Archives, architecture, data, provenance

From the Society of American Archivists:

Provenance is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.

I once heard a (possibly apocryphal) story about an archive that required that a mummified bird that had been found in a box of documents remain there, because it was part of the original collection and consequently had to be preserved.  The story mightn’t be true, but I like it because it reminds us of a central tenet of archival management – that the original organization of things is paramount.

This comes up because I was talking about ideal sources in my (mostly) senior seminar the other day.  My students have a final paper due in the form of a proposal, for which they’ll have to include a detailed discussion of the types of sources  that will best enable them to answer their historical question, where those sources can be found, and how they’ll be used.  I asked my students to quickly describe their ideal sources – not the ones they knew exist, but the ones they hope exist.  A surprising number went straight for digitized sources they were comfortable with – the Virtual Jamestown Project, 19th century American newspapers, or the LOC’s American Memory collection.  After four years at Davidson, these students were so used to the readily available digitized sources, that they hadn’t even stopped to consider what ideal sources would look like.  In light of this self-selection, we got to talking about how digital collections are put together, and then about how physical collections are put together.  While many had used brick-and-mortar archives, and all had used digital ones, few had any idea of the information architecture of either.

The exchange convinced me that any historical methods class I teach in future must include a discussion of archival planning – of both the principles that help shape, for instance, Catherine Mulholland’s collection of her (much maligned) grandfather’s papers, and those that shape Gale’s ever expanding collections.  The former is intended to aggrandize a player in California’s water wars, the later to make sources available and to make money.  Neither of these are inherently bad, but they do shape the archives that are created.  Perhaps one of my favorite examples of the uneven development of digital archives comes from Dublin.  The major nationalist newspapers of the 19th century have long had online presences, not so much for the Unionist newspaper, which still languishes only in microfilm form in the Irish National Library, since fewer scholars, genealogists or interested novices are that interested in the musings of a paper which basically spoke for the English ascendancy in Ireland.

I love the opportunities that digital archives provide us, but I think that I also need to start explicitly teaching best practices for the creation of those archives, and spend time cultivating a critical eye towards their utility.  A student might be forgiven for, for example, focusing on sources that are readily available, but without understanding the structural conditions that underlie that availability, they miss something important about historical research and about digital culture today.

These are a few of my favorite maps

I’m putting together an aspirational syllabus for a digital humanities/mapping course, and have been thinking about my favorite maps, and why they work so well.  Here is a very-not-complete list of my current greatest hits:

Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: a cartographic narrative.

This is, by far, my favorite digital mapping project.  I’ve seen Vincent Brown speak on it, and I was quite impressed by his articulation of why we need a map like this to understand enslaved rebellion.  Because records of these uprisings tend to have been produced by ruling elites who were actively opposed to representing enslaved resistance as anything other than barbarous and futile, it would be easy to think that this uprising – and many others like it – were haphazard and poorly planned.  Brown’s map, on the other hand, reads the colonial archives against the grain to show us the strategy that underlay this revolt.  I love that he uses sources in which obscuring enslaved agency is a feature rather than a bug to highlight that agency.

Touring the Fire

A little less high tech, but still a great example of how a geospatial perspective can give us new, or at least different information about an historical event.  One of the persistent fictions about the Chicago fire is the culpability of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, so it’s interesting to see how the fire spread, but also to treat the path of the fire like a walking tour, and to map it onto Chicago’s geography today.

London Soundmap

This is just ridiculously cool (and reminds me of a book I just finished about London’s underground rivers).  It borrows aesthetically from the iconic tube maps, but instead of information about subways gives us the sound of underground waterways.  There are some other great soundmaps on this site, including ambient London noise, the sound of the Thames estuary, and a handy map of the most common sounds in different parts of the city.  The whole thing is worth exploring.

While we’re talking about aural mapping…

Here’s a project which uses immigration data to create a true aural map of changes in American demography over time.

And finally, everything NOAA does, but especially their geospatial services.

Now it’s all about convincing the undergraduates that maps are cool…

Alternative assignments

I’ve been talking and thinking a lot recently about the work that written assignments do – especially for students like many of mine this semester, who are in their last semester of college (and possibly their last history course ever).  One of my colleagues structures his upper level seminar around a publishable paper, which is an idea I wish I’d seriously considered before finalizing my syllabi for this semester.  Students who are in his class as well as mine seem much more excited about writing something that others might see than they are in producing yet another term paper that will reside forever (or until hard drive failure) on their professors’ computers, to be seen by no one else.

In some ways, the blogging assignments (I wish I could share the course blogs – they’re really fantastic this semester) straddle that public/private divide in a profitable way.  Students don’t post under their full names, and the blogs aren’t indexed, but they still exist on the internet if you have the url.  I don’t have any hard data on this, but I really do think that the writing in these kinds of forums is better than that posted (often at the last minute) to a Moodle or Blackboard forum.  I’m also really pleased with how well the requirement that students link to or reference something that someone else has written is playing out.  Sometimes these are pretty loose connections – a theme raised by a student last week might resonate with a student writing a response this week – but in both my disasters and survey classes these past weeks, really robust and thoughtful debates have developed on the blogs – it’s great to see the pedagogical aims that have heretofore resided mostly in my head make their way onto the – digital – page.

