Blogging from the 1940s

So I had every intention of writing about some brainstorming I did as a result this week’s readings.  But that will have to wait until later in the week, because when I checked my Feedly I found something more important (or at least a bit cooler) to highlight.  For Veteran’s Day, the Navy Times ran an article about a WWII soldier whose diary is finding its place on the blogosphere.

According to the article, Charles F. “Chick” Bruns kept an (illegal) diary during the time he spent in Africa and Europe during the war.  In 2012, his son John Bruns started transcribing them and adding them to a blog called  He posts each entry 70 years to the day after his father wrote it.[1]  This allows readers to see the war through the eyes of a soldier in the 7th Army, 3rd Division, and 10th Combat Engineers.

Interestingly, John Bruns explains in the article that his father’s writings seemed to naturally fit the blog style, making it seem like he was blogging from the past.  This is especially interesting in light of our class discussion about how digital documents might correspond to analog documents for a future historian.  Additionally, Bruns said he chose to make a blog rather than a book because of the lack of publisher interest in the project.[2]  That makes this a real life example of how the digital world opens up the number (and quality) of resources readily available for researchers.

But Bruns does not stop with just the simple transcription of the diary.  He includes several sections that give more background on his father, including one that talks about his participation in Honor Flights.  Bruns also has a page with photographs of letters and scrapbooks from his father’s service.

That is not the neatest part of the site though.  Bruns added a “Where’s Chick” section. In it, he uses the Google Map API to track his father’s movements based on letters and the diary.  Bruns included a date with each location, along with any description included in the sources. Using this feature, you can get a sense of how and when troops moved.

Aside from being an amazing source, this site offers something very important to me as a social naval historian.  It provides a concrete model of how I might present collections.  This is equally true for museums that have great personal collections.  It gets the information out there for historians to use, and it presents it in an interesting way.  I am personally itching to do something similar with a collection I have been working with.

Find a Face: Facial Recognition for Historical Photographs

Many families in the United States have a box of old family pictures in the attic.  Local historical societies and even most institutional repositories are also full of them.  However, they are often virtually unusable because the individuals in them can no longer be identified by living memory.  This lack of identification leaves these potentially valuable resources worthless to both historians and genealogists.  Importantly, not all of these photographs are unidentified.  In fact, many of them are.  But, these are only identified in bits and pieces across numerous collections.   The potential digital tool “Find a Face” will help solve these problems.  It will make more historical photographs into useful documents by combining facial recognition technology and digitized collections of photographs.

This technology can be seen on almost any crime show on television.  They frequently use facial recognition technology to match a surveillance camera photograph to a criminal mug shot.  This type of technology is also present when Facebook or iPhoto suggests which individual to tag in a photograph.  “Find a Face” will use that same technology to match a historical photograph of an individual in one collection to one of the same individual in another collection.  Doing so will help add context to both photographs and enrich their collections.  Here’s how “Find a Face” might work.

Digital Tool - Find a Face

Find a Face
(Photographs Courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

To use the tool on their photographs, visitors first upload a photograph.  In the mock up, this is the top photograph. The visitors will then tell the tool which collections to scan for a match.  They can choose to search all of them or just specific ones that might be the most relevant.  In the mock up, only the most relevant ones have been selected.  Visitors can also choose from either institutional or private records, depending on their particular preferences.

When a match is found, it will show up at the bottom of the search page.  In the mock up example, the tool returned one result.  Along with each matching photograph, the page will show information about it, including the names of individuals in the photograph, where and when it was taken, and what collection it is currently in.  This additional information will help researchers to answer questions or to simply identify photographs.

Digital Tool - Add Faces

Add Faces
(Photograph Courtesy of Hampton Roads Naval Museum

Visitors can submit their own photographs on the “Add Faces” page.  These might be family photographs for a genealogist or photographs from research for a historian.  They would include information such as names of the individuals in the photograph, the source, and where and when it was taken.  Adding these photographs would help other researchers to make facial matches with their own collections.  Institutional repositories that have been digitized without wasting resources with the help of search aggregation tools. To prevent problems, an administrator will review the files before they are available to the public.

Though “Find a Face” will be useful for genealogists and social historians, I am interested in this tool as a military historian.  While each individual has a different war experience, most of the photographs are of large groups of soldiers, sailors, and Marines.  Using “Find a Face” would allow military historians to use a photograph of an identified member of the military to find him or her in the group photographs.  This might allow historians to understand more about the individual experience of war.

Of course, it is possible to use a magnifying glass to find an individual soldier within a large group.  However, using this digital facial recognition would be much more beneficial.  First, “Find a Face” will simply be more efficient.  It would take a huge amount of time to sift through photographs from numerous collections by hand.  Additionally, this digital tool will make the resources more available to scholars, because it will string together information from various archives and private collections.  This will allow scholars to find photographs in someplace they might never expect, turning them onto previously unrecognized trends.

“Find a Face” will bring facial recognition technology into the historical profession and the world of genealogy.  By combining this technology with numerous institutional archives and private collections, researchers will be able to identify individuals and possibly trace them through their experiences.  In this way, it will give a voice to those who left few other traces on history.

