Civil War Studies and the Digital (R)Evolution Seminar

From the Spirit of Jefferson (West Virginia):

Seminar’s goal: Bring the Civil War into the 21st century

CHARLES TOWN – Though the Civil is 150 years behind us, fresh details about the conflict are emerging every day thanks to new technologies, explains an expert from Charles Town’s online American Public University System.

“New tools are changing the way we research the Civil War,” said Brad Wiles, APUS’s archivist. “Every day, we’re seeing new arguments, new debates, in many cases, a new understanding of just what happened all those years ago.”

Saturday, APUS will host its second-annual history colloquium, a free exchange that’s open to scholars, educators and researchers as well as those with a more casual interest in the War Between the States.

“Civil War Studies and the Digital (R)Evolution” takes place from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the APUS finance center at 393 N. George St.

As more libraries, schools and other institutions make official records and other primary source materials on the war available on their websites, researchers the world over have access to a vast array of new insights, Wiles said.

“With video content and graphics, researchers now also have new ways of analyzing the information that’s out there,” he said. “With access to soldiers’ diaries, memories they recorded after the fact, regiment records and other vital statistics, researchers can start to fill in blanks and get a street-level view of what happened during the Civil War rather than just knowing about the big-picture battles and events.” …. (See full article here)

The articles goes on to discuss the speakers and some of the topics of the seminar.  I do wish news of this event was posted earlier.  Several in the blogging community would probably be interested in the seminar, myself included.

The topic has received a lot of attention of late.  And re-posting the notice gives me a chance to put in my two cents on this topic.  I submit that my day job places me closer to the National Archives than anyone else in the Civil War blogging community – I can measure the distance from my desk to the archive doors in hundreds of feet.

What I’ve come to realize is a distinct difference in the research methods between “on site” and “on line” venues.  When I’m in the “on site” mode, my method is that of rapid data collection.  I identify sets of records for viewing prior to arrival.  After the records pull, I proceed through those one page at a time.  Sort of like the Forrest Gump “box of chocolates” as sometime you never know what will be found in the files (or misfiled files as the case may be).  There’s a constraint at play – one must collect what is there, at that time, and analyze it later.  No time for tangents.  And I’ll admit, maybe this is just my rigid “old school” research techniques at play here.  Old school as in “that’s the roll of microfilm currently in the reader so you’d better make the most of it” approach.

In contrast, “on line” methods tend to play more upon threading of research.  I’ve grown to enjoy Fold3, particularly for certain sets of records, for this very reason.  Often I will open a page from the Confederate Citizens Files, then feel the urge to track down a name from that document.  From there, my research threads across service records or other documents.  Such methods focus on associations, actually inviting tangents to the original research focus.

Today, I can pull up images from the Library of Congress collection directly on my phone – taking accessibility to the extreme.  Certainly enabling, but at the same time a very high bar for records which have never been cataloged to being with.  The next generation of historians may slip around the archives virtually.  But they won’t do so with complete independence of the physical records.

Furthermore, in order for the researcher to gain the most of a digital record set, the artifacts require proper tagging and metadata.  A good, flexible data definition will greatly ease the problems inherent with retrieval within a digital repository. These are, in some ways, protocols used to map the data.  Those protocols become a layer between the user and the data itself.   What’s good is when the user retrieves exactly the data needed from a query for a key word.  On the other hand, that means the user must know, or at least have an ideal about, what should be returned.  Otherwise how does anyone know the system provided all the right information?

I’ve had a hand at defining such for more modern records – you know stuff related to the current unpleasantness.  I would submit that task is much easier for records that one is creating at the time.  For 150 year old information, I’d be concerned about imposing unnatural associations by way of tagging.  Certainly a daunting task that we should be thankful for next time our query nets return results. But we shouldn’t be lulled into the assumption the query returns all there is to look over.  The researcher’s query may not play against the tags in the way that best pulls the right data (you search for “Fort Sumter” and get records for some place in Arizona, for instance).  And not all data is in the digital repository.

And there’s another “protocol” or “layer” that we should be aware of – and what I think is the most exciting.  Social media has brought the ability to present information across broader spectrum.  Not regular blogging… but more so from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and such.  Micro-blogging allows us to front small elements of information within context without toting around the whole box.  The methodology that my wife is using to find better desert recipes may well lead us to a generation’s worth of collective historical research.

That, if you ask me, is where the revolution is taking place.  We aren’t changing the underlying information, rather putting protocols in place that will aid with analysis and interpretation.  As I said, there are pitfalls – not the least of which is that not all information will ever be digitized.  But the benefits are monumental and will change the way we approach the topic in later decades.

“Computer, retrieve all information on Edwards Ferry.”