Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How To Forge Public History From The Land.

There is little doubt that environmental history is in vogue currently. The rise of environmental history has opened up a number of new opportunities for public historians. Research is being done on landscapes, environmental resources, the impact humans have on the world and various other topics. Environmental history has a place for public historians, even if at times they have to create their own niche.

One of the environmental research areas in which public historians have recently devoted attention to is the historical interpretation of landscapes. According to David Glassberg "Landscapes are the product of human interaction with the environment over time."[1]This suggests that landscapes are a valuable resource for learning about cultural, economic, and social trends over time. Learning from the physical past is not something horribly new, anthropologists, geologists, and numerous other fields have been doing this for years. However, with the rise of environmental history the use of landscapes in historical narratives is increasing.

Natural landscapes are altered over time by both nature and humans, these alterations reflect significant adaptations to the environment and larger societal trends. Glassberg discusses the development of water ways, canals, and transportation networks in the United States.[2] These man made alterations of the natural landscape reflect economic and cultural desires. Waterways, bridges, and canals were often created to allow for easier transportation of goods, which reflects a growing emphasis on a material culture. By examining human influence on landscapes it is possible to learn about the interaction of the environment and culture, and how they influenced each other.

Paired with the use of landscape by historians is a growing number of movements concerned with natural landscape. Historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land owners all have agendas when viewing the past. Rebecca Conard notes that often human built landscapes and natural landscapes are intertwined, and that to fully appreciate the environment these landscapes need to be examined together. [3] Human constructs such as roadways, benches, buildings, and numerous other structures are common place in many national parks and green spaces. These buildings have their own history and reflect the human trend of preserving the environment while still catering to the desire to have modern amenities. Removing all human constructs from a landscape destroys valuable history. [4]

The history of landscapes can be seen in parks, cities, rural farming communities, and waterways. By examining the way in which landscapes have changed public historians can learn a lot about the way that society has developed. For example, examining the development of national parks as tourism attractions highlights the commercial nature of society, and the growing emphasis on heritage tourism. The use of heritage tourism in Canadian national parks is particularly evident in the establishment of PEI's national park and it's focus on Anne of Green Gables. In this instance golf courses were created, beaches were included, and "Anne's House" was fixed up to be a tourist attraction.[5] All of these acts changed the natural landscape in PEI and are telling of the economic and cultural motivations of society. By using landscape as a stepping stone it is possible for public historians to expand their interest in environmental history to other fields, and expand their knowledge of a society's history in general.

[1] David Glassberg, "Interpreting Landscapes," Public History and the Environment, ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Kreiger, 2004), 23.
[2] Glassberg, 24-25.
[3] Rebecca Conard, "Spading Common Ground." Public History and the Environment, ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Kreiger, 2004), 8-12.
[4] Conard, 18.
[5] Alan MacEachern, "The Greening of Green Gables: Establishing Prince Edward Island National Park, ca. 1936." Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001), 75-78.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mapping and Privacy Concerns

I recently wrote on the trade off between convenience and privacy, this issue came to my attention once again while exploring virtual mapping. Most people have used Google earth or Google maps at one point or another. These applications are largely accepted by the general public as tools which make our lives easier. Google recently released the Google Street View application to the United Kingdom. Some controversy has been raised over the appropriateness of showing potentially private images from the street level. The majority of those opposing the application believe that street level pictures violate privacy and that these images are being used without the consent of numerous people. These privacy concerns are particularly valid for those people who have been caught partially nude, entering adult video stores, or doing any activity they may not want the entire world to know about.

Since the launch of UK Street View Google has had hundreds of requests for the removal of images. Earlier Google representatives insisted that "99.99 per cent" of faces featured in Street View were blurred. However, recently Google admitted that this had been a "figure of speech" and that thousands of people can be identified. Google claims that Street View is an important step towards people being able to explore the world from their homes, but has this application crossed line in terms of privacy violations?

Currently Google Street View is not available for any Canadian cities. Tighter restrictions have been placed on the construction of a Canadian application, which include the blurring of all faces, license plates, and numerous other privacy measures.

Despite the controversy surrounding Google Street View in Canada, Canpages.ca a company based in British Columbia has recently released it's own street view program. The program currently includes views of Whistler, Vancouver, and Squamish. Canpages street view allows users to explore residential areas, walking paths, parks, and trails. It also offers detailed pages for retailers in the area, and hopes to expand its views into the interiors of hotels, malls, and restaurants. However, Canpages is also taking additional incentives such as blurring distinctive features to help maintain privacy amongst Canadians.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Coming to a Museum Near You: Digital History in 3D

So this might not be coming to a museum near you in the intimidate future, but it is in Canada already, and seems like something that could benefit many museums. In conjunction with CHIN the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal has created a 3D interactive, "touchless", exhibit which allows users to explore and manipulate the McCord collection without actually touching the objects. Using hand gestures, and without ever touching a screen users can turn, re-size, and explore various artifacts. This manipulation allows users to see details of objects that would not normally be visible while objects are on display. You can see how the program works here.

This innovative exhibit allows objects to be displayed that may be too fragile to be on display for a long period of time, allows increased detail to be examined, and when released as a Virtual Museum of Canada exhibit (Spring 2009) the exhibit will allow many more people to explore the Museum's collection in a unique way. Granted this type of exhibit is far out of the price range of most local museums, but despite this drawback the 3D exhibit has great educational and exhibit potential for those museums which can afford it.

