Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Make Your Own 3d Graphics

One of our major assignments this year is to create interactive content for Museum London to use with their grade 5 students, on a Smartboard. The Smartboard is a lot like a Power Point presentation that allows students to move things around and click buttons on the screen. Essentially, it's a fancy blackboard.

In designing the content, I decided to make use of a graphics program I'd learned a few years ago called Bryce 3D to spice things up a bit and make my own graphics rather than relying on those created by others. Bryce is a bit outdated now (You won't see Disney using it in any of their upcoming movies), but it still makes some pretty nice pictures - especially landscapes.

The difference between Bryce and the Paint/Draw programs we all have on our computers, is that everything in Bryce is made up of geometric shapes that not only have height and width, but depth as well. In paint, you make an orange by drawing a circle; in Bryce, you make a sphere.

And unlike in Paint/Draw, where you can only look at your picture from one point of view, in Bryce, you can walk all around your objects. From the front, side, above, below, or from any angle imaginable. This freedom (though tricky to master), allows you to create some pretty detailed pictures. And once you've tried it, I doubt you'll ever want to go back to the clunky interface of Google Sketchup.

For my project, I needed an image of three vendors. One from 19th c India, Japan and Egypt.

I did some quick research on the types of clothes men wore in these countries during these times, and using dozens of individual little geometric objects, and a little help from Photoshop to add the sepia tones, I was able to come up with the three you see here.

So, if you like art, or need to make some graphics of landscapes, buildings, or even objects (people are doable, but there are better programs out there), give a 3d modeling program a try. You might like it. And you might be impressed with what you can come up with.

Note: I don't work for Bryce, it just happens to be the program I'm most familiar with. If you don't want to pay for a program, you might try "Blender," which is free and open source.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Go Ahead and Touch the Artifacts

I saw a documentary on TVO a few weeks ago about exhibits put on by the British Museum. The documentary was a couple years old, but one of the exhibits in particular was rather intriguing to me. It was a traveling show of stone tools that was at the time set up in Norwich Castle. The oldest of these tools was 1.8 million years old.

So far, all pretty standard.

What was different, however, was that Jill Cook, the woman in charge of the exhibit, had decided to allow visitors to handle some of the artifacts. Even young children were encouraged to pick up the million year old objects.

Granted - stones are a bit more resilient than old documents or tapestries, but the idea is the same. Cook thought that the minor damage caused by oils in the skin from a few weeks of being handled was worth it for the engagement that such an exhibit provided viewers.

It was amazing to see the uncertain looks on people's faces as they picked up the tools. Many of them looked as if they felt they were doing something wrong and treated the objects with the utmost care. As far as I know, none of them were dropped or damaged.

So go ahead. Touch the artifacts. Connect with them.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Putting a History Essay Online

A colleague of mine, Tim Compeau, wrote a few months ago about an essay of his that he reformatted for the web as part of a Digital History internship. For Tim, it was his first website.

I decided to follow in his footsteps and try to do the same myself. I also had never even attempted to write any HTML. But, armed only with's online HTML and CSS tutorials, and some patient Google searching when I got stuck, I was able to learn enough HTML and CSS to hand-code my first web page. It was a 7 part process, every bit of it free.

1) I chose the paper I wanted to encode: in my case, it was my undergraduate thesis: The United Irishmen's Allies.

2) I read Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's, "Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web" (available totally free, online).

3) I added all the necessary HTML tags so that the browser could read my paper. (free at W3

4) I snazzed it up a bit with some CSS, so that my page wasn't merely a wall of text. (free at W3

5) I uploaded my pages to my webspace (available totally free, if you are a UWO student)

6) I had W3C Markup Validation Service check my code to make sure it was written properly so that various kinds of browsers would all be able to read it. (available totally free and instantly online - all you need is to provide the site with the URL address of your page).

7) I put a link to my website on my blog so that Google and the other search engines out there can find it!

You can take a look at what I came up with Here.

It took me about 50 hours of fiddling with HTML and CSS to put the equivalent of a 50 page paper online. But I'm confident it will be easier in the future, now that I've taken the time to learn how it all works. It's still got a few bugs (especially if you're viewing it with Internet Explorer), but it was definitely a worthwhile exercise.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Formatting your Family History: Referencing

This post follows up on my previous two posts regarding family history: “Put Your Family History in Context” and “Formatting your Family History: Images and Documents.” This time, I will look at the different style-guides used for referencing where you got your information to help you decide which one is right for your own family history.

