Archives and Technology

Last week Eric Wittenberg posted a swell rant on is blog regarding the use of Google book search particularly with public domain resources.  The discussion intersected with the day job on several points, and I couldn’t hold back.  Three responses to a blog post, well that means I probably should have taken my discussion points over here in the first place! 

Mr. Wittenberg’s problem involved the permissions settings allowed to him, a viewer, of public domain documents and books.  The system allowed him to browse, but not to print, copy, download, etc.  Much like being in an archive microfilm room without benefit of a printer, copier, or perhaps even paper and pencil.   The issue isn’t directly linked to a particular regulation or governance guideline.  Rather that finally technology is catching up to some long standing knowledge management requirements, left unfilled since the beginning of this www thing. 

During the “analog” days, as I like to call them, we had books and papers.  Our portability options were limited to some variation of photography – photo-copy, microfilm, or microfiche.  The paradigm was simple.  If you wanted access to the information presented in the resource, you went to the resource – bought the book, visited the library/archive, etc.  You could reproduce the information either by written notes or, if allowed, photo reproduction.  While portability was limited, integrity of the resource was high.  It was near on impossible within the bounds of the “analog” format to change the artifact. The information “was what it is was because that was all there was…” 

I recall laboring under such constraints during undergraduate work.  The Winston Churchill Memorial in Fulton, Missouri contains a rather sizable set of papers and documents pertaining to both the man and the British War cabinet.  Perhaps the most complete set in the Western Hemisphere, or at least at that time.  I arrived in college about the time the staff was acquiring, through grants, microfilm copies of the cabinet papers.   Wonderful stuff for a young historian to go browsing through.  I produced no less than six papers based on research form those reels.  One of which, my “magnum opus” for undergraduate studies, was a 100 page typed thesis.  No telling how many hours I spent in the basement of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury.  Wonderful apprenticeship for a young history major.  But, after becoming probably the one person in the United States most acquainted with the British War Cabinet papers from the CAB 65 series, none of it was really useful once I left the bosom of Fulton, Mo.  I had, and still have my notes.  But these aren’t authoritative.  Short of another trip back to the memorial, I could not say without doubt a citation was or is accurate.   

However all that type of work is becoming as obsolete as 45 RPM singles, fins on Chevys, and Burma Shave signs.  Shortly, if not already, all those documents that I was “forced” to browse in the rather chilly reading room, through an eye-branding microfilm viewer screen, will be available in electronic format.   Great for those of us on a travel budget.  But this opens another can of worms – validity of the digital media.

Take for instance one of my treasured research trophies.  Looking at the cabinet minutes for a particular day in April 1940, I came across Churchill’s personal copy of the meeting agenda.  Next to a short paragraph regarding the French naval forces dispositions, I found a scribbled word that looked like “Nelson.”  After a week of fact checking and validation, I announced the conclusion that Churchill had already made up his mind to strike the French fleet, as a pre-emptive measure, well before the fall of France.  The reference to “Nelson” alluded to an action during the Napoleonic Wars involving Lord Nelson and the Danish fleet.  This little scribble was about as close to a smoking gun as I was allowed.  Big stuff for the undergraduate world.  Not much as for bragging rights, though.  The point to me was not all the “information” was simple printed text.  Sometimes a written note on the paper was important too.

Now lets say that same “trophy” was digitized (and it probably is today).  Given a good set of editing software, I could easily paste that scribble anywhere on the page, move it to another page, or even remove it entirely.  In short, the artifact isn’t as tamper proof now as it was in the “analog” format.  Now the information may well not be what it seems to be.  (For instance, I’ve already seen a few “photo shopped” Gardner photographs from the Civil War which claim to show evidence for flying saucers buzzing around in the 1860s!)  Back to my “trophy,” in the digital format, how can I ensure I’m not being duped and at the same time legitimately claim to the world the scribble is original?

Thus one of the long standing requirements from the knowledge management perspective since the dawn of the Internet age has been some form of tamper resistant, or integrity preserving, technology that could be cheaply extended to a whole archive of documents.  The solution passed around today is referred in the trade fliers as “digital rights management” or “resource rights management” depending on the presenter.  Large players in the software business have positioned themselves over the last few years in demand from the government in particular. 

