Follow the yellow brick road…

My classmates and I recently launched “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood: Heritage Homes in London’s Historic Old South” in the John A. Schweitzer Gallery at the University of Western Ontario Archives Research and Collections Centre. Our research, in addition to being used by the London Advisory Committee on Heritage in determining priority designations in the city, will be featured during this spring’s Architectural Conservatory of Ontario Walking Tour. As a teaser for the larger exhibit, see below my months of painstaking research into 123 High Street condensed into 250 words (if you would prefer to view the 25 page document, drop me a line!)




The cottage at 123 High Street is a side-hall plan designed in the Queen Anne architectural style. With its hipped roof, tall corbelled chimney, and randomly spaced windows, this property presents an irregular and dimensional silhouette fitting of the streetscape. Likely built in 1889, the property underwent two street name changes and a number change before receiving its contemporary listing in 1927. First owned by bricklayer, treasurer of the London Builders’ Exchange, member of the school board, and city alderman James S. Luney, the dichromatic yellow and red brick reflects his associations with local churches and use of local materials. In its early history, the cottage was occupied by an assortment of working class Londoners, ranging from machinists to drivers to tailors and clerks. In 1921, carpenter Archibald W. Bryce moved into the home where his family remained until 1999. Albeit the abundance of cottages in the city, 123 High Street is significant for its unaltered condition and unique design. On the main façade, brick arches adorn the characteristic London round headed stained glass window, as a red brick course and crosses line the building. Further, three Palladian windows appear on one side and a stained glass oculus is prominent on the other. The off-center original double paneled front door is the defining feature of the side-hall plan. The elaborate brickwork is matched only by the wood gable ornamented with decorative bargeboard and modillions. This highly decorated cottage helps define the history and character of late nineteenth century London South.

The Queen Anne style, developed by English architect Richard Shaw, combines Medieval and Classic elements. The Queen Anne cottage is the single-storey adaption featuring an irregular silhouette, gables, tall chimney, various building materials, and randomly spaced windows.

Yellow brick from the Lacustrine clay on the banks of the Thames River reflected local materials, whereas red brick was imported from Hamilton or Toronto. Bricklayer and probable builder, James S. Luney, likely had easier access to the rarer and more costly red brick which explains its heavy use.

With its stained glass and cross designs, the cottage has many church-like features attributed to the religious associations of James S. Luney, the owner and probable builder. Luney was a prominent member of the Wellington Street Methodist Church, and his bricklaying technique was evidenced in the Knox Presbyterian and Colborne Street Methodist churches.

The off-centre original double paneled front door, complete with a stained glass transom, is the defining feature of the side-hall plan design.

The GIS map of heritage contextual value shows the High Street and Tecumseh Avenue block full of properties on the heritage inventory. The house on the corner of High Street and Baker Street is a designated heritage building, and apart from 123 High Street, nine other dwellings have been identified as potential built heritage sites.

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Sphygmomanometers: A Valentine’s Day Object Profile of Devices that Measure the Heart

The University of Western Ontario’s Medical Artifact Collection containing 965 objects (with components this number nears 4000) is a teaching and research resource. Following the Winterthur Protocol for describing and analyzing artifacts, the following object profile highlights two sphygmomanometers in the collection.

The sphygmomanometer is an early diagnostic instrument used to measure blood pressure. Since the discovery of blood circulation in 1628, the search for accurate, convenient, simple, and non-invasive tools has led to evolving measuring devices and cuffs. Until the twentieth century, few doctors tolerated the inconvenience of blood pressure measurers and relegated the exiting tools to laboratory research. The mercury and later aneroid sphygmomanometers provided the accuracy and portability required for clinical use.

The sphygmomanometer enclosed in the black metal container (#2004.067.01.01) likely dates in the 1920s. Stored within this 29 x 9 x 4 cm steel rectangle with an individual name plate on the top cover, the lid lifts to reveal a glass cartridge tube calibrated to 250 millimetres of mercury. The case and meter were manufactured in Germany and identified as the “Mercurius Miniatur Modell.” The black rubber bulb and 60 cm of tubing have hardened and cracked. The dark green satin cuff measures 127 cm with a Tycos marked hook on its top. According to the company insignia, both the sleeve and pump were manufactured by Tycos in England. Although machine sewed, the sash shows clear signs of wear including hand stitched repairs and colour distortions.

