Monday, January 15, 2018

Cursive, you're history

Went last week to hear City of Toronto Archivist Carol Radford-Grant give the Howland Lecture for the York Historical Society on the subject of archives and the digital realm.

It seemed no big news that the city archives has 12,000 Twitter followers. Doesn't everybody have thousands of Twitter followers? But Radford-Grant pointed out that is more people than visit the archives -- a beautiful modern, accessible facility on Spadina Road below Casa Loma -- in a year. 

And keep that quill pen sharp, too.
Even more striking was her evidence of how archives are responding to that kind of user data. The city's digitization efforts emphasize picture and map collections, because the online appetite for images is huge. Mere text documents, well, they don't have the same kind of takeup. Inevitably their place in the archival hierarchy at a public institution has to decline.  The handfuls of researchers who come in to spend long stretches of time working through collections of serial documents are no longer the key clients of archives, let us say.

And handwritten documents? It seems there is a calamity falling there that I had been largely unaware of. For one thing, handwritten docs largely resist optical character recognition software. They can be scanned, but not made machine-searchable -- so they are losers in the online universe. And increasingly, archives are finding that users just are not willing to look at handwritten sources  -- that is, practically the whole documentary record of anything before the twentieth century. A growing number of us rarely read or write cursive text now, and apparently the will and ability to do so is declining fast. Even Grandma now sends her notes to the kids by Facebook or text message, Radford-Grant observed. 

And so archival attention and budgeting go elsewhere, to where the audience has gone. To stave off the death of the handwritten document altogether, some archives are launching crowd-sourced volunteer projects to have cursive-text documents individually transcribed into word-processed versions. Whaaa...?

I'm working up a column for Canada's History on some of the amazing things digitization is doing to and for historical practice. I ain't trying to be luddite about this. But I started his career using a hand-crank microfilm like the one above to read documents handwritten in 18th century French. When Radford-Grant showed a picture of one of her archives's few remaining microfilm readers and described the horrors of using one, and the audience burst out in laughter at the sheer archaic horror of it, I felt distinctly out of step with the world.

However.  There are still people who learn Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Linear B of clay tablets, Someone will master cursive if they have to, I guess.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Peter Russell on Incomplete Conquests

If you are in Toronto and interested:  Peter Russell, the author of last year's constitutional history (and constitutional proposal) Canada's Odyssey: A Country Built on Incomplete Conquests, is speaking on next Friday evening, January 12, 19th at the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church community hall in North Toronto .Free admission, all welcome, it says here.

Update, Jan 12: Sorry, was in such a hurry to post this in time that I failed to notice it's next week.  Thanks to Allan Williams for the correction.

Nobody loves you when you are 2003

For a couple of years before 2015, the John A. Macdonald birthday parties on January 11 were lively events. (Unless he was actually born January 10, which remains a possibility.) They were history nerdfests more than Macdonald hagiographies, with a certain amount of political contestation encouraged.
By the 199th in 2014, it was getting a little too "official" and worshipful for my taste, and we passed on the 200th.

Now any kind of Macdonald commemoration would be intensely controversial. Indeed the bicentenary attention may have helped provoked the reassessment -- another sign of the consequences of anniversaries on historical memory. Even the pub located in Macdonald's old office building in Kingston has changed its name.  The 203rd does not seem to be prominent in the Canadian calendar today

This year the commemoration has apparently shifted from Canada to Highclere Castle in Britain, where they seem to be promoting the legend that the Canadian constitution was written there!
Highclere Castle was at the very centre of the discussions surrounding the British North American Bill and its drafting.
They must have an odd notion of what went on at aristocratic country house parties in the mid 19th centuries.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

History of Fire and Fury

Book promotion is generally one of those businesses where no one knows anything, but I'm loving the promotional gimmick the University of Toronto historian Randell Hansen has found for his 2008 study of the allied bombing of Europe during the Second World War. He titled it Fire and Fury, and then waited ten years for an American journalist to publish a lurid account of the Trump White House with the same title.  Both books are going like gangbusters, apparently.

