UC10154 -- Exploring digital heritage -- Week 2

Draft, 16 August 2016
This page should be in a useful state, but still needs work before it's finished.

Doing it in public


The readings this week explore the intersection of cultural heritage, public history, and digital humanities. How have digital tools and techniques changed our ability to communicate cultural heritage, and who are we communicating with?

Paths and sandboxes

A couple of years ago I started to collate information about websites that included links back to digitised newspaper articles on Trove. I wanted to understand more about the contexts in which the newspapers were being used and cited. The diversity of subjects and sites was astonishing, and sometimes disturbing.

You can browse for yourself at Trove Traces. Though, be warned, not all of it is pleasant.

Have a look under the ‘Analysis’ menu where you’ll find a list of Top pages – these are the sites with the most links to Trove. You’ll see there’s a huge amount of work being done. One site in particular caught my eye.

KnowThatProperty.com sounds a bit like a commercial real estate site, but in fact it provides potted histories of houses around Sydney, largely drawn from Trove. For example, the entry for number 2 Carrington Street in Strathfield, provides details of the house’s construction and ownership from 1888 to 1927, with over 40 links to newspaper articles in Trove. The creator of the site is a web developer with an interest in architectural history. (An idea for someone’s project perhaps?)

I wanted to point to this as an example of the way people are engaging with heritage collections online. They’re just doing it.

One of the things that I found frustrating about Meg Foster’s article (other than the use of the term web 2.0 which is just so 2010) was that it seemed to be about creating spaces for the public to participate in history. But I just don’t believe that the public is sitting around waiting for us to create sites for them to do history. They’re already out there pursuing their passions – finding, collecting, and using stuff. And I suspect that as cultural heritage professionals we’re pretty bad at predicting exactly what people will get passionate about.

You’ve probably heard about crowdsourcing – projects we’re you involve the public to help with particular tasks relating to research or the description of collections. There’s a great summary here of the characteristics of crowdsourcing projects in the cultural heritage sector. The correction of OCRd text in Trove’s newspapers is often held up as a sucessful crowdsourcing project. What’s On the Menu from the New York Public Library is another well-known, and very successful, example.

If you haven’t already visit Zooniverse – the home of many of the most innovative crowdsourcing projects. Originally focused on ‘citizen science’, Zooniverse is increasingly getting involved in the cultural heritage sector. What arts, humanities, and cultural heritage projects can you find? Sign up and have a go!

If you can’t find anything of interest, give Measuring the ANZACs or AnnoTate a try. Both of them have detailed tutorials to help get you started. Would you be interested in doing more of this? Why or why not?

Also note the ‘Build a project’ link at the top of the Zooniverse page. You can now use the Zooniverse platform to create your own crowdsourcing projects – perhaps you could use it for your class project?

Trevor Owens discusses what motivates people to become involved in crowdsourcing projects and he talks about providing ‘scaffolding’ rather than just assigning people tasks. Scaffolding, he argues, lets ‘people offer up their time and energy to work that they find meaningful’.

I think it’s important to keep in mind the question of how we create, or allow others to create, meaningful connections to the past. People will always surprise us.

My standard example of this is a guy who, at last count, has created over 200 Trove lists about lawn mowers. He’s mining the newspapers for advertisements and creating a list for each make of mower. People always laugh when I talk about this, but I think its wonderful that you can create opportunities like this for people to pursue their passions. And, like KnowYourProperty.com, this sort of searching and organising of sources is the hard graft of history.

Game designers sometimes talk about the difference between ‘paths’ and ‘sandboxes’. Paths guide you along a particular journey, while sandboxes encourage open-ended exploration. Minecraft is the obvious example of a sandbox game. One writer has described this as the difference between ‘exhaustibles’ and ‘possibility engines’.

I love the idea of using cultural heritage collections to create possibility engines. Not sites, not interfaces, or even experiences – but jumping off points into a rich new world of discovery, creation, and collaboration. It’s not about inviting the public in, it’s about giving them room and perhaps a bit of inspiration.

Oh and two more Trove community examples to get you thinking more about possible projects…

Meet Elegant Elephant. This is a knitting pattern publishing in the Women’s Weekly in the 1950s. No-one would probably know about him except for the fact that the pattern was found and shared on the knitting site Ravelry. He has now been made at least 54 times and the pattern regularly features amongst the most popular articles on Trove.

Or what about the guy who has been finding old, copyright-free, Australian sheet music, recording the music using his computer, and linking the recordings to the original entries in Trove. Now you can not only see the sheet music, you can hear it performed. There’s more about him on the Trove blog.

Start blogging

Foster’s article also talks about the value of blogging. I found her comments about the differences between blogging and scholarly writing a little grating – blog posts are being cited more and more in academic literature. But certainly blogs provide a place to start exploring ideas, or sharing possibilities.

Writing in public, like anything else, needs to be practised. So as part of your assessment for this unit you need to share your reflections publicly on a class blog. And here it is!


You should have received an email invitation to confirm your account to your University of Canberra email account. Let me know on Slack if you haven’t. Follow the link in the email to set up your password.

In the future you can log on by going to:


Once you’ve logged yourself in, you might want to go to your profile page (look under ‘Users’). There you can set the name you want to appear on your posts.

Ok, it’s time for your first post!