The aneroid sphygmomanometer (#2004.070.01.01) uses air pressure to gauge circulation rates and was donated to the UWO Medical Artifact Collection by Dr. Vine from Strathroy. Made in Japan by Safety, the face of the dial indicates it is calibrated to 300 mm and “certified 700301.” Within the black zippered leatherette case, the bulb is missing and the nearly 80 cm of rubber tubing is brittle and cracked. The use of Velcro on the 59 cm canvas cuff dates this sphygmomanometer sometime after 1963, when the hook cuff was replaced by Velcro fasteners.

Despite their differing ages, both sphygmomanometers were designed with the same purpose and function. Both were intended to be portable and accurate, with the mercury sphygmomanometer having a locking mechanism on the metal case, and a zipper pouch to protect the contents of the aneroid device. Early mercury measurers risked spilling in transit, yet this model was self-contained and recessed in the metal frame. Despite their greater ease of use, as manual devices, proper function still required a skilled physician. When performing a blood pressure test, doctors had to attach the cuff to the patient’s arm and use a stethoscope on the arm to hear changes in pulse signifying the systolic and diastolic rates. The tubing is shorter in the cased sphygmomanometer ensuring that the patient and doctor are in close proximity, and the hard case probably needed to rest on a flat surface. The earlier versions of cased sphygmomanometers were of the polished wood variety. The metal highlights a more utilitarian value, and the substantial scratching and discoloured satin sash point to its heavy use. For example, the discolouration might be due to sun exposure if the doctor left the instrument open on his desk, or the stains may be attributed to the accumulation of body oils in the fabric. Unlike the aneroid sphygmomanometer, the mercury sphygmomanometer had a name plate on the cover, yet this was never inscribed. Rather than a testament to style or personal prestige, both devices instead signalled professionalism and authority.

In short, the description and analysis of the sphygmomanometers underscores their utility as diagnostic instruments for patients and ease of use for doctors.  Sphygmomanometers are objects of medical authority and remain common features in the physician’s battery of tests that foster the doctor-patient relationship.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Don’t hate the history, PLAY the game!

Why do we teach history? How do people learn best? These fundamental, multifaceted, controversial questions must be answered to understand the potential role and relationship between education and games. Over the past several weeks working on an essay regarding the colonial imagination and tropical medicine, I often caught myself drifting in and out of nineteenth century medical records wondering what it would be like to suffer from some of these diseases. What if I could play a video game where my character refused to eat tropical fruits for fear of parasites, and therefore had to move throughout the entire game sluggishly? What if I could undergo physical tests and interact with doctors, rather than just read their reports? Evidently, this digital history course has infiltrated my outlook! Reflecting on my own experiences with games and the course readings, this blog seeks to address where we go from here. How will we learn best in a digital world?

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that my own experiences with video games are quite limited. Like my classmate Annique, I was a big fan of Brain Quest games. (For those who are unfamiliar with the idea, Brain Quest packages are like question and answer trivia flash cards for kids). I loved to play board games with my family; my favourite was Clue! My older sister saved her allowance and bought, what is now considered an old-school Nintendo Gameboy. I remember watching over her shoulder as she made Mario jump through pipes and pick up coins. Nowadays, video games are still a spectator sport for me. My younger brother loves his PlayStation, but he is often unwilling to let me play for fear that I will ruin his stats. Despite my lack of experience, I can clearly recall my favourite movie about a game. Jumanji follows the adventure of two kids that discover in their attic a board game that brings wild animals, natural disasters, and other such threats to life, and can only be stopped by winning the game. An educational game with these kinds of motivations surely would inspire learning!

Beyond digital history, the readings by Kevin Gee, James Paul Gee, and my professor Dr. MacDougall and Tim Compeau, delve into the realm psychology. Gee’s book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy introduces thirty-six principles of learning that video games do best. Arguably, one of his most compelling arguments for video games is that unlike in traditional education, “hard is not bad and easy is not good.” Rather than teaching children to follow instructions, video games force learners to “probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink.” As Gee explains, and most psychologists would agree, active learning requires new experiences and new connections in preparation for future growth and understanding. Thus, in the educational debate between telling students what to do and immersing students in knowledge, video games find a middle-ground by just doing. Indeed, part of the reason some students find history boring is because of the monotony of memorizing names and dates. At the same time, simply immersing students with documents and photographs from World War One might overwhelm individuals and obscure larger patterns and generalizations. In “Tecumseh Lies Here: Goals and Challenges for a Pervasive History Game in Progress,” MacDougall and Compeau argue that “the best way to immerse someone in history is not to surround them with replicas and recreations, but to arm them with historical methods and have them discover the history that is all around them.” Essentially, this means transforming the player into a historian, physicist, or whatever the case may be, rather than leaving the player to merely practice history or physics. This argument relates to Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, where he suggests that an advantage of technology is that it reduces the cost of failure. For example, a budding physicist could mix chemicals and cause explosions in the virtual world without costing money in the real world. Despite the innovative games the authors have suggested, they all seem to appreciate the challenges of time and technological requirements. Gee sidestepped issues of violence and gender stereotypes in video games. He argues that shooting games are the easiest to program, but as technology advances, more sophisticated communication will take the place of violence. Similarly, he suggests that as more women play video games, the greater their identities will develop beyond stereotypes. Although I find Gee’s arguments compelling, I am left wondering at what age to introduce video games. Certainly for young children, television and technology run the risk of overstimulation.