In the 1990s, the solution most mentioned was porting a document to PDF format.  Sounded good, mostly because 99% of us had only Acrobat Reader.  The publisher part, which created the PDF in the first place and allowed editing of the PDF, was expensive.  And nothing prevented a user from printing, screenshotting, or saving a local copy of the file.   The current technology is able to wrap the PDF or other file in a permissions set.  Without the right level of access (simple password or in the deluxe option a digital certificate), a user is only allowed to open the file.  I’ve had to implement solutions where the users were only allowed to view a Word document and could not cut/paste, screen print, print, or save.  All of which was designed to ensure what was said or displayed at a given time is indeed recorded accurately beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Some sources call this “non-repudiation” of data.  I find that term somewhat misleading.  Basically, we are talking about ensuring the validity of the artifact, in the state it was declared a record. 

One major consumer of this technology, within the government sector, is of course the Department of Defense.  Federal statutes are very explicit regarding the handling and disposal of what are defined as “War Records.”  The evolution of the war records is interesting, at least to me.  We are all familiar with the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion from the Civil War era.  While a great source of information, most writers I know of have sought out primary sources where details are lacking.   Often times the reports of key leaders are missing (for example the report of Capt. John C. Tidball, of Battery A, 2nd US Artillery, regarding the Battle of Antietam somehow missed inclusion in the ORs.  But it was preserved in the Henry Hunt papers).

Moving forward to World War II, still in the “analog” days, but the Army was somewhat less conserving on the paper.  Even short inquiries to the National Archives regarding World War II topics often nets ample results.  Still much was left out of the whole.  Veteran’s recollections often reveal a whole other story. 

The researcher fifty years from now, who looks at the current wars, in my opinion, will be overwhelmed with data.  Replacing Sir Winston’s scribbles on the margins, now days document version histories, emails, and even audio recordings are preserved as parts of these war records.  The problem will be, particularly given the controversies of the Iraq war, how the historian can validate a source, and ensure his “trophy” was not altered from the original. 

My prediction is into the future the validation of digital certificates as part of a good author’s references will be as important as the MLA style. 

Sorry for the long post. 


District Wanderings

Not much time to write lately. Work is once again consuming way too much of my free time. But I have to take what I can get. The day job has me on site, downtown within the Federal Triangle of DC for at least this week. Being an opportunist, and one who abhors the rush hour commuter surges, I travel into the city very early. That gives me time to walk around through several of the parks and plazas well before the rush. Today for instance I strolled through the World War II and Vietnam War Memorials on the mall.

Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know DC by way of its memorials. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Europeans built cathedrals. I think we Americans will be remembered for our memorials to some extent. I find it fun to relate directions to co-workers by way of the monuments. “You go through General Scott’s, then turn left down to Admiral Farragut, that should get you down near General Rawlins.”

To which the response is, “Who the heck was General Rawlins?”

“Oh, he was the Karl Rove of the Grant administration. Did you know about him?” Then of course the door is open for me to recount how Rawlins kept Grant away from the strong drinks, dabbled with the “western” and later Washington politics, and generally kept U.S. Grant’s staff in proper order. I’ve often said, Rawlins does deserve an updated, scholarly treatment. In my opinion, you cannot discuss Grant, and by extension the war itself at the operational and strategic level to some degree, without discussing his relation to Rawlins.

Overall though I have been updating hte Antietam Markers groupings from time to time. And I’m short a report of Schoolhouse Ridge at Harpers Ferry. And of course lots of “discoveries” in D.C. As time permits, and onward if not upward….

Loudoun Heights

On Saturday I took advantage of the good hiking weather and ascended Loudoun Heights overlooking Harpers Ferry. The main attraction to the heights for the Civil War enthusiast are several extant fortifications, in addition to a view of Harpers Ferry and surrounding ground. The park service lists the trail as 8 miles, but that probably includes distance from the Visitors Center area. I found the distance from the parking area near the Highway 340 bridge up to the northern overlook to be closer to six miles. The trail is rated “strenuous.” From the crossing of the Shenandoah River to the crest, just over three-quarters of a mile, the elevation increases from around 275 feet to 1150 feet above sea level. My advice is to pack well, and pick a cool day.