  • From the side menu go to ‘Posts > Add new’.
  • I want you to provide a brief introduction to yourself and why you’re doing this unit (nothing too personal!).
  • The interface is similar to Moodle (though hopefully a bit more intuitive). Just give your post a title, then start typing in the big box.
  • The basic formatting tools are already visible, but if you want more options click on the ‘Toolbar toggle’ icon.
  • In particular this reveals the ‘Paste as text’ tool, which is VERY useful if you’re cutting and pasting something from Word and want to avoid lots of messy formatting.
  • Choose ‘Introduction’ as the category, and add any tags you think might be useful.
  • To add an image just click on the ‘Add media’ button, select or upload an image, and then click ‘Insert into post’.
  • Use the ‘Preview’ button to see how your post will look.
  • When you’re finished click on ‘Publish’. Yay!

Just do the same each week to add your reflections (though select the ‘Reflection’ category).

What public?

The articles by Foster and Robertson both explore the links between digital history and public history though from different ends. Foster explores how public historians are starting to explore the digital realm, while Robertson argues that digital history (unlike the broader digital humanities) tends to develop projects of use and interest to the public.

As you start to develop your own projects it’ll be important for you to consider who your audience is. In The public is dead, long live the public Sheila Brennan argues that just because something is online doesn’t mean that it’s public. The design of a digital project has to begin with an understanding of who your ‘public’ actually is and how you can best engage with them.

Do you have any ideas yet about who you want your project to be for?

One of the other contrasts between Foster and Robertson’s articles is how the ‘digital’ itself is protrayed. For Foster it’s an extension of the historian’s work, for Robertson it’s more of a fundamental shift allowing historical sources to be examined and interpreted in radically different ways – particularly though the use of geospatial and text analysis tools (both of which we’ll be exploring in coming weeks).

I threw my talk in the mix because I argue for forms of engagement and openness that are more experimental. For me, its less about presenting a finished ‘project’ than using digital tools to sketch possibilities – some of which might go somewhere interesting. There are ways of being ‘in public’ that don’t mirror more conventional forms of publication. Caleb McDaniel talks about the possibilities of Open Notebook History where you expose your work in progress. This is probably a pretty scary thought for most historians or cultural heritage professionals, but he argues that its one way of demonstrating how our understanding of the past is always changing. There’s no finished product.

Perhaps your project will not be a ‘project’ at all, but a series of publicly documented experiments or explorations.

Here’s some adjectives to get you thinking. Do you want your project to be:

  • Authoritative?
  • Experimental?
  • Playful?
  • Provocative?
  • Popular?

The rise of the bots

Do you have a Twitter account? If not, now would be a good time to create one (you can always delete it later). Just go to twitter.com and follow the sign up instructions. Note that you’ll probably need a mobile phone in order to verify your account.

I want to introduce you to a friend of mine who lives on Twitter. Meet @TroveNewsBot. It would be nice if you followed him.

@TroveNewsBot is a little computer program, a bot, that automatically interacts with Twitter. Several times a day he tweets random newspaper articles from Trove, but that’s just the beginning. Try this:

  • Tweet the hashtag #luckydip at @TroveNewsBot (note that you have to put @TroveNewsBot’s name at the beginning of your tweet or he won’t notice you). The bot will tweet back a random article, though you might have to wait a few minutes for a response.
  • Tweet a keyword or two at @TroveNewsBot and he’ll search Trove and tweet you back the most relevant result. Yes you can search Trove without ever leaving Twitter.
  • Tweet a url and the hashtag #keywords at @TroveNewsBot and he’ll examine the web page, extract keywords from it, search Trove, and tweet you back the most relevant result.
  • There’s various other search options that you can explore on @TroveNewsBot’s GitHub page.

@TroveNewsBot also keeps an eye on current events. Several times a day he looks at the latest headline on the ABC news site, extracts keywords from it, and looks for a historical perspective in Trove. The bot then tweets links to both the old and new articles, creating a funny sort of conversation between past and present. Scroll through @TroveNewsBot’s feed and see if you can find some examples.

If you’re wondering about the rest of Trove, @TroveNewsBot has a younger sibling called @TroveBot (surprise!) who will search everything else on Trove for you.

There are a growing number of collection bots on Twitter, tweeting out random items from cultural heritage collections. Most of them don’t let you search, but the @NYPLEmoji bot is an interesting exception. Tweet it an emoji and it sends you back a matching image from the New York Public Library.

Steve Lubar has argued that the very randomness of most collection bots provides an intersting alternative perspective on the interpretive work of cultural institutions:

The museumbot calls attention to the necessity of making choices. The vast difference between its random choice and what I see in the museum points out that the choices have been made.

I think they’re also interesting because they’re taking collections to the places people already are, rather than expecting them to visit an institutional website. The collections are liberated to interact the public in their space. This offers both opportunities and dangers, as Sarah Werner notes in How to destroy special collections with social media.

Bots can also provide different ways of connecting to the past. The Museum of Australian Democracy marked the 40th anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government by setting up Twitter accounts for many of the major figures and live tweeting comments and events before and during 11 November.

Bots have also have power. Caleb McDaniel’s @Every3Minutes is a commentary on the scale of the US slave trade. Historians have estimated that a person was sold every three minutes between 1820 and 1860. So the bot tweets, every three minutes – ‘someone just purchased a black person’s grandchild’, ‘a white slaver just sold a person’s friend’. Unrelenting – every three minutes. There’s more about the bot in this article by Alexis Madrigal.

Do you want to build a bot?

If you feel like making your own simple Twitter bot, one place to start is cheapbotsdonequick.com. You define a simple template and a series of options. The bot then randomly grabs from the options and inserts the values into the template to create a tweet.

@thetinygallery is a bot that creates a tiny gallery out of emojis.

The code used to create the bot is here. Trying changing some of the emojis or the template (which is labelled as ‘origin’) and see what happens. How could you create a tiny museum?