Arguments and Digital/Public History

The issue of credit for digital and public projects is a key and not-at-all clear one within the academy. I have long claimed that public and digital historians generally have to do double duty. We are expected to develop exhibits, web sites, and other public-facing forms of communication to engage the public and train our students. This is while still meeting the same standards for peer-reviewed scholarly publication — a book with a university press and some articles for tenure, and another book for promotion.

There are a handful of dissenters of this assessment. Mark Souther, co-creator of Cleveland Historical, disagreed in the course of a UHA roundtable on digital urban history, pointing out that selective, thoughtful strategy could allow faculty to create digital/public products and scholarly products from the same base of research material. This is true — in some cases, publishing about public engagement experience can help cover both bases, as Andrew Hurley did, for example, writing about a St. Louis neighborhood in his book Beyond Preservation. The NCPH History @ Work blog is a great resource for these kinds of debates and discussion.

But I think most public/digital history faculty generally agree that they are expected to do more. My basic reading of this is because the nature of public projects is not well understood by non-public/digital history faculty. There is a clear understanding of what a scholarly publication looks like: a work of original scholarship based on primary source research, peer-reviewed in a recognized journal within the author’s subfield or sometimes a broader, discipline-wide journal. However, the expected primary source basis for a public or digital history product and how to convey primary research is not clear. There is no consensus format for citing primary source research in an exhibit, for example. Even if there were, it would normally be inappropriate or unnecessary for a public audience. The materials we point to are often secondary sources because they are intellectually and physically far more accessible to the public/non-specialist audience than a primary source collection. This inherently obscures the original research that goes into an effort like an exhibit. The wide variety of formats (like the wide varieties of sensory perception we have and media types to engage them) also throws things into confusion for evaluation and credit. How to “read” a museum exhibit? Or a web site? Or a data visualization? Is there an introduction, body and conclusion? Is there even a narrative structure?

I don’t blame non-public historians for not getting it all. It takes special training to work with all of these — the training that public/digital historians undertake. BUT it is an expectation we must have and we must impose on non-public/digital faculty — these are the people who create the positions and hire public/digital historians to their faculty in the first place. We must not hire the faculty without developing the appropriate competencies and processes for judging them.

Another way that faculty should think about the work of public and digital historians is in terms of arguments. This is a recognizable concept for academics. Historians are making arguments all the time. We are evaluating arguments, agreeing and disagreeing and revering the quality or novelty of arguments. However, because of the limited audience for scholarly publications, we are not winning arguments. Most scholarly arguments have little impact on society because few people read them and those only specialists. This is an awful failure of the academy. Our ideas deserve greater place in civic debate.

The original historical research on the HOLC redlining maps, for example, was by Ken Jackson in a Journal of Urban History article and a Bancroft-award winning book, Crabgrass Frontier. It had some public impact, especially through other public-oriented scholars and journalists. But Mapping Inequality will likely eventually surpass the impact of the book (even while it contributes to it) by making the wide variety of HOLC materials available directly to the scholarly and non-academic public alike enhanced by an accessible interface and contextualized by minimalist, updated interpretation written for the public. The project treads with Ken Jackson’s arguments but then cuts its own interpretive path.

Public and digital historians win arguments. They conduct research and communicate it in a museum or over the web or in person to shape public understanding of a topic. They take good arguments that suffer from jargon or otherwise mediocre prose and synthesize and edit them in new ways to reach non-specialists. They build on existing arguments and find new primary source material to explore or support the argument, and they rewrite it for the public. And the public pays attention to these arguments, in a way that they do not to scholarly publications. This is what stands equal with scholarly publication — the creation a work of historical interpretation and argumentation, based on original research, with impact on society. This more generalized or abstracted way of thinking about our work builds on the importance of arguments to put public and digital work on even footing with journal publication.

NB: For reference, this is informed by the 2010 OAH/NCPH white paper on engaged scholarship. It made the case that departments should value engaged scholarship, but did not make specific recommendations for how. I saw how it was a useful for opening a conversation about credit, but not one for closing with an agreement.

Making Mapping Inequality


Since we launched in October of 2016, Mapping Inequality has received a good deal of public recognition. National Geographic named it one of the top mapping projects of the year and Slate’s Rebecca Onion put it on the list of the year’s best digital history projects. Justin Madron recently wrote a summary of the project that gives a good overview of the data resources. I wanted to augment that with an account of helping pull this together as a faculty member, in order to give other historians a sense of the process and what a project of this scope entails.

It was somewhere early in graduate school when I first read about the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in Ken Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier. At the time, I was deep in coursework, barely starting on my graduate research and, while I was concerned about the practice and impact of redlining, it was not my first line of inquiry. Besides, I didn’t see this as a debate I could contribute much to. Jackson set the line of the debate that still dominates among historians, and Amy Hillier had just published her articles a year or two before, using GIS no less, which was totally beyond my grasp. Eventually I did develop some GIS skills with some intense summer work. It took me several years of thinking about the state of scholarship on HOLC and redlining, of developing a familiarity with the National Archives, and of getting a sense of big data possibilities before I began to think about a HOLC digital project. In fact, it was a set of trips to NARA and NARA II that was really eye-opening — how much material there was there and how increasingly friendly the institution was to digitization.
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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.