…Really just spitballing, here…

…And before anyone accuses me of being grotesque or bringing bodily fluids into this, Answer Girl gives a good definition of the term here. I use the phrase a lot, but sometimes I get a funny look, so I thought I’d start with that caveat…

Before I even knew that this was the week we’re talking about wikis in the history and new media class, I thought of one possible idea for something I might like to do as a project related to that class– just because it occurred to me and seemed like a good idea.  And I guess I’m throwing this out to you all, in part, because I’m wanting to see if anyone else would be interested in working on this, because wikis are so inherently collaborative…

Would anyone else be interested in working on a historiography wiki? It seems like something that could potentially be a useful tool and a edifying thing to work on…

The way I’m picturing it is this: it would work like any other wiki, but specifically focus on the historical, linking history with historians.  You could have pages on historians, which might include major works, their academic/intellectual pedigree, who influenced them, who they influenced, topics and periods covered, etc.  These could then be linked to other entries, about specific books, periods, areas, etc.  The advantage of it would be that, once it took on some volume, you could go to one place to find out who to start with if you want to find out about a specific topic, say, or who some contemporary historians covering your time period are to a text you’re reading. 

I think it’d be useful, too.  It could be a great study tool for people trying to prep for comps– not just as a resource, giving information, but as a way of cataloging what you’ve read.  Writing pages about books you’ve read would help solidify them in your mind.  And the collaborative nature of wikis would mean that others could point you to other readings that might benefit you, via edits and hypertextual connections…

Any thoughts?  Anyone interested? Anyone think it’s a bad idea?  Why?


At any rate, toward that end, I poked around on Wikipedia, trying to get a feel for how complex it was, etc.  I have to admit, it was intimidating looking at all that code!  I wasn’t sure what I was looking at…

Eventually, I figured out that part of the reason is that Wikipedia is coded in XHTML, which is apparently sort of like the bastard child of HTML and XML… And since you might say I have "small HTML and less XML," this hybrid was a bit confusing.  But then I got to thinking: how much of this is just stuff that’s on every page?  So I looked.  I tried to find two pages on two fairly unrelated topics– so they were likely to have few authors in common.  I picked the entries on The Germs and Rodolphe Töpffer. Two fairly unlike topics. Once I did that, I was actually impressed at how similar the two pages were, despite their different material.

The basic Wikipedia format is a standardized Cascading Style Sheet.  Most everything looked the same, when viewing the source code, for several, several lines.  There were some things that were in one entry, though that weren’t in the other.  I started looking at these.  The first thing that caught my eye was that on the entry on the Germs, this section:

The Germs
Origin Los Angeles, California
Country United States of America
Years active 1977 – 1980, 2005 – present
Genres Punk rock
Labels Slash Records
Past members Darby Crash
Pat Smear
Michelle Baer
Lorna Doom
Dottie Danger
Donna Rhia
Nicky Beat
Don Bolles

Is done through a series of tables– though the code that controls a lot of how tables look, their color, things like that– can be found in the CSS.  That makes sense, as you’d want something like Wikipedia to have a fairly uniform appearance… (As an aside, check out who "Dottie Danger" really is– it might surprise you!)

((As a further aside, ’cause I know a lot of you are novice geeks like me, and might not know such things, and be learning by trial and error– I had to edit the above table just slightly… when I just cut and pasted it out of the source code from Wikipedia, it wasn’t redirecting.  I looked at the source code, and figured out what it was: the href tags were redirecting as if you’re already in Wikipedia.  So to make it work, I just had to change this:

<a title="Record label" href="/wiki/Record_label">Labels</a>

to this:

<a title="Record label" href=>Labels</a>

which makes sense– without the http bit, it was trying to transfer it WITHIN the site, and didn’t know it was referring to an outside one…))


Well, I could keep on talking, but I’m probably only proving my ignorance, so I’ll quit with that now– enough "under the hood" talk from the guy who doesn’t know a crankshaft from a carburetor.

