Database Exploration: A Library for the Digital Age

For the lecture topic of this week (“Digitization, Searching, and Finding”), ‘learning’ truly turned into ‘doing’ through utilizing and critiquing the online database  , an historical newspaper database. The following is my take on the experience of searching through such an online resource.

Image taken from

The Good: Insights & Advantages 

Overall, I loved the layout of the site, as well as the east in using the various tools and options. The first useful tool of the site, the main search bar, worked in much the same way that the Google search bar functions. To test out the uses of the site, I chose to use the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict as a search basis. When I started to type this into the search bar, I was met almost instantly with a wide variety of options to choose from. One of the advantages to this was the ability of getting to see options generated for me by the site, options that I may not have thought to search of on my own. Another advantage in the search aspects of the database was the ability to use the advanced search and to preview what each search result was about. Within the advanced search option, I was able to organize the search results by a variety of different criteria, including date and publisher.

The Bad: Frustrations 

Through the course of searching through this website, I didn’t come across much that left me frustrated. One function of the site that left me a little baffled and confused was the ‘obituary’ section. Not having any previous experience with the site, I assumed that this functioned in much the same way as the obituaries of a physical newspaper. To test this out, I typed in the names of a few famous deceased figures. For the three names that I used however, nothing of the sort came up. While this may be due to the fact that I was using the feature incorrectly, the feature overall doesn’t seem to offer anything more than the regular search features. Another frustration that I had with this database was the inability to search for pictures within the newspaper listings. For my topic specifically, searching for photos can encompass a large portion of research. Not being able to view specific photos would definitely be a drawback in a potential research effort that relied on a physical element, such as photography.

And The Ugly: Disadvantages 

Again, I enjoyed using the database for my specific research. The majority of the tools were very practical and easy to use. However, one of the main disadvantages I found was in the language tool used by the database. Through this tools, readers and researchers can view a number of publications in a variety of different languages. Naturally, researching a topic that centers around a foreign country involves the viewing of documents in that country’s native language. Mostly out of curiosity, I decided to view the search results my topic came up with in Arabic, a language central to the region and one that I’ve been studying for a few years. I was disappointed to find that the translation was not complete, with words still displayed in Arabic rather than English. In light of the reading for this week, I would have expected the database to manually go over these translation pages, if not for the amusement of native english speakers, but for the benefit of viewers who do not use English as their first language.

“Complex Information Processing”: Comments and Critiques from a Baffled Blogger

(Taken from:

Dream File: A 1960’s Vision of the Future 

As a former English major, I’m no stranger to writing and the headaches that come with it. Outlines that you write and rewrite, only to lose in a maze of papers (if you happen to be the typical unorganized writer like me), or working though piles of unnumbered drafts that are near impossible to tell apart. In T.H. Nelson’s informative article, “A File Structure for The Complex, The Changing and the Indeterminate”, Nelson explains ideas central to melding the worlds of writers and information technology, listed below:

  1. Information Structure (Zippered Lists)
  2. FIle Structure (Evolutionary List File – E.L.F)
  3. File Language (PRIDE)

Through the incorporation of these three elements, Nelson dictates their many uses and benefits from the standpoint of writers as well as the philosophical implications behind them.

Information Structure: Trailhiker’s Guide to the Internet  

In Nelson’s discussion of the information structure, he mentions Vannevar Bush’s work, As We May Think, as a premise for his explanation of the automatic filing system. While I had read the Bush article previously for this class, Nelson displays the information in a way that makes the material more manageable.

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Having clearly laid out Bush’s relevant ideas on the information system and briefly addressed the lack of development at the time of his writing, Nelson addresses the next main issue, manuscript handling. According to Nelson, three false theories exist concerning the writing process:

  • Writing is a matter of inspiration
  • Writing is done sitting
  • if the outline is good, the writing will be good

As a writer myself, I found myself agreeing with many of the points that Nelson raised. Whether its prose, poetry, or research writing, authors don’t rely solely on inspiration, nor do classic pieces of literature get composed sitting hulled up in Starbucks. While I agree with many of the points raised by Nelson, I did not see how they fit into his overall theme of transforming physical writing into more than a computerized task. In the general scheme of his discussion, this point felt a bit out of place.

Elements of the ELF: No, not that kind of elf…

It was this section perhaps more than the rest of Nelson’s writing that I felt was explained the most fluidly. What initially struck me as a very technically-loaded topic was broken down in a way that even I could understand (which is quite the feat given my lack of technical prowess). According to Nelson’s explination, the ELF can be broken down into three basic elements:

  1. Entries (discrete unit of info designed by the user)
  2. Lists (ordered set of entries designated by the user)
  3. Links (connector, designed by the user, between two particular entries contained in different lists)

While Nelson’s  elaboration of these terms was very useful in understanding the basics of the ELF, his discussion of the basic benefits of the system were what grabbed my attention as a writer the most.

Indeed, computer programming with an on-line display and the ELF would have a number of advantages. Instructions might be interleaved indefinitely without resorting to tiny writings. Moreover, the programmer could keep up work on several variant approaches and versions at the same time, and easily document their overall features, their relations to one another and their corresponding parts. Adding a load-and-go compiler would create a self-documenting prgramming scratchpad.