Somehow I guess even Hansen's nomination for a nonfiction GG did not produce sales like this.

Notes on the history of inequality and minimum wages

American babies are 76 per cent more likely to die before they turn a year old than babies in other rich countries, and American children who survive infancy are 57 per cent more likely to die before adulthood, according to a sobering new study published in the journal Health Affairs.
American teens aged 15 to 19 are 82 times more likely than teens in other rich countries to die of a gun homicide.
You have to say, the Republican agenda is working.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, how is it that the operators of Tim Hortons franchises have a union -- the Great White North Franchisors Association -- to negotiate with the boss, but the workers cannot seem to have a union to negotiate with the franchisors?

And if markets are supposed to work, how is it the franchise system establishes that the boss gets to set the prices while the franchisors have to pay the (rising) wage costs?  Is the role of retail franchising in creating poverty a bug in the system, or more of a feature?

The $15 minimum wage, coming into force in Alberta and Ontario but bidding to be a national trend, has provoked furious criticism among business lobby organizations.  But economic analysis seems to be conclusive that increasing working people's incomes to meet a living wage is good for the economy, increases retail activity, stimulates business, etc.  The business groups seem so transparently dependent either on scare anecdotes or on the kinds of "studies" in which the press releases have been drafted before the research is commissioned, that the protests of the lobbyists seem to do more to reduce business credibility than to shift policy. In Ontario, at least, Kathleen Wynne seems to be building her re-election program on wrong footing these critics.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Historians at the Order of Canada: Stephen Otto

Just to say I was delighted to see Stephen A Otto among the latest Order of Canada honorees.  I suppose Stephen's field was "heritage," rather than "history" narrowly defined, but he has long been the guy I go to when there is something really obscure about Toronto history I want to know more about.

In recent years he has been the leader and inspiration for the organization Friends of Fort York in Toronto and editor of Fife and Drum, its much-more-than-you-would-expect newsletter.  He has always been a spark for heritage preservation causes and civic improvement in southern Ontario. "Yes," said a mutual friend once when I told him I was doing some writing for Steven's newsletter, "he is a wonderful fellow. And terribly hard to say no to."  I'm glad the Order of Canada knew to say yes.

Francess Halpenny 1919-2017 RIP

Francess Halpenny, surely the greatest Canadian scholarly editor of the second half of the twentieth century -- should we just say ever? -- died on Christmas Day 2017.  She was, among other things, general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography from 1969 to 1988, surely an unmatched tenure, so her contributions to Canadian history were very substantial in their own right.

There was a death notice in the Globe and Mail that gives a good sense of her as one of those who overcame the obstacles women faced in mid-twentieth century academia and went on to do many remarkable things. There's also a nice appreciation  in a piece about elder care by Sandra Martin, published just three days before Halpenny's death, though she was "sharp as ever" when it was drafted.

I had the identical experience to Martin: met Halpenny briefly at a conference and never forgot it somehow. Martin:
I met her in the mid-1970s at a conference I was covering as a callow editor for Quill & Quire. Her credentials were impressive. And yet, what I remember about Halpenny is her personality.
She responded with bright-eyed intelligence, curiosity and patience when I cornered her at a reception and bored her with my jejune pensées about the slew of books that had come out about ...
She even explains why she was Francess with an extra S.

Photo: the Globe & Mail

Thursday, December 28, 2017

History of Edith Sheppard

The obituaries in December 2017 included Ernest Revell, retired University of Toronto professor of Near Eastern Studies and published watercolour artist.

He is memorable to me as a child of Edith Sheppard, an early Canadian woman lawyer (called to the bar 1925) who practised for several years with the prominent Toronto firm of McCarthy & McCarthy, and whom we "discovered" during my research in the history of that firm, as noted in the 2005  history of McCarthy Tetrault

A biography of Edith Sheppard which was commissioned by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography -- but which the DCB has so far declined to publish -- has long lain among my own archives of lost projects. For those who may be interested, I have included the unedited text below the jump:

Catalonia's PR election

The recent election in the Spanish state of Catalonia returned a pro-independence government. But most voters favoured continued union with Spain. Is this one of those first-past-the-post anomalies much decried by "fair vote" supporters of proportional representation?

