Posts in the Online History Category

Guide to Digitized Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

Title page of the Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, vol. 1, from the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto

The Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society is a 17 volume serial publication of the Minnesota Historical Society issued from 1872 to 1920.

The Collections contain primary and early secondary sources on the history of Minnesota and the American Midwest. Subjects include Dakota, Ojibwe, and indigenous peoples’ history; the Canadian borderlands; métis history; state environmental history and geography; settler colonial narratives; accounts of local industries such as fur trading, logging, milling, shipping, and mining; histories of state institutions; and biographies of notable Minnesotans.

Full text digital facsimiles of the Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society are available online at the Internet Archive, as copyright on these works has expired. Unfortunately, the Internet Archive does not provide an easy way to browse among volumes in the series. In lieu of an authoritative catalog, the table below contains links to digital versions of every volume in the Collections. It is not a complete record of every copy held by the Internet Archive, but it provides at least one link for every volume.

List of Online Volumes

Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society at Internet Archive
Publication Contributing Library
Volume Date Other Titles/Editions U. Toronto U. Michigan Allen Co. Library
1 1872 Annals of the Minnesota Historical Society: 1850-1856 View View
2 1889 3 Parts: 1860-1867 View View
3 1880 3 Parts: 1870-1880 View View
4 1876 A History of the City of St. Paul View View
5 1885 History of the Ojibway Nation View View View
6 1894 3 Parts: 1887-1894 View View View
7 1893 The Mississippi River and its Source View View
8 1898 3 Parts: 1895-1898 View
9 1901 View View View
10.1 1905 Part 1 of 2 View View View
10.2 1905 Part 2 of 2, Index to Vols 1-10 View View View
11 1904 Itasca State Park: An Illustrated History View View
12 1908 View View
13 1908 Lives of the Governors of Minnesota View View View
14 1912 Minnesota Biographies, 1655-1912 View View
15 1915 View View
16 1913 Part 1 of 1: The Weathering of Aboriginal Stone Artifacts, and A Consideration of the Paleoliths of Kansas View View
17 1920 Minnesota Geographic Names View View

Other Resources

The Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania also offers a partial list of Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, including some at the Internet Archive, Google Books, and the Library of Congress. Unfortunately it is missing several volumes.

Hathitrust has a more complete catalog record with additional digital contributors, but unlike the Internet Archive, it does not allow public downloads of full volumes. This makes it impossible to save Hathitrust’s Collections for offline reading or local searching and text analysis.

Find a Hard Copy

Find the Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society in a nearby library using their WorldCat record.

Digital Sustainability Through Consolidation at the University of Iowa

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

The Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio at the University of Iowa coordinates an impressive and growing range of digital projects. In addition to hosting collections ranging from Historic Iowa Children’s Diaries in the Iowa Digital Library to records of Social Justice campaigns undergoing crowd-sourced transcription at DIY History, the studio also works to support students and faculty with their own digital humanities scholarship from project inception to ultimate publication or archiving. The studio’s websites generally have up-to-date interfaces, links, and aesthetics, and its blog posts monthly or bimonthly updates on its ongoing activity. Is all this work sustainable?

In a presentation last December, University of Iowa Library staff John Culshaw, Paul Soderdahl, and Tom Keegan described how the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio was formed in 2015 through the organizational merger of previously distinct digital projects on campus, building them into a sustainable program under the administration of the university library. Consolidation brought together a sufficient staff and budget to provide ongoing dedicated support to digital humanities work. According to the presenters, the studio:

gains long-term sustainability by cultivating inter-dependencies with other library operations and becomes woven into the fabric of the institution. Not having to obsess about re-upping for new funding annually, the Studio can focus on whatever strategic priorities are in the institution’s long-terms interests.

Iowa’s Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio exhibits several of the important sustainability factors identified in the 2013 report Searching For Sustainability by Ithaka S+R and the Association of Research Libraries. Some of these factors include “dedicated leadership,” “managing costs,” “aligning with the host institution’s missions,” “identifying diverse sources of funding,” and “relying on an established technical platform.” The consolidation of projects within a single unit of the University Library provides dedicated leadership to oversee the institution’s digital projects, while also helping to manage costs by reducing administrative duplication. As part of the library, the studio uses established technical platforms such as CONTENTdm and Omeka to host its online resources. Finally, the studio also helps student and faculty scholars identify diverse sources of funding for new initiatives, maintaining an online list of partner organizations and external funding opportunities that researchers at the studio can seek to support their projects. Only time will tell if the University of Iowa’s new digital studio maintains its sustainability in the years ahead, but the program’s current organization and strategy look primed for a promising future.