Naval History & the Digital World

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been a bit absent on this blog, mostly because I simply haven’t been sure what to say.  Though the readings for class have been quite interesting, I’ve sort of struggled to apply what we’ve learned to my own research.  It’s taken me a few weeks to realize why I haven’t been able to identify this as relevant.  The conclusion I’ve come to is that I just don’t see things like born-digital archives or even wide-ranging digitization in my own field.

I’m interested in naval history, with a focus on individuals, and the social relationships between military personnel and civilians.  This means I frequently rely on items donated or at least preserved, through the Navy’s branch of history – the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).  According to student in another digital humanities course:  “The NHHC has a 68-year backlog for digitizing records and a 30-year backlog for digitizing art and artifacts.”[1]

These statistics reveal a general lack of “official” digitization.  This has also been true in my experience attempting to find documents online.  The Navy museum system has only sporadically digitized documents, and the website they have does not have a database behind it, making it very difficult to find anything, even if it is online.[2] I have had much more success accessing local resources, which tend to be widely available through university and local repositories.

That being said, when I tried to review a born-digital archive related to naval history, I literally couldn’t find one.  The same was true for locating a GIS project.  Given this, I started brainstorming ideas for what could be interesting (and useful) born-digital archives in the field of social naval history. Here’s one idea:

As I’ve done research, I’ve discovered that in today’s digital world, many Navy girlfriends, wives, and fiancés create and maintain blogs.[3]   They often do this as an emotional and social outlet while their significant others are deployed.  Others simply write about their everyday lives as women associated with the military.  Importantly, they tend to be much more open and give many more details about their daily lives than their predecessors did in letters.

As a result, I believe creating a digital archive of these blog entries it would be extremely helpful in forming a narrative about the experience of civilians in the closest relationships with military personnel.  Hopefully the development of projects like this would help to fill the void in digital naval history.  I don’t students in my position a few years from now to have similar questions about how the digital world relates to their research interests.

[1] I find it unlikely that this individual has ever worked in a museum, giving him an unrealistic view of what it is possible accomplish.

[2] In fairness, I worked at an NHHC museum this summer, and I do not mean to be as critical as this sounds.  From first-hand experience, I can say that the staff does the best it can do with what it is given.
[3] Admittedly, I also know this for personal reasons.  Additionally, I have not seen the same kind of outpouring from men in relationships with women in the Navy.

Digital History – Who can participate, and how?

One of the most interesting threads in our Clio I readings this week was the question of how scholars can “do” digital humanities, and more specifically, digital history. On the Northwestern Digital Humanities blog, one scholar asserted that digital humanities required building something.  The authors explained, “digital humanities is an active field, full of collaboration, experimentation, building and doing, and we recommend participating in these definitional debates while also critically diving into tutorials, tools, and other resources.”[1]  Together, these definitions suggest that doing digital history means coming together to create something.  Importantly, this active participation is presumably in contrast to simply utilizing a digital tool, such as word processing software or email, which many historians now use on a daily basis.

In his 1999 speech, Stanley Katz highlighted the collaborative element of digital history.  He asserted, “Pencils and pads, and books in the library, are no longer enough to do our everyday teaching and research.”[2]  By this, he meant that traditionally, individual historians, college history departments, and even professional historical organizations tend to work independently rather than cooperatively.  However, Katz argued that in the realm of digital history, scholars need to join to create a larger, richer network of scholars and scholarship.

But, as Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig pointed out in Digital History, A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, the collaborative nature of digital humanities calls into question just who can participate.  While everyone needs to actively build something to be involved in digital history, not everyone can or will participate equally. Importantly, Cohen and Rosenzweig point out that in some ways, digital history still operates within hierarchies, whether they are suitable to historians or not. For instance, British history sites are more often featured than those on Uganda, and popular analyses of the Civil War are more frequent than those covering more scholarly concerns about social or gender history.[3]  Interestingly, this echoes broader questions about whether the web serves as a tool for democratizing knowledge or merely reinforces existing power structures.

[1] Center for Scholarly Communication & Digital Curation, “Introduction,” A Guide to Digital Humanities.

[2]A Computer is Not a Typewriter, or Getting Right with Information Technology in the Humanities,” Stanley N. Katz, Lecture in the Digital Directions Speakers Series, University of Virginia, 4 February 1999.

[3] Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Exploring the History Web: Mapping the History Web,” in Digital History. A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.

An Introduction

Hello, I’m Kasey.  I’m starting the history PhD program at Mason this year.  I’m originally from Indiana and earned my BA from Indiana University Bloomington in May 2013.  I’m still getting used to life in Virginia, though I spent my summer as an intern at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) in Norfolk.

My research interests are primarily World War II-related.  More specifically, I’m interested in naval personnel training, women in the military, life on the homefront, and the relationship between the Navy and civilians during wartime.  Though I focus on military history, I approach the subject from the perspective of social  and gender history rather than a more traditional perspective.  My honors thesis examined the relationships between Bloomington residents, Indiana University students, and naval personnel at the Naval Training School (NTS) on the Indiana University campus during World War II.

I’m also interested in public history and museums.  I’ve interned at a variety of institutions in order to get a more practical understanding of the field.  My most recent experience was at HRNM, where, among many other things, I helped develop “From Home Front to Battlefront: World War II Letter-Writing,” an immersive outreach program which will offer middle school and high school students a chance to learn about history by stepping into the shoes of those who lived it.