Copyright and Historians

There are two chief ways in which digital historians must interact with copyright as a concept: when they are protecting their intellectual property and when they are trying not to infringe on others’ property. Due to personal experience I have elected to focus on the latter, though the former is nonetheless important.

Certain historians rarely have to worry about copyright. Depending on the collection they are working with and their policies it is possible that all of their resources, once properly cited, are free to use and no issues arise. Historians working further in the past tend to deal with these issues left often as music, literature, and other copyrighted materials have expired by the modern day and including them in their online articles, repositories, etc. poses no threat.

For historians who do deal regularly with copyright however, it can pose a significant threat to their work. While for smaller projects and articles even if copyright is accidentally infringed in may never come to light, larger projects that seek to incorporate a multitude of copyrighted materials are often dead in the water either because the materials they want are locked behind a pay wall and they do not have the funds to purchase the rights to those materials or corporations/organizations who own the copyrights are extremely strict about holding onto their properties. These problems are compounded by copyright law’s long lifespan, extending well after the original owner of the IP is dead and oftentimes being extended by the estate. 

Transitioning from collections to design, there are problems with copyright for digital historians in this realm as well. While search engines have provided excellent tools for avoiding copyright law altogether by narrowing searches to images and materials which are “Free to use, share or modify,” NARROW is the key word. The options dwindle as this option is employed as many who upload images or documents online do not bother to define the copyright status of the property, and even of those images available what the designer wants may not be available. The same goes for music – while there are options for license-free music, it is almost guaranteed to be inferior to licensed music and sounds corny or cheap when employed on a website. These pratfalls cannot be avoided without committing illegal acts or paying for materials however, and while it can be a pain for artists and photographers these laws are in place to protect their property and rightly so.

The “General Audience:” A Look at The History Channel’s Website

I am going to rag on The History Channel for a bit. This is not new, or groundbreaking, and if I did not try to put a new spin on it this would probably devolve into an uninteresting rant. We know their interpretation is un-scholarly, often downright wrong and many times unethical or narrow-minded to boot. But when specifically answering the question “Which history sites have a design and interface that most effectively communicates its message and serves its audience?” – frankly reigns supreme.

The site makes effective use of new media, littering its homepage with eye-catching visuals, (inaccurate) reenactments and videos that are easy to consume and hard to stop watching. They are, in a word, interesting. The History Channel does not have a message in the same way that historians do. They do not seek to tell a truth or make a point. Frankly, and though I sound leftist saying it, they want to make a buck. Their message is “You should consume what we have to offer because it will make us more money.” 

That being said, their audience wants these easy narratives, the cool action shots and vivid portrayals of samurai, knights and (more recently) aliens. In this way, the audience has been served. The entertainment they sought has been provided by the site, and it happens to have a historical tinge. 

While, as a historian, I disagree with both of these philosophies on a fundamental level, it is hard not to appreciate how well it works. The History Channel site is well-designed and easy to navigate, bringing visitors exactly where they want to go within a few clicks of the mouse. With interesting, though false, stories posted right on the front page it is likely guests may never bother to browse through the menus unless looking for videos or articles on a particular topic (likely either the Civil War or World War II let’s face it). The site is well-maintained such that relevant content is being posted in conjunction with National Day recognition as well as popular holidays and the (oft imagined) histories behind them. As a vehicle for their regular programming it offers the opportunity to watch clips of shows on the channel, but not every episode or the whole of every episode encouraging visitors to make an account or watch their channel on TV for the whole story.

Sites and companies like this will continue to exist. As historians, the way to combat this is twofold. 1) Improve the education system such that myths like those The History Channel perpetuates are harder to stick in the collective memory and 2) engineer websites and tools for public consumption to rival the likes of corporate entities while also maintaining historical ethicacy. 

Digital Mapping: The Transatlantic Slave Database

There are few mapping projects which have received the same attention and praise as that of the Transatlantic Slave Database (  However, I hope to break down specifically what individual elements of this website make it the useful and well-designed tool that it is, with the hope that future projects will incorporate some or all of these components should they prove helpful for their own projects.