So what? Questions about engaging, entertaining, teaching, and learning are pervasive in all aspects of history, technology, and education. Indeed, there is still work to be done before we will see the true impact of games on learning, but at the very least, I think my spectator days are over. PLAY the game — you never know what you might learn!

P. S. Any suggestions for history games I can explore over the holiday break would be greatly appreciated!

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How I Started Down the Historical Road

Honestly, I am not exactly sure how I ended up majoring in history. My older sister knew what she wanted to be when she was little, and she grew up and became a doctor. My mom has a theory that I ended up going into the arts just to do something different, but I don’t really buy that. To attempt to find an alternative theory, let’s start at the beginning… (and because this is a digital history course, I will reflect on some of the teaching technologies I observed through my education).

In elementary school, I liked learning about the past, but not more so than learning about science or math. I remember most fondly participating in Heritage Fairs. These fairs encourage students to study an element of local history and its broader significance using primary sources and oral histories. I did one project on the Copper Cliff Dairy, (which is sadly slated to close in a few months), and an exhibit on the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. For the past three years, I have volunteered as a judge for the fairs and it is wonderful to see the passion and excitement students have in sharing what they have learned and interpreted of history. Unfortunately, many schools have ceased to participate in the fairs as teachers only have enough time for one major project, and more often than not, that project is science fair.

My high-school history experience was a little different from the Ontario curriculum, as I completed the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. In a nutshell, this academically intensive program is designed so that all students from around the world learn the same material and write the same exams at the end of two years. Considering my IB history course was catered to a global audience, we focused on European topics including monarchies, the alliances and crises surrounding the world wars, and Russian history. My teacher did not use any fancy bells or whistles. He knew his stuff, had a great textbook, and on occasion made use of the overhead projector. He did use the blackboard every day to write guiding questions for us to discuss in class and complete as homework. 

In the second year of my university career, I had to declare a major. I was reassured that it did not really matter what you studied, because an undergrad degree was an undergrad degree was an undergrad degree. Now, I could not be happier with my decision to pursue history. I had amazing professors, interesting subject material, and excellent opportunities. If there is something I remember most about technology in the classroom, it is when technology failed and the corresponding aggravation of the instructor. The few professors I had that used powerpoint used it well, and I found that by printing the slides before class, I was able to add my own notes while also listening attentively to the thought processes of the lecturer, rather than simply frantically note-taking. When I got to fourth year, I had to decide what to do with my life and it came down to a choice between law school and grad school. What helped me choose which offer to accept was talking with my professors. Technology is great, but I am so grateful for the mentorship I received from my faculty and advisors.

Upon reflection, I think my decision to pursue history was a case of one thing leading to the next. In a rather virtuous circle, I was lucky enough to tie together what I learned in books with real world travel experiences. Everywhere I read about, I wanted to visit, and every exotic region I visited reinforced what I already knew and inspired me to ask new questions. Ever since I had my first taste of the tsars and tsarinas in high-school history, I knew I absolutely had to visit Russia. I could literally post hundreds of pictures, but just for fun here are two of my favourite palaces, and that concrete building, totally former KGB headquarters!

Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg (home of the $11 million "Amber Room")

Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (the Bolsheviks stormed this former Winter Palace ushering in the revolution)

KGB Headquarters, St. Petersburg

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If Pigs Could Fly…

What does Web 2.0 mean for public history? My professor, Dr. MacDougall, challenged my class to think about innovative ways to use digital tools in some hypothetical and creative case studies.