However, before I close out this entry, for anyone else who’s interested in getting deeper into this coding and web design stuff, but maybe not the most familiar with the ins and outs of it, you’ve probably found, like I have, that just Googling for unfamiliar terms and tags tends to just give you a lot more unfamiliar terms and tags…  I’ve found’s HTML for Beginners and their CSS for Beginners pages to be pretty simple to read and informative. Once I finish both of them, I’ll check out their intermediate pages, and report back on those. Anyone who knows of other similar sites, feel free to send ’em along.


…On what started out seeming like a simple assignment…

(N.B.– There’s a scrapbook that accompanies this post.  Check it out, as it’ll make things a bit clearer…)

I have to say that this first assignment for the Doctoral Research Seminar was more complicated than it had initially seemed.  We were each assigned three pages of the 1880 manuscript census for Fredericksburg, Virginia, and directed to the 1886 Sanborn fire insurance map for the city.  One of the goals was to see if there was any data we could add to the map that we had gleaned from the census.  I was assigned pages 57-60, the last three pages of the census.  I think that this was part of the problem.

After downloading the census pages from, I began by transcribing them. This, already, proved more difficult than I had expected. I’m much more used to working with printed materials– I’m quite comfortable dealing with the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of antiquarian printers than I am with the complexities of old handwriting.  For that matter, I’m not even that good at interpreting a lot of modern handwriting.  It took me half an hour of staring at this:

I have no idea what this says... it's illegible

…before giving up and using the wonderful tool that is the Internet to find a helping hand… It turns out, it says "George Street."  I still don’t quite see it.  (And let me quickly give a thank-you to Audrey for helping a fellow out in his time of need.)

After transcription, I turned to my map.  And that’s when the real confusion began.  The town of Fredericksburg had yet to number houses, so the census-taker was unable to record house numbers.  This made figuring out anything other than the streets the houses were located on tricky.  I turned to the 1889 City directory, but I was only able to locate a couple people from my sample group– all of whom seemed to have moved in the intervening nine years.  All others, seemingly, had left the area. 

Trying not to be discouraged, I went to the record of property taxes for 1800 which even listed some tenant’s names, hoping it would prove more fruitful.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t make any positive matches– there were some common surnames that I found in the records that also appeared in my sample group, but without first names, I couldn’t say with any certainty if these were the people I was looking for or not.  I was running out of ideas. 

I went to classmates’ blogs, hoping to find something– a hint about method, perhaps, or something indicating how one might go about plotting a single locus on the map, assuming that I could then retrace the census-taker’s footsteps, and figure out the locations of the other houses by logical deduction.  Unfortunately, this was only dispiriting, as I discovered that Tamara had already figured out the location of the people in her sample group, and that her people seemed to live along Hanover Street– the same street on which 82% of my sample group lived!  And Jennifer mentioned in her blog that she had people on Hanover Street in her group, too!

Somewhat discouraged, I returned to looking at the Sanborn maps.  Looking at the maps, I noticed something that I hadn’t previously noticed.  The Sanborn maps included both a smaller, general map of the town of Fredericksburg and a set of more detailed maps that accounted for each building– houses, commercial buildings, and public structures.  Comparing the two, I realized that there was a large portion– the majority, even– of Hanover Street that was not accounted for by the larger, more detailed map.  The map of the area shows Hanover Street as a long road, leading out into the country. The more detailed map, however, showed just three blocks of the street.  Moreover, my three pages of the census show 19 households on Hanover Street– not to mention the houses on Hanover accounted for in my classmates’ blogs– whereas on the Sanborn map, there are only 11!

Some demolition may have happened in the intervening six years between the census and the map’s being made, and some buildings may well have been adapted to commercial purposes that had previously been homes.  However, it seems less likely that there was such a radical shift in the town, and more likely that there are simply certain structures and households on that stretch of Hanover beyond the three blocks downtown that for some reason were omitted from the Sanborn maps.  Given that the Sanborn Map and Publishing Company was making these maps for fire insurance purposes, perhaps this section of town was omitted because it was on the outskirts of town, where land use was likely less dense, and fire would spread less easily.

