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.

Blog Statistics

For those of your wondering how many subscribers you have to your blog feed, which information visitors most frequently visit on your blog, and various other blog related statistics, google has an application for this as well. FeedBurner is an application recently purchased by Google, which is relatively user friendly and since it was purchased by google has become free. Currently, users merely have to have a google account to use the service.

FeedBurner claims that it’s main benefits include: allowing users to analyze their blog traffic, optimize content format of blogs, allows further blog publicizing, and gives users the option of making money through ads. The FeedBurner service is also available for podcasts and corporate websites.

I am sure there are similar applications to FeedBurner out there. But after searching through various other applications, I found that a good portion of feed analysis tools require subscription or are not overly user friendly.

Historical Gaming

The validity of using video games to educate children is something that is discussed by both public historians and parents almost everywhere. Recently the Globe and Mail featured an article discussing Microsoft’s move to exploring the educational resources that potentially exist in video games. Microsoft and New York University have created The Games for Learning Institute. The Institute is designed to see if regular video games can draw students into math, science and technology programs. The idea that some video games can improve problem solving and reaction times is nothing new, however Microsoft is the first to attempt a study on a much larger scale. Microsoft may have ulterior motives to this study (maybe selling video games to schools for educational purposes and profit), but regardless of this understanding how children and youth learn from gaming has the potential to benefit a number of disciplines.

So what does this mean for the public historian? The Institute’s study is geared towards developing math, science, and technology skills through video games. However, the popularity of war focused video games seems like perfect forum for learning more about military history. Even board games like Risk have the potential to teach youth about military strategy, political boundaries, and military history in general. If games are constructed in consultation with a historian the educational possibilities multiply, it’s just a matter of understanding the best way to reach youth. Perhaps a heritage or historical group needs to create their own institute to discover how youth best absorb historical information….though very few historical organizations have a fraction of the money that Microsoft does, so learning more about the history and gaming might be awhile off.

Government Endorsement of Open Source Alternatives

Open source is finally gaining some governmental approval. From January 20th to February 19th 2009, Public Works and Government Services Canada is accepting submissions of “no-charge licensed software”, also known as open source software. Some open source advocates are hoping this new found acceptance of open source software, is a sign of a movement towards a more universal acceptance of open source resources.

Despite some resistance to open source software, apparently the Canadian government already makes use of some open source software. One of the obvious reasons for using open source software is the financial benefits. If the Canadian government, which is one of the best financed institutions in Canada is using open source software, smaller underfunded institutions (such as many museums) should be readily accepting open source alternatives. However, despite the growing use of open source popularity in some fields, many businesses are still wary of using something free, as they fear the quality will be inferior quality. In fact sometimes an open source version is just as good or better than a costly one. Maybe the more publicized use of open source products will encourage more organizations to try some open source software…it is free to try after all.

Google Books Excitement….okay, maybe the excitement part is just me.

As my last post may have hinted to, I have a slight obsession with Google and Google applications. I will openly admit I have spent hours looking through Google images, playing with Google Earth, searching Google Books, and numerous other Google related things.

Various debates have arose over the value of things such as Kindle and Google Books. I personally enjoy the searchability, convenience, and accessibility of Google Books, and find myself wishing more books were digitally available. Like many of my classmates I have yet to jump on the Kindle bandwagon, however I do think it creates a new element of accessibility which is never a bad thing.

Similar to some of the ideas behind the portable Kindle, Google Book Search recently became available on cellphones. Initially, the digitization quality of most books was not high enough to be viewed on cellphone screens. This problem has apparently been resolved and you can now access Google Books via your cellphone. Unlike Kindle or Sony Reader Digital Book, you do have to be using your cellphone’s internet access to use Google Books. Despite this potential drawback, this new facet of Google Books does open up the large number of digitized books to a large number of users who primary means of accessing the internet is through their cellphone. This is not the first web application google has made available to cellphone users. Currently, cellphone users can use Google Latitude to locate their friends in real time, use Voice Search to look things up, and various other applications depending on the users phone.

Continued Evolution of Google Applications.

The tools provided through google have evolved once again. Recently google launched a new beta version of the google earth application. It is now possible to explore oceans on google earth. This feature allows users to explore the oceans, examine melting ice caps, and use a feature called shipwrecks. The shipwreck feature allows users to explore more than forty shipwrecks, through educational videos. The shipwreck section contains some historical information, and may be a neat way to introduce the more historical side of mapping to the public.

Similarly, google earth now includes a historical imagery feature. This feature lets users explore a variety of satellite images from various periods, which highlight how certain areas have changed over time. The user can also select the time span they want to examine for a particular location. Currently this feature is only available for select locations, but despite this limitation, google earth is moving towards providing more historical context, which is never a bad thing for the history buffs.

Heritage Properties Online

In my public history class, we recently discussed heritage legislation in Canada. A portion of our discussion focused on the ineffectiveness of this legislation, and the extent to which the preservation of heritage properties often depended on how active a municipal community was. We also came to the conclusion that more often then not heritage properties appeal to a niche market, some people simply don’t like old houses, while some love them.

Being a history student kind of implies a love or at the least an appreciation for heritage and old buildings. So, after class I explored some municipal websites to see what information was available online about already designated heritage properties. Surprisingly enough not all city or municipality websites actually featured a list of the buildings and properties which had been designated.