Some maps, especially when multiple data sets are being represented simultaneously, can be a) ugly b) confusing or c) both a and b. This website conveys its information effectively through the use of arrows which change size and break into smaller arrows when zoomed in to show more precise information, and the data is not displayed immediately on screen but is available if you click on the port or route you are interested in studying to limit clutter. The use of color effectively creates a simple legend by which users intuitively figure out what shapes and shades denote what meaning. The only thing I could say I would like changed is to give users the ability to make the map full screen so they can explore more thoroughly and immerse themselves in the maps they generate. The text is out of the way, which I said was a plus to limit clutter, but without being able to enlarge the map that also can make the information small and hard to read on occassion, especially when dealing with large data sets from an entire region as opposed to a single port.


This is, I would argue, the best feature of this website. The mapping feature of the Transatlantic Slave Database does not simply provide a static map, a simple overlay of two maps, or a map that can be zoomed in on and moved around. Instead this extensive system allows the user to manipulate data inputs, controlling which countries, sites of import/export, and dates are shown. This not only aids researchers in tailoring the visualization to their specific research range, but to casual observers encourages experimentation to try different combinations and see how over time and place the slave trade changed in scale and nature (which is ultimately one of the goals of the project).


The map alone is helpful, but the mapping features of this website are truly useful because they can be used in conjunction with the rest of the website’s features and complement the overall goal of the project perfectly. As a visualization tool the map is very effective, but it cannot convey all of the information which the site has at its disposal. Imagine if you will a researcher looking to narrow their broad research topic to a specific locale. Utilizing the map, they can track where specific countries import and export from, and then can go to the website’s other resources to find more specific information about names, individual ships, and statistics that is relevant to their research. The map is a great place to start, but also fantastic to include in presentations to help audiences visualize your research as well.

Research Today and Tomorrow

A complaint often laid at the feet of newer generations – to some extent my own and more frequently those born after 2000 – is that simply do not remember facts any more. Instead, they rely heavily on the internet to find everything and retain nothing. I can personally attest that for some people, this is in fact the case. When I was younger and did not have ready access to a computer, my memory was much stronger than it is now. I rely heavily on electronic calendars, otherwise forgetting important appointments, and do not remember half of the historic dates and names which I once could have. To a certain degree, I believe that self-control and training to reign in this over-reliance is not only good but necessary.

However, our brains are electrical impulses, as are computers. Metaphorically, it is possible to see the growth of reliance on the internet and digitized data as a direct extension of our own mental storage capacity, as we have ready access to it whenever we need if there is a cell phone on hand, just as we have ready access to our memories. Digital scholarship, then, is a sort of hard drive our brains can tap into when our natural storage capacity is limited. In keeping with the metaphor, over-reliance on the digital mediums is saving everything to an external hard drive while keeping the computer itself almost bare with the exception of essential software functionalities and processing power.

One of the major flaws of this “external hard drive” model is oversight. Having access to information does not guarantee its accuracy, and without the ability to effectively research false information will lead to false impressions and misunderstandings. This is a sentiment expressed in Cohen and Rosenzweig’s “No Computer Left Behind” article, and also addressed by arguing that the “aggregate” amount of information is true and will override “in aggregate” the false websites. Given the current political climate and success of hate-based organizations during the electronic era I am not entirely sold on this explanation, however. And even if most people would find the correct information, is it right to leave the others behind adrift in back-channels of misinformation?

There is also the problem with my metaphor – I claim that processing power remains with the human brain and is not handled externally. Google, search engines, recommended tabs, etc. – these functionalities make research generally easier, but also remove elements of a human’s processing power and organizational agency in crafting the final work. Researchers are directed where to go, what to look for: does this limit the pool of resources any given person will look at when researching a topic? Will it make original research ever more difficult?


Reservations about Preservation in Digital Mediums

Digital Preservation, when done right, stands to offer almost unlimited storage of digital and formerly-digital documents, websites, videos, objects, etc. If properly protected for the present and the future, digital collections offer the opportunity to not only to preserve objects but also display and make available these resources for wider audiences. “When done right,” however, is a lot to ask, especially with digital preservation practices still being developed and debated. Digital preservation in its current state presents just as many difficulties as opportunities.

