my son from day care, play out in the yard and make dinner, read some books, take a bath, and then go to bed. After twelve unrelieved hours of work and kid care, I don’t have the emotional energy to perform any work tasks unless a painful deadline is approaching. Even the regular hours of the workday are taken up with teaching and prep, meetings, and mundane bureaucratic tasks. The notion of a 40/40/20 division of Research/Teaching/Service responsibilities is a joke — it’s more like 10/60/30. The special trip to an archive has become again just about the only place I get the uninterrupted time and space to read through a lengthy document or set of primary sources in full.

What are the implications of this? First, it’s that I’m shifting the most important part of my work life to time that I’m not getting paid — the summer. Second, I’m shifting it out of the evenings and weekends I used to cram with work until the birth of my son. That was productive in a sense, but not very healthy overall. Prior to her death, my wife and I only took a single one-weekend vacation in the 8 years we were together. All other travel was for work or family. So that’s good. I realized after a couple of months as a single dad that I could not and should not make my son compete with my work for my attention. I had to find a way to get the work done without compromising how I was raising him. Shifting back to intense archival visits seem to be the answer. Even though I still do take many digital images in the archive, I’ve got to spend more time reading the documents there to have at least a mental index of the documents, and in some cases a pretty full recall of the source contents.

This also means I’m lowering the evidentiary basis for my research. On its face we could say that is a bad thing, but we could also conclude (and I’m trying to do so) that it will be possible to have a meaningful project based on a smaller but concise set of sources.

New Work with Census Data in GIS

NHGIS, one of the digital efforts of the Minnesota Population Center, is totally wonderful. Since I learned about it as a graduate student, it has been an essential source when I need demographic data from the U.S. Census and to help me think geospatially.

As a 20th century historian, and an urban historian in particular, I have run up against its limitations several times, which are really the limitations of the U.S. Census. The Census Bureau created the Census Tract framework and began implementing it in New York City with the 1900 census (augmenting and really replacing the Enumeration District). In 1910 it expanded to several other, slightly smaller cities and kept expanding to new cities every ten years. During the course of my masters thesis research on Ann Arbor, I was frustrated by the lack of Census Tract data before 1960 — the same goes for Berkeley in my book project.

In the course of my research on Austin, Texas, in the 1930s and 1940s, I realized that new digital methods and Census privacy law would allow me to break out of those limitations. Austin was tracted by the Census in 1940, but not in 1930. I realized that, because the 1930 manuscript Census — the individual-level records — are publicly available, I could plug them into 1940 Census Tracts and push the boundaries of the Census back in time. Here is how:

FHA Underwriting Manual

This summer I was reading Louis Hyman’s Debtor Nation when I came across a surprising reference to the FHA Underwriting Manual developed in the 1930s advising mortgage lenders that college campuses were an excellent buffer for good neighborhoods against infiltration by lower class and racially diverse residents, so the presence nearby was a good factor in the security rating system (the “redlining” maps). I had never thought to look at the Underwriting Manual and so immediately tried to find one on the web. Being that it was a government-produced document I was also surprised to find that it was difficult to find one on the web. Google Books has only digitized a 1958 version of the manual and will only make it available in their Snippet View. This was aggravating. I went to HathiTrust and found a scanned document there I could look at, but it was in terrible shape.

This spurred me to action. I have always been very happy to find an easily accessible text/HTML version of the Port Huron Statement right here for the last 10 years or so, and I figured the historians of the world could use the same for the underwriting manual. As an assignment in my undergrad Digital History course I had students clean up the OCR’ed pdfs of the manual, then use an HTML editor to make the Web version look more or less like the book, but without the artifacts of the printed book, like page headers or forced text wrap.

Feel free to read or link or download the April 1936 version of the underwriting manual here.

An increasing number of historians are creating or accumulating digital archives and sources as part of their research. I think it’s incumbent on us to put all the stuff we can out on the web — the public domain stuff is a no-brainer and I think a good bit can be shared under fair use (e.g. with some interpretation). You don’t have to make a wiz-bang site to make materials available (though I recommend just about everyone develop their own professional/personal site). Maybe just a simple Omeka installation can do the trick.

Virginia Senators

Rank of VA Senators based on DW-NOMINATE data. 1=most liberal/Democratic, 100=most conservative/Republican

While Virginia had very Democratic Senators in the first part of the century, from the election of Harry Byrd, the state’s Senate Delegation became much more conservative, though for most of the 20th century the seats remained Democratic. Only recently, with the election of Chuck Robb (electorally) and the shift of the Northern Virginia suburbs (demographically), did the Senate seat holders occupy less partisan positions.

New Year, New Routine

This year I will be commuting to work by plane. I hate flying and feel as though I am taking my life into my hands on every flight. There is only one flight in my whole life I can ever remember really enjoying, and that was the first one on a family trip down to Florida when I was sixteen and flying was still full of wonder (see Louis CK). But it is a necessity for this year as my family undergoes a work transition.

The fear and logistics involved in this commuting pattern actually bode well for my blogging. The flight is fairly short and while I will be able to read, I won’t be able to get much writing done without a sustained period of concentration and boredom. However, I will be looking to distract myself, as I am at this very moment, from the specter of the menacing landscape below. So, blogging.

