Digital Landscapes: The Train Station in London, Ontario

For our Digital History class, we had to choose a building or landscape that had seen change over time. I chose to look at the train station in London, Ontario. It’s been a part of London since the 1850’s and has changed along with the railway companies that have used it.

The London train station before the 1920's.
The London train station before the 1920’s.
The VIA station in downtown London, Ontario.
The VIA station in downtown London, Ontario today.

Here is what I was up to:

Railway transit has been an integral part of Canada’s industry and growth. With such a large amount of space to transport people and goods across, the railways were essential to speed up this process. London is no different in this respect. London was a major rail centre in Southern Ontario and the expansion of the railway transport in the 1870’s corresponded with the industrial boom in London. The train station on York Street has had a dynamic past. It was the place where people first entered the city, and also was a central location for the railways that ran through London towards Toronto and Windsor. It provided a way for London to interact with the rest of Canada in a timely manner. The railway system helped to link Canada together, and the train station in London connected the city to that broad network.

The changes that the train station has undergone demonstrate not only architectural change, but also follow the dynamic history of London and how new technologies have had an impact on transportation. Unlike some of the historic buildings in London, the train station has been torn down twice and rebuilt to better suit the needs of its users and the businesses that depend on it. The station’s history reflects some of the larger changes that have happened in London and also shows how the public interacts with the railway system and how that relationship has not been static. For this project, I studied the time period from the 1850’s to the present in order to explain the reasons that led to the major changes in the station’s appearance. This was a longer timeframe than I had originally anticipated covering, but it allowed me to create a better narrative and go through the changes in the companies that used the station, such as the Grand Trunk Railway and Great Western Railway.

To show the evolution of the train station over time, I used the program Timeline JS to create a timeline featuring the significant dates in its history with respect to the building but also the companies that used it. The timeline layout is ideal for demonstrating how not only the station itself but also the space around it has changed over time. Timeline JS is relatively simplistic, but it allows viewers to focus on the story that is being told. It also displays the chronology well by having slides that you can move through and a running timeline along the bottom to help you orient yourself in time. I did have some issues with Timeline JS, however. To input information into the timeline, I essentially filled out a Google Drive spreadsheet. This worked well, but the program does not let users create separate paragraphs within an entry. This takes away from the overall display of the timeline because it bunches citations together with the text and makes it harder to read. If I were doing the project again, I would probably have used another program that gives you more flexibility for how to display the text.

To make the timeline more visually appealing, I used an assortment of digital tools and sources. By using a range of media, it brings photos, videos, and text together instead of someone having to search through a number of sources to find them if they were interested in the topic. I used aerial images from the Map & Data Centre at Western University overlaid on Google Earth to show how the block around the train station has changed. I also made use of the Fire Insurance Plans the Map & Data Centre has to show the different parts of the station as well as the yards and hotels around it more clearly. To put the photos I had altered onto Timeline JS, I uploaded them to Flickr and then imported the photo URLs to the Timeline JS spreadsheet. This was because Timeline JS requires all media used to be web-based for it to be displayed on a timeline. I also took a few of my own photos to represent the current look of the station. Additionally, I incorporated newspaper articles and a YouTube video that depicted the more recent changes to the station. Using a variety of digital formats helped to make the timeline more engaging for potential viewers.

An image overlay of the railway station in 1922 using Google Earth.
An image overlay of the railway station in 1922 using Google Earth.
A portion of the Fire Insurance Plan from 1881 that was used to show the station's shape and the buildings around it.
A portion of the Fire Insurance Plan from 1881 that was used to show the station’s shape and the buildings around it.

For background research into the station and the companies that used it, I consulted a number of books and webpages. The sources are included in the timeline. By investigating the history of the Grand Trunk and Great Western Railways, I discovered how they competed against each other and then eventually amalgamated when faced with the challenge of maintaining low prices for their customers as well as trying to stay ahead of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. I found H.A. Lovett’s report from 1924 on the folding of Grand Trunk very insightful because it showed the different pressures that railway lines faced and how they had overextended themselves, which eventually led the company to collapse. It was also interesting to learn how much the government supported all of the railways while also allowing them the freedom to make decisions with respect to merging as long as it did not drive shipping prices up too much.

From my research into the topic, it seems that this project may be one of the first to compile information on the train station over the course of its long history. Many of the webpages mentioned its origins and present condition, but few detailed its transition over time as the railways it serves competed with each other and changes as they amalgamated with other companies or were bought out. The timeline links the historical changes to visual images instead of only discussing what happened. It enables viewers to see progress over time and hopefully the reasoning behind the changes that were made.

Whether viewers are railroad enthusiasts or local history buffs, the story of the York Street train station is quite interesting and truly reflects how dynamic the railway in London has been over time.

