Finishing up my Second Year at UW

As I finish up the last batch of generally amazing student projects for my digital history course, the 2013-14 academic year comes to a close. And with it, my second year (ok, technically my second academic year rather than calendar year, but that’s how we think) on the tenure track here at the University of Waterloo.

It’s been a great year that crucially saw me falling into some good work cycles. The first year was quite a bit of a whirlwind as I learned new things constantly (from how to fill out a travel claim, to an expense report, to where you go when you need a key for the A/V podium, etc.). While I still feel like I darken our administrative coordinator’s door a wee bit too often with questions, and occasionally run into administrative snafus (did you know what the definition of ‘capital equipment’ is? I do now – don’t try to buy such things with your personal credit card…), for the most part the time has begun to whizz by as I fall into routines.

So in this post, I just want to reflect a bit on what’s working well, and what I want to work on a bit more.. Continue reading

End of an Era: On Finishing the First Book Project

A picture of the cover of the book Rebel Youth, which is a montage of various young people fighting with police officers on the streets of Toronto.For five years, four months, and fifteen days, this project has been with me, in one way or another [thanks Wolfram|Alpha for the date spread]. And on Wednesday, it’ll be done. It’s the end of a chapter in my life, and has me dealing with all the complicated feelings that transitions bring.

The last few months have seen me shepherding my forthcoming book, Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada, through the final publishing stages at the University of British Columbia Press. Copyeditor queries over the holiday break, and now the painstaking process of combing the proofs for typos (I’m oddly elated whenever I find one, because I’m pretty sure I’ve read each sentence about a hundred times now). It’s had me feeling a bit odd, actually.

I started Rebel Youth in the cold winter of 2008-09, during the long, acrimonious, and (for me), profoundly perspective-changing CUPE 3903 strike. I would picket Mondays and Wednesdays for ten long hours each day, bundled up in countless layers, with many people who would become hopefully life-long friends, but also profoundly dispiriting for a few reasons. On the ‘off’ days, I remember starting things off by reading old back issues of Canadian Dimension in the tranquil environs of the University of Toronto’s Pratt library, writing my proposal, and then kicking things off. Three days a week, reading about students and labour unions, and two days a week, seeing some of these issues still with us in that strike. Continue reading

Web Archives for Historians: The Crowdsourced Bibliography and Database

A screenshot of our web archives for historians page, showing the main splash page.In early March, Peter Webster of the British Library and I launched “Web Archives for Historians,” a crowdsourced bibliography comprised of works written by historians who use or think about how we can use web archives (read his launch post here as well). We also have a second tab that asks people who are interested in web archives to fill out a form, so we can get a sense of who might be out there!

Our criteria are relatively specific, focused particularly on the interplay between historians and web archives:

We want to know about works written by historians covering topics such as: (a) reflections on the need for web preservation, and its current state in different countries and globally as a whole; (b) how historians could, should or should not use web archives; (c) examples of actual uses of web archives as primary sources. Work concerned with online representation of the more distant past is also within our scope.

So far the bibliography is growing, and we just added some content today. Whenever updates are made we’ll also make sure to tweet on our Twitter account, @HistWebArchives. If you’re interested, please visit our site or follow us.

It’s my sincere hope that we can start to build a historian/web-archive specific community. I’ve argued elsewhere that I think historians need to work towards further engagement with web archives, as they’ll become one of the primary sources to understand social, cultural, political, etc. life from the mid-1990s onwards. They present a tremendous resource, but they’re on such a different scale than the normally scarce archival resources that most historians are professionally trained with, so let’s start laying the groundwork now.

I look forward to seeing you over at Web Archives for Historians.