The initial leg of the trail follows the Appalachian Trail to about the 900 foot elevation line. I found this to be the most difficult of the trail, naturally. Because the first step up from the bridge criss crosses a creek, with several small waterfalls, the going was somewhat damp. But after the crossing Chestnut Hill Road, the path was dry. At several segments the trail parallels an old road bed used by the U.S. Armory to move charcoal down hill. In the first half of the 19th century, the wooded slopes of Loudoun Heights were processed to feed the industry in Harpers Ferry. At first glance, the old road bed appears to be a breastwork. But it is the result of the debris of road clearing and wear:

Charcoal Road

Where the Appalachian Trail turns south, two different legs branch off to the north and the heights proper. The Orange Blazed trail follows one of the Charcoal roads across the lower tier of the heights. The Blue Blazed trail branches off the Appalachian Trail further up the heights, and follows the ridge crest more closely. I recommend the blue trail going up for two reasons. First the fortifications are along the blue trail. Second, well it is better to get the climbing out of the way while your are able to! Regardless, both Blue and Orange merge about a half mile to the north.

Before turning onto the Blue trail, I walked the Appalachian for about 300 yards further south to locate what might be the remains of a blockhouse dating back to Jackson’s first occupation of the Heights in 1861.

Maybe a Blockhouse

I returned back to the Blue Trail and proceeded north.  During the Siege of Harpers Ferry, Brig. Gen. John G. Walker sent the 27th North Carolina and 13th Virginia to secure the heights on September 13, 1862. Finding the ground unoccupied, Walker then ordered three Parrotts from French’s Battery and two “rifled pieces” from Branch’s Battery to the heights. My records show Branch’s contained one Parrott and two 3-in Ordnance Rifles at this time, but presumably Walker meant the Ordnance types. Walker’s report mentions reducing a Federal battery and causing much “great consternation and commotion” while firing down on Harpers Ferry.  My estimates are the guns took positions somewhere along the Blue Trail a few hundred yard north of the Appalachian Trail.

A short distance up the trail several rock pilings are on either side. These are partly debris kicked up by the logging of the heights, but some are the residue of Federal occupation in October 1862. The 2nd Division, XII Corps held this position during the slow pursuit after Antietam. General Greene’s Federals improved the existing blockhouses and added several stone redoubts and rifle pits.

Fed Blockhouse

Moving further north along the trail, two “vistas” are presented by way of power line cuts through the wooded slopes and a third “overlook” from the cliffs. The first “vista” offers a sweeping view the terrain to the west, including the upper portions of Harpers Ferry, Bolivar Heights, School House Ridge, and the approaches from the west.

View from First Cut

At the second of the vistas, a better perspective of the dominating elevations of Maryland Heights is apparent.

Maryland Heights from Loudoun Heights

And also from this view, what six hundred feet or so of elevation looks like:

Don\'t Fall

Also of note is the view of South Mountain, in the distance here.

South Mountain

I include this mostly because the most distant, and highest, elevation of South Mountain in this view (distant left) is the high ground just south of Fox’s Gap. Both Crampton’s and Brownsville Gaps are in the distant center. Moving on, the last overlook is actually the northern most point in the Blue Ridge at the Potomac.  The average visitor to Harpers Ferry notes this as a set of cliffs over Highway 340 (seen in the center next to the river).
Lower Town from Loudoun Heights

From this overlook, the trail heads down the slope to Highway 340. I opted to back track across the heights and down the Orange Trail. I’d rather walk up and down the rocky slopes than to dodge traffic. Overall the hike took four hours to complete, with all the back tracking and a lunch at the last overlook. Loudoun Heights certainly qualifies as “off the beaten path.” I wouldn’t recommend it if you have a single day to see Harpers Ferry. But it makes for a great day trip excursion.