To see the final product, please click here. Thanks for taking the time to check it out!

Networks and the Digital Humanities: Respect the Code

The Digital Humanities are making more and more use of Computer Science tools. But how well do these tools suit our needs? Scott Weingart’s post, “Demystifying Networks,” tries to analyse that very question. Weingart starts by outlining what he means by network: a way of showing that different objects or nodes are related to each other. By using a network, a researcher is saying that these nodes are connected and that the connections between the nodes matter.

Here’s where things get tricky for Digital Humanists – networks in the context of Computer Science usually show only one type of relationship, whereas we try to connect information on a number of levels and show how different topics or objects relate to one another. The example Weingart used to explain this dealt with books. He discussed how we link the authors of books to the books they write, but if we then wanted to connect books to one another things get complicated and fast. Computer programs, as of yet, don’t deal well with bimodal information particularly well, and so the graphic results and connections you would get by trying to show both of these relationships at once would not be as accurate as we would like. This means that while we might think that using a program such as Gephi to determine how central a node is in a relationship between a group of nodes, if we try to compare authors, books, and book topics we would probably get muddled results. One of the images that Weingart uses definitely demonstrates how results can get lost as the amount of related information increases:

This image depicts how connecting more and more information can make results too dense and potentially meaningless because everything is so closely related.
This image depicts how connecting more and more information can make results too dense and potentially meaningless because everything is so closely related.

I think that the major point that comes out of Weingart’s post is that people studying the digital humanities have to stop relying so heavily on Computer Science to create the algorithms for our projects. We have a different set of issues that do not focus on only one or two variables at a time, so we need tools that work for us. Now, Weingart also stated that not every project has to use networks to be successful. Not all data is suited to this sort of analysis and creating dense networks that show every point is connected is not a useful way to interpret data. So do Digital Humanists have to reinvent the wheel? How much knowledge does a Digital Humanist need in Computer Science to create data that addresses the questions we are asking?

We have to realize that digital tools have their own limitations. They can be extremely helpful to analyse information, but unless there is more input from Digital Humanists, these tools will not reflect the answers we are searching for. I think that Digital Humanists do not have to become experts at coding, but overall we have to have a better understanding of how programming works so we can at least engage with Computer Scientists to help develop the complex systems required for analysing interactions between the many different types of things that we study. Digital Humanists should not be afraid of using programming to help with their research, but we do have to respect that it can be challenging to design tools that reflect our traditional research methodologies. By working with Computer Scientists to develop tools instead of relying on tools that do not reflect our research needs, we will be able to use digital tools more effectively and better understand the results digital tools provide us with.

Twitter as a Tool for Connecting People to History?

I would like to preface this post by saying that I am not currently a Twitter user and Twitter has always seemed like a strange form of networking to me when it’s used in an academic context. Although  I know a lot of people who use Twitter, before reading the blog posts by Suzanne Fischer and Deevybee I hadn’t really thought too seriously about how Twitter could fit together with History. Academics was not the first thing that came to mind when dealing with the short posts Twitter is known for. But as Suzanne Fischer pointed out in her blog, From Off the Wall: historical diaries on Twitter there is a large community of historians that are active on the site. I always assumed that there was just too much information to keep up with. But Twitter isn’t just a place to get news on your favourite celebrities or what your friend had for lunch and users have the choice to follow people and organizations or not. It can act as a place to interact with like-minded individuals who are interested in history or any other subject.

Now a site like Twitter cannot operate without active users as Deevybee. Reading Deevybee’s blog on how to use Twitter, it became apparent that when people actively contribute to the site, users can reach a wide audience and use it to branch into longer discussions on topics that interest them if they follow links to blogs and other discussion forums. It’s neat to think that you can communicate with people you don’t know but share a common interest in a topic.

Part of what has made Twitter so popular is that you don’t get “information overload” in a post compared to the longer articles you might find on blogs or in academic journals. It also gives users the choice to follow links that are interesting to them and only follow the people and organizations they choose to. Deevybee’s comment that Tweeting too frequently can turn people away from following a user made a lot of sense. I would rather choose to follow links that are interesting to me or read Tweets that are well thought out than be bombarded with information that doesn’t concern me. The fact that Twitter users can follow and unfollow accounts makes it easier to control how much you see and whom you receive updates from. For Twitter to be useful to public historians and the rest of the historical community, PHer’s have to actively Tweet engaging Tweets to encourage others to get involved in history and provide feedback for sites and exhibitions.

