Infrastructure History: Connecting us to the Past

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It helps us quench our thirst, wash our dishes, and clean our bodies, but a sense of its past often emerges only when its use is disrupted.

Over the past week, a recent spurt of articles in Toronto newspapers reported numerous cases of leaking watermains across the city.  Corrosion is one source of the broken pipes; another is changing temperature, which impacts soil movement and creates pressure on the fragile, rusty conduits.  A recent cold spell burst an eight-inch main and cut power to 19,000 residents.

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Notable in these articles is how the (often temporary) failure of the infrastructure of everyday life – in this case water pipes but we can think of roads and electricity wires to name a few others – connects people to the past.

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ActiveHistory.ca featured in York University History Department video

ActiveHistory.ca is featured in an internet video on York University’s history department.  Entitled “Making History Relevant”, the video premiered at the recent American Historical Association conference in San Diego.   Click here to view the video, located at the bottom of the right hand sidebar of the website in the “New Featured Films” section.

In the video, Jonathan Edmondson, chair of the history department, notes the important social responsibility of historians.  Similar to ActiveHistory.ca, York’s December 2009 conference – Global Football: History, Gender, and Nation – sought to connect the work of historians to a broad audience.  The conference brought together historians, soccer fans, journalists and sport officials to discuss the relationships between football and a number of important themes, such as the construction of social identities and globalization.

The video is available on Historians tv, a website that covers a variety of historical issues.  The site includes a short videos on New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum and African Burial Ground Monument, and an interview with historian Natalie Zemon Davis on her personal experiences of teaching history throughout her storied career.  These three videos can be viewed by clicking here and are found on the right hand sidebar of the website.

“Local Effort Brings Our Past to Life”: Halifax Chronicle-Herald

A recent article in the Halifax Chroncile-Herald discusses a fascinating project mounted by the Dartmouth Historical Association which will see 2,500 local histories of Dartmouth, Preston, Cole Harbour and Eastern Passage distributed free of charge to Halifax area students in Grades 4, 5, and 6. Local historian Harry Chapman raised an interesting point in the newspaper article:

“We were discussing history in general, and my view is that the history curriculum from Grade 4 to high school, they deal with Canadian history, Nova Scotia history, the American revolution, American civil war, the British empire, ancient Greece, but nothing of the community that the children are living and growing up in, whether it be Dartmouth or Digby or Annapolis Royal or Parrsboro,” said Chapman.

In this book, then, the Dartmouth Historical Association discussed schools, ferries, canals, street names, and the general local history of people. They’re certainly connecting “historians with the public,” as ActiveHistory.ca aims to do.

This raises several fascinating questions. Should local history have a bigger role in history curriculums? Continue reading

Historical Maps on the Internet

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Old maps are useful sources for just about anyone interested in history. Maps easily convey change over time, as they show the expansion of  cities, regions, or countries. They also provide useful context to help understand where historical events took place. Thankfully, historical maps are increasingly accessible online for those of you unable to spend days in the map library at the British Library or another comparable repository.

A growing number of professional historians are using Geographic Information Software (GIS) to study historical maps and their relationships with other geographic data from the past.   David Rumsey’s map collection and Google Earth allow non-experts much of the same functionality of the complex and expensive GIS software and make it possible for all historians to examine maps that have been “pinned” on the the satellite imagery in Google Earth.  This allows direct comparisons between the old maps and the modern landscapes.

The David Rumsey’s historical map collection provides an amazing collection of historical maps and globes. A large number of these maps are Geo-referenced or “pinned” onto the digital globe provided by  Google Earth. Rumsey Historical Maps are included in Gallery of Google Earth. Open the Gallery (found in the the menu on the bottom left hand side of Google Earth) and click on Rumsey Historical Maps to add them as a layer on the digital globe. Once you have done this a few hundred compasses will appear in Google Earth (zoom in and out and navigate around the world to see them all). Find a map that interests you, such as Pownall’s 1786 map of North America and double click on the compass. A box will appear with the map. Double click on the map and it will appear as a layer in Google Earth over top of the satellite image of North America. Once the map has been overlayed you can navigate around and zoom in and out in the same way you do with the normal Google Earth maps.  The collection of maps is extensive and growing. The focus of the collection is the USA, but there are still lots of maps of other countries and cities around the world. The Canadian content includes a number of North American maps, two maps of Montreal, two maps of Quebec City and one of Lower Canada in 1815. Continue reading

Live Blogging History: Accessible and Creative

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By Adam Crymble

As I’m writing, there are only a few hours left in 2009. Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec. This year, again an important Quebec anniversary came and went, but most English speaking Canadians probably didn’t even notice: the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham during which General Wolfe wrested New France from his adversary, Marquis de Montcalm.

If you grew up in the Canadian education system, you almost certainly studied this battle. And, if your experience was anything like mine, you were told that on September 12, 1759, the brilliant strategist, Wolfe, sailed his ships back and forth in front of the city of Quebec, tiring out the French soldiers who had to march to and fro to keep their eyes on the British. Then, when the French were all tuckered out, Wolfe landed his ships, rushed up the bank to the Plains of Abraham and defeated a French army, claiming New France for Britain. Oh, and while he was at it, he was mortally wounded, but was kind enough to pose for this famous painting by Benjamin West:

I had always assumed the whole thing took about 8 minutes.