I had initially assumed that the section depicted in the detailed maps was the section reflected in my portion of the census, primarily because there was a single household in the section on Main Street, on the easterly side of town.  However, after looking more closely at the census data, I have begun to suspect the obvious– that my section of the census was in fact in that unaccounted-for area of Hanover Street, on the western fringes of town.  The three households on George Street could easily be on the area of the street, also unrepresented in the detailed maps, near where it joins with Hanover.  If this is the case, the house on Main Street may have simply been a case of "cleaning up"– the census-taker backtracking to an abode at which he had previously not found anyone home.

There are several reasons for this inference.  The sample includes two men whose occupation is listed as "farmer"– people I would expect to be on the geographic  periphery of the town. 

Another reason is the socioeconomic profile of my sample.  The group is largely of the lower class.  Many of the men working outside the house have fairly low-income jobs–there are many listed simply as "laborers," as well draymen, sailors, and a "preacher" who I assume since he is living with a carpenter is probably itinerant. Of the 109 people listed in this section of the census, only nine are servants employed in the house.  As the South at this point is still fairly early into industrialization, I would assume that a large portion of the town’s wealth would congregate in the center of the town or city, as it tends to in preindustrial societies.

Likewise, the group is fairly racially mixed.  Of the 23 households in my sample, about one in three are listed as black or mulatto.  While the black houses are exclusively so, they don’t seem to be in any way "clustered"– they are scattered throughout the group.  If one imagines the census taker walking down the street, knocking on each door he comes across, one must imagine that every third house he comes across is a black household.  I don’t know much about patterns of settlement in the South at this period, but I would assume that such a pattern of mixed settlement might be indicative of a poorer neighborhood.  This is more speculative, but I also thought it relevant that the western side of town is the location of the "colored cemetery."  This is purely speculative, but one can imagine in the context of the 19th century South, living "out on Hanover, past the colored cemetery" might not be the type of thing that drives up property values.

Interestingly, as one gets to the last page of the census, the situations of the individuals seem to get worse and worse.  On the last page, you have William Hunt, a single man who repairs watches, and shares his house with two boys– five and three years old– who do not share his name.  This is followed by John Lewis, a drayman who lives with his wife and his two adopted sons.  Then there’s several houses full of unmarried working class men– a cart-driver who lives with two laborers, a household of three sailors, and the previously-mentioned carpenter who shares his home with an itinerant preacher. (The preacher does not show up in either the 1889 town directory or the 1885 business directory, making me even more sure that he was probably a traveling evangelist.)

There are also, however, several rather prominent people represented in this sample.  These are wealthier men who probably have larger houses on the outskirts of town, not out of necessity, but for the space– "country homes" outside town, if you will, almost proto-suburbanites.  To be more precise, there are four such men. 

There’s the lawyer Samuel Brooke, who lives with his wife, his three children, and two domestic servants.  Brooke doesn’t show up in either of the later city directories, and it seems likely that his legal career took him on to a larger town.  Likewise, you have Irish immigrant David Fleming.  Given the location of his daughters’ births, it can be inferred that Fleming had moved to the town some time between 1875 and 1877, probably for his job as the Superintendent of the Citizen’s Gas Company.  Fleming had two in-house servants by 1880, and by 1885, was a prominent member of the Home Building Association, the Opera House Syndicate, and an officer in at least three Masonic organizations.  Then there’s John Berrey, a retired hardware merchant– and the only retired person in the sample.  Berrey lives with his five children, all unmarried, who range in age between 28 and 44.  Of the three sons, the 28-year-old is listed as "at home," as young children and dependent women tend to be, and the older two sons have very nice middle-class jobs, as a clerk and a commercial trader.

The final person of wealth in my sample group is the one that really makes me suspect that I’ve successfully located the correct section of Hanover Street, and that’s Charles Richardson, proprietor of the Windsor Manor Pickle Company. While one wouldn’t expect a factory owner to live next door to his factory, one would expect that he would want to be relatively nearby, in the days before the automobile. Looking again at the map of the Fredericksburg area, notice the location of the pickle factory, at the bottom of the map. The western section of Hanover Street would present the most convenient commute, avoiding the traffic of Main Street and the commercial districts to the East.

