History as a Startup

A series of children sit at a desk, waiting.

They look like they’re in a kindergarten classroom—behind them are bright walls, a sun made out of yellow crayon, a white bookcase in the corner. The kids are young, between 5 and 12. They’re photogenic and seem used to being on camera. But they still look slightly bored or maybe a little distant, their eyes a bit glazed over, in the way of young children.

A disembodied man’s voice says he’s going to shake things up this time. “You’re not watching a video. You’re reacting to THIS,” he exclaims, his voice rising with excitement so profound it borders on feigned.

An arm enters the frame. It holds a large black object, approximately the size of a child’s face. It has huge buttons along its side, like the scales along a dinosaur’s back.

Some stare, some smile. Some, like Krischelle, age 9, are horrified.

“Ooh, a phone—oh, what is this thing?” she says, turning it over in her hands, her eyebrows furrowing as she moves lightning-quick from excitement to disdain.

Krischelle with Walkman, screenshots from Kids React to Technology YouTube series

The man asks the kids what the object is.

“A walkie-talkie,” one guesses.

Wrong.

“For speaking in…to?” another says.

Wrong.

Krischelle is excited again; she knows what it is. “Music, a boombox!”

Right. Almost.

It’s a Walkman, something with which I am intimately familiar. (Around Christmas of 1994, according to family legend, I, a neurotic and entitled child, repeated the phrase “I want a Walkman!” for one hour straight to my entire family while we were all seated at the dinner table.)

But listening to the kids in 2016 on the Kids React to Technology YouTube series, as they turn the Walkman upside down and smack at its non-existent touchscreen, I don’t know this machine at all.

Kids React to Technology is played for laughs. It sets up an encounter between children and objects too old for them to understand how to use without help.

But it’s also a historical show. Kids are shown how an object works while they start to learn what it means. My Walkman is different than theirs because I know what it meant, in 1994, to have one. It didn’t mean buttons and plastic. It didn’t mean a $200 price tag. It meant I could move between rooms and even outside with my music (here, the Sister Act soundtrack. Don’t judge).  It meant freedom.

But context is the hardest to remember, even as objects endure. This imbalance—too few stories and too much stuff—creates the “odd amnesia of the internet age,” says John Randolph (left), Professor of History at the University of Illinois.

SourceLab aims to cure that odd amnesia.

A Foreign Country

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” proclaims the first line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between.

The past is weird. People dressed weird (the mullet?) and talked weird (“Four-score and seven years ago”) and listened to music with weird things called Walkmans. But it’s especially weird when you stop to think about how the past is both a thing that has happened—it’s a known thing—and a thing we can never really know.

“Biologists look at turtles, right, and they can measure them and turn them upside down (gently) to look at them, and they can know turtles by doing this. But historians can’t measure the past or turn it upside down. We can only make judgments based on what we call sources that have come down to us. Some things make it down to us and others don’t. So we have to ask, what are these things, what is their history, and what can we use them for?,” Randolph says.

The past, already strange, then can become distorted beyond recognition in the fun house mirror of the internet.

For students, more sources—more photographs, more videos, more sound files, more paintings, more diaries, more treatises, more pictures of objects—are more accessible now than ever before.

Google Books and Wikipedia, for instance, publish an enormous amount of things and all very quickly.  That’s what the internet does, in a nutshell. Many things, fast.

Even as they can see and hear more of these things, however, students may know less about them.

“It almost seems that the internet is designed to strip content of originating information,” Randolph jokes.

Who made an object? How did they make it? When did they make it? How was it used? Why was it preserved—i.e., why is it here now, troubling us with its strangeness?

These are the questions Randolph asks. The internet, that most complete of libraries, is often silent.

“Wiki Commons, for instance, has done wonderful things for humanity, but they’re only interested in copyright status. Origin, use, preservation—we know nothing. The best case we can hope for is bibliographic information. The worst case is that we get an incorrect title and that’s it,” he explains.

Like Kids React to Technology, it can be easy to think that the best way to teach students to make useful historical documents is to sit them down in a classroom and tell them facts until they repeat them, too.

The Walkman cost $200 when it came out.

The cassette goes in flare-side up.

To find track 6, press the two forward-facing arrows.

Randolph wants his students to not just take stuff in or get stuff out quickly.

“Our goal is different: we want to make useful documents for history,” Randolph says.

Publishing the Past in the Future

SourceLab is a curriculum-based digital publishing initiative that lets students decide how to use technology to make an object mean something. It was created by students, faculty, and staff in the Department of History here at the University of Illinois in 2015.

With SourceLab, students create web-based editions of texts that can also be turned into printable offline formats.

Students in HIST 398: SourceLab are learning practical editorial skills while thinking deeply about what it means to make history. Approximately 12 students are currently enrolled in the hands-on seminar. Most of the students are History majors, but the class has also drawn students from Communications, English, and Journalism.

Since 2015, the class has grown in popularity and reach.

This growth is due in large part to the way the course focuses on developing practical skills.

Students earn course credit by participating in all aspects of the publishing process.

“They become publishers and editors of sources. The editorial board is student-led with five faculty advisors. Students also provide material to be peer-reviewed. Essentially, they take the class, work on a source, go through peer-review, and then publish when we’re all certain it’s good to go,” Randolph explains.

Like in many general education courses, students propose topics of their own to write about. But these aren’t your typical final essays. For starters, they’re data-driven.

Randolph’s class asks people to specify why they want a SourceLab edition of something.

“We’ve all seen those well-intentioned internet projects made with the idea that if you build it, they will come. No, they won’t,” Randolph says with a laugh.

“We want these projects to be useful to a community. If people say, ‘Hey, I have this rare diary and it’s great,’ that is great, but we’re not going to take that up just because it’s cool. We’re oriented toward projects that are clear on how the source can be used.”

Current projects include family photographs and early versions of the folk song “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

The “Big Rock Candy Mountain” project perfectly illustrates how students practice both technical skill and critical thinking through SourceLab.

As it turns out, that iconic American song has darker roots. Randolph explains that musicologists agree that the earliest version of the song, from the beginning of the twentieth century, is about sexual assault. A young man is seduced away by an older man with promises of free and bountiful candy, and the young man eventually returns to tell his sad tale.

The historian’s job is not just to provide the source—the song in any of its versions—to the public. Rather, historians must also provide context to help people understand an object in the fullness of its history.

“Comparing the original song with the classic, copyrighted text by Harry McClintock helps us think about how popular music evolves over time, and the different sides of life it can document,” Randolph says. “While most people think of 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' as a classic, Depression-era fantasy, the story out of which it grew speaks to questions of violence and sexuality in migrant laboring life decades before.”

SourceLab students also explore the copyright laws, archival rules, and ethical concerns surrounding publishing. Students learn to negotiate all of these concerns while making interesting sources available to the broadest possible audience.

SourceLab, in short, is helping Randolph teach history better.

“Every History class is motivated by that question, ‘What are the limitations of what we can know?’ SourceLab brings that question to the forefront every time a student sits down at a computer to make a source. It lets them show what an object has meant across time while revealing the historian’s part in interpreting that object to the world,” Randolph says.

But SourceLab is still at the beginning. And Randolph welcomes anyone’s input on how it can be better.

“We’re a startup,” Randolph says. “Our vision for what we want to do is still open so we’d love for people to contact us, criticize us, talk to us. We’re far enough into it that we have a general sense of what we want to do, but we’re actually still just getting started.”

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Want to get involved with SourceLab? Contact John Randolph at jwr@illinois.edu