Tag Archives: Social Networking

Tweets From the Past

Tom Scheinfeldt at Foundhistory.org wrote a post yesterday about the ways that Twitter is helping CHNM promote Omeka and create communities of practice for this new platform. In Tom’s post, he called my attention to an excellent post on the uses of Twitter in teaching.

I’m not a Twitter user, largely because I already get far too much email and read too many RSS feeds, so the idea of adding one more feed of data into my overloaded life is more than a little frightening. And I’ve got the world’s oldest cellphone, so being able to use the text message features of Twitter aren’t appealing to me. But that’s just me. Hundreds of thousands, or maybe millions of others out there live to send and receive tweets (messages on Twitter).

I am, however, a huge fan of what we might call “tweets from the past.” Consider the following gleaned from The New York Times on February 6, 1852 in the “Items from Abroad” column:

  • A Ladies’ Guild has been formed in London for the benefit of governesses;
  • The strangest and most incredible reports are rife about events in Algeria;
  • There are 5,468 physicians in Prussia, or one for each 3,000 of population;
  • A French Banker was knocked down in Constantinople recently and robbed of 505,800 piastres;
  • The number of persons who perished by the recent earthquakes in Albania was, according to an official return, 975; most of them women and children.

Now, lest you think that I selected out these “tweets” because they seem to be nothing more than facts reported at random that do not exceed Twitter’s 140 character limit (I cheated on the last one…it’s 147 characters), I’ll offer my favorite from the “Items from Abroad” column that day:

  • The portraits of the great African generals and leading men in France, that always attracted crowds to the shop windows of Vienna, have all at once been withdrawn, as is supposed by order of the police, and none are to be had for love or money.

I couldn’t include this one, because it is well over the 140 character limit, but it certainly piques the historian’s interest. Why, for instance, did Viennese shop owners display pictures of “great African generals” in their windows? Why the “leading men in France”? What was it about these generals and leading men that drew potential customers to their windows in February of 1852? And why would the Austrian police ban such portraits (seemingly) all of a sudden?

Fortunately, I’m far too busy to try to answer any of these questions. But I want to. Which helps explain why I don’t use Twitter.

The Archives Wiki (2)

Last week I wrote about the Archives Wiki at the American Historical Association’s website. A reader of the other blog I write for left a comment informing me of a different sort of archive wiki–the Your Archives Wiki at the UK National Archives. This project, still in beta, allows members of the “online community of records users” to write about and update information on items in the collections of the National Archives. Like the Flickr Commons project I wrote about recently, the Your Archives project seeks to leverage the fund of knowledge that its records users have about individual items in the collection. In this way, a large institutional repository can begin to take advantage of the collective wisdom of the larger community to improve both its services and the information it holds and dispenses.

One of the things I particularly like about the Your Archives project is the ease with which users can send corrections or other informational updates to staff at the Archives. On the less positive side, this project also seems intended to help the Archives generate revenue through the sale of individual documents. As I poked around in the wiki I followed a link from a soldier’s diary to the original at the main Archives site. For the not trifling sum of 3.5 pounds, I could obtain a .pdf of the original document.

Now, if I were a researcher here in the U.S. who really needed that particular document, a few pounds is a small price to pay for instant access. But what if I needed 20 or 30 of these diaries? The cost would add up quickly. It would be very interesting to see what would happen if I were to purchase that particular diary, then post the entire contents back into the Your Archives wiki, thereby making the source open source rather than closed source. I don’t suspect we’ll see much of this subversion of the intent of the project, if only because doing something like what I just suggested is time consuming, not to mention expensive.

Despite what I just wrote, I am sympathetic to the National Archives’ apparent desire to recapture some revenue from the digitalization of these records. I don’t know the funding context in the UK, but our own National Archives here in the U.S. is perennially strapped for funds to do just this sort of thing and if they could recover some of that cost through ease of access projects like this one, I suspect they would.

At the same time, however, there is the thornier question of the purpose of a national archive. If these archives are indeed public trusts, then shouldn’t they make their information available to the public for free?


The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University will be holding THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), May 31 and June 1, 2008. Sponsored by CHNM and the podcasts Digital Campus and THAT Podcast, this event will be an “unconference” on digital humanities. An unconference is an event where the participants decide what the sessions should be about on a day-to-day basis, rather than by the organizers in advance. In that sense, this will be a truly open source event. THATCamp is filling up fast, so if you want to attend be sure to visit the website now and register.

To Read or Not to Read?

Episode 21 of our Digital Campus podcast is now up and ready for download. In this episode, Dan, Tom, and I take on the question of the future of reading in a digital world. Actually, Dan, Tom, Sunil Iyengar of the National Endowment for the Arts and Matt Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland take on this issue because the only time we could schedule our two guests, I was in class. It’s a great discussion about an issue that is very much on the minds of all of us who teach. In the news roundup we offer our take on the possible merger between Microsoft and Yahoo! and on the new Horizon Report from the New Media Consortium (I was there for that part of the show). Take a minute, download the show, and after you’ve had a chance to give it a listen, let us know what you think. It’s hard for me to believe that we are up to Episode 21 already. Our first anniversary is only a few weeks away!