Ultimately, of course, all this is speculation and inference.  I did a quick search in a couple databases, but I couldn’t find any articles about 19th century census-taking patterns, so the entire assumption that these houses are in any particular order may be false.  (It’s a tough search– try it!  There’s all sorts of false correlations and strange hits that have nothing to do with what you’re looking for…)  I certainly wouldn’t bet any money on any of this.  But I have a fairly good feeling about it, and I’ve definitely learned a bit about process, and how one might go about such work.  If I was going to go further with this, (which would be silly since it’s just an exercise) I would probably start looking at the court records and the police blotters next, looking for some sort of clue that could help me confirm or disprove my suspicions.  I would also likely go to later Sanborn maps, and other maps of Fredericksburg, to see if they offered any clues as to what was over on the outskirts of town, on Hanover Street.


On the use-value of blogs and communities for historical research…

In an introductory session of my program’s Doctoral Colloquium, a member of the program came in to talk about blogging history.  It’s only logical– George Mason’s History department seems determined to shed the Luddite image so many Historians are more than happy to propagate.  (At the last University I attended, there was one Prof in the History department who I suspect took a certain special glee in absolutely refusing to use either email or voicemail.  Some people seem to confuse living immersed in History and living in History… but that’s a different matter…)

At any rate, one of the big concerns voiced by many of the people in the Colloquium– or at least those slower to adapt to new technologies, or the usefulness of blogging– was that of authority.

If one of the big advantages of blogging is the interactivity, the fact that it’s a bi-directional medium, they asked, how can you trust anyone who tells you anything?  Couldn’t they be wrong, or deliberately misleading you?  If one searches through books or journals, the argument goes, those authors have been put through the rigors of editorial and/or peer review.  Their voices are thus lent authority, their opinions given weight and value.  But anyone with a modem can make claims on your blog– how can you trust them?

Well, the short answer is, you can’t.  Of course.  Obviously. 

Of course, in the last year, Hwang Woo-suk has proved you can’t trust the journal Science, despite it’s wonderful reputation and system of peer review.  And anyone who is either a pomo-debunker or a pomo-debunker-debunker is familiar with how Physicist Alan Sokol proved you can’t trust Social Text not to print what the author describes as absolute "nonsense."

The (only slightly) longer answer is you can’t trust anybody, ever.

It’s the duty of an academic to sort through data, test hypotheses, and generally act as a skeptical interpreter of (always slightly suspect) data.  You can’t trust anyone, in other words– or at least not completely.

But this in no way means that one should distance oneself from any possible provider of support, in tackling difficult research questions.  And the web offers historians and other academics a superb networking tool– not to mention one that can bridge the gap between the professionalized halls of academe and the world of public historians, witnesses to history, and amateur enthusiasts– all of whom may be key to unlocking that one perplexing puzzle. 

Why refuse that help if it fails to come with a PhD and a peer review?  Match the advice you’re given against what you know, and what you can deduce, and use your better judgment.

All of these comments are really just a preface to this: I found a great example of the best-case scenario, when it comes to enlisting the help of others on the web, and I thought I’d share it with those and any other classmates: it’s a discussion in the academics_anon community on the journaling site Livejournal, a community that, despite its sometimes intense snarkiness– especially during finals season– has been a lifesaver for me on more than one occasion. 

The original poster came with an illustration that wasn’t properly attributed in the book she found it in, and was a difficult piece to decipher– check it out, it’s a really interesting image— and the members of the community came up with all sorts of avenues of investigation for her.

This isn’t always the way these things work, but it’s one of the possibilities, and it’s the one that keeps me optimistic about the overall use of the net to academics.

Just felt like sharing.


In which our author remembers that design is important…

Reading Digital History was an interesting experience. The sections on design really challenged me to think about my own sense of style and design– something that I admit I’ve mostly left to the level of instinct and convenience ’til now.  When it comes to my activities online, I’ve usually gone for the simplest pre-fab design available– whatever doesn’t look too flashy, or too "the Internet circa 1998."  (If you want a good example of this sort of ugliness, check out Myspace, or any Geocities fan site that hasn’t been modified for ages… or, if you’re looking for a bit of ironic fun, the Paperrad art collective’s web page.)