The scenario: The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 is approaching. Of particular interest is a highly contested battle known as the “Battle of Spirit Mound” north of the border, and the “Fort Melon Pig Massacre” south of the 49th parallel. Near what is presently Meckling, Ontario and Melonville, Michigan, Canadians remember the heroism of British General Henry Procter, while in the American imagination Procter’s Native allies slaughtered dozens of pigs. Despite varying interpretations, both the Ontario and Michigan governments are willing to grant money for tourism and heritage projects as long as the initiatives are both innovative and participatory.

The goal of whatever commemoration project selected is to attract tourism and promote local heritage. With this in mind, activities must cater to the likes of children, adults, academics, and the public at large. Although I have never experienced it first hand, geocaching is a growing phenomenon with an already estimated four or five million participants worldwide. Geocaching is a modern day treasure hunt that uses GPS-enabled devices and GPS coordinates to find hidden hoards. According to the official website, there are three rules to the game. First, anything taken from the cache must be replaced by something of equal or greater value. Second, geocachers must sign the logbook housing the cache. Third, users are expected to log their experiences on the website. In addition to this interactive hunt, the Meckling and Melonville museums could use augmented reality tools that allow visitors to walk the battle grounds while learning historical facts with their smartphones (see my classmate Michelle’s blog on Layar). Also to promote learning, online games could be developed, where maybe even the pigs could fly! (Check out a new blog, Play the Past, that explores history and heritage through games and play). Along the vein of joining the outdoors with the web, the museums might consider holding a War of 1812 re-creation and recording the event as a clip on YouTube. For those without the opportunity to visit the physical site, the museums might consider creating a GIS map complete with data and images to allow users to both visualize and analyse the grounds. The museums could also use their grant money to create a bicentennial celebration website. In addition to a more traditional online presence, the museums could work together in creating a vibrant Web 2.0 community. For example, the organizations could post videos, upload images and/or link to Flickr, and use primary source journals and diaries as Twitter feeds. These tools would allow visitors to tag images, comment, ask questions, and learn both sides of the Spirit Mount/Pig Massacre debate. To attract a more academically-minded group, the museums might consider posting to sites, like H-Net and other museum pages, a call for papers for an academic journal to be published online in commemoration of the battle.

Choosing the right innovative and participatory tools requires organizers to realistically look at their available funding and workforce. In the next few weeks, these are important parameters my class will be thinking about as we create grant proposals for hypothetical digital history projects. Ideas and suggestions are always welcome!

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The Wonderful World of Wikipedia and Web 2.0

“Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users” – Clay Shirky

Over the past few weeks, I have been dabbling with number one on the academic hit list, the collaborative online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. After reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Roy Rosenzweig’s “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” I took my first steps towards becoming what I will call a “Wikipedian,” that is, an active and law-abiding Web 2.0 citizen.

Shirky’s book provides intriguing insight into the social organization on the web by using personal examples, analogies, and contemporary news stories. He argues that human beings are social beings, and that technology has eliminated barriers allowing groups to form. In his definition of social tools, the three key features are sharing, cooperating, and collective action. Wikipedia’s reliance on collaboration poses more difficulties than tools like Flickr (see my classmates’ reviews of this tool: Adair, Kira, and Pam) and Delicious, because it requires negotiation between people. In this process of negotiation, there is filtering of what Shirky terms “user-generated content” (80). According to Shirky, Wikipedia’s first incarnation as Nupedia failed because it asked experts to volunteer their time to write high-quality articles. Conversely, Wikipedia articles benefit from both a “spontaneous division of labour” (118) and because of “love” (139). Wikipedia articles are never finished and constantly improve and grow, “like creating a coral reef” (122). For the most part, I agree with Shirky’s understanding and explanation of the success of Wikipedia. However, I am doubtful that love for the site is as important as he claims. Who knows? As I begin editing and revising entries, maybe I will experience this adoration…