However, the city of London, has gone beyond a simple list of properties. The city site includes an interactive map that lets users explore priority rankings of heritage sites, the year they were built, the architectural features of the buildings, and the addressed of all the heritage properties and communities in London. The city of Toronto website does have a Inventory of Heritage Properties. This inventory is searchable by street name, and shows information about the age of each property and the reason it was designated a heritage property. The city of Barrie heritage website does not feature any form of list or database of the city’s heritage properties. However, Heritage Barrie has designed a number of walking tours based on the heritage properties in Barrie, the brochures and maps of these walking tours are available online. The walking tour guides are local history rooted and essentially tell the story of the early development of Barrie.

I personally like the idea of the walking tour guide as it provides a non academic way to present heritage information, includes more information than a mere list, and has the potential to interest a wider audience. The fact that some cities have made a list of heritage properties available shows a commitment to informing the public and to heritage itself.

The Future of Post-its

Despite the increasing number of digital ways to record information, post-its are still flourishing. Recently, the CBC featured an story on the reasons why the post-it note is still a popular method of not keeping. One of the main reasons post-it notes seem to be everlasting is the convenience, accessibility, and simplicity of them. This desire for an easy, quick, and manageable technology to jot thoughts and simple notes on is nothing new. As a history student, I have often used a pile of post-its while reading and going research, to remind me to look at specific things later on. The Zotero research application does allow highlighting while researching online, which is preferable over writing on a post-it-notes that I will most likely lose.

Additionally, there are some digital applications which play off the idea of post-it-notes. For example, plays off the simplicity of post-its. functions as a sidebar on firefox, where users can type in a short note, which will be displayed in a post-it like manner on the side of the screen. The only problem with this set up being that you have to be using firefox for the program to function, so the speed of start-up still doesn’t compare to the speed of using a post-it. Desktop Sticky Notes allows users to post notes anywhere on their monitor, includes a to-do list features, and a note archive. The colour and size of the notes can be manipulated in Desktop Sticky Notes, however the notes themselves do look a bit clunky on the screen. This clunky appearance is overcome in the Sticker Lite application, which allows users to fade notes into the background, and automatically dates every note. Despite all these digital post-it-note applications I’m not entirely convinced that these applications are as convenient as the traditional post-it-note, as no matter which way you look at it you have to be using some form of technology, and can’t merely reach for sticky piece of paper.

Photoshop on a budget.

Photoshop has long been used my museum and public history professionals. It is often used to touch up digitized photos, to adjust for glare, colour changes, etc. It is also used to alter images which are to be used online, to make them more visually appealing. However, one of the major problems with photoshop is the price. The newest version of Adobe Photoshop can run upwards of $700, making it a huge investment for museums will small operating budgets.

Recently I stumbled upon some open source, web-based alternatives to the Adobe Photoshop. Pixlr is an online photo editor. Not all of photoshop’s features have been recreated, however Pixlr is simple to use, allows for photo manipulation, colour adjustment, layering, and most importantly it is free. Additionally, the Pixlr site actually encourages users to incorporate Pixlr into their own site or service. Picnik is an online photo editing service similar to Pixlar. One of the advantages of Picnik is that it is compatible with flickr, photobucket, picasa, websots, facebook and myspace. This compatibility means if photos are already stored online users do not have to upload everything again. One of the downsides of Picnick is that though the free version does have a number of editing features some of the more advanced features are only available through subscription. FotoFlexer is also compatible with a variety of online photo storage sites. I found the FotoFlexer site a easier to navigate than the Picknick site, as nothing is restricted to non paying users. FotoFlexer houses pretty much all the essential photo manipulation tools and some neat advanced options such as animation and curve manipulation.

These are just a few of the options available for those looking for an open source alternative to photoshop. The majority of online photo editors don’t require you to download anything, are user friendly, and work in a variety of browsers, making them ideal for those who need a photo editor but may not be able to afford one.

Inauguration in a Digital Age

inauguration has being called the first true Internet inauguration by some. The amount of digital media surrounding yesterday’s inauguration is simply staggering. According to the Globe and Mail, during Obama’s speech 12 million people were accessing news content a second, Obama’s facebook and myspace fan pages drew record numbers, more than 40,000 photos on flickr were tagged with inauguration, and twitter use spiked.

All of these social networking sites allowed for people to be constantly updated on the inauguration, even if they were not able to access a television. Additionally, these sites allowed the average person to comment and reflect on the event. These comments are just as valuable as the speech itself, as it reflects the public opinion of Obama, and public opinion is something historians have been trying to find a reliable way to gauge for decades.

In addition to social networking sites, the Obama youtube channel has become the test channel for a new google feature. The new feature allowed users to actually download content onto their computers. This has never been done on youtube before, primarily due to copyright issues I suspect, so it is unclear if this is a one time thing or a beginning of a new dimension of youtube.

More digital representations of the inauguration can be seen in artistic representations of Obama that people have posted online. The CBC site put together a photo gallery of Obama inspired art, The Obama Art Report features a wide collection of digital art and photographs of physical creations, The Art of Obama features a similar variety of artwork and also includes pictures of the inauguration itself and Obama memorabilia, and google search on Obama art gets 53,000,000 hits.

There is a mass amount of digital material available for anyone even remotely interested in the recent inauguration, its just a matter of sifting through the staggering amount of user photos, reflections, interpretations and memories.