Monthly Archives: October 2014

If It Feels Wrong, Copyright

Thanks for Sharing.
Thanks for Sharing.

Historians deal with copyright frequently. Sources are often old, and it’s hard to find out who a particular photograph or recording belongs to. But it is important to give credit where it is due because as Wikipedia puts it, “food and housing cost money; so authors, directors, painters, photographers, poets and other creators must find other jobs to support themselves if they can’t get compensated for their creative work.” But surely that doesn’t mean you. explains in less than eloquent terms why taking something and slapping it on your blog is at best, terrible, but also, sorta illegal. Doctrow feels that “there’s nothing moral about paying a composer tuppence for the piano-roll rights, there’s nothing immoral about not paying Hollywood for the right to videotape a movie off your TV,” but Mark Helprin points out that ” in Jefferson’s era 95 percent of the population drew its living from the land. Writers and inventors were largely those who obtained their sustenance from their patrimony or their mills; their writings or improvements to craft were secondary. No one except perhaps Hamilton or Franklin might have imagined that services and intellectual property would become primary fields of endeavor and the chief engines of the economy. Now they are, and it is no more rational to deny them equal status than it would have been to confiscate farms, ropewalks and other forms of property in the 18th century.”

So we get that it’s wrong. We understand that people’s livelihoods depend on the public paying for their intellectual property… But we also really want to use their stuff for free. I think educators are incredibly guilty of this. It’s so easy to open up YouTube and search for documentaries on any given subject. You don’t have to order them, pay for them, or walk all the way to the library for them. But the people who worked on those documentaries will never know that you watched it, nor will they receive a cent for you and the classroom of 50 who watch your documentary on Pompeii. I have struggled with this issue all throughout my schooling, because I feel very strongly that credit should be given to the creators of works you appreciate, and educators seem to love YouTube. I fully understand a short clip to make a point, but a full-length documentary should never be shown. Besides breaking the law, you run into quality issues and ads. I recently had to watch a documentary in a class about the Industrial Revolution that the instructor could apparently only find in pieces, and so we watched it in 15 minute increments, complete with ads before some sections. Just drop the $20 on the documentary, already! The same instructor showed a documentary on Alexander the Great where the quality was so awful, the narrator was simply a flesh-colored block in a blocky red sweater. If you’re relying on these creators to make up 3-4 hours of your lecture time each week, you should feel obliged to pay them for their part in advancing your career.

The other issue that interests me, similar to Creative Commons laws, are artists who willingly give their art up, and where that falls legally. The TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to encourage fans to “Keep Circulating Those Tapes!” Now, while they’ve more recently explained what specifically they meant by that, and that making copies is still illegal, there was a time when this was more encouraged.

As law struggles to keep up with newer and better technology that makes copying and sharing easier, how will artists protect their works, and how will historians continue to write about history without breaking the law? More importantly, how will historians teach about history without breaking the law?



Dilution of Shared Culture: Is Crowdsourcing the Solution?

As a culture, we have become increasingly more fragmented. We can look at Television, Film, Music, and even the News to see this happening. In a time where a shared experience has become seeing more than one of your friends post the same article on Facebook, is it possible that Crowdsourcing projects such as the Library of Congress entering Flickr are attempts by our society to get back some of that shared experience?

If you look at Television, you can see the experience change from a few channels, where everyone who owned a TV would have seen most of the same shows begin to slowly shift over decades away from that shared entertainment. Cable came, and soon viewers had a few dozens of channels to choose from, but still remained united by staple viewing events like TGIF and Saturday Morning Cartoons. After satellite entered the mainstream, people had multiple feeds of channels, small niche channels, and international channels available to them. They no longer had to watch Boy Meets World simply because it was the only thing on. Shortly after that, DVR made it possible for people to record shows at the same quality that they were originally broadcast in, allowing yet a further step away from shared experience. Now, streaming sources such as Netflix and Hulu allow for a viewer to watch shows years after they have ended their run. I personally only have Netflix and Hulu+, and so cannot really share the live experience of television with my peers anymore. It has changed from a completely shared experience to one that is mostly personal. I’m only on season 4 of Walking Dead, and so cannot talk to people that have AMC about the show, because they are a season ahead of me.

Movies have had a different path but with many of the same results. Movies went to being a very short term event in a town, where you might only have a few showings before that particular movie moved on to the next theater, so everyone would watch it collectively in one town in just a few showings.  Soon more copies of movies allowed for longer stays in each town, spreading that shared experience out over weeks instead of days. When VHS arrived, people no longer had to go to the theater at all. They could buy or rent a movie on their own time, and watch it alone, in their own home. Today, Netflix gives you access to a huge database of online movies, some you may have never heard of yet. Additionally, YouTube allows you to watch clips from nearly every movie, which could help you understand an “in joke” from a movie without ever having to sit through it.

I don't need to watch it.
I don’t need to watch it.

Music has probably taken the biggest hit. When you had a radio, you could only listen to a song when the station played it, and you shared that playlist with everyone in your area. Records allowed you to choose only certain artists to listen to. Cassettes brought portability, and the Walkman. Your media now existed only for your ears only. CDs introduced the ability to listen to specific tracks, over and over with no effort. Music’s final steps were to move online, where iTunes allowed you to only buy single songs, instead of paying for a whole album. Pandora, Songza, and other “music curators” give us unlimited streaming music designed to our unique tastes. If you don’t like a song, simply hit the “thumbs down” and you’ll never hear it again. Finally YouTube once again, allows us to search for nearly any song in existence and listen to it for free. It has also brought to our lives many artists who were discovered on YouTube. Justin Bieber, Lana Del Ray, and Psy are just a few artist who owe their fame to YouTube.

Thanks, Internet.