Preserving History as it Happens: The Internet Archive and the Crimean Crisis

(x-posted with
By Ian Milligan

“Thirty goons break into your office and confiscate your computers, your hard drives, your files.. and with them, a big chunk of your institutional memory. Who you gonna call?” These were the words Bob Garfield used in a recent episode of On the Media, to address the storming of the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism. On Saturday, March 1st, 2014, during the Russian occupation of the Crimea, men with guns stormed and occupied the offices of the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism. The staff fled, managing to take only part of their files and equipment, although not everything. Over the rest of the weekend, the Center reached out to the Internet Archive to preserve their web material. The episode attracted the attention of the global media, web archivists, and historians. Historians deal with source losses all the time – sources destroyed by events (from wars, political malfeasance, and so forth) – but here we see how quickly the process of archiving and preserving has sped up.

The Internet Archive, which I’ve written about before for ActiveHistory, tries to back up much of the publicly-accessible web. It had not however captured comprehensive holdings of this particular site. If something happened, if the servers were wiped, there were fears that all of their past stories, information, and so forth would be lost. These would be critical for the group, but also, of course, for historians. So from their offices in San Francisco, the Internet Archive’s Archive-It service carried out a comprehensive sweep of the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism’s website, capturing it now 14 times between March 1st and 19th. 5,185 videos have been captured. Indeed, in case they were taken down off YouTube, they are now preserved.

Continue reading

Visualizing Locations in the Internet Archive .ca Wide Scrape Sample

Taking the full text of my sample of my Canadian (.ca only) websites (currently being finessed to amount 622,365 URLs out of a scrape total of 8,512,275 or 7.31%), I ran it through Stanford NER and extracted popular locations, organizations, and people. This is a morning’s work, mainly as I let my desktop crunch away at some other stuff, so I really need to preface the post that the data has not been cleaned up.

The results were interesting but fairly dry: “Canada” was the top location, for example, followed by Ontario, Toronto, Ottawa, Alberta, etc. The United States comes out as under-represented mainly because we have so many spellings of the word (US, u s, America, United States, etc.). There will be a similar issue with the United Kingdom. If this turns into ‘real’ research rather than tinkering, again, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do. But overall, we can get a rough sense of different countries and how they appeared in this sample.

Thanks to IBM Many Eyes we can throw this stuff at the wall and see what comes out.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 11.47.16 AM

In this graphic, we see different countries and how they are mentioned. With the caveats that this is rough data, we can see the big parties emerge. Canada drowns out all others, unsurprising given the sample. But the other big parties emerge: the United States, Russia, China, Brazil, Australia. Western Europe. But almost nothing in sub-saharan Africa, which tells you something about this coming together. The way that this map emerges I think shows that it’s working a bit.

Let’s take Canada alone: Continue reading

Why Canada’s Open Data Initiative Matters to Historians

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 1.04.16 PMOK, you’re all forgiven: when you hear ‘open data,’ the first thing that springs to mind probably isn’t a historian (to some historians, it’s the first episode of the BBC show ‘Yes, Minister’). In general, you’d be right: most open data releases tend to do with scientific, technical, statistical, or other applications (releasing bus route information, for example, or the location of geese at the UW campus). Increasingly, however, we’re beginning to see a trickle of historical open data.

Open government is, in a nutshell, the idea that the people of a country should be able to access, read, and even manipulate the data that a country generates. It is not new to Canada: Statistics Canada has been running the Data Liberation Program since at least late 1996, and there have been predecessors before that, but the current government has been pushing an action plan which has materialized in

While I am not a fan of the current government’s approach to knowledge more generally, I am happy with the encouraging moves in this realm. Criticism of the government is often very deserved, but we should celebrate good moves when they do happen, however slowly this may occur. Indeed, if the government is opening up their data, maybe it should inspire publicly-funded scholars to do the same: think of what we could learn from the quantitative findings of the Canadians and their Pasts project, for example!

In this post, I want to show some of the potential that is there for learning about the past through Canadian open data (drawing on some of the provincial datasets too), in the hopes that this will spur interest in maybe getting more released. I even have a little bit for everybody: There’s data here from which political, military and social historians can draw.  Let me show you how. Continue reading