Historic Aerial Photography – Soil Conservation Service

Next up in blogging the book project is a return to aerial photography.

Background: during the New Deal, agriculture was a key priority, and soil a specific component of that — see, for example, Don Worster’s The Dust Bowl. So the Department of Agriculture set up the Soil Conservation Service which photographically documented land coverage and usage through aerial photography across the country. The whole country.

Right now you’re already probably salivating at the thought of what this could tell historians, and especially urban historians. These still exist and are in storage in the National Archives (off-site I’m told, not at I or II). Some states and areas have been digitized, but it is hit or miss by state. They have been digitized for the State of Illinois, which is great. I came across these before, but the University of Illinois has actually done one better and made this a better, more accessible resource by making the interface and file management simpler. Find the county within Illinois, then use the schematic index to find the image. You can easily download the individual images. Here’s one.

Foregoing the cumbersome MrSID viewer can make these seem less accessible, but you can pull several images together on your own if you have Photoshop (access) or maybe Photosynth. Basically, take the image and trim off any black border with the crop tool — this is just an artifact of the film sheet in the holder from the 30s. Find all the images you want and do this with all of them. Then, using the Photomerge tool in Photoshop, select all of the images that are contiguous and run it. It takes a little while (5 to 10 minutes) and some decent computing power, but Photoshop pulls these together (and does the minor necessary warping of any images to make them match automatically) and puts out a composite image. So from the above, with about twenty-four images, you can get this:

The above is the area where Argonne National Laboratory is now. The small town at the bottom is Lemont, IL. Route 66 was just two lanes in this area and cut diagonally from lower left to upper right. The body of water is the Michigan and Illinois Canal. A good bit of the immediate area is now forest preserve, but there has also been much development, including I-55 and I-355, which would both be on-screen here, as well as Bolingbrook and places like Naperville, a little farther to the north. Either way, building these composite images from such a great resource is a wonderful way to get a sense of spatial change from the late 1930s.

Happy hunting!

Blogging the Book Project

It’s the summer of the book manuscript, so I’m going over my existing draft, looking through the primary research I’ve already conducted, reflecting on my existing publications, doing more secondary reading, and planning for new research. In short, I’m knee-deep in research. One of the pities of this kind of work has always been that there’s such a great amount of interesting material that you just can’t include in the book or in other publications like articles. In some cases, details of a report or other kind of document that just gets a brief mention in a footnote.

The web can help deal with this, and I’m taking full advantage by blogging my book project, creating and disseminating my notes digitally as I go through this process. The first installment is my page on the Hyde Park A & B slum clearance projects, which includes some detailing and analysis of a survey of a sample of the displaced residents, as well as illustration of the existing landscape that was cleared, based on some 1925 Sanborn maps. All in all, it’s useful for me and I hope it can be useful for others who are interested in these subjects. If it helps promote my work before the book comes out and in addition to other work like conference presentations and publications, so much the better. I’ll be using the hashtag #bloggingthebookproject.

Using a Wiki to Keep Notes

Murph, a friend of mine from graduate school, used to take notes on a wiki on his personal site, Common Monkeyflower. I was damned impressed and tried to implement a wiki on the cheap for a few years, to no avail. I probably should have just used one of the Scratchpad ones, but I wanted it all on my UMich IFS space (not possible), or on my own domain (took some service upgrades). I was reminded recently how useful this really is and could have been if I had implemented it sooner. After a long hiatus on my University of Chicago archival research, I had to plumb the depths of my memory to recall the changing cast of administrators and their eras in understanding the relationship between the faculty, university housing and real estate policy, urban renewal activities, and the broader Chicago milieu. Not an easy task — who was Warner Wick, for example? (Dean of Students in the early 1960s).

So I have started using my wiki to keep notes on the figures that I read about in the archives and making links between them in the wiki pages. In some ways this simply performs the same function as taking copious handwritten notes — physical action reinscribing the information in order to mentally sort and remember it better. But since so much of the research process is going digital, it makes sense to take this process digital, too. Now, I can access it almost anywhere I want, can make it publicly visible, and don’t have to be encumbered by notebooks, along with the ability to link one piece of information to another.

In some cases I still do take handwritten notes (in meetings, for example), but I have also started using the wiki for taking notes on books I am reading.

NOTE on nuts and bolts: I have hosting and domain registration through IPOWER, which started out somewhat affordable, but which I might move sometime in the near future. 1 database and 1 domain is about 70 dollars a year. Now I have upgraded to 6 databases and that runs about another $60 a year. I’d recommend using DreamHost, which offers unlimited databases and domain registration for about 80 dollars a year. I use the MediaWiki software, which requires php5 on the back end, and which has become the standard the last few years.

New Computer

So near.

Later this week I should be getting a new laptop and monitor from my employer. The one I’m currently working on has been held together with chewing gum duct tape and whispered prayers. It’s been in particularly rough shape since it fell off a ledge at a Starbucks in London last July, which cracked the screen in an unsightly spiderweb.

Sticking with a MacBook Pro, going to have a dual-boot machine so I can run ArcGIS, and getting a big desktop monitor.