Videos in an Online Exhibit: Culinary Curiosity

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

In this video at the Culinary Curiosity Exhibition at Kendall College, Mel Mickevic and Christopher Koetke demonstrate a "Universal Mayonnaise Mixer and Cream Whipper"
In this video at the Culinary Curiosity Exhibition at Kendall College, Mel Mickevic and Christopher Koetke demonstrate a “Universal Mayonnaise Mixer and Cream Whipper.”

Videos enrich the modality of online exhibits by adding movement, tempo, and sound to accompany still images and text. The Culinary Curiosity exhibition website hosted by Kendall College in Chicago offers a good example of how videos can communicate knowledge that would be difficult to convey with still media alone. Launched in 2010, Culinary Curiosity showcases a range of historic culinary tools to tell the story of change in food processing technologies since the nineteenth century. Videos at the site demonstrate the use of old or obscure kitchen gadgets (like this universal mayonnaise mixer) whose inner workings could otherwise be difficult to recognize.

Although the videos at Culinary Curiosity are by no means big-budget productions, they use several techniques to convey information effectively. Most videos feature collection donor Mel Mickevic along with a representative of Kendall College or the exhibition curator, using an interview format slightly reminiscent of the popular television series Antiques Roadshow to generate dialog about each object’s history and function. Changing close up shots focus attention on the object elements and details that come up in conversation. Most crucially, videos show the culinary tools in motion, demonstrating how each piece is used and how its components interact. Finally, the videos are offered in short segments — usually just one to five minutes — allowing visitors to engage with the site at their own pace without needing to reserve time for a single long film.

Videos are not the only feature that makes Culinary Curiosity a successful online exhibition. Each object is also displayed with essential metadata, concise but well-written text descriptions, and zoom-able still images. The website provides users multiple ways to browse items, both by thematic display category and by culinary technique. The site even features a quiz allowing users to test their new knowledge after viewing the exhibition.

Despite its many effective elements, Culinary Curiosity does show its age in a few places and leave room for improvement in others. Although well designed for desktops and laptops, the site does not adjust responsively to fit mobile devices — a greater concern now than when it launched in 2010. A slightly larger font size would make text more readable throughout the site, especially on small screens. In addition, the home page consists of nothing but a slideshow of images that does little to guide users toward other parts of the site. It might be more useful to use the current View Exhibit page as the primary home page for the site.

The videos at Culinary Curiosity could also benefit from a few improvements. A few videos at the site feature multiple objects, such as one covering an asparagus cutter-buncher, a magic marmalade cutter, and a stringbean cutter. Videos like this could be cut into segments or at least linked to at different start times for each item, so that viewers can jump directly to each object. Unfortunately, the videos at the site require users to have a proprietary browser plugin, Adobe Flash, which is steadily approaching obsolescence and may make the clips inaccessible to users of certain mobile devices and operating systems. HTML5 video would provide a more modern, plugin-free video technology for current and forthcoming devices. Finally, adding subtitles or transcripts to the videos, while labor intensive, would make the site more accessible to users with disabilities and more easily searchable for researchers.

Overall, regardless of a few weaknesses showing the need for maintenance to keep up with evolving web technologies, Culinary Curiosity is an excellent example of how online history exhibits can utilize relatively simple video productions to add new dimensions of motion, demonstration, and meaning to otherwise static collections of objects.

Metadata on Exhibit

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

Metadata is critical for organizing archival and museum collections. It not only provides fundamental facts for researchers like the dates, dimensions, and creators of objects, but can also make resources more discoverable by providing search terms or multiple ways to sort and browse through items in an online database. The role of metadata as part of an interpretive exhibit is more ambiguous, however. While detailed metadata about exhibit items should be made available, incorporating it prominently into an exhibit can create large, crowded labels that distract from the exhibit narrative. Furthermore, whereas historical exhibits often select and juxtapose objects to reveal a shared theme or context, museum metadata consists of information about artifacts as solitary pieces, potentially disrupting an exhibit’s effort to emphasize context and relationships.

