Liveblogging the Rawley: The Historical Community Online

Today, the UNL History Graduate Students’ Association is hosting the Third Annual James Rawley Conference in the Humanities. The panel coming up is entitled “The Historical Community Online: Using Digital Tools to Interpret the Past,” which features my colleague, Brent. More below the jump.

10:31 am - Our colleague Leslie Working introduces everyone. The panel is addressing the ways academic communities face change and are adapting. Speaking first is Susannah Hall, a senior in History and Chemistry who has done a lot of work on the UNL science department. A winner of numerous awards, among them the UNL Undergrad Chemistry Award. Also on the Deans List multiple years. Brent Rogers received his MA in public history from Cal State in Sacramento. He’s also received several awards for his work. He works as a TA at UNL, and has done notable work on the UNL Digital History site. He will be discussing digital change in the historical community. Commenting will be Dr. Doug Seefeldt, Assistant Professor in History at UNL who received his doctorate from Arizona State. He has written and edited several articles and digital projects, most recently the Thomas Jefferson project. He is currently working on a project about the Mountain Meadow’s Massacre.

10:34 am - Susannah is up first after some minor technical difficulties. So much for “smart” classrooms…

10:35 am - Dr. Seefeldt saves the day!

10:37 - Scientific coursework defines the direction of the university in the nineteenth century. The building of a scientific community aided in providing the university respect and accreditation.

10:39 - The Botanical Seminar assisted in developing a community at UNL.

10:41 - Botanical Survey of Nebraska, 1899. Collected specimens for verification, and early specimens still remain.

10:42 - 1886, expanded programs. Course on animal disease. Helped establish entomology and ornithology departments. Sem Bot fostered a tighter community at UNL as students continued joining, including both undergrads and grads.

10:54 - Brent’s talk is entitled “The Historical Community and the Digital Future.” He tells me he will post the talk online, so watch the blog for an update.

10:55 - Tools like databases, interactive maps, databases, and textual analysis has changed the way we write and present the past.

10:56 - “Maintaining and preserving the records in this digital age.”

10:56 - More and more people turn to the web for information, drawing their own connections between information. Digital tools help navigate the web and open new windows of discovery and tap human curiosity.

10:57 - In age of “media saturation,” students expect digital media in the classroom. Students expect nonlinear presentations of the past and expect to engage the past through interactive medium rather than absorbing information. [Shows the Digital History Reader]

10:58 - Students and teachers have a wealth of information at their hands with digital history. [Shows LOC American Memory]. Other web-based databases like EBSCO and JSTOR, humanitists find their work processes simplified. Rather than locating sources in physical archives, the web cuts that process down to sometimes less than a minute as search mechanisms bring data to one’s screen instantly.

11:00 - Digital archives and digitally based research allows historians to develop more complex forms of presenting the past. Immersion in the digital realm allows historians to deal effectively with multiple voices, multiple outcomes and convey the interrelated experiences in the past.

11:01 - With more sources online, researchers require sophisticated tools to categorize historical sources. allows people to organize bookmarks on the web, tag websites that allow one to draw connections. Zotero helps with the collection, management, and citation of historical sources. These tools allow historians to manage data more easily.

11:03 - Digital historical scholarship can create new forms of analysis that exploit the new tools offered to historians. Rather than just placing data online, digital historical scholarship should make sense of the information. Furthermore, users can inspect the sources cited by historians, which enhances dialog between readers and historians.

11:04 - Since people often turn to the web first for information and stop there, historians need to play a role in developing scholarship. Digital scholarship can help historians connect with the general readership. Yet, the profession has yet to generate peer review and standards for digital scholarship.

11:05 - Historians should maintain an active role, yet the historical profession plays little role in encouraging the development. Quoted Ed Ayers: Until scholarship can hold its own with the best work on paper, tenure and promotion will remain elusive. This is the wrong message to send. The presentation of history needs to transform.

11:07 - Digital history presents the complexity of the past [shows the Valley of the Shadow]. Primary sources, analysis, and interactive maps weave together. Hypertext points users to interpretive essays, secondary sources, and primary sources. In no book can one make the associational links that are possible with digital history. Quotes Burton: History needs something else other than the monograph, and digital scholarship is the alternative.