The final paper for the disasters course is meant to be a project proposal – which is a really useful exercise, doing particular pedagogical work, for underclasspeople.  As they conceptualize senior projects, they’ll have to frame and defend it theoretically, and I feel pretty good about the skills that students learn in this assignment transitioning into other assignments for other classes, and other tasks after college.  But for those few seniors in this class, I’m toying with the idea of offering alternative assignments.  I was thinking, for instance, that they might reach out to digital disaster museums (like the Johnstown Flood or Chicago Fire Museums) to see if they could use additional commentary or articles, to give the students who won’t be going on to craft research proposals a different outlet for their work.

I also love teaching with historical fiction – but that’s probably best left to another day.

Batkid, suffering strangers and distant philanthropy

Peter Singer has a great article in the Washington Post that begins with the public outpouring for Batkid, and why people are more likely to give to something like the Make-A-Wish foundation than they are to organizations that provide sleeping nets in regions with malaria, or treatment for diseases that are treatable in the United States but often deadly elsewhere, before turning to the United States’ complicity in global poverty:

People who get money as a gift are likely to be more willing to give it away than those who do not receive this unexpected bounty. Nevertheless, the “giving experiment” shows not only that many Americans would like to help the global poor but also that they are genuinely happy to do so. All they need is the knowledge to be able to do so effectively.

I’ll leave others to take on this last point – though I think that structural poverty and inequality are an outcome of reduced foreign spending by the U.S. government, I imagine most Americans would balk at being accused of desiring global poverty (and I think that making the link between the one and the other was one of the central points of this article.)

But, I was more interested in an earlier claim, that

The answer [to why we focus on Batkid rather than helping unknown multitudes] lies, at least in part, in those above-mentioned emotions, which, as psychological research shows, make the plight of a single identifiable individual much more salient to us than that of a large number of people we cannot identify.


[T]he unknown and unknowable children who will be infected with malaria without bed nets just don’t grab our emotions like the kid with leukemia we can watch on TV. That is a flaw in our emotional make-up, one that developed over millions of years when we could help only people we could see in front of us. It is not justification for ignoring the needs of distant strangers.

Rhetorically, I absolutely agree with him.  It’s easier to make a case about the utility of a donation when you focus on one story rather than generalities – and studies bear this out.  I’m not as convinced that we can axiomatically make the jump from particular > general to proximate > far.  In the nineteenth century, I’ve found that distant philanthropy was very attractive precisely because donors could imagine the best results of their donations.  (It also had a lot – and I think more – to do with the ways in which distant philanthropy was more suited to political framing.  It’s much easier to say that the Irish famine is really about the abuse of centralized power, and therefore a good paralell for the Wilmot Proviso, for example, when the donors – in this case, Southern slave owners – were removed from the particularities of the crisis by several thousand miles)  But I don’t see this as a fundamental “flaw in our emotional makeup” – a phrase which suggests that people (in Singer’s case, Americans) are unable to imagine, or even appropriate the suffering of distant strangers.  A long history of international and institutional philanthropy undermines his somewhat absolute claim.  In the case that I study, thousands of people with no connection to Ireland gave over one million dollars.  The same can be said of other nineteenth-century causes, and with the advent of the Red Cross in the late nineteenth century, donors weren’t even giving to a particular set of suffering strangers, but to the relief of distant victims broadly.

So if not from the research, and not from the history of philanthropy, from where does Singer’s conflation of distance and particularity come?  He uses two examples from NPR callers, one woman who refused to donate money to overseas causes, because she couldn’t be sure her money would help someone, and another whose experiences in Haiti prompted her to give because she had been able to see exactly how far very small (for most Americans) donations would go.  This seems less about distance to me than it does about the specific versus the general (this whole topic is also informed by how Americans value the lives of different people, a determination often inflected by race, gender and class), but I was also struck by the fact that I have never come across a famine donor anxious about how their money was being spent.  Some of the people who gave to Irish famine relief also gave to help the Irish Revolution of 1848, and many of those donors wrote frequently and at great length about their hopes that money would go to particular people or aims (guns vs. revolutionary literature, for example) – but in the case of famine fundraising, which began in 1845 and continued into 1852, I have not found a single instance of anxiety about fraud.  And while some appeals told stories of individual sufferers, most appeals for Irish aid describe misery in very general terms – emphasizing the extent of distress and widespread scarcity rather than the fact that a donation could save one Irish child.

Certainly, philanthropy has changed between the nineteenth century and today, but I’m struck by the fact that the kind of proximate, paternalist charity that Singer says is – and always has been – the philanthropic norm, was absolutely typical of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century charity, but was radically disrupted by market, print and transportation revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century.