The online exhibits at Recollection Wisconsin achieve an ideal balance between making rich metadata available for those who want it without interrupting their exhibits’ narrative flow. The Exploring Effigy Mounds exhibit, for example, showcases photographs and documents about mounds from collections around Wisconsin while embedding them within a succinct narrative about the origins, destruction, and protection of the monumental earthworks built by indigenous people. A caption below each object gives its creator, date, and current owner in a concise format that does not distract from the primary exhibit text. Viewers can still access more detailed metadata, however, because each object is hyperlinked to its corresponding database page at the repository that owns the item. The database page provides full catalog metadata including dimensions, physical description, rights, and other information not included in the exhibit captions. Researchers can also search these databases individually or all together via Recollection Wisconsin’s unified search engine to find additional related objects not shown in the exhibit itself.

A potential downside to the exhibits at Recollection Wisconsin is that because the databases holding metadata are provided by many different repositories, they could conceivably provide data in inconsistent formats or with varied levels of description. In the Exploring Effigy Mounds exhibit, this is not really a problem, because each participating repository uses the same database system, ContentDM, and a mostly common set of metadata fields. An exhibit that showcased items from competing databases with multiple metadata standards like Dublin Core, CDWA, EAD, and MARC, however, might make it more difficult for researchers to compare specific details about the exhibit items. Another potential issue with linking to the metadata at another repository is that if that institution changes or updates its database system, it could potentially change the URL of the item description and break the exhibit’s hyperlinks, requiring vigilant maintenance by the exhibit host.

The Wisconsin Historical Museum’s online exhibits take a different approach to metadata that is adequate, if a bit less successful. Although the Wisconsin Historical Society hosts several collection databases with rich metadata — including many of the databases linked from Recollection Wisconsin — the Wisconsin Historical Museum does not link all of its own online exhibits to the society’s databases. Instead, in exhibits like From Shell to Symbol: Art of the Ethnic Easter Egg, basic metadata such as the date, creator, and object number is displayed only in captions. As at “Exploring Effigy Mounds,” these captions are an unobtrusive way to label items with their most important metadata. The “From Shell to Symbol” exhibit even succeeds at incorporating some of these basic facts in its exhibition narrative in a seamless, contextualized way. The drawback, however, is that no more detailed information is immediately available to researchers. Facts like dimensions, materials, and donors are unavailable unless they happen to be mentioned in the interpretive labels. Furthermore, the display of basic metadata in captions is not standardized — some pages of the Ethnic Easter Egg exhibit include the creator and date of objects in interpretive text but not individual captions, while others show this information in captions only after an image is clicked. These are minor issues, and the exhibit still provides visitors the most crucial metadata in one place or another, but linking the exhibit to database entries with fuller metadata for each item would provide a more consistent gateway for research — albeit perhaps at the expense of more staff time in entering data.

For my group’s project in Public History New Media at Loyola this semester, we’ll be using Omeka to build an online collection and exhibit. Omeka provides tools to create individual item pages with detailed metadata as well as narrative exhibits that showcase selected items together with interpretive text. As a result, we’ll be able to create exhibits that that link to items with detailed, consistent metadata hosted on our own site — allowing viewers to either follow the flow of the exhibit or click away to find detailed information and search for objects according to their own interests.


Archive Team and Crowdsourced Digital Preservation

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

ArchiveTeam Logo
Archive Team Logo

In Digital History, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig wrote that the growth of “the history web” has been driven as much by “grassroots historians” as by formal history institutions or credentialed professionals. Archive Team serves as an organizational website for some of this grassroots history, exposing both its promises and flaws. Describing itself as “a loose collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths dedicated to saving our digital heritage,” the site provides advice, software tools, and coordination for crowd-based campaigns to archive born-digital history such as websites and social media communities that are threatened with deletion.

Archive Team was founded in January 2009 by Jason Scott in response to the closure of a number of commercial online communities like AOL Hometown that held irreplaceable user-contributed material. Scott later described creating the project “out of anger and a feeling of powerlessness, this feeling that we were letting companies decide for us what was going to survive and what was going to die.” Rather than host digital archives itself, Archive Team offers, in Scott’s words, “a really profane, rough and tumble version of a library sciences convention” comprising a wiki where volunteers can keep track of websites threatened with closure and coordinate efforts to download backups of these sites and their content before they disappear. The resulting backups are generally uploaded to the Internet Archive or other third-party repositories that make them available to the public.

