EDUCAUSE 2006 – Time, Space and History

Edward Ayers, the Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia and Will Thomas, the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities, in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln presented.

The presenters were interested in presenting the past more effectively through digital means.  Using the paradigm of weather maps, Ayers suggested we develop something similar to show the “historical weather”.

History takes place in time and space, but the discipline hasn’t come up with traditions of telling this information beyond “heavy textbooks” and atlases.  He looked at what happened after emancipation – people disbursed and the record vanished.  Using a topographical model, Ayers showed us what looked to be creeks feeding into rivers.  These were preachers and ministers who promoted freedom.  He also showed a QuickTime movie that showed the migration patterns of African Americans through US history.  It was fascinating to see how everyone spread out after emancipation.

Ayers’ point is how can the humanities ignore the tools that are becoming available.

Thomas talked about developing a 4-dimensional atlas, and what that would mean.  Thomas wanted to use the hypertextual network to understand the change that railroads brought.  They changed time and space, and conceptions of time and space.  It was thought that railroads had annihilated space and time.

ACRLS has said that humanists and social scientists have to develop their own means to do research and interpretation – others won’t do it for them. Thomas is working to do just that.

The Arora project (History in Four Dimensions) is an attempt to create not silos of archives but a larger digital archive of history, with many views into that information.

Thomas presented an interactive map of Nebraska that allows you to drag along a timeline to see how the “weather” of history changed the state, with population changes as the railroad developed.

Thomas says that we need more collaborations with historians, IT specialists and librarians to build these kinds of resources.  He described Token X which can find the frequency of words in XML documents, and showed an example analyzing slave labor in the creation of railroads.  The words displayed on a map or picture that can be connected to documents that tell individual experiences.

They’ve looked at passenger rates, using internet maps to show how rates worked in 1880, with links to accounts of travel over that particular railroad line.

Thomas says that the web is thought of in terms of space, but not time (with the exception of the Internet Archive).  If we can proceed with some humility and a dash of boldness, we will know that the tools we have are imperfect, but they are better than what we’ve ever had.  They can allow historians, students, and the general public to see history in a different way.


How are students involved?  Ayers thought there was so much energy that’s wasted, so they build everything first so the students could just jump in.  Get the students into the library, into the special collections.  Students had to create brief narratives for 10 stories.    Students created 10 Word documents that were then cut and pasted into the database, along with keywords.  2/3 of the way through the semester they had a good amount of work, and for their final project they used each other’s work.  2500 cases now.  The front end can be a map that you click to access specific data.  “Imagine you’re writing history for your cell phones.”

What kind of changes are you seeing in students’ ability to analyze data?  Students come so processed by Advanced Placement.  By the end of the semester they are much more creative in the way they talk about what they are finding and how.  Start with a torn piece of paper, put it in a database, and then analyze.  The students say it creates lots of anxiety, but it’s a worthwhile experience.

is there a public URL?  There are two sites, both will be attached to the presentation page on the EDUCAUSE site.

(I couldn’t hear the questions, but there were two): Much of what they’re doing looks more like social science than history, but it is grounded in the literary resources.  History has always been an uncomfortable fit because it is so grounded in text.  Thomas spoke about making it extensible – this will be their greatest challenge.  Bringing other historians into this project will be difficult.  History is a monographic culture, experimentation at this level is unprecedented.  Using a digital object in a class is one thing, but making a scholarly mark as a professor is difficult.  They have to say something analytically different about the past, not just promote the tools.

History departments typically don’t have technology budgets.  How do you fund things like this?  Thomas said this was the stone soup model, where getting buy in from the head librarian was crucial for this kind of experimentation.  Getting IT support was also vital (equipment).  A one time, one shot deal with IT. NIH is interested in funding – everyone is waiting for scholars to step up with ideas.

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