I found David T. Gilbert’s A Walker’s Guide to Harpers Ferry quite useful for this hike.  However for a map, I used Trailhead Graphics’ Civil War Campaigns Across the Potomac.

Brandy Station Marker Repaired

Last fall, while visiting and documenting the markers at Brandy Station, I noted some damage to the Civil War Trails wayside near St. James Church.

Brandy Station Damaged

The face of the marker suffered from either extreme weathering or vandalism. Brandy Station, in my opinion, is interpreted with just the right mix of markers. It isn’t over done, and has plenty of these waysides to educate the visitor. So the loss of one marker at the battlefield had an impact on the overall experience for a casual visitor.

This weekend, I passed by the battlefield on the way to other sites and was curious if the marker was repaired:

Brandy Station Repaired

Tip of the hat to the folks managing the Civil War Trails system. The wayside provides the best overview map of the battle from any of the interpretive markers on site. Thus, as restored, it offers the casual visitor a high level overview of the battle. The marker entry is part of a set at HMDB we grouped as a “virtual tour” of the battlefield (list) (map).

HMDB Maintenance

The Historical Marker Database is currently undergoing a “spring cleaning” maintenance cycle. For now the data is in read only mode. Since I send a lot of my links over that direction, I do apologize to anyone who has experienced any of the anomalies from the site recently.

Again, I’m a content contributor, who has some elevated responsibilities, on HMDB. In addition to my own contributions, I review other entries to verify editorial compliance before publication. Most of the editorial rules involve title declaration, text format, geographic coordinates, and address listings. As an editor I try to split hairs over things like zip codes. If the metal plaque is “on the county line,” I’ll try to determine which side of the line it’s on. Can’t have it listed in two places at the same time after all!

Most of the entry data is fairly fixed. We don’t re-interpret text, for instance. If it is misspelled, that’s actually part of the historical artifact after all. Not much wiggle room for a contributor until they are describing the marker location and offering commentary. The later often gives me the most trouble. Some times, but definitely a minority of submissions, the contributor’s commentary either doesn’t seem to flow with the marker subject, or is, bluntly speaking, poorly written. I hate to cut up some-one’s text, but then again, I don’t want a public facing entry to present less than polished appearances. Usually, if the modifications require more than corrections for spelling or grammar, I forward copies of the original text and proposed changes.

With several correspondents, the system has gotten so routine as to flow almost naturally. One individual simply writes, “I didn’t find anything about this on web searches, please provide any information you have…” Surprisingly, for a system open for content submission from the general public, very few correspondents have issue with the editorial review. The only exception I can recall came from someone with a very impressive academic resume. The last thing I’d suspect is debating “the King’s English” with someone possessing a high level college degree. But that is for another day….

One of the draws for me to HMDB is somewhat “selfish” in a way. Since the webmaster, owner, and operator has, unfortunately for him, all the systems administration and web maintenance responsibilities, I don’t have to bring my day job home as much. Working as a collaboration systems architect and information technology consultant in the D.C. metro area, I get to spend weeks on end discussing page layouts, functional relations of information, network addresses, SAN storage requirements, and other nuts and bolts. I know of some mechanics who can get home from work and spend their off time restoring old cars. Sorry, I’m just not wired that way. I’m the type who must purge “work” from “play.” Which is of course why this blog site isn’t “pimped” to the max with custom CSS or elaborate data tags.

Fort Foote

Finally got around to a belated trip report and marker entries for Fort Foote, Maryland. I visited the fort during the first week of March, and in spite of the near freezing wind, enjoyed the walk.  The advantage to the “off season” in the DC area generally is less traffic.  Since Fort Foote is certifiably “off the beaten path” this isn’t a worry even in July.  The other advantage, for Fort Foote, is without all the summer vegetation, sections of the fort are much easier to visually trace.  The marker set for Fort Foote includes five interpretive waysides.  Several markers on site show signs of wear, weather, and neglect.  The map view is noteworthy, since the satellite image was made during the winter months, details of the fort’s works including the central traverse, are clear to see.  Also visible from space are two large black objects:

15in Rodman in Barbette

For the Civil War artillery enthusiast, one lure to the fort is to examine these two 49,000 pound monsters.   After all you don’t find 15-inch Rodman Guns laying about just anywhere.