Soon after Archive Team launched, Yahoo! announced in 2009 that it would be closing GeoCities and deleting the 38 million websites its users had created there since 1994. In response, Archive Team’s volunteers set out to download as many Geocities sites as possible and released them publicly on bittorrent, gaining significant publicity for the project. Since then, the growing team has also preserved parts of other shuttered or threatened sites including Friendster, Tabblo, Posterous, Google Reader,, and many others.

Although Archive Team’s early projects preserved data with little standardization and demanded a fair amount of technical expertise and communication between volunteers, it has made major improvements on both counts. Volunteers today can contribute their internet bandwidth to preserve threatened websites just by downloading VirtualBox and the Archive Team Warrior, which takes care of automatically coordinating tasks with other users and downloading and processing data for Archive Team’s ongoing preservation projects. Archive Team also now uses the WARC format for its archival files, ensuring that metadata and provenance are recorded along with preserved digital files.

Despite its improved usability and data-standardization, Archive Team remains a visibly grassroots project driven by what Scott called its “three virtues: rage, paranoia, and kleptomania” toward commercial web providers who have sometimes been irresponsible stewards of their user-contributed content. The Archive Team wiki’s irreverent tone and somewhat disorganized structure may not be inviting to all volunteers. Furthermore, the group’s aggressive stance towards downloading copyrighted or private material without permission have sometimes caused backlash. On the other hand, the site’s willingness to work outside institutional norms have given it the agility to preserve material quickly in the rapidly shifting online landscape. The group’s success in preserving digital memories has garnered awards and praise from web users who would have otherwise lost their own family photos and online scrapbooks to website closures. As Scott explained, “this is why we do it: because these people had their history taken away.” Hopefully as the Archive Team matures it can better address issues of privacy and civility while continuing to empower communities to preserve their online heritage for current and future generations.

Distributed Social Networks and Public History

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

Diaspora* cofounders Daniel Grippi and Ilya Zhitomirskiy.
Daniel Grippi and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, cofounders of the distributed social network Diaspora*, present at the Cultura Libre Conference in 2011. Flickr Photo © 2011 Jalisco Campus Party, CC BY 2.0 License.

Distributed social networks are not well-known, but their tumultuous history offers a range of opportunities and challenges to public historians on the web. Distributed networks, such as GNU Social, Diaspora*, or Friendica, exist as an alternatives to more popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, which are centralized networks. Each centralized network exists on a single website, owned and controlled by a single business with whom all users of the network must register accounts. Distributed social networks, by contrast, run on free community-built software that can power any number of different access points. This allows users to join the network from their choice of sign-on providers, or even to access the network by creating a server of their own, without relying on a single centralized authority.

Public historians can learn from both the aspirations and failures of distributed social networks. For historians who aim to collect digital history, these fragmented, privacy-conscious networks pose a dilemma about how to preserve online communications while respecting user privacy. For museums and cultural institutions who aim to build sociability into online exhibits and collections, distributed networks offer an ethical model for open development, interoperability, and privacy protection — as well as case studies in the difficulty of attracting engaged users.

History of Distributed Networks: GNU Social, Diaspora*, Friendica

Distributed social networks began to appear around 2008-2010 in response to fears that centralized networks threatened their users’ privacy and autonomy. The companies that own centralized networks like Facebook or Twitter dictate lengthy terms of service that can change at any time, freely utilize users’ data to sell advertising, and create a single point of failure giving users little recourse if the company suspends an account, merges into another company, or goes out of business. Distributed networks promise to give users the ability to access a network without being locked into a single company’s product — just as a telephone user with AT&T can call someone with Verizon, or a Yahoo! Mail user can send a letter to a friend at Gmail. This empowers distributed network users to choose the provider whose terms they like best, to switch providers while still being able to socialize with the same contacts, and even to set up their own service for fine-grained control over their personal data.

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Putting History Online: Some Considerations

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

Digitizing a Manuscript at e-codices, the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland. CC-BY-NC 2.0 License. Via Flickr.
Manuscript digitization at e-codices, the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland. Flickr Photo © 2012 e-codices, CC BY-NC 2.0 License.