Actually, no. Catalonia uses proportional representation, as Fruits and Votes (an electoral-systems site that is generally pro-PR) observes:
"the pro-union parties won more votes, but the way the separate parties’ votes were translated into seats by electoral system resulted in a pro-independence assembly majority. The voting result between the blocs was not even very close, those opposed to independence winning by about 4.6 percentage points. This sort of thing should not happen under PR"
In fact, it is not that infrequent.

Update, December 30:  Tom Morton offers a link to a Washington Post op-ed that expands on this issue.  Oddly, it is paywalled when I go to it, but not when Tom does, so try your luck.

Meanwhile, in Maclean's, true believer David Moscrop recently declared blithely that PR produces "fair " results, but predicts it will fail in Canada again because of "smear campaigns,' "lack of public education," or "arbitrary" rules. Yeah, it could not be anything serious that gives voters doubts.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Seasonal Wishes

All my plans for a seasonal wrap up and review seemed to get swallowed up in a swirl of eggnog and reindeer, or something. 

For a little Christmas history to tide you over, I recommend Cayley Bower's at once charming and erudite thoughts on the history of seasonal baking in Canada, recently posted at Active History.

All the best for the holidays.  Maybe that pre-Christmas wrap up can become a year end review.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

History of health care

A Canadian woman and her American sister are each striken with breast cancer. Happily both get essential treatments and survive.  But the costs....
And she had to contend with American-style billing. “Just as I was getting ready to head to the operating room, a tall man in a nice suit came in and told us he had to have a cheque before they would go ahead. ‘It’s our new policy because people aren’t paying their bills.’ We paid him, of course, but it seemed absolutely outrageous — especially when you’re frightened and sick.”
The story is in the United Church Observer, and it's by Catherine Wilson.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Wisdom from the east (mostly)

Acadiensis (the blog one, I mean) recently offered an essay connecting the Halifax Explosion to climate change. "What, then, does the story of the Halifax Explosion tell us about our contemporary moment of climate disaster?"

Absolutely nothing, one is tempted to respond -- except maybe the author has a project underway on climate history. But in fact, author Jacob Remes, a student of disaster response, has quite a few interesting and ingenious comparisons and analogies to offer.

Meanwhile, at Borealia Jerry Bannister has advice on how to get that bogged down thesis started.  For one thing, he says, you can take Christmas off.
If you’re like 94.7% of the academic world, you will get precious little work done once the holidays are upon us. You can fight it and make yourself unproductive and miserable, or give into seasonal reality and be unproductive yet happy.
Not from the east but:  Active History offers pointed and thoughtful public policy advice from a team of historians who have analysed the perhaps hastily-drafted Bill 66, the bill to provide for expungement of criminal records for victims of LGBTQ+ harassment.

Active History recently got some enthusiastic attention from the academic newsmag University Affairs.  Blogging -- still not dead yet, I guess.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017


It had not much registered with me before this year that December 6, being noted today as the hundredth anniversary of the Halifax explosion, is also the anniversary of the Polytechnique shooting, 28 years ago in Montreal.

As centenaries do, the Halifax disaster has provoked quite a bit of new research and new publishing, from surveys of the whole event, like Ken Cuthbertson's (at right) to studies of recovery policies, eg, David Sutherland's.  It's the featured story on CBC Radio's The Current this morning.

I guess it's not a "major" anniversary in Montreal, by the calendar, but it will be remembered too.  I wrote this about that event ten years ago, and it stays with me:
This is also the 18th anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique murders in Montreal. I was giving a university exam the morning after, and the visceral moan or growl or something that arose from the class when I raised the subject remains with me. Then I had a 3 month old daughter. This week she sits in a university building doing exams herself.
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