Another surprise that came out of Deevybee’s blog was the emphasis on proper Twitter etiquette. In a posting format that is so short, I was happy to see that giving credit to sources you use, whether by citing them or retweeting posts you find interesting, was not only encouraged but expected. This tied into Fischer’s comment that Twitter can relate to history not only through writing formats but also through its stylistic features. She pointed to the fact that Tweets are reminiscent of telegrams in the sense that they are short and to the point, or like quick diary entries that show part of the life of an individual. Seen in this context, Tweets are not all that far outside of more old-fashioned ways of communicating. However, Tweets can reach a much larger audience than a telegram or diary entry would have been intended to.

Twitter, if used wisely, can provide a neat way of interacting with the public and creating a discussion around historical topics or events. I’m not saying that Twitter and other social media sites should be the only way the general public connects with historians but it’s a great jumping-off point for larger questions and issues. I think I’ll have to actually sign up for Twitter to get the full effect of how it can be used as a discussion tool, but it seems like it’s a good medium for people to start getting involved with history.

Sources Cited:

Deevybee, “A Gentle Introduction to Twitter for the Apprehensive Academic,” BishopBlog (14 Jun 2011)

Fischer, “Historical Diaries on Twitter,” Public Historian (23 March 2011).

How Digital Tools and Approaches Have, and Will, Impact the Role of Public Historians

The digital world has revolutionized how public historians interact with the public. Now what do I mean by Public History? Generally speaking it involves any group or organization that promotes interaction between people and historical knowledge. Because the information public historians create and share is tailored to a more general audience, the digital world is an awesome place to get more people excited in history. Many historic sites and museums now have webpages and it is almost necessary to be involved with social media to make sure that your voice is heard among all of the other sites that are clamoring for attention. Digital tools make it easier for the general public to find information, but at the same time can exclude certain groups that do not have access to online resources or who do not belong to an academic community.

Digital tools and approaches can increase access to historical topics. Just think about how many people use Wikipedia to search for facts about past events like Confederation. Instead of records being locked up in archives that can be a continent away, digital databases let researchers as well as the public find documents without leaving the comfort of their living room. Finding sources online, whether for academic work or for personal projects like researching genealogies, can be tricky when it comes to making sure that they are dependable. Public historians will have to work to make the general public think about whether the information they find is reliable or not. Will part of the role for public historians be to help educate people on what constitutes a good source for historical research? Quite possibly it will, especially as more and more people start turning to the internet for their research needs.

One advantage that digitizing records has is that having a digital repository for information doesn’t take up as much physical space as traditional museums or archives need for their collections. They also can showcase more objects and records than a museum exhibit could. This allows for more history to be shared, although it can take away from the authenticity you get from seeing something up close and personal. As a tool for public historians, online exhibits could be used as a drawing card for visitors to sites. For example, the Louvre has an online tour that lets people experience their galleries without having to travel to France. If they were to promote special exhibits or galleries on websites, they could increase awareness and interest for the rest of the collection. As the world goes digital, another aspect of online museums and exhibits that public historians will have to work on is making them more dynamic and user-friendly. This might mean adding more interactive components or making design decisions that make websites and digital tools more exciting to use.

Here is a screenshot from the Louvre virtual tour. The digital representation of the gallery allows online visitors to navigate through the space and shows them where they are in the gallery on a map at the bottom corner. Image from: http://musee.louvre.fr/visite-louvre/index.html?defaultView=rdc.s46.p01&lang=ENG
Here is a screenshot from the Louvre virtual tour. The digital representation of the gallery allows online visitors to navigate through the space and shows them where they are in the gallery on a map at the bottom corner. Image from: http://musee.louvre.fr/visite-louvre/index.html?defaultView=rdc.s46.p01&lang=ENG

There is also a danger in relying on digitization of records. File types and formats can change frequently which means that content could be lost or destroyed accidentally. You also miss out on having a human connection with guides or interpreters that can answer specific questions, unless there is a “chat” feature built into a website.

Another thing that public historians will have to consider is how digitally-savvy they will have to be in order to participate in the digital community. How much will historians have to learn about using digital tools? Is it enough to know how to manipulate existing programs or will we have to become more experienced with coding? Can we build a bridge between Computer Scientists and Historians to create a Humanities perspective in our coding? Or do we want to encourage more inter-disciplinarity? At a minimum, there has to be a greater bridge between coders/computer scientists and historians unless we want to be left behind and shut out of the digitization of historical knowledge. There are many opportunities for public historians to use digital tools and approaches to further their goals and help to share information, but only if we are willing to learn new skills and think outside the traditional role of historians with respect to the digital world.

Digital tools and approaches have the potential to help spread historical knowledge and connect people to their history, but part of the job for public historians will be to foster excitement in the general public for history through their digital work and ensure that it crosses over to the physical world.