Announcing the Dick Dowling Digital Archive

It gives me great pleasure to announce the unveiling of the Dick Dowling Digital Archive and the related exhibit, Dick Dowling and Sabine Pass in History and Memory. The collection and the exhibit, both proudly powered by Omeka, were produced by myself and undergraduate students in Civil War history at Rice University in collaboration with the Woodson Research Center at Fondren Library, the Houston Area Digital Archives, and the Humanities Research Center.

Dick Dowling was an Irish American Houstonian most famous for his role in a Civil War battle fought at Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863. Beginning in the Spring 2011 semester, Rice students in HIST 246, “The American Civil War Era,” began locating, scanning, describing, and writing about historical documents related to Dowling which were then uploaded into an Omeka collection. Students also produced four interpretive digital projects that also now reside in the collection. The Movie Group produced an introductory video (group blog and video). The Map Group produced several maps with ArcGIS showing the past locations of Dowling’s statue in the city (group blog, map, and map guide). The Timeline Group used SIMILE to produce a dynamic timeline of events (group blog and timeline). And the Podcast Group created several audio tours meant to be heard at various Dowling-related sites in Houston (group blog and audio tours).

Other students in the spring and fall semester of 2011 worked to draft, organize, and lay out the exhibit pages for The Afterlives of Dick Dowling, the first major section of the Omeka exhibit featuring items in the Dick Dowling Digital Archive. Students in the fall semester also helped me to think through the other major section, Slavery and the Battle of Sabine Pass, which I composed in bits and pieces over the last several months.

In a future blog post I hope to say more about how this project developed. For now, I’m happy to announce its existence and invite you to take a look around. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, or corrections here or at dowling-archive AT

Methods in U.S. Cultural History

Today I started teaching my semester-long graduate seminar, HIST 587: Methods in U.S. Cultural History. The syllabus I will be using is very similar to the one I used in the Fall 2009 semester, in that the major objective will be to produce a draft of an article-length essay based on original research. But I am also going to be trying at least two new things this time around.

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H-Net 2.0?

Several years ago now, Mills Kelly wrote a provocative post suggesting that the future of H-Net was bleak. After noting that the traffic on many of H-Net’s edited, subject-specific e-mail lists was declining, Kelly argued that e-mail lists had outlived their usefulness for scholars online. “If H-Net is going to survive into a second decade,” he said, “I would urge its leadership to give up on email and move on. Digital communities in the Web 2.0 world just aren’t created in email any more.”

As someone who participates in Web 2.0 “communities” like Twitter and the blogosphere, I see Kelly’s point, which may be even more appropriate now than it was in 2007. But even then, I wasn’t convinced that Web 2.0 posed an all-or-nothing, “change or die” choice for academics online: either e-mail, or something else. Today, as a book-review editor for H-SHEAR and a subscriber to several other H-Net lists, I still believe e-mail lists and newer digital communities can coexist and thrive together.

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The Digital Early Republic

It may still be the case that historians, as a whole, are averse to using databases of digitized primary sources in their research. My impression is that this is rapidly changing, however. This impression is admittedly unscientific and based only on the scholarship that I read. My perceptions may also be skewed by the fact that I myself have found digital databases useful in my research, as illustrated by my last post on a Lincoln quote and my previous series on John Brown’s Timbuctoo.

Still, in at least one field–the history of the early American republic–there is lots of evidence that scholars already see digital databases as crucial to their research. Recent historians of the early republic even seem eager to deploy keyword searches and share their digital findings. In this post, I’ll illustrate what I mean by citing some recent examples of how historians in my field are using proprietary digital databases.

For the past year or so I’ve been keeping an incomplete but running list of articles in the Journal of the Early Republic (the official journal of SHEAR) that make explicit use of proprietary databases published by companies like ProQuest, NewsBank and Accessible Archives. By sharing these examples, I hope to provide a quick snapshot of some of the actual practices of historians who use digital databases, particularly historians who don’t seem to identify primarily with the field of digital history or digital humanities. Finally, at the end of the post, I’ll explain why I think historians in my field could benefit from a central online repository that makes information about these databases accessible and keeps track of differences among them.

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New light on a Lincoln quote

In an age of word clouds, topic modeling, text mining, and infinite archives, it’s not surprising that many discussions about digital history focus on the “big” uses of things like keyword searching and digitized texts. For historians, access to huge archives of online text raises important questions about how to read—and how not to read—a million books. Big archives also create exciting opportunities for visualization and text analysis like Building the Digital Lincoln, Rob Nelson’s Mining the Dispatch, and Cameron Blevins’ work on Martha Ballard’s diary.

But with all these exciting new ventures, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that simple keyword searches can still offer historians new insights into old sources. One of my most exciting “Aha!” moments (the moments researchers live for) came not along ago when I decided to enter a simple text string from one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches into the search box on ProQuest’s database of historical New York Times newspapers. I did one search, and got exactly one result. But that was enough to enable me to shed some new light on an old Lincoln quote.

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