11:08 - Careful to point out the potential problems with digitization. What will historians use to assess the late twentieth century and beyond? How to preserve items online? Nothing tangible exists with digital material.

11:10 - Personal records and government records (email, social networking, blogs, instant messages) are increasingly electronic and, often, lost to the “custodians of memory” (archivists, curators, museum specialists).

11:12 - Even if a person saved all email to a disk, archives may not be able to access that data. Digital records may not be accessible as technology changes and advances. “A dark age for historians from 1980 onward.” Preserving this digital information is of tantamount importance to the historical record. Some attempts have been made to preserve electronic records, such as the Wayback Machine at But the Internet Archive is far from the complete solution because it does not keep the records that also vex the National Archives. Additionally, quoting Rosenzweig, saving web sites for preservation would essentially mean saving the entire web since all sites link to one another. Historians need to call for preservation and access to allow historians to engage fully with the digital tools. With preservation uncertain, we may see a future where we have little evidence to assess the past.

11:16 - Prof. Seefeldt takes the stage. Commonalities between the two papers. Both discuss developing communities of scholars and modes of communication, including evaluation and review and authenticity. Each paper have, at their core, the distinctive and “intoxicating” influence on their respective disciplines.

11:18 - Addresses Susannah’s paper. She’s been working for 2 years on a UCARE project, which will be included in Nebraska U: A Collaborative History. The archival material she’s working with will be digitally accessible, and will need to be preserved, as Brent addressed.

11:20 - Susannah suggested that research changed in the 19th century. Instead, students collected, compiled, and studied specimens by working in the field. Moving away from memorization to groundbreaking research was cutting edge for its time, much like digital scholarship offers today. The Botanical Seminar is an example of the transformation at work - a significant role personalities play in building these networks. The students raised the bar in their academic curriculum.

11:23 - Professors expect students to be adventuresome, while faculty tends to stick in the mud. To find a space where they can safely and fruitfully discuss new trends says a lot for the community being developed.

11:27 - Addressing arguments in reverse order. Abby Smith says that web based content is only 10-15% of digital content right now. There are significant numbers of data below the sites made up of all kinds of things. These other objects are things we need to think about.

11:30 - Smith defines 1) published material (ie, Google Books); 2) Unpublished personal, business, and government material (blogs, 3) Public to the web - electronic files placed online. Average life of a website is 44 days. We’ve all been to places where sites no longer exist. 4) Deep web and databases, things that are queryable but are not seen unless you do an executable function. These databases are designed to be updated, and override older information. These are the main challenges.

11:32 - Guiding principles: 1) More is better than less - save as much as we can. 2) Democracy is better than autocracy. 3) Communities of knowledge are better and selecting and protecting information, who determine what’s worth saving rather than policy committees. For instance, how is the Rawley being preserved? Furthermore, historians are being invited to contribute to the conversation with librarians who are the information specialists and archivists.

11:34 - Storage vs. preservation ties to the idea of access. Preserving digital material is a wide prospect. Preserving executable files require operating programs. What is the value of these old files, and what needs to be preserved? We store information on thumb drives, we burn CDs, we have information on floppy drives or, older yet, the wax cylinder. There’s a moving target - not only the content of the file, but the hardware necessarily to access the content. We must think about preservation as the cost of having access.

11:38 - Question between digital historical scholarship and the profession at large - the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Leaves this open to questions in the audience.

11:40 - We need to lead by example and work the digital tools into the tradition of historical scholarship.

11:42 - Digital historians trying to create a community of peers who, not only try and understand the complexities of the new field, but take advantage of the digital tools. UNL’s Digital History site allows for an open discussion among those interested in the digital realm. We’re at the beginning of this process of assessing and creating guidelines.

With that, we break for lunch and the keynote speech by Professor Emeritus Joan Jensen of New Mexico State University, who will be discussing “Another Look At Family: Recovering Our Familial Past.”

Edit: I’ve made some minor fixes to the text.