Imagine my surprise this past summer when stumbled across Canadian author and historian Christopher Moore “live-blogging” the siege of Quebec, which started almost eighty days before the famous battle. During the siege, the British artillery decimated the city of Quebec and terrorized its citizens, many of whom died as a result of the constant bombardment. Continue reading

“Web Tools Aim to Open the Gates to the Ivory Tower”: Globe and Mail.

An article in January 2nd’s Globe and Mail discussed various web tools that universities are using to ‘open the gates of the ivory tower.’ In her article, Elizabeth Church discussed a new search engine launched by Memorial University named Yaffle, which allows community members to search and uncover various Memorial research projects, opportunities for involvement, and learn who is working on what. Another project, by York University, summarizes various research projects into plain english (helped by a poet who holds a Research Assistantship) and places them on the website. The byline of the Knowledge Mobilization site: Turning Research into Action.

Both projects are in their infancy, but they are promising steps towards making research accessible. At York, there is only one summary available under the subject heading of history – Marc Egnal’s recent work on the economic causes of the civil war – but it is a fascinating example.

If you have a chance, please check out the linked Globe & Mail article and play around with the two sites. What are your thoughts, if any?

All the best in the New Year! Hopefully it will be an ‘active’ one.

The Reason for the Season?

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A flurry of criticism was directed at MP Scott Brison of Kings-Hants after he sent Christmas cards to his constituents featuring a photo of his family.  Criticism stemed not from the fact that Canadian MPs are sending out Christmas cards in such a culturally diverse country.  Instead, Brison has come under attack by a vocal group who judge his sexuality.  It has been suggested that Brison’s cards were particularly inappropriate given that the cards were sent to mark a “Christian festival.”

The history of Christmas, however, shows that its roots in Christianity have always been tenuous; the holiday as it is celebrated in modern times is a product of an ever-deepening chasm between Christianity and Christmas.  As Christianity has never solely defined seasonal celebrations, it is more appropriately marked by sending holiday, rather than Christmas, greetings.

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Broadening participation in the Academic Conference

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History is more than a university-based field of study.  A quick glimpse at the current best-sellers in Canadian history on amazon.ca demonstrates that most Canadians are reading history written by non-academic historians; journalists, professional writers and public servants top the list.  History produced in universities competes, but also often compliments, that produced for tracing family roots, building community, influencing public policy, or entertaining a reader.  The different uses for, and perspectives within, the field of history can create a mine-field of interpretations and understandings of the past.  Bringing these diverse perspectives together helps to foster a richer understanding and broaden public engagement with the past.

In her paper at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Margaret Conrad addressed the tensions that often arise over how different groups interpret the past.  Using the controversy over the Canadian War Museum’s depiction of the World War II allied bombing of Germany, Conrad suggests that processes need to be created where all of the stakeholders in a historical project can debate controversial historical ideas with the aim of mutual resolution.

Although Conrad’s paper is focused on historical controversies that occur in public spaces, her suggestion of bringing diverse perspectives together in genuine dialogue points one way toward a more rigorous discussion of Canada’s past by helping to create partnerships between historians, the communities that they study, and the general public.
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“Copenhagen is PM’s big chance”, History PhD Candidates Argue

Jeremy Marks and Ryan O’Connor, two PhD candidates in history at the University of Western Ontario, recently published an op-ed piece in the London Free Press in which they argue that positive action by Stephen Harper at Copenhagen would improve the political fortunes of his Conservative party.

The piece is available on Ryan’s blog, The Great Green North, which focuses on the history of the environmental movement in Canada.  Ryan’s dissertation, “Toronto the Green: The Emergence of the Canadian Environmental Movement”, examines the rise of green politics in Toronto during the 1960s and 1970s.  He is a member of NiCHE’s Popular Publishing Writer’s Guild.

Jeremy’s dissertation looks at the historical relationship between political and philosophical conservatism in Canada.

Jeremy and Ryan attended a graduate student workshop, “Publishing for a Wide Audience”, held at UWO in October.  Their op-ed is another example of historians engaging in the public policy dimensions of climate change.

Copenhagen, Climate Change, and History

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Politicians from around the world are meeting this week in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference, in order to discuss global warming and propose policies to combat this social and environmental concern.  Because global warming revolves around the concept of change over time, it is a subject to which historians can make a valuable contribution.

There are at least two mutually-inclusive avenues through which historians study climate change.  Whereas some scholars attempt to measure shifts in temperature throughout space and time by critically analyzing historical evidence, others present histories of global warming as a socio-scientific construct and topic of public policy.

A number of historians – within and outside Canada – have made their work accessible to a wide audience through the internet and other forms of accessible media.  These scholars understand the need to place climate change within a historical perspective, and the importance of making this work widely available.
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