The Promise and Peril of using Commercial Sites for Historical Materials

Tom at FoundHistory recently posted on the layoff of one of the architects of Flickr Commons, that incredibly useful source for materials from a number of major archives and museums. Tom sees this as a moment to discuss some of his own concerns about the promise and peril of using commercial sites like Yahoo, Flickr, Second Life, and others for publishing cultural and academic resources online.

This debate is one that I’ve had both internally with myself and externally with my colleagues for several years now. No one wants to think that the time, energy, money, and resources invested in placing something valuable online is just going to go away, but the benefits of a ready-made location and user base are also clear.

It seems to me this is about balancing the ability to reach more people, often with a more polished and supported interface, with the need to protect against the risks of commercial failure and potential loss of access to data. [Although we also need to remember that just because something is hosted on the servers of an educational or cultural institution doesn’t mean it is always going to be there. “Forever” is a long time in the era of government budget cuts and rapid software change.]

Still, in the end for me it comes down to a question of whether or not an institution can get data placed in repositories like Flickr Commons back out with some relative ease (both technically and in terms of copyright).

Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else’s blog that grew unwieldy as a comment…. In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about “The Promise of Digital History” . [As Mills points out, it’s quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that “digital literacy” is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of “digital literacy” has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people’s familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I’ve viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.

  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn’t necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We’ve been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim’s post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I’m NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a “digital toolkit” from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they’ve got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it’s good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills’s blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don’t see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I’ve had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they’d worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I’ve been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.