Sunrise on Methodology and Radical Transparency of Sources in Historical Writing

March 15, 2008

hip twotone nixon pictureEarlier this week Tom Scheinfeldt, of Found History suggested that the historical profession could well be moving in a new direction. For quite sometime historians have been concerned with questions of ideology, arguments about which historical-isms are the best for a given task. Tom, suggests that new media tools (like text mining) challenge historians to consider methodological questions anew.

I think there is a great example of one of these new methodological conversations that could be emerging in the way we work with source material. Consider historian Jeremy Suri‘s article in this months Wired magazine, a brief 4 page adaptation of a paper he coauthored with political scientist Scott Sagan. Beyond being a bit pithier and coming with hip twotone images of Nixon I would imagine that most historians would suspect that the brief wired article is simply a derivative from the original 33 page article published in International Security. But Suri’s article in Wired gives the historian something very valuable that the original paper does not.

When you read the Wired article online you are only a click away from scans of many of the declassified primary sources Suri used to develop his argument. This gives the reader a radically transparent view into the source material supporting the case Suri argues. Imagine what this kind of source transparency could do if it became standard practice for historical journals.

As a thought experiment consider the implications of the David Abraham Affair. When several historians rigorously fact checked Abraham’s footnotes and turned up a host of inconsistencies he was drummed out of the historical profession. In analysis of the incident in That Noble Dream Peter Novik suggested that Abraham’s sloppiness was not a isolated case, but instead one of the only times a historians footnotes were so rigorously fact checked. This kind of double checking doesn’t happen that often largely because it is so time consuming. How many people would retrace a historians footsteps through archives scattered around the world to double check each citation? But when checking sources becomes as simple as clicking a link what do we think will turn up everyone else’s footnotes?

You might think the linked citations I just mentioned are something that will never happen. Or that this kind of change is twenty years out. But, just last week Jstor started to implement new features that bring this kind of linked connection to secondary literature and <shamelessplug> on a very basic level our work on Zotero’s ability to create smart bibliographies allows authors the ability to put their bibliographies upfront for others to quickly grab. Beyond these two projects however, our plan for the Zotero Commons will facilitate exactly this kind of radical transparency for primary source material in historical scholarship. Through a collaboration with the internet archive any author will be able to stick permanent URI’s on their cache of scanned source material. Allowing anyone to link out to an author’s primary sources.</shamelessplug>

With the commons, every professional and amature historian will be able to end their papers with. “You can find the documents cited in this paper @ Zotero Commons.” So, the question is, when it takes 15 seconds instead of 15 hours to fact check a source do we think historians will start to write differently, or otherwise change how they do their work?


A Use Case for Playing History: Games for the Classroom

September 24, 2007

Kevin Ryan a 9th grade world history in Fairfax Virginia is planing out a unit on Vikings. Looking over his lectures and activities he realizes it would be great to have his students spend half a lesson using a game or interactive to introduce the subject . Kevin logs on to playing history and searches for Vikings, specifying that his students have 30 minuets for the game or simulation. Because he already has an account with Playing History the results are tailored for him, only returning games relevant to a 9th grade audience. The search returns several resources, each listing weather they have attached lesson plans or links to lesson plans in sites like Yahoo Teachers or Teach Ade. Because the searches privilege freely available web games and games with positive reviews from other teachers the BBC’s Game Viking Quest is one of the first search results. When the Kevin clicks on Viking quest he can see reviews from other teachers, the beginning of lesson plans from sites like Yahoo Teachers and Teach Ade, related content from Teacher Tube and the filtered by his ip address the Virginia State Standards and National Standards that the game engages with. The most salient feature of this page however is a screenshot of the game linking directly to the game, which Kevin can now preview. If he decides the game is useful he can email the games information to his class, save it to his calendar, or add it to his website or account with a variety of other teacher web services, all with just the clicks.

Time from Kevin starting his search for the resource to finding a game or simulation which fits his specific needs: Two Minuets.