Digitizing History

As historians entering the digital era we need to understand that the public demand is for quick, easy, and accessible information.  Modern technology means that history projects can be delivered to our fingertips, but we must also keep in mind that it is a user-based demand.  Users will be the ones bringing the latest apps to their friends, sharing the coolest new experiences through Facebook, Twitter, etc.  We just have to deliver the experience, and if we succeed, the users will do all the work.

That being said, for this assignment I went back to a project that I discovered through a social media site maybe six months ago.  “How to be a Retronaut” caught my attention, and I, in turn, shared it with family and friends on another social media site.  http://www.howtobearetronaut.com/2010/03/ghosts-of-amsterdam/ .  How to be a Retronaut is run by Chris Wild, who works as a historical consultant.  It lacks an educational mission statement, but it is clear that he is aiming at topics that have an aesthetic and particularly visual appeal.  I loved the idea of this semi-augmented reality, and wondered then, if it could work as an augmented reality app.

The Historypin (http://www.historypin.com/) is a website that has a similar approach to historical photos, but it is open to user-end interaction that the Retronaut project lacks.  The goal of historypin is to bring people together through images, hoping that individuals will find some common ground through a sense of shared history.  But it is not a guided tour, and has no projected ideas or points of discussion.  Instead, the project paired with Google, using their street-view function that allows the user to wander through space and time, viewing augmented images at their leisure.  Its scope is limitless as it allows users, urges them in fact, to contribute to the international collection of historical images.  They make reference to the countless attics and boxes full of aging black and white photos that run the risk of being forgotten by a younger generation caught up in the daily delivery of digital media.  It is an attempt to usher the old into the new, and to expose the young to the experiences of past generations.

In this way users are the ones building and guiding the project.  This allows them to share their own history as well as explore that of others. For those of us who love to discover, it is a treasure trove.  But the scope can be overwhelming, and I wonder if it might benefit from a little bit of guidance.  With this approach users could create their own guided tours, perhaps build a historical cross-section of their own, via historypin.  For example, my in-laws have established a detailed history of their family’s move out west beginning in Concord, Massachusetts in 1685.  They have already documented their slow move westward, and have a collection of images from various settlements across the country.  This type of guidance could enhance the historypin experience, and allow users to create their own place in history.

But that is just one possibility.  Just one example of what is possible with this type of format.  I would  like to make some middle ground between these two projects, building a more guided approach, as well as one that is available, useful, and entertaining on the go.

3 thoughts on “Digitizing History”

  1. I also believe that digitization is a wonderful development-and not only for history enthusiast in the general public. One of my favorite history projects is Google Books. I have lost count of how many great sources I found for my thesis on this site. Not only is google changing the world by devoloping a self-piloted robot car (they have so far navigated hundreds of thousands of miles unassisted in Califoria-included San Francisco), they are also helping historians by providing a nigh uncountable number of primary sources scanned from the best archives in the nation. God-Speed Google!!!

  2. I too think it is important to scan and save photos of the past. Historypin is a great site since it encourages people to save photos from the past and share them with others. With the technology available to us all today, it is a shame that more people don’t scan photos to hold on to the historic images of the past. Also, people could scan their images and then donate the print to a local museum.

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