Prior to reading this section, I was paying attention to the reading mostly out of an academic drive (gotta finish that homework!). With this laundry list of uses and benefits, however, Nelson had me hooked. Being able to work on multiple related projects, various drafts and versions, and having access to all of those documents at once in a cohesive and organized way is pretty much the dream of an OCD writer like myself. Having the added benefit of storing all of these documents online in a digital copy is also an added benefit that I don’t believe Nelson stressed too much, but one that I can’t overlook. Finally, I felt that this reading assignment related to me in a way that was easy to understand and, even better, kept me scrolling through page after page out of fascination, not demand.

PRIDE: An ELF’s Best Friend

In this last section, Nelson wraps up his discussion on information processing by expanding upon the file language that corresponds with the ELF system just described, named PRIDE. Designed to facilitate the use of an ELF, the PRIDE system was not actually set in place at the time of Nelson’s writing. The primary function of PRIDE within the ELF system would be handling files and manuscripts (discussed in the previous sections) as well as ordering and documenting files. This section, similar to the ELF discussion, was very accessible to me as a reader and related to issues and concerns that I myself have faced in using online systems to aid my writing and editing.

For a CRT these include quick lookup schemes, preferably with moving menus and means for readily changing the hierarchy of lookup structure; as well as visual cueing and mnemonic formats, including cursor maneuvers, overlays and animated wipes and other transitions.

Overall, what made this article in particular one of the more mentally stimulating and enjoyable to read was the relation that I could see to the topics at hand in my own life and my own experiences. While the thousands of technical terms may never make complete sense to me, I enjoyed getting to make sense of a few things in the sea of information technology thus far and look forward to posting more gripping and technically complex blog posts in the future.




Digital History De-Mystified: Comments on Cohen and Rosenzweig’s “Promises and Perils of Digital History”

When I initially signed up for History 390: The Digital Past, I thought of the course as a way to escape the necessary evil of George Mason’s IT requirement. As a technologically-challenged humanities major, I had heard the horror stories of IT 103 and decided to do my best to steer clear of the traditional class, and what better way to do that than to take a history course! However, my hopes of avoiding the digital jargon of my tech-savvy friends were squashed on the very first day. As a member of the target audience for the “[insert complicated topic here] for Dummies” series, I felt lost among the constant inundation of anagrams and talk of ‘magical electrons’ and radio waves. I was positive that the readings would just as confusing, leaving more technical questions than answers. Having that in mind, I couldn’t have been more relieved to start my reading of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s “Digital History”. Not only was the writing style accessible and entertaining, but the content was delivered in a way that brought clarity to much of my confusion.

One of the points that I found most interesting was the discussion of the various advantages of storing history as a form of digital media. In the case of the first advantage, capacity, I was floored by the amount of data that can be stored efficiently and effectively on any given hard drive.

A 120-gigabyte hard drive that sells for $95 and weighs about a pound can hold a 120,000-volume library.

As an average student (possibly less than average in the field of IT), placing that specific size of storage into something tangible was hugely beneficial. While I may not be able to picture the capability of gigabytes and other units of data storage, a 120,000-volume library is definitely something I can picture for myself.  Even going farther in making the leap to why this would be so critical for historians was an aspect of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s writing that added to my overall understanding. As a Global Affairs major, the history of conflicts and various events in the past are of great importance, and often the more information, both textual and visual, that is available the better the potential research will be. The idea of historians in the future being able to retain all data and documents on hard drives to be preserved for years to come is a wonderful thought in the academic world. The remaining advantages of digital history (which can be viewed here) followed a similar pattern of clarity and significance.

Another section of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s explanation of digital history that I found interesting was the potential problems created by storing historical data online. Not only did I not expect to find these items listed (its not every day you see authors delving between the lines of their arguments and analyzing both sides of the table), their explanation as well was clear and mentally compelling. To take an example that mirrors the danger posed by capacity (discussed above), the authors discuss the problem of quality and authenticity. As explained by Cohen and Rosenzweig, this can be boiled down to the common phrase “its mostly junk” (well…common cyber-skeptics that is). And to be sure, we can find plenty of inaccurate history on the web. Take a look at the web pages of Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and read a letter allegedly from Martin Van Buren to Andrew Jackson calling for government intervention to stop the threat to the railroads posed by the Erie Canal. A careful assessment of internal evidence (an important historical skill in all ages) readily betrays the twentieth-century origins of this “nineteenth-century” letter.

When you move your history online, you are entering a less structured and controlled environment than the history monograph, the scholarly journal, the history museum, or the history classroom. That can have both positive and unsettling implications.

Again, as a humanities major I am no stranger to the pitfalls of web-based research. Often, sites, like Wikipedia, offer information that is questionable at best, and flat out wrong at worst. However, prior to reading this section I had never made the connection of deception on the web to the vast amount of information contained on individual topics. It was an interesting point raised by the authors and entirely plausible in my mind.

Overall, I walked away from this reading with a much better grasp of the advantages and disadvantages of digital history, even gaining some ability to make sense of the digital jargon and knowledge that had so carefully eluded me until now. So while I’d still need to phone a friend on any IT questions in life, I feel better prepared to embark on this journey of blogging and understanding the digital past, and look forward to leaving my own piece of digital history on the web through this course.