FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig.
Digital history: A guide to gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the Web.
Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
paper, 265 p., ISBN 0–812–21923–4, US$28.95.
Blackwell: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital history

At first glance, it is difficult to tell whether Digital history is intended for Web designers, librarians, historians, or genealogists. The subtitle, “A guide to gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the Web” is only somewhat edifying since it could be referring to the history of digitization and the Web. In actuality, this book is intended for historians who have little to no experience with Web design but are interested in delving into publishing Web sites.

The authors, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, are both historians affiliated with George Mason University and the Center for History and New Media; they are also experienced history Web project developers. Throughout the book they use their historical Web projects as illustrative examples of issues they have faced. Two of their Web projects include the September 11 Digital Archive (http://www.911digitalarchive.org/) and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution (http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/).

Although Digital history is intended for experienced historians who are novice Web designers, it is not entirely a “how to” book. The authors do an admirable job of surveying the topics historians embarking on a Web project will need to consider, but is not written to be used in a vacuum. For example, it covers types of software used in Web development, but does not provide direction in using those programs. Although the authors state that their book is “meant to be a practical handbook rather than a theoretical manifesto” (p. 13), I would disagree. This is the book to read to get a theoretical background before reading a practical book describing how to use some Web editor and related programs. Because the book covers such a wide array of topics, it cannot cover anything exhaustively, but does give a great general overview.

The first chapter, “Exploring the History Web,” gives examples of different historical Web sites and talks about specific features those sites offer that make them work well or problems they could improve upon. This chapter provides inspiration for the reader’s own site by exhibiting what is already out there on the “History Web,” the term the authors use to describe the community of history and history–related Web sites.

The second chapter, “Getting started: The nature of websites, and what you will need to create yours,” is a fairly basic synopsis of the technology behind the Web and could be skipped by some readers. It includes definitions of acronyms such as URL, a snapshot of markup language, a digest of software available for Web design, and options to consider on locating a “home” (or server) for your content.

In the third chapter, “Becoming digital: Preparing historical materials for the Web,” the authors cover digitization of text, images, video, and audio. They discuss the advantages and disadvantages of going from analog to digital format, as well as formats such as TIFF or JPEG historians should consider based on the budget and mission of a site. They also cover points to take into consideration when choosing equipment, as well as the benefits/drawbacks of the optical character recognition process. As digitization can be time–consuming and expensive because of the equipment involved, many projects with a budget choose to outsource this step; and an outsourcing vs. in–house discussion is included.

In “Designing for the History Web,” the fourth chapter, we learn about Web design aesthetics and how some of the same principles from print design carry over to Web pages. Cohen and Rosenzweig also include information on designing for different platforms and browsers, site structure, choosing URLs, and a lengthy section on accessibility. In one instance, the authors diverge from conventional Web wisdom. Many usability testing experts advise that shorter chunks of text are more digestible for Web users. The authors complain that, “This acquiescence strikes us as too close to the lowest–common–denominator thinking that historians have always fought against in favor of rich interpretation and the joy of the written work itself” (pp. 124–125). They argue that good writing will compel readers to read, regardless of the length of text.

In the fifth chapter, “Building an audience,” the authors suggest methods historians can use to market their sites, how to attract return visitors, and how to get your site to rank higher in search engine results. I found the section concerning Google,’s page ranking methods to be particularly interesting. Many Web designers carefully create metadata (hidden coding that includes keywords and descriptions) for their digital content, when Google does not consider these tags very highly when ranking results. Instead, they focus on reputation of a site, based on how many other sites link to that site, and the quality of those referring sites.

In “Collecting history online,” the sixth chapter, the authors explore methods you can use to make your site interactive in order to gather written accounts and documents from your audience. The authors do consider that accepting information from the public sometimes means accepting items with unknown provenance, but provide a number of arguments for collecting information this way anyway: “In our experience, for instance, teenagers are generally too busy downloading music to play games with historians and archivists online” (p. 163). They also give advice for projects that are likely to succeed and fail. If a project’s scope is too wide, for example, geared toward collecting information on seniors in high school, it will likely have a more difficult time drawing an audience than would a project collecting the experience of a particular high school’s senior class. Collection methods for gathering information from an audience are also considered. Suggestions include e–mail, instant messaging, blogs, and wikis. The authors do not neglect the issue of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) either. Academic researchers are familiar with dealing with IRBs before conducting research, and this section reminds us that whenever collecting information from human “subjects” it is worth checking with your IRB to make sure that they approve of your project. Cohen and Rosenzweig recommend referring to your project as an “online oral history” instead of a “survey” to lessen the scrutiny of your IRB (p. 179).

The seventh chapter entitled, “Owning the past? The digital historian’s guide to copyright and intellectual property” covers all issues related to copyright. This chapter covers the history and current state of copyright. However, by far the most useful part of this chapter is the chart describing when different items fall into public domain (pp. 205–206). It includes information on unpublished works and works published in the United States. The chart does not include international copyright information, although that topic is briefly addressed in the text of the chapter.