Convenience Over Privacy?

Recently, in my digital history class, we have been discussing the tailoring of ads, search results, and the internet in general, to the particular interests of a user. Some of the more frequently discussed forms of this personalized marketing include: amazon recommending books, itunes recommending music, facebook targeting ads, and Gmail and Google including personalized ads and searches. This marketing provides users with increasingly relevant and 'useful' information, while allowing companies to further expand their advertising and marking techniques. And who wouldn't want their search results to be more relevant?

Similarly, Google recently announced that is going to allow users to select the ads they see while using the internet. Google is launching an "interest-based" advertising on various partner sites, including YouTube. The idea is that interest-based advertising will infer users interests based on the websites they visit, and allow users to create favorite categories, or specify things they do not want to see ads for. No doubt this is one of the more advanced (extreme?) forms of target advertising out there.

The use of internet searches, and user preferences tracked through cookies raises the question of user privacy. It is possible to opt out of the AdSense advertising cookie, which is used for collecting user information to make ads more relevant. Even with this option of opting out, I wonder how much user privacy should be sacrificed for user convenience, especially if it's just convenient advertising? Currently the information collected by AdSense is only being used by those companies who have partnered with Google, but what if this information is released on a larger scale?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Historical Acitivsm In A Digital Age.

As my previous post mentioned we recently had a class on writing for a public audience. We were given the assignment of writing a 400 word newspaper article on any topic of historical relevance. My 'article' was a blog idea I'd been toying with for awhile, and here are the fruits of the assignment:

Your family has been attending the same church for as long as anyone can remember. Your family has celebrated numerous marriages and mourned many deaths in the same church. This memorable and center of much community history is being turned into condos. You have virtually no means of stopping it, but on the plus side the condo will have a very nice pool.

Throughout Toronto and Montreal numerous historic churches over have been sold, are slated for demolition, or are currently being renovated into condominiums. Without active preservation efforts historic churches, like all old buildings, are susceptible to the demands of our changing society.

Over the past decade, more than 150 churches have been sold in Toronto and Montreal. Other churches have been abandoned, with hopes that a potential developer will eventually want to develop the land. What is more shocking is what some churches have been renovated into. Churches have been renovated into rock climbing and fitness facilities, concert halls, factories, and numerous other commercial ventures. Not all churches were lucky enough to merely have their building converted. In 2000, St. Jude’s, Toronto, was sold to developers to be made into condominiums. But, when faced with complaints from heritage groups, costs of renovations, and design complications, the building was torn down without notice.

The issue is not the merely loss of beautifully constructed religious buildings. Rather, irreplaceable community history is being forgotten and at times destroyed. In Montreal, the Church of Saint-Eustache, which features stones damaged by British cannon fire from 1837, and where more than 100 Quebec patriots died, is at risk of being sold or demolished. Many churches have similar historical significance, even if it is just the history of the parish and the community which was once based around the church.

Heritage designation can discourage developers from buying historical churches, as it limits the renovations which can be completed. However, only 75 of Toronto’s many churches are heritage properties. But is heritage designation enough? Often heritage designation only preserves exterior elements, when some of the most historically significant elements are located inside churches. The transformation of churches into commercial spaces can destroy historical interior architecture and eliminate places of rich community heritage. Creative housing and business solutions are essential in an urban world, but historical buildings are far more culturally valuable than another rock climbing facility.

After thinking about this topic a bit more, I began to consider how the internet and digital publishing can be used to support various activists groups. Similar to expanding the range of historical literature, digital technology can be used to spread concern about virtually any cause. With websites, blogs, twitter, facebook groups, and numerous other wide reaching, getting the word out isn't hard. the internet as a forum for activists isn't a new thing, but I think public historians and heritage groups need to continue to expand their online presence through as many different types of technology as they can. In most cases this only presence can be built up with minimal costs, and by anyone who has a rudimentry understanding of the internet.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Academic, Public, and Digital Writing.

On of our recent public history class discussions focused on writing for a popular audience. The ability to write for a larger, non academic audience is a valuable skill for any public historians. Writing text panels, tourism packages, website texts, and blogs all require a different style of writing than the traditional essay. While allowing more freedom of expression, less strict grammatical rules, and fewer guidelines, popular writing has it's own challenges. Years of academic writing practices are hard to break. The use of verbose language, complex sentences, and the format of an essay have been ingrained in the minds of many academics.

That being said, I've actually come to enjoy writing both digital and print text that is intended to reach a wider audience. Writing text panels, and short website text is definitely a challenge that is very different from writing a paper full of elevated language. The idea of writing for a larger audience on the web, via my blog, took some getting used to. The idea of putting my work, ideas, and commentary on the web was a scary thought at first. What do you mean the entire world is able to look at my work? In reality, I'm sure the entire world isn't looking at it, but it is still a drastic change from writing a paper that no one other than a Professor will ever read. I still occasionally have concerns that certain things aren't ready to be put on my blog, and subscribe to self-censorship at times.

But, overall I think that presenting ideas online opens up an entirely different avenue of learning. The ability to create hyperlinks, inter-textual works, and the accessibility of digital writing, makes it a valuable forum. Digital writing can be used to test ideas, gain experience writing, and potentially create an audience for your work, all of which are valuable pursuits and much harder to achieve in the traditional print world.