Online exhibitions and digitized collections provide many new ways to collect, author, and share history. Planning these digital projects involves many considerations, some new, but most familiar. Digital history is still history, after all, and I would argue the best digital projects follow many of the same planning procedures as analog ones, even if specifics vary.

Putting Mission First

The first step for any public history project, even before considering technology, should be to determine the project’s purpose and set out its intended audiences and outcomes. What is the theme of an exhibition? Is digitization intended for preservation, accessibility, research, or to provide resources for educational materials? How does the project fit with the institutional mission?

These are basic questions, but it is vital that digital history projects stay focused on real human outcomes. When museums and archives rush toward a new technology without having a clear idea of how it furthers their mission, the “gee whiz” impact of new media and the dictates of the platform can distract from these institutions’ core historical materials and programs. Technology should be a tool to support the institutional mission and project goals, not an objective in itself.

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State History Organizations on Twitter: Comparing Minnesota and Ohio

· Posted by Joshua in Online History

Tweets that mention a Minnesota Historical Society profile.
Graph of tweets that mention a Minnesota Historical Society profile — scroll down for details and a large version.

Twitter has become a popular platform for sharing history since its launch in 2006. Although it is only used by about 23% of online adults, more often in urban than rural areas, Twitter is a useful resource for connecting with segments of the online public. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Ohio History Connection were among the first big history institutions in the Midwest to embrace the platform. A casual comparison of their current Twitter profiles illustrates some best practices while revealing how these organizations differ in using Twitter to advance their missions.

Minnesota Historical Society (@mnhs)

The mission of the Minnesota Historical Society is “Using the Power of History to Transform Lives.” This is an ambitious mission, but the society’s Twitter use appears to work towards it.

The society’s main Twitter profile, @mnhs, was created in August 2008 and now has 14.9 thousand followers. Its popularity attests to its longevity and its content. While the Minnesota Historical Society uses Twitter to promote its own programs and collections, it also connects these promotions with interesting or informative content such as trivia and historical images, as in the tweet below:

In addition to self-promotion, the Minnesota Historical Society frequently retweets or promotes related material from other history and news organizations in Minnesota and even beyond, such as the following item about the New York Times’ Black History archive first tweeted by PBS’s Frontline:

Minnesota Historical Society’s willingness to share content from beyond its institutional walls makes its Twitter profile a general hub of discussion for history and its present relevancy in Minnesota. Despite the breadth of its content, however, the society keeps the number of tweets on this profile to an average of 3.1 a day (according to Twitonomy), a steady but manageable volume.

In addition to its primary profile, many of the Minnesota Historical Society’s divisions have their own Twitter accounts and followings. The Minnesota History Center, for instance, promotes its events and programs at @mnhistorycenter. Another profile @MNopedia, tweets facts and historic images from the society’s online encyclopedia. The society press shares news on its publications at @mnhspress. The institution facilitates programming for teachers and students at @historyedmnhs and @mnhistoryday. Many MNHS historic sites also have a separate profile.

How do other Twitter users engage with the Minnesota Historical Society and its many profiles? The graph below shows the network of tweets that mentioned or replied to one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Twitter handles during the week from January 28 to February 5, 2016. Activity varies from week to week, so this sample is too small to make scientific conclusions. Still, it provides a quick impression of how Twitter users discuss the society. Lines connect accounts to the other profiles they mentioned (or to the accounts that mentioned them). The more mentions an account made of other users in this network, the larger the circle representing it appears. Accounts are colored according to their modularity, which helps distinguish different communities of users.

Tweets that mentioned a Minnesota Historical Society profile.
Network of tweets that mentioned or replied to a Minnesota Historical Society profile, January 28 – February 5, 2016. Includes mentions of: @mnhs, @mnhistorycenter, @mnhistoryday, @mnhspress, @mnhscollections, @historyedmnhs, and @mnopedia — does not include all mentions of individual Minnesota historic sites. Data retrieved with NodeXL and visualized by Gephi.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s mention network is sizeable, but although several different conversation groups can be distinguished, they are mostly well connected. The large size of the @mnhs profile in this graph indicates that it is not only being mentioned, but also mentioning, retweeting, and replying to other users — a healthy sign of two way conversation between the institution and its constituents.

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