All posts by Abigail Adgate

DIYHistory | Transcribing Cookbooks

The University of Iowa Library has an area for crowdsourcing history by helping to transcribe digitized, handwritten Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks. By helping to transcribe them, or by checking transcriptions made by other users, it helps to make them full-text searchable and therefore more easily accessible to researchers and to the public. Clearly, this is important to some one like me, who is writing a paper on 19th century cooking in the United States. I have created an account and have already taken a look at a few of the cookbooks available to transcribe, based on my chosen time period of study.

Find the site here.

Qualifications in Cliometrics/Quantitative History

This weeks readings, while occasionally controversial, have shown how cliometrics, quantitative history and the digital world as a whole have opened up new opportunities for historians to gather and assess vast amounts of data in making conclusions about the past. Websites like IPUMS have made this data even more available for scholars, and as discussed in the Ruggles article, have made it easier to code in demographic conditions as well as census data, making these conclusions even more accurate. However, there is trouble when trying to use the mathematic world to interpret the past.

This trouble is seen in Time on the Cross. When reading this I will say that I felt some of the wording and phrasing seemed a bit sketchy. I had assumed that most of the backlash would come from people who were like me, versed in traditional history and felt that the authors hadn’t considered enough of the stories behind slavery, focusing on numbers instead of human beings. However, like Haskell, I was surprised to find that a lot of the backlash came from the way in which the authors calculated their numbers. In his critique of the work, Haskell not only employs economic theory but also traditional historical methodology. One such example is, “Fogel and Engerman note the total absence of large free labor farms in the South and attribute it to the superior efficiency of slave labor. But it might just as well be attributed to the shortage of free laborers and the ideological opposition that slaveowners no doubt would have mounted against an alternative mode of production…” Clearly, cliometrics has its merits in the ability to disseminate large amounts of information in a clear and less time-consuming manner, but when taken out of context, it can bear very little meaning in the study of history.

In an example of using quantitative history in the context of the time period, the IPUMS website linked to a New York Times Article from April 2, 2012 that showed how newly digitized census data has proven that the Civil War death toll was about 20% higher than the numbers historians had been reporting for over a century. By factoring in information such as the type of health care available in the Union and in the Confederacy, high immigrant presence in the armies, and female death rates. However, Dr. Hacker, who came up with the new figures, admits that much of these numbers are based on estimates and assumptions that keep his data from being completely accurate.

My questions from our readings this week stem from the qualifications that each author has made regarding their cliometric and quantitative conclusions. In Time on the Cross, the authors acknowledge that the information they are presenting is controversial, however their contempt for past research into the economics of slavery keeps them from clarifying exactly how much of their data relies on qualifiers and assumptions about the Confederacy. The other authors and researchers make clear that in using data and numbers to make conclusions about the past there tends to be a lot of guesswork, and coming up with an exact, perfect number appears to be nearly impossible. I feel that this connects cliometrics and quantitative history with the traditional study of history in that, when studying primary sources, a historian can never be completely sure that they are getting the entire story. There is always bias or a hidden motive in records of the past, and in that way it appears that no matter if we are using numbers or words, there is always room for error in a historians work.

Virtual Museum Exhibits

I was struck by several of the points made by the authors of the readings this week, specifically in the area of public history and public history institutions creating virtual exhibits. In my “Issues and Problems” class last year we talked about this often, and whether traditional historic institutions should feel threatened by the rise in popularity their own “virtual exhibits.” Could these virtual exhibits detract actual visitors, in favor of the “well I can just see that online” argument? If some one in this day and age sees something on a website that interests them, would this make them more or less likely to make the trek to see it in person?

In at least two of our readings, the authors argue that in some cases, these web exhibits have the advantage over the more traditional museum exhibit. In “Interchange” Stephen Mintz sees this advantage in that, “virtual exhibitions can allow users to magnify objects for closer scrutiny…in addition, there is no issue of “flow”; one can spend as much time as one wishes with an object.” Oftentimes these virtual exhibits can accomplish what traditional museums struggle with in their static states, creating “nonlinear” and easily accessible exhibits that engage their audience. Cohen and Rosenzweig write that, “online museum exhibits… transcend the barriers of time…, distance…, and space… that have often frustrated museum curators.”

Through my experiences, these virtual exhibits appear to aid in promoting exhibits found at a museum. As Taylor writes in “Interchanges,” “… digital technology can never emulate the experience of being physically present with an object from the past.” Virtual and physical exhibits do not need to be mutually exclusive of one another. In a recent interview found through the AHA blog, the Secretary of the Smithsonian’s G. Wayne Clough, he discusses his e-book’s take on this new way to connect to the public. Clough believes that the Smithsonian must give up its role as the “Voice of God” in favor of having public input about the collections to digitize, and allow them to have a hand in interpretation as well. The digital world gives public history institutions better ways to connect with their audience, and create valuable learning experiences. It is an irrefutable fact that an institution cannot survive in this day and age without the proper web presence, public historians should plan exhibits on the basis of what material will translate well both in person and also on the web in order to maximize their audience’s understanding and accessibility.

An example of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s “Souvenir Nation” online exhibit, that serves as a companion to the one located in DC.