First things first, I created an account on Wikipedia to help track my contributions. If you are interested in following my revisions, my username is Historygirl10. Wikipedia has a thorough user name policy, and while I do not anticipate participating in any controversial Wikipedia discussions, I elected to remain anonymous. Following my professor’s words of wisdom, I decided to start small and edit the incorrect use of a semi-colon in the Backstreet Boys entry. When trying to edit, I was informed that “This page is currently semi-protected and can be edited only be established registered users.” Therefore, I decided to edit a more obscure entry and coincidentally the topic for an upcoming essay on neurasthenia. This affliction was diagnosed when European colonizers experienced fatigue, anxiety, depression, and an overall numbing of the mental faculties in tropical regions. Although I am not impressed with the detail of this entry or its relevance for my research into neurasthenia and colonial empires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I am still in the early stages of my research, so I did not feel comfortable editing the writing. Instead, I added a source to the further reading section: Gosling, F. G. Before Freud: Neurasthenia and the American Medical Community, 1870-1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987). In a more ambitious attempt to interact with the Wikipedia community, I wrote a brief entry for the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA); both the topic of my undergraduate honours thesis and a missing article. My entry is quite general, with a few links to other Wikipedia pages, and a few sources. Initially, I thought I would simply cut and paste from my thesis and create a succinct encyclopedia entry. As I was doing so, I started to feel anxious about copying my own work. Would people think I stole my words from Wikipedia? I posted my original entry on November 9, and by November 13 another user had already added categories to the bottom of the article. I will continue to watch this page for the remainder of the term and add details and sources. I will also keep you posted on any changes and discussions. After these two editing experiences with neurasthenia and FIRA, Wikipedia let me edit the unruly semi-colon in the Backstreet Boys entry. Evidently, my stock as a contributor is on the rise!

I am still not in love with Wikipedia, but I may grow to like it. After all, I did download the Wikipedia app on my iPhone! As Rosenzweig states, “historians have things to learn not only from the open and democratic distribution model of Wikipedia but also from its open and democratic production model.”

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Making History

The word “history” can be used in many different ways to convey many different meanings. To “go down in history” suggests something monumental and important to be remembered. Conversely, to “be history” means exactly the opposite as it implies something to be forgotten.  This weekend, the history department at the University of Western Ontario hosted the student conference, “Making History: Challenging the Past.” Students from Ball State University, Indiana to Memorial University, Newfoundland presented papers on everything from municipal concerns to American encounters with Asia. In the former, my classmate Caitlin Dyer presented a case study of attitudes towards wind energy in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. The keynote address entitled “Doing History with a Purpose: Passions and Politics in Writing About the Past,” given by Bryan Palmer, Canada Research Chair and former chair of Canadian Studies at Trent University, addressed the meanings of history. By qualifying the meaning of doing history, Palmer raised interesting questions about the future of history, which I think are particularly relevant to public history.

As a self-proclaimed “not nice” historian who goes against the historical grain in his studies of labour history, Palmer notes a difference between making histories and making history. Histories refer to the narratives and analyses that historians write about the past, whereas making history refers to taking stands and actively participating in the present, or what will become history. In fact, by referring to his background and participation in the 1960s mass mobilizations, he argues the advantages of becoming educated and doing history in a way that is outside of academic institutions. Such a pursuit leads to adding more “political economy” to historical study and writing. When asked about public history during the discussion portion of the talk, Palmer noted that historians in the digital age have never faced such a pressing need to make history accessible to a wider audience. Regardless, he is somewhat wary of public historians because of their necessary relationship to state funding and private groups that fund projects with proverbial strings attached. Furthermore, Palmer questions the speed at which public history can change.  

After reflecting on this address, I am left wondering about the relationship between public historians and making history. For the purposes of this course, our definition of digital history is “doing history with computers.” As a class, we are still working through the problems and challenges of museums, libraries, and archives in the digital age including abundance, preservation, and ownership. While the money issue may have an effect on public history as suggested by Palmer, I do not think that it is more prevalent than in traditional academic history. According to Gary Hall’s Digitize This Book, these monetary constrictions affect academic historians by forcing them to tailor their research interests to what will most likely get published. In the making histories/making history debate, there are some digital questions that must be asked. Nowadays, there is an assumption that anything you need will be available on the Internet. For example, when Barack Obama won the presidential election, I saved the Toronto Star and New York Times because I knew this event was going to “go down in history.” In reality, my paper copy is of little value, because for a nominal fee, I can access these newspaper archives and find these editions in their digital formats. Indeed the digital age will influence historical questions and answers, but what will be the effect on making history? Certainly one of the greatest features of the structure of the web is its interconnectivity. Palmer highlighted the making of history in periods of revolution and counter-culture. Will the material culture and reminders of change, like the Berlin Wall or Vietnam protest posters, be transformed into digital footprints? How will the digital age influence how we participate in and make history? Perhaps more importantly, how will the digital age influence how we remember history?

Unlike sticky-notes, one of the advantages of blogging is the ability to write and reflect on questions and not to forget them. I apologize if you have read all the way through and I leave you without concrete answers. Please share your thoughts and I promise to reflect on these questions with better answers as the year progresses!

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