The Frustrations of Writing Public History

My Public History project is about the impact the Corbin Cabinet and Lock Company had on intellectual property law. I believe it is a unique perspective. Unfortunately, the only primary sources I have are the Supreme Court decisions on patent disputes involving the Corbin Company from the late 19th century. There is very little commentary on these decisions of the Court, even though the decisions established an important test for determining the criteria for a new patentable idea.

I’ve scoured the literature on intellectual property law looking for insight on why the Court decided the way it did and what impact the decisions had on the Corbin Company. I’ve had very little success finding anything useful. My frustration is that I will need to essentially do an exegesis on the decisions themselves and then conclude what the thinking of the Court was. I suppose that this approach would work if I was doing research on a topic whose impact had already been established by peer reviewed academic papers. That is to say, it’d be easy to determine if my conclusions were right or wrong.

However, a public history project like this is rather intimidating. I feel that I’m at the water’s edge, putting my big toe in to test the temperature. If I do the project right, I will end up interpreting patent law history. The average person may review my work and agree that my reasoning is sound. However, a Law Professor specializing in intellectual property law may review the work and conclude that I have no idea what I’m talking about. My fear is akin to me doing geometric calculations of the earth’s horizon and coming to the conclusion that the world is flat. As I’ve said, it’s kind of scary.

On the other hand, doing the project shows how exciting public history can be. My experience with historical research thus far has essentially been standing on the shoulders of established historians. Most times, it’s been an interpretation of the conclusions of others. But doing this public history research is really stepping out on my own. To get it right, and, to make it interesting enough for others to read and review, is quite a daunting task.


Public History Research

This has been an eye opening experience for me. Determining what I was going to write about took a great deal of thought and reflection on what I had seen at the New Britain Industrial Museum. But, once I came up with an idea, I was excited about conducting the proper research and spent quite a bit of time online finding original sources and commentary. I ended up with a treasure trove of information and very old published works.

Then, deflation and disappointment. I went to the Connecticut History.Org website and, lo and behold, my “unique” topic was right there. The subject had already been researched and written about. In fact, the article had links to the exact same reference material I had found. I think I understand how those old Artic North Pole explorers felt after they had planned and worked on an expedition to be the first ones to the North Pole, only to find out someone else got there already.

So, it was back to the drawing board. But, with a little more digging, I came across another idea. It turns out the Corbin Cabinet Lock Company, a pillar of New Britain’s industrial base, had been involved in patent disputes. In fact, they are named in two cases heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1893. These cases set precedent for future intellectual property caselaw.

So, after making darn sure no one has written much about these cases, I decided that I would do my public history project on those cases!

Preserving History Through the Digitalization Process

Cohen’s article “The Future of Preserving the Past” was quite interesting. His comparison of the historical record of the attack on Pearl Harbor versus the digital record of the terror attacks of 9/11 offer a vivid example of the challenges faced by present day historians in preserving the histories of significant events. Cohen points out the vast difference in available data about the two events. Pearl Harbor has maybe a few thousand photographs and recordings of the few radio station broadcasts that announced the attack. In contrast, 9/11 has mega data available, including 911 recordings, digital camera images, television coverage and countless social media discussions to give an account of the tragic events of that day.
Cohen argues that the vast amount of digital and online material will cause a daunting challenge to scholars of the future. He states that many present day historians are uncomfortable with online material, either they don’t trust it or they are unfamiliar with manipulating the data itself. To a lesser degree, Cohen suggests that historians are concerned that ordinary people who don’t have access to online or digital historical data will miss out on important cultural information.
Cohen then presents arguments that, although it will be challenging, future historians can manage and overcome those obstacles to effective preservation of historical events using digital data. He mentions the success that British historians have had using digital data to record a history of immigration in England and a World War Two documentary using modern digital means. These histories rely much on a digital record of personal experiences and put the historical event in a human and personal perspective.
Cohen’s concern is that historians are too concerned with the long term preservation of digital data as opposed to preserving it in the short term. He points out that most web page data disappears only after a few weeks and cannot be retrieved. He also dispels the notion that online data is unreliable by discussing studies that verified that the vast majority of information on the web is accurate.
However, Cohen believes that the time for action is now. That in order to preserve digital history, historians must make positive action to gather it and save it.
Contrasting Cohen, somewhat, is Townsend’s article, “Google Books: What’s Not to Like?” Townsend seems to endorse the idea of digital preservation, but, thinks it may be happening too quickly. He complains that Google’s project of digitalizing old books through scanning is fraught with three major problems. First, much of the books digitalized suffer from poor scanned quality. Second, he finds the descriptive summary of the book very inaccurate and lastly Townsend finds that Google is taking a very restrictive view of copyrighting and limiting access to books Townsend believes should be considered in the public domain.
Townsend’s solution is to slow everything down and get a better grip on the digitalization process. While I can appreciate Townsend’s view that the quality of digitalized material is important, I am more inclined to agree with Cohen that we need to move quickly in digital preservation. When archeologists dig up a historical find, it is often encrusted with mud or rust and must be restored. Townsend’s idea that we should wait to make sure we properly digitalize things risks the loss of older historical records. Sometimes, the 80% solution is better than the 100% solution because we may never really get to the 100% solution.
I argue that it’s better to get most of the record digitalized, even at a less than optimal quality, to ensure the record is maintained.