Fort Foote was built between 1863 and 1865 primarily to defend the river approaches to Washington, D.C.  This section of the system included nearby Fort Washington, downstream on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and Fort Hunt and Battery Rogers on the Virginia side of the river.   Fort Foote, unlike most other forts defending Washington, continued to be used after the war including active service through 1878, and a brief period of administrative use during World War I.

During the Civil War, the fort’s armament consisted of the two 15-inch Rodmans, between two and four 8-inch Parrott Rifles, and six 30-pounder Parrott Rifles (facing the land side approaches to the fort).  After the war, Fort Foote became somewhat of a demonstration area, with a wider assortment of guns.  When de-activated in 1878, the armament included, in addition to the original guns,  six 12-pounder Napoleons, one 6-pounder field gun,  two 4.5-in rifles, four 3-inch rifled guns, six 10-inch siege mortars, two 8-inch siege mortars, five 24-pounder Coehorn mortars, and two different types of Gatling guns.

Due in part to its proximity to the capital, Fort Foote was often visited by the President and other distinguished guests.  Apparently the favorite activity during these “dog and pony shows” was the firing of the Rodman guns.  During the post war era, at least one of the Rodmans was mounted on a modified carriage, which was an evolutionary step towards the disappearing guns that became an important component for the American seacoast defenses until World War II.  After the fort was discontinued, the big guns remained on site, neglected and forgotten.   Only in the 1980s when the National Park Service took over the site were the guns remounted and restored.

The two guns on site are both products of Cyrus Alger & Co.   The first weapon of this type cast by Alger, from 1863 is the western most of the two.  Stamped with the initials “TJR” and a weight of 49,392 lbs., No 1 was inspected by Thomas Rodman himself.  The other, registry number 30, was inspected by Clifton Comly (C.C.) in 1864, and weighs 49,618 pounds.  Here’s the “business end” of the two showing the markings:

RodmanNo1Rodman 30

These large Rodmans also feature the distinctive “mushroom” knob at the breech end:

Rodman Mushroom

This shape replaced the traditional ball shaped knob.  With such tremendous weights involved, the traditional ball/knob and neck type cascabel was structurally a weak point.  Used mostly as a purchase for ropes associated with lifting tackle, the neck tended to break when stressed.  Rodman’s solution was simply to flatten the neck and knob, forming what we’d probably call today a more streamlined design.  The groove around the “knob” provided a strong and durable anchor point for the lifting ropes.  Also seen from this view are the sockets used for the elevating mechanism, another Rodman innovation. 

Overall a good walk in the woods to see the two iron monsters still faithfully guarding the Potomac. 


References consulted:

 Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

Coolin, Benjamin Franklin III and Walton H. Owen II. Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing Co, Inc., 1988.


Manassas Landscape Restoration Projects

The Park Service has posted informative signs at both Brawner Farm and on Matthews Hill detailing the ongoing landscape restoration projects. Although some historical details are included on the signs, since these are temporary in nature, I’m not inclined to place them in the Historical Marker Database.

Matthews Hill

Each sign provides details of the project scope. Both report 140 acres of woodlands are being restored to field lots, with six acres replanted with native trees to round out the historical landscape. The most interesting portion of each sign, from my perspective, are the aerial photographs with overlays detailing the project boundaries. However, I must apologize for the poor quality of my pictures here. Note the north seeking arrow for the Brawner Farm sign is to the left, and that for Matthews Hill is to the lower left. I was unable to visit the Deep Cut area during my visit, but suspect a similar sign is posted there.

Last August a news article from the Washington Post detailed the project, with some slightly different numbers. Just my opinion, but I cannot help but see this as a positive change. This will restore a historical artifact, the land itself.  The choices regarding native grasses and trees for the project is sound.  But I must laugh at the last line of the article:  “A lot of those [reenactors] are into authenticity.”

You think?