For one, the transfer of analog records to digital is currently inaccurate, and depending on your stance may never be sufficient. While 3D modeling is becoming progressively cheaper and more accurate, many historians maintain that preservation of the original document or object will outclass the digital version regardless of quality. There are certain elements of an object – its physicality, dimensions, texture, coloration, etc. – which are not translated well onto digital platforms and which are not always but sometimes of use to historians and researchers, and the import of these features is not always immediately evident.

There also remains the issue of protecting digital collections, especially when it comes to authenticity and longevity. Without proper encryption, documents online can be fairly easy to manipulate or delete, which presents significant problems if the documents are not backed-up or stored properly.  Preservation is, in a perfect situation, meant to last for as long as humans can find use in the preserved object, document, etc. This is impossible, and so pains are taken to maintain the subject’s integrity for both the foreseeable future and beyond. With digital collections, if improperly maintained, files can become corrupted and information lost as a result. The destruction of physical storage (servers, external hard-drives, etc.) over time also threatens digital preservation as a viable preservation technique on its own.

There is also the matter of funding. Finding the money to hire employees willing to scan or transcribe documents, have the training necessary to operate special equipment for the digital recreation of 3D objects, etc. can be incredibly expensive, not to mention the acquisition of relevant technology. Digital preservation in this respect is coming closer to practicality, as the technology required to execute many of these projects and the storage space to contain large files is rapidly improving. However, for high-quality pictures and renders of objects the price remains relatively high, especially for smaller institutions or projects independent of a well-off institution with an investment in their history/archaeology programs.

There are efforts to make digital preservation more reliable. Through the proper maintenance and formatting of metadata and coding in these digital archives, especially making these formats interrelated and compatible for easy transferal and inspection of archives both at the coding and surface levels, subjects preserved digitally can be entered with minimal loss of relevant information and made acceptable to anyone with a knowledge of the format (ex. Dublin Core).


“Born Digital”

It is only natural for preservationists and historians to be skeptical of projects which are “born digital” and never make a transition to analog resources. It presents a drastic shift in how historians think about resources and what it means to preserve information and objects. It also comes with a number of significant drawbacks and challenges, first and foremost the manipulation of data which can take place in online formats that are not sufficiently protected or maintained. However, there are some online archive projects which I believe demonstrate just how useful and worthwhile “born digital” content can be.

The April 16th Archive is a project organized by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and preserves the memory of the “Virginia Tech Massacre,” which took place on their campus in 2007. The site is filled with primarily images but also some text sources which relate to the event itself but primarily memorials and memory of the event. The site if frankly not very well constructed. Powered by Omeka, many of the entries do not contain any actual items, text or images and entries are too frequently riddled with random strings of gibberish that presumably are files someone tried to import but which were not translated. The website stands as a testament to “born digital archives” not in execution but in theory. This site stands as a testament to community-oriented and immediate collection of resources for preservation. Especially in emergency situations and the immediate aftermath, preservation of materials is difficult to do. By creating what is effectively a crowd-sourced archive that affords community members – those who have the most stock in the preservation of memory concerning the shooting – the opportunity to contribute and aid historians. Things which would otherwise not be preserved – primarily signs and the ever-ephemeral impromptu memorial – live on at least in photographs through archiving projects of this nature. The major drawback in this regard is quality – quantity may not be lacking, but the people taking these photographs do not have high resolution cameras not the intent to preserve, for example, the name of every last person written on a memorial wall. Therefore, information is still lost and the archive is still insufficient compared to a coordinated archiving project with the necessary equipment and skills.

The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank suffers from similar issues. The website contains many useful images, but oral histories and videos simply redirect the viewer to other sites and are not available directly. This website does something differently from the April 16 Archives, which is in my opinion neither good nor bad but different. Where the community gets to comment on and preserve the tragedy indirectly by donating what is important to them in the former, the latter provides the opportunity for contributors to directly comment on and provide personal accounts on submitted objects. While in most archives no such personal account would be directly attached to the resource, the purpose of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank is, as the name suggests, to preserve memory: that is, not only scenes from the natural disaster but how it and the aftermath was experienced by those directly affected and those who came to aid. Again, this project would be nearly impossible to organized on such a scale without the use of crowd-sourced, born-digital content creation.