#Hash Tags

This week’s blog is about searching the same hash tags across different social media sites. I wondered what a hash tag was and where it came from. According to a slide share web site (I’m discovering that there is a web site for everything), hash tags were created on Twitter to group common things together without having to alter the basic working structure of Twitter. The “tag” is an informal word used to generalize the grouping and the hash tag symbol is placed before it.

For an old guy like me, I need a reference point to understand things. The best comparison I can get my head around is the fiction section in a brick and mortar library. There, books are either grouped by author, or by subject matter, like “horror.” So, if my make believe library were online, I may want to search all the horror fiction books by hash tagging horror (e.g., #horror).

Back in 2003, Delicious, a bookmarking or “favorite” groupings website, developed the capacity for its users to hash tag their saved website bookmarks and allow their users to search easier. That makes sense to me. I generally add a favorite site to my web browser when I run across something interesting or some web site I can use later. But, for me to find that web site when I need it, I have to scan my list of favorite sites until I recognize the one I want. With Delicious and a little effort in organizing on my part, I can group similar web sites together and then search them using the hash tag symbol and my group label.

Searching hash tags on different social media sites is interesting. When I searched #columbus on Technocrati, a site that deals primarily with blogs, I got 198 results that included the historical explorer, the city of Columbus, Ohio and the Columbus, Ohio NHL team. Searching #christophercolumbus got nothing and searching #christopher.columbus got me six posts.

In Delicious, using the same strategy, I got many links generally about anything with Columbus in the Delicious’ bookmark database and some very specific links if I used his first name in the search. Actually, Delicious allowed me to come up with an answer about Columbus that was raised in a different history class I am taking.

When I searched Flickr, I got a lot of pictures of Columbus, Ohio, using the generic “Columbus” and many pictures of Columbus statues when I included his first name. Overall, I would say that Delicious offered the best results and if I had to only choose one site to use, it would be Delicious. However, all sites had something to contribute and I would use each to provide a full understanding of my historical search topic.

Week 6 and Aaron Swartz

So I was a bit confused on the “Creative Commons” licensing.  I chose what I thought was the right license for this blog.  But, there wasn’t anywhere to click and accept it.  All the site told me to do was copy the below and let my visitors know:

<a rel=”license” href=””><img alt=”Creative Commons License” style=”border-width:0″ src=”×31.png” /></a><br /><span xmlns:dct=”” property=”dct:title”>mhisten blog</span> by <a xmlns:cc=”” href=”” property=”cc:attributionName” rel=”cc:attributionURL”>Matt Histen</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=””>Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License</a>.

But, I don’t know where I am supposed to actually paste the stuff I copied.  To a tech savvy person, I may seem ignorant, but, I need the “Ned and the First Reader,” approach.  That is, first you do this, then you do that…   

I certainly am not computer smart like an Aaron Swartz.  I was very disturbed reading his story.  I recognize that there is tension between those who want to protect work on the internet from infringement and those that want complete open access.  But, to see the federal government strong arm a guy like Swartz made me angry. 

We condemn states like North Korea and China when they attempt to restrict access to the internet and yet, our Department of Justice drives a young man to suicide and there’s no remorse at all from the federal government.  Storm Troopers in business suits?  The uproar over the Feds heavy handed tactics only tainted the U.S. Attorney, Carmen Ortiz and may have put her political ambitions on hold (she was rumored to have gubernatorial aspirations).  Then again, she’s prosecuting the Boston Marathon Bombing case.  So, her star may shine again soon.