A new (to me) take on paternalism and acculturation

Another gem from the Philadelphia yearly meeting, on why Quakers were invested in Indian welfare:

“While endavouring amid many obstacles, to discharge the duties which devolve upon them, the Committee are at times encouraged by the belief, that this interesting concern, which for half a century has engaged the attention of the yearly meetings, originated in a sense of religious duty towards these poor oppressed people; and that however little may seem to have been accomplished in proportion to the time and means expended it is but discharging a debt of gratitude and love, due to the descendants of those who showed kindness to our forefathers when they were few in number and strangers in the wilderness; and that an obligation still rests upon us to lend our sympathies and our aid to them, now they have become a feeble remnant in the midst of a great nation, unable to shield themselves from the grasp of the oppressor.”

More bureaucracy

Perhaps it’s just that reading organizational records means more bureaucracy than I’m generally used to, but I’ve been intrigued by entries in the monthly meeting minutes of the Philadelphia Society of Friends that report on general levels of attendance at meetings throughout the week.  I’ve just moved on to the yearly meeting, and found that those reports were aggregated, with the conclusion “The hour is generally well observed.  All the meetings notice instances of sleeping, but in other respects little unbecoming behavior.”

Snarky bureaucracy, c. 1846

I’ve finally tracked down the files containing army correspondence relative to Fort Gibson, in Indian Territory, around the time that the Cherokee Nation raised funds for famine relief.  Many of the letters are about troop movements, but the one I’m reading now is crabby about whoever is responsible for the fort’s finances:

You are mistaken in supposing that the regulation of July 12th, 1845 went into operation at Fort Gibson only from the date of its recipt at the post (August 10th).  The Regulation, like an act of any legislature, takes effect from its date.


The explanation in reference to the large amount paid for garden seeds is not entirely satisfactory.


There are lots of reasons to be leery of MOOCs, but I very much enjoyed the information visualization MOOC run out of Indiana University last year.  The visualization I helped produce is previewed here, under case study #5.  I spearheaded the mapping part of the project, and proposed the color model we ended up using in which different hues represented different changes in publication rates between two periods.  Nice to see it in (almost) print!

Classroom RPGs

As we near the Thanksgiving break, and as my students get increasingly stressed about final papers and exams, I’ve tried to lighten up (mostly Thursday) classes with role playing exercises.  It can be a bit of a gamble, since they rely so much on the students really committing to personifying historical characters, but so far it’s been quite a bit of fun – even if one of my students did call me on the worksheet I gave them as prep being quite close to a D&D character creation sheet!  In the U.S. survey, I used this prompt:

Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams and David Wilmot find themselves snatched out of time and deposited in a bar.  They get to talking about whether it was a good thing to annex Mexico and California.  What do they say?

For 4:00 on a Thursday, my students embraced the roll playing more than I’d expected.  Aspersions were cast against Polk and Wilmot, and Calhoun’s perspective was even delivered in accent.  It’s sometimes hard in larger classes to get group work right – sometimes the groups are too big for everyone to participate fully, and if they’re too small we spend a lot of time at the end letting each one speak – but I’m feeling pretty good about this flavor of activity, even if it does lead to some jokes about dark elves, charisma points and magic missiles.

Sleepy Hollow continues to be weird

My students asked today for a Sleepy Hollow update – which I wasn’t fully prepared to give.  After they found the Lost Colony of Roanoke (on a magic island in the Hudson Valley, no less), I had sort of given up on the show.  I caught up tonight – and it continues to be terrible, but in some rather odd ways.

For one, some officers of the British army are also demons, which takes the moralization of American history that the show has been doing all along to new and strange places.  The premise is that Washington and a band of good guys was tasked with protecting the world from evil (via the British), so perhaps its not surprising that the writers decided to literally demonize British officers.  Nevertheless, it seems like a very literal way to make the point that Americans were the good guys in this fight, and the British were the bad guys.

The second sort of bizarre thing was that Ichabod’s wife, the witch, who was burnt at the stake in 1782 (she wasn’t really killed, but not because there weren’t witch trials in the late 18th century) is first introduced to Ichabod as a Quaker nurse.  It’s not clear if she was also a witch at that point – but it struck me as odd that her Quakerness and witchyness seemed so easily integrable.  I’m not an historian of religion, but it seems like the writers might have surmised that since Quakerism today allows a fair amount of latitude in terms of religious practice, perhaps 18th century Quakerism did too.  It does, though, seem like a very marginalizing move, to cast Quakers as insufficiently religiously serious to object to one among them also being a witch.

Finally, the witches were allied with the Freemasons, which I have no way to explain.  I’m teaching the U.S. survey again next semester, and I’m trying to figure out how to use one of these episodes in class.  With popular historical perspectives this semester – in particular Ask a Slave and the soundtrack to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – I didn’t give my students enough of a framework to talk about the sources.  They thought that Ask a Slave was funny and that Bloody Bloody was selectively accurate, and a bit vulgar, but I need to find a better way to connect the production of popular historical material to what they’re learning in class.  In the past, I’ve asked students to evaluate pop history in light of what they’ve learned in the class so far – but since we don’t get to Washington’s plantation, Andrew Jackson or the American Revolution until the middle of the course, I’m on the lookout for something that I can ask them to consider in the first few weeks, or that they can use as a jumping off point for their first set of response papers.  Perhaps the Roanoke episode of Sleepy Hollow (or, for that matter, Supernatural) might fit the bill afterall.