If you don’t reference where you got your information from, your reader has no way to tell if your research is correct, nor can they find the same evidence you found if they were working on a project that needed to use one of your documents in their own research. While it’s true that most general readers prefer no references, since they sometimes get in the way of the narrative, I’d certainly encourage anyone writing their family history to use them. After all, you’ve carefully researched your history, why not lend credibility to your efforts by laying all of your evidence out for people to see?

There are many different referencing systems used throughout scholarly writing that you could use in writing your family history. The most popular of these for humanities writers - as I would argue, family historians are, are the Modern Language Association (MLA) style-guide and the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago). The major difference between them is that MLA calls for the author to put its references in the body of the text, and Chicago puts the reference either at the bottom of the page (footnote) or at the end of the book/chapter (endnote). First, let’s have a look at MLA.

MLA style has advantages and disadvantages. Many people like the fact that the reader doesn’t have to turn the page, or even look to the bottom of the page to find out the author’s source. It’s time consuming to flip pages just to check a reference. Also, aesthetically, many people dislike how footnotes can sometimes take over a page. I’m sure everyone who has read academic history has come across many books where the footnotes are longer than the work itself, which can be distracting and cluttered. MLA also has the advantage of being nearly invisible, if you’re a talented writer. For example:

“The record of Great Grandpa John’s marriage on May 18, 1894 is held in marriage registers in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.”

The preceding sentence contains all the citation information you’d need for an MLA style reference. It tells the reader what type of document was used (marriage registers), where in the document the information can be found (May 18, 1894), and where it is held (St. Paul’s Cathedral, London England).

However, more commonly, MLA tends to be invasive for the reader, much like my last sentence. Whereas most readers can choose to ignore the superscript little number that’s connected with an end note, it’s much more difficult to ignore the parentheses that MLA often demands:

“Great Grandpa John’s marriage in 1894 was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London England (St. Paul’s Records). He married our Great Grandmother Mary, who had moved to London in 1890 from Manchester (Mary’s Letters, June 14, 1890). She had met our Great Grandpa John while attending the opera (John’s Diary, August 19, 1893).”

These constant citations are important if anyone wanted to check your references in the future, but for the reader they make the narrative rather choppy and difficult to enjoy.

This is where Chicago Manual of Style has its advantages. As mentioned above, the reader can easily choose to ignore your footnotes or endnotes, but if they desire, they know that the information of where you got your resource is readily available. To my knowledge, all academic historical publications use a referencing system based on the Chicago Manual of Style, largely because it is so flexible. Footnotes or endnotes give the author the freedom to add extra information that would otherwise stifle the fluidity of the narrative that could be important to ensure readers can understand your history, and when using lots of sources that are tucked away in Archives or Museums all over the world, Chicago style makes it clear exactly where each document is held. The above paragraph written using MLA style would look something like this in Chicago Manual of Style:

“Great Grandpa John’s marriage in 1894 was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London England.[1] He married our Great Grandmother Mary, who had moved to London in 1890 from Manchester.[2] She had met our Great Grandpa John while attending the opera.[3]


[1] “Marriage of John Smith to Mary Jones, May 18, 1894St. Paul’s Cathedral, Marriage Register. (London, England, 1894).

[2] Mary Jones. “June 14, 1890,” Letter from Mary Jones to Sylvia Cooper. Courtesy: Greater Manchester County Record Office.

[3] John Smith. “August 19, 1893Diary of John Smith. Courtesy: Public Record Office. Mary also wrote about the occasion in a letter to her friend Sylvia, the same day. Mary Jones. "August 19, 1893" Letter from Mary Jones to Sylvia Cooper. Courtesy: Greater Manchester County Record Office.


To the untrained eye, the footnotes can be a mass of confusion. However, if you don’t care about the reference, it’s easy to skip over it and just focus on the narrative. Your references may never get looked at by your readers, but they do leave a trail of your research in case you or anyone else in your family ever wished to pick up where you left off and continue the search for your family’s history.

Ultimately, it is your family history and its your hard work that will get it written. It’s up to you if you decide to use MLA, Chicago or no reference system at all. It’s also up to you if you take any of my advice about “Putting your Family History in Context” or about when and where to include “Images and Documents” in your book. But, by keeping in mind the needs and desires of your readers, you will be able to produce something that is worthy of your hard work; something that will be easier and more enjoyable to read and something that will act as a tribute to the family in whose name you wrote.