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Reading Reflection

Posted by osiern on November 10, 2008

This post is in response to Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees; Timothy Burke, response to Graphs, Maps, Trees ; Dan Cohen’s, “From Babel to Knowledge: Data Mining Large Digital Collections;” and Will Thomas and Edward Ayers, “The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/AHR/

This week’s readings continued last week’s class discussion in which we questioned:  How do we search?  Is there a better way through technology? How much are we missing when we search? Is more better?  Does math bring us towards a “more truthful” history?

Burke states, “Historians live in their archives, but we don’t really know them half as well as we ought to. We accept the categories that the archive offers us, and read along the pathways laid down.” I thought this was a valuable point to think about and discuss.  It is frightening to think about how much information is out there, how much we are missing, how many records have been destroyed, how much we miss just because it has been organized by someone else. It is interesting how often you read a headline that says something along the lines of, “Really Important Letters Found in the ______ Archive” How could they be lost? They were in the archive! The letters have been there all along, but they were probably hidden away under some heading that no one would think to look under.

These readings discuss the other possible ways of organizing information.  There is more than one way to find, interpret, and organize the historical records.  A record may fall under various categories and may not be as significant in one as it is in another then years later It may be more significant in another category based on current events or research.

I find Moretti’s organization of information to be helpful because it’s more visual. I can scan the graphs, maps, and trees quickly and see the relationships easier than I could by reading the text.  This could be one (or three) way of organizing records or data we collect in archives or while doing research.

Dan Cohen discusses algorithms search engines use to quickly scan website for key words, topics, images, types of documents or websites, etc.  Web 2.0 gives us multiple ways to search in a very short period of time.  This is probably our quickest, easiest, and best way to search through vast amounts of records and information.  However there are downfalls, as discussed last week; the researcher needs to know a little bit about their topic to bring back results and the more the research does know the better the results will be.  Also, records and information is entered by humans if the information has not been put out on the web or digitized, it’s still “lost.”  Finally, algorithms will find a vast amount in a short time, however these are set up to do specific search and can miss items as well. So math could bring us closer to the truth by providing a larger “testing pool,” but it still needs to be combined with an understanding of the topic by the researcher otherwise the large amount of material collected may not actually be evidence at all.

As for the website, I think this is a great way of presenting evidence.  Just as in a book the authors have presented their thesis and used evidence to support it.  They have just shown their evidence in a different format.  This format is easier for me to navigate than the pages of a book, however I don’t know how I would read this if it had been assigned in one of my antebellum history classes.  I looked at it today from the point of view of how data was set up so I quickly skimmed it, but if I had to read it, such as I read books for class, I’m not sure if I could pay attention to it very well.  I feel that my attention span especially on-line is very short.


One Response to “Reading Reflection”

  1. hmoir said

    I agree, Nicole, that many if not most archives are under-utilized. As you said, it also really worries me when the news reports that some priceless documents have been “found” in an archive–it is beyong frigtening to think there are items that are currently “lost” within archives, I think this is close to a historian’s worst nightmare, enigmatic documents that have been stored away and yet nobody knows they exist! I wish we could take digital photos of every single item in every single archive and post these photos online immediately, and that these photos would be clear enough so that the text could be read. The we could crowd-source the documents and find out what members of the publci know about arcane subjects and long-forgotten documents. We would still need a historian, archivist, or other expert to confirm the validity of facts, but I think the idea of crowd sourcing has potential, as there are too many documents in too many archives and not enough librarians, archivists, and the like. Also I was surprised to learn that insitutions such as the Smithsonian have placed unidentified documents online on sites like Flickr, and members of the public have correctly identified the people and dates behind the images–I know this was the case, for example, with a cache of 1930s baseball history photos in the Smithsonian collection.
    What do you think? Do you think that crowd-sourcing, if done carefully, can help remedy this problem of having unknown documents getting “lost” inside archives?

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