The final chapter, “Preserving digital history: What we can do today to help tomorrow’s historians” addresses the difficulty of preservation when dealing with constantly evolving technology. The authors include real world examples of losses of information through corruption of files, obsolete hardware and software, and loss of passwords. In one case, the “Ivar Aasen Centre of Language and Culture, a literary museum in Norway, lost the ability to use its large, expensive electronic catalog of holdings after the death of the one administrator who knew the two sequential passwords into the system” (p. 223). Although there is no way to ensure that whatever technology you’re using now will be readable in the future, the authors argue that your project’s best chance of survival rests with you, and offer tips for helping ensure your project is not lost once you’re gone.

Throughout Digital history the authors use a conversational tone and sense of humor that make for relatively easy reading. The book contains a sprinkling of editorializing, especially concerning copyright law. The authors write about the “scandalous Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998” (p. 12) and recommend pushing the envelope when it comes to copyright, although they stipulate that they are not lawyers and not offering legal advice: “We believe that a more aggressive assertion of the rights and claims of that commons [the Web], when followed sensibly, does not entail excessive risk. In taking this stance, we depart from the conventional wisdom of dozens of copyright guides, whose favorite phrases are ‘do not,’ ‘ask permission,’ and ‘err on the side of caution’” (p. 190).

Digital history offers a wonderful overview of the issues historians will face when creating a given history Web project. Although the title of the book is ambiguous, once you get past that, the book is well organized and will be useful for its intended audience. Many of the topics in the book, such as building an audience, are not specific to historians; but the ubiquitous use of examples of history Web sites to illustrate ideas and points helps connect those ideas with the history reader. This book is recommended for historians looking to begin Web projects as well as academic libraries. Digital history is also freely available at http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/. — Ruth Connell, Electronic Services Librarian, Valparaiso University. End of Review

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Greg LeRoy.
The great American jobs scam: Corporate tax dodging and the myth of job creation.
San Francisco: Berrett–Koehler Publishers, 2005.
cloth, 213 p., ISBN 0–576–75315–6, US$24.95.
Routledge: http://www.bkconnection.com/

Jobs Scam: Or, “I Seen My Opportunities and I Took ’em”

Greg LeRoy is angry and he wants you to read his book, The great American jobs scam, so that you will be angry, too. He is tired of corporations that exploit governmental subsidies and tax policies in order to profit at the public’s expense. Why, he asks, should taxpayers subsidize corporations to the tune of US$50 billion–a–year and routinely give specific corporations packages that include credits of over US$100,000 per job? (pp. 2–3) LeRoy, the director of Good Jobs First, an agency designed to promote accountability across the public and private sectors, is a muckraker who should be applauded for challenging these stratagems; indeed, that is where his book is at its best. LeRoy, however, is less persuasive when he offers his agenda to end these dubious economic practices. Granted, his suggestions are often insightful, but readers would be a bit naïve to believe that in this era of legislative earmarks that American taxpayers will prevent corporations, politicians, and lobbyists from continuing their collective feast at the public trough.

Books about subsidies and tax policies are rarely riveting reads, and LeRoy, an engaging polemicist, does his utmost to employ creative titles and subheadings, evocative lists, and informative statistics to make the soporific or complex more manageable. For instance, chapter one begins with the screaming title, “The Tax Dodgers Are Coming! The Tax Dodgers are Coming!,” before addressing fourteen different types of tactics that corporations use to shake down local communities. (p. 9) This list of techniques will give taxpayers pause, as well as raise their ire. Let three examples suffice. Threatening to leave Massachusetts, Raytheon used “job blackmail” in order to receive a tax break of US$21 million per year from the state for jobs it was already providing there; then the company turned around and actually cut jobs. (p. 9) To negotiate a better deal with Maryland, Marriott created a bogus rival in neighboring Virginia. Boeing won a big subsidy from Illinois in part by exaggerating the number of related jobs that would be created in the region (the “ripple effect”) if the aerospace giant made the state its headquarters. Throughout this scathing critique of corporate malfeasance, LeRoy lightens the mood by painting executives, politicians, lobbyists, site location consultants, and union workers as caricatures straight from central casting. In such unflattering light, for example, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani morphs from Time magazine’s 2001 Person of the Year into the “Giveaway King of the Late Twentieth Century.” (p. 43)

LeRoy considers these various job scams to be a “twisted dance.” (p. 54) Companies adopt the rhetoric of “jobs, jobs, jobs” to give the illusion that their top concern is to help the community; they also hire consultants or experts to write up positive impact reports. Then, if protests occur, it is easy to dismiss them as the foolish ramblings of those who are anti–jobs. (p. 92) Corporations also refuse to disclose information while drawing various cities and states to the negotiating table where they remain in the dark and blindly compete against one another. Moreover, businesses often claim to create new jobs, when in point of fact they are just moving jobs. To further gain leverage, corporations have done everything in their power to whittle down income and property taxes, to protect “nowhere income,” and to prevent the creation of a uniform tax system for multi–state corporations which would eliminate some of the worst tax dodging. (p. 112) Even in the Bay state, which is