Even the news has stopped being a shared cultural experience. We’ve come through local newspapers, radio, and television reporting on national events to several stations, all of which are accused of some bias or another. Online, you can get only the news you want, if you choose to get any at all. You can get your news from the networks’ sites, or sites of varying integrity and talent. Gawker, Huffington Post, 5 Things You Should At Least Pretend To Know Today, and the Onion are all sources citizens get their news from online.


So my argument is this: Is crowdsourcing an attempt to get back this shared experience? Is Mr Lick This trying desperately to prove he is a part of the conversation, like that friend in the 90s who could simply say, “Rachel’s hot. I’d do her,” While the rest of you were discussing The One Where Rachel Finds Out?

Mise en scene

Never Forget.
Never Forget.

Quite a bit of our time has been spent discussing the many merits or faults in digitizing history. It is indeed a debate that, at least among the historical community, still rages on. But what this feels like to me is spending so much time debating film versus VHS versus BetaMax. While it’s an important discussion to have a first, I’m ready to get to meatier issues. I think a lot of these debates will be settled shortly in favor of various digital formats. Technologies such as Google Books will continue to improve, and it will be time to stop worrying about whether or not scanned books are a legitimate source for research, and we can get back to studying the things that interest us most.

As we discuss various techniques for design and  How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell, it might be time to go back to the beginning and ask, “Do I have something to say? Is there a story here?” All the flash animations and pyrotechnics on the internet won’t help you if you don’t have a strong idea and realistic characters.

It takes a whole production team to make a successful movie, and it’s going to take more than one person to make a successful digital history project. Instead of reading text books that will tell us what fonts to use and encourage us to become fluent in html, perhaps it’s more useful to think of yourself as the director of your project. If you were making a movie, you would hire a cinematographer, and a separate editor and not find this unusual. Why should your digital history project be any different? You would still have creative control, but it should be totally expected that you bring on people that have a specific eye toward design when you might not.

And this is where I think the really conflict is for historians. Filmmakers have been going through this on a fairly regular basis since Train Pulling Into a Station premiered in 1895: As the equipment and resources get less expensive and easier to use, people who were not necessarily trained in the field become able to create. This can be amazing. Suddenly, people who are passionate about history are able to find rare books in Google Books and articles on the internet, and even without the funding of a university or backing of a museum, they are able to become historians. Innovations are made by people from other backgrounds. Of course for every Citizen Kane (Written, Directed, and Starring Orson Welles, who had no formal film training), there are plenty of Manos: The Hands of Fate (Written, Directed, and Starring Harold P. Warren, a salesman who made Manos on a bet. It is largely considered one of the worst movies ever made.)

Your website could go either way.

But is is worth stumbling upon several Manos before you find the Kane in the digital history field? I personally think it’s time to let amateur historians enter this new medium with us. They could being new skills and new ways of looking at the world, and perhaps truly change the way historians practice their art.

All About That Stuff, No Treble

Established Historians today are faced with a problem that might seem new to and disconcerting: the feeling that there is too much information. Author and historian Ann M Blair points out that this feeling actually accompanies any advances in information and communication technology. While it may be true that medieval scholars were also frustrated by the inundation of books, what can historians today do to ease their suffering? Continue reading All About That Stuff, No Treble

Defining Digital History

Staying current and relevant will be one of the biggest and most constant hurdles for historians in the digital age. As we saw this week, many online exhibits are quickly become antiquated to the point of obsolescence.


The Valley of the Shadow site boast one of the earliest copyrighted online exhibits, begun in 1997, but the way we experience the internet has changed vastly since even the most recent date given, 2007. Websites need to be navigable, sharable, and interactive. The Valley of the Shadow offers none of these amenities. When exploring the site, it is easy to become lost in the many rooms and chambers. The site is searchable, but not easily. There is a no search bar on the first page, only if you first click into a room. If you were not sure of the exact date of what you were searching for, this would be a frustrating task, searching all three rooms. Some rooms are only accessible if you know what you are looking for already. The images warn that the full size pictures may take “several minutes” to load. Today, they appear instantly, proving once again that the site is many years outdated. While of course, you can copy the link in the address bar and paste it in an email or your Facebook status bar or download a browser plugin for sharing, websites today can make this easier by putting social media buttons on every page. Lastly, the Valley of the Shadow is distinctly missing a comments section anywhere on the site. This truly makes the sire feel dated. Where are the historians discussing battle maps with passion, comparing each other to Hitler?
Remember what most visitors are coming to your site for.

Another struggle for the modern historian entering the digital plane is the desire to define Digital History. The problem with this discussion is that historians are focusing on the medium, rather than the material. If you are utilizing digitization methods to experience history, you are participating in Digital History. The focus should be on the content and its accessibility rather than if it fits all possible definitions of Digital History. Some historians expressed this feeling, such as Amanda French is the Debates in the Digital Humanities, who when asked to define Digital History responded, “I don’t: I’m sick of trying to define it. When forced to, I’ll make the referent to the people instead of the ideas or methods–Digital Humanities is the thing practiced by people who self-identify as Digital Humanists.” However, many historians are bogged down by the desire to define Digital History.

I hope that historians will settle into the digital era and become more community-based. The more materials that are available and easily accessible online, the more opportunities everyone will have to learn.

Lastly, I will leave you with some images from editor’s recent video, 4 U.S Presidents Who Put Action Movies to Shame. I’m putting this up and linking to the video because I want to know how everyone feels about history being presented in this manner. Obviously it’s not aimed at an academic audience. is a humor website. But 97,472 people have watched this 8 minute video about presidents. Dan O’brien who wrote and narrated the video has written a book about U.S. presidents and his articles and videos are well researched. I just wanted to find out everyone’s thoughts on more pop cultural presentations of history.

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