Beyond that, the only thing I’ve really taken any sort of aesthetic "stand" of any sort on is my cartooning, and since my foot’s strongly in the primitivist camp on that one, I’ve just forced myself to draw what comes naturally, without really questioning what or why or wherefore.  Even when I was doing digital scans of my work and altering them for the little gallery show I was in this summer, I when about my Photoshopping much more quickly and thoughtlessly than did my friend I was showing with, a professional designer.  Other than when functionality is defeated by design, or when it’s just plain ugly (again, see Myspace…) I’ve never really questioned the underlying purposes that make for good design– the reasons some things work well, and others don’t. I’ve been satisfied to keep it simple, clean, and when at all possible, "natural."

So of course after reading the sections on design, when I logged back into Typepad, my first response was to spend 45 minutes tinkering with design elements that, in the end, make very little difference.  I went to a full justify on the columns, because I simply find full justifies to be more readable– probably because they hark back to "professional" printed texts… I’ve never seen why, in the age of the word processor, anyone would be content to leave a document left-justified.  It doesn’t look "done," to me, and the jagged edges on the right side distract my eye.  Frankly, I’m surprised that Six Apart made it the default on any of their pre-fab designs… 

I also switched the fonts over to TNR, just ’cause I roll that way.  I know that, according to Cohen & Rosenzweig, sans serif fonts are better for large blocks of text on-screen, but I just like serif fonts.  Especially TNR.  Again, it looks "professional," "printed."  (Plus, I keep on going back to the words of a friend of mine, a designer and a psych student, who found several studies that suggested that serif fonts are easier to read, because the little details– the tail on the "t," the crossy-thing on the "G"– in other words, the serifs– actually make it easier and quicker for the brain to recognize the letters… It’s a sort of over-determination that speeds up recognition…  Anyway, that’s what she told me, once, and it stuck with me.)

(Also, just because I’m not able not to do such things, I went and Wikipedia’d "serif…" it’s actually an interesting little article, if you feel like geeking out a bit further on the topic.)

At any rate, I’ve come to something I’m reasonably satisfied with.  Actually, that’s not completely true.  I want to get a hold of Photoshop and put together a .jpg that I can use for a title banner, rather than just this line of text– something a little more interesting to look at.  And also, I couldn’t find anything resembling an ecru or eggshell type color on any of the HTML color sheets that Google brought up… And I’d really like an off-white background, just ’cause it’s gentler, and because it kind of gives that parchment-y, "historical" feel, which is good for a history blog.  If anyone has knowledge of an off-white HTML color code, please– help a brother out.

And on the note of less-is-more design, I really have nothing critical to say about The Diary of Samuel Pepys. All I can really say is "wow."  It’s not much to look at, but it doesn’t have to be– and I love the idea of making a group project out of the hypertextualization of a text, creating annotations that work together to improve understanding. 

And the idea of "releasing" new entries on the date they were written is a great idea– more than the simple conceit it may have started as.  "Releasing" new entries in real-time (or, as you might properly call it, lag-time…) helps to create a community– it makes the community of reader-annotators only have to make a small investment of time, or at least fosters that illusion by breaking it up.  Hypertextualizing a text of any length is an arduous project, time-consuming even for a team of people paid to do so.  However, by making this project something that can be done repeatedly, at will, in small chunks, the person who put it up has created a volunteer army of historians and enthusiasts to work on the task.

I think it’s an amazing project, and I wish it was being done with the diary of someone who falls closer to my research areas, geographically or temporally. I’m half-tempted to steal the concept, and do it with one of the many Boston-area diarists or letter-writers– say, someone like William Tudor or Samuel Sewall.  Sewall would be especially interesting, just ’cause I remember being befuddled and confused by so many of the references made in his diaries, when I was doing my Boston Common research. 

Those old diaries can feel like they’re written in code, sometimes.


inaugural post…

This is just a post so I can see how this think looks.

Ignore me– I’m like the sound check guy.  ((Taps microphone…))

But if you insist on being entertained, check this out– Making Comic Book History Come Alive!