Maybe those Second Amendment advocates have a point when they say we shouldn’t trust our government.  Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted that what makes a government powerful and intrusive is not so much its military or police.  It’s the courts.  After all, court action can interfere in every aspect of your life and justify the use of police power to enforce its decisions and mandates.

When people like Carmen Ortiz can use the fear of the courts against a lone citizen,  ALL citizens should be concerned…and afraid. 


Historical Research Using the Web

This week’s blog focuses on historical research using the internet.  Generally speaking, you can find just about anything on the internet.  However, authenticity and accuracy can be compromised.  People regularly poke fun about how unreliable some information can be from certain websites.  A new joke line has been added to our vocabulary, “Where’d you hear about that, on the internet? Must be true, huh?”  It’s a very similar line to the old satirical print comment from years ago, “They can’t print it if it isn’t true.”

When I first started playing around with the internet, I quickly became fascinated with the myth busting or urban legend websites that cropped up to point out how very wrong various rumors found on the internet were.  There seemed to be no end to the false information swirling about in cyber-space.  But, there also seemed to be a concerted effort to archive important information and give the public access to that information online. 

But, it wasn’t that way before the internet.  I remember being a sophomore at the University of Rhode Island in 1977.  I took (of all things) a history of Art class and my assigned research paper was on some art that had been extensively studied by folks at Yale University.  The problem was that I had to drive to New Haven from Kingston, Rhode Island in order to access the research. 

What’s great now is you can pick a website that can provide you with credible research on a subject without having to leave home.  You may not get to actually feel the texture of the documents but you do have access to the critical information.  I really like Internet Archive.  I was unaware of this website before I took this class, but I’m impressed with what I can research and look up.

The issue is that every website has a learning curve.  Right now, Internet Archive is awkward for me to use.  But, as I get more comfortable with the site, I’ll be able to make better use of its resources.  Perhaps that is one advantage to those old brick and mortar libraries.  Every library I know of uses the Dewey system to categorize its contents.  So, your knowledge of library research is portable from one library to the next.  Of course, you also have that research librarian who can always help you out.  But, each website that you find that can give you the historical documents you need has its own idiosyncrasy that you have to work through.

All in all, historical research using the web beats driving to the one source that has the material you need.  Especially if the car you drive happens to be a beat up 1973 American Motors Gremlin.

Wikipedia Article

For this week’s blog post I chose to research Wikipedia’s article on the history of the Boston Red Sox. This is the first time I critically viewed a Wikipedia article. Usually, I simply read an article and if it’s interesting, I continue reading. If the article doesn’t interest me, I simply move on to another search result.
The first thing I noticed about my sports history topic was that Wikipedia was not one of the first search results. There were several sports specific websites that came up first and the official Red Sox website before Wikipedia’s article. Usually, when I run any type of history search, the Wikipedia article comes up first or second. I assume that since we live in a “sports crazed” society, other sports websites would get more hits than a Wikipedia article about sports.
The second thing I paid attention to is the number of hyperlinks in the article. I’ve always seen the hyperlinks but never really thought much about them. But, as with most articles on Wikipedia, one can click through to scores of other websites that refer to key words in the original article. One could almost call the Wikipedia website, “Spiderpedia” because of the intricate web of sites that you can get drawn into. While it seems proper to do so, I think one could get side-tracked and off focus by clicking through all the available links.
As far as the actual article about the history of the Boston Red Sox, I found the material very informative and quite extensive. I clicked on some of the notes hyperlinks and all were still active. However, when I viewed the dates of many of the links, they were relatively recent. It appears, again, that sports history links are updated regularly and properly maintained.
While there were 97 note annotations, there are only 5 books referenced. Two are by the same author (Shaughnessey, one from 1995, “The Curse of the Bambino,” and one from 2005, “Reversing the Curse”). Most of the material in the article relied on baseball or sport websites.
The article did have some controversy. One editor complained that the portion on the 2007 World Series “lent undue weight to certain ideas, incidents or matters” and the editor requested that the article be changed to a more “balanced presentation.” I didn’t see anything wrong with that section. But, most sports teams have an emotional fan base, so it was interesting to see an editor attempting to inject the neutrality of academia into an article on sports history.