Digitization Projects

Digitization projects – of both primary and secondary sources – is an undeniably useful yet difficult to successfully recreate enterprise. Some of the more readily available resources come in the form of Google Books and the Open Content Alliance. Both of these resources have considerable collections but a presented very differently. Google Books is less efficiently managed with no efficient way to browse the collection other than searching, which limits researchers unless they know exactly what they are looking for. The Open Content Alliance’s arrangement is more conducive to exploration by providing a search function but also readily accessible tags, topics and collections to comb through.

The greatest threat and asset to digitization efforts is the oft-criticized pay wall.  Through the acquisition of funds, digitization efforts continue.  A project on this scale requires not just volunteer but paid and trained staff, as well as special tools and facilities. Donations alone cannot fund such an enterprise, and the most effective way to acquire funds on websites of these kinds is through a) advertisement and b) the pay wall for certain books. Google Books does not face this issue so much having come from such a large corporation, though notably most digitized books do have certain page-ranges missing that can only be acquired by purchasing the book. Despite this much of the collection remains useful to a wider audience. Same with the Open-Content Alliance, though their collections are also more niche and involves partnering with larger institutions to facilitate the display of their texts. These two projects were intentionally built with accessibility in mind however, but the third site I looked at and which many will be familiar with is JSTOR.

As libraries and archives go, JSTOR is an essential tool for tracking down what you need among “more than 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources in 75 disciplines” (as per their website).  While primarily for secondary sources, it does provide journal articles and texts from pre-digital publications and therefore has to make many of the same considerations. JSTOR is as successful as it is because institutions and individuals alike rely on the service they provide, and pay for access to their articles. For many historians, both “amateur” and working outside of academic institutions (smaller museums, historic sites, and community organizations) are often barred from these resources due to significant fees.

I am not the first to call out JSTOR and similar service providers for the steep price of access to historical documents, but the larger conversation is much larger and more complicated. Just as historical institutions cannot exist without funding or visitation, so can digitization efforts not exist without funds to either digitize existing historical documents or pay third parties for access to such documents.

Timeline Test: Not as Easy as I Expected

Timeline Found Here!

A quick word about the production of this timeline: it may be incomplete at the time you are reading this. I will continue to improve and work on the timeline before Tuesday in-class and will update the post as well. This does present opportunities to discuss Timeline.JS as an accessible tool however. It is impressive how quality graphics can be produced relatively easily using a google document, text and hyperlinks. I noticed that editing the minute details of the system is difficult however. Primarily the difficulty I am currently facing is the adaptation of pictures into a format readable by the program. Many of my resources, in the interest of remaining copyright-neutral, came from Wikimedia Commons but do not appear in the final product. I will strive to seek out new photos, but I do think this poses something of an issue that Timeline.JS cannot adapt to other formats easily. Those images taken from Flickr also come with the text that content producer attached to the text and displays it, which also squashes the image. This is difficult to navigate, though given how useful the tool can be perhaps worth the headache in lieu of another option.

Timelines are and incredibly useful tool to use for broad audiences in a number of contexts. Provided with educational materials it can help teachers to reinforce material and provide easy-to-follow information for students. People in general understand their world and lives chronologically, so arranging information in this way is inherently useful. It also, used appropriately, can demonstrate that property most often attributed to history – “change over time.” Making a timeline of one city, one person, one event can show how the event plays out, devolves, evolves, etc.

Perhaps just as important is the ability to make connections through the use of overlapping events. On larger timelines that can encompass entire eras or conflicts, showing which events are happening simultaneously or in the immediate vicinity of one another provides are visual cue that these are connected and can lead to deeper understandings. A tool that I think could improve this functionality is a simple line tool which can draw a literal connection between two events along the timeline, and by clicking on the line the consumer could explore how those events are related more closely.

While the timeline suggests a linear guide, I like how Timeline.JS has formatted the interface so that hypertextuality and the opportunity for exploration are not lost. It is important for guests to be able to narrow their focus to improve their personal engagement with the tool, and in the hypothetical situation in which a tool like this is employed on a museum or educational website this is key to tailoring visitor experiences to their own interests while providing opportunities to grow.

Two Websites: A Review

Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation

This site is very easy to navigate and provides a wide variety of content. The homepage is laid out with links throughout the site to online versions of exhibits (permanent and temporary) though these are unfortunately mostly bare and do not provide significant content for online visitors. It is exclusively meant as a textual introduction to what the exhibit is about and works under the assumption that you will visit the museum proper, limiting what those interested in the museum can glean the further away they live.

The site provides easy and up-to-date access to events taking place through the museum, including exhibit openings and musical performances. The website’s focus is almost entirely on a local audience, though there are some resources of which internet-only visitors can take advantage.

While not extensive, the site does provide high quality pictures and interpretation of select items from the permanent collection, some of which are accompanied by videos explaining and demonstrating how the machine functions.

Some of the finer points of the website include these short, well-produced video clips, the accessibility of relevant information concerning goings-on at the property, and a page dedicated to showing off visitor photographs of site materials. This last one in particular is a great idea though I fear it may be too exclusive as many of these photos appear professional.  Showing amateur photographer’s efforts would be more inclusive and provide a greater variety of perspectives. Most of the shot compositions and subjects are also similar, and it would be interesting to see what an average visitors focuses on in their space. Events could even be hosted to encourage these activities with social media and tagging tie-ins.

Martin Van Buren National Historical Site

After my recent visit to the Martin Van Buren (MAVA) National Historical Site which thoroughly impressed me, I wanted to review their online offerings to see if they were equally impressive. Compared to the Charles River Museum the MAVA site has a LOT more interpretive material, but it is less intuitive to get to, hidden in vaguely worded tabs (which are, to be fair, the categories common to all NPS websites).

The offerings specific to the website are much more plentiful however, providing ample resources and information pertaining to the park site and but tailored for online consumption.

There is also a “Virtual tour” of the site which is in desperate need of reworking. On a technical level it works well and even integrates some well-implemented functions like a “mini-map” that shows where in the house you are currently touring. The interpretation is also solid, but not in keeping with new developments described by Pat West at MAVA, not including many of the new interpretations of slavery, domestic service and agriculture I was introduced to in my recent tour of the physical site. The pictures themselves are also grainy and are pretty small, so while I applaud the idea it needs serious improvement.

The White House has an app (other than Twitter)

The White House History Association has created an app for iPhone and Android which provides tours and historic context for the grounds; not just for people in D.C. either, but for anyone interested  in learning more about the historic site.

There are three tours offered through the app: one of the White House itself, One of the Neighborhood surrounding the White House, and another to be used while on an in-person tour of the estate. These resources are incredibly extensive and easy to access. On top of providing the visitor with good interpretive material on the location pulled up on screen, it also provides “Points of Interest” including high resolution photographs of portraits, statues, etc. that can be found in that location (along with more information about its maker and significance). It paints a vivid picture (thought I think more, larger photos of the areas in question would benefit the app) of the area itself and communicates its importance, even for audiences who are not physically in the capital. As for the third tour, its resources are similar to the first but engineered for someone who is present, so I do not feel I should pass judgement on it unless given the opportunity to use the app in person.

The “Events” page is noticeably bare, meaning the White House History Association either holds events very rarely (the last listed event on the calendar was January 8th, 2018) or no longer updates the app.

The “Maps” tab is a mixed bag. The outdoor map is really smooth and helpful for exploring the area around the White House, especially where there is a corresponding “White House Neighborhood Walking Tour.” The map of the White House, however, is only useful when used alongside the White House tour, and you cannot have both open at once. An indoor map of the White House is rendered useless without historical context or an explanation of what events, historical or contemporary, happen in which wings/rooms, which is provided through a separate tab in the app instead of being integrated more effectively.

For a bit of fun, there is also a function (in collaboration with Amazon for the use of their recognition software) which allows you to find out which President and/or First Lady you most look like. My results after a few pictures gave me a match of 18% for George Washington and John Adams, and 22-26% for Rachel Jackson. For all of the extensive information the app provides, having a nice, quick diversion is a good way to get people into the app and experience despite the lack of longevity inherent its design (and the low match percentages which seem to be prevalent).

Hidden in the menus are external links to the White House History Shop and WHHA Digital Library. The shop is fairly self-explanatory and while it would be nice to include in-app not necessary, and the Digital Library is extensive enough where including it in-app is unrealistic, though in my opinion there should be a “highlights” feature or select collections posted in the app more visibly to encourage users to explore.

Overall this app is not just a great diversion but an interesting, effective tool for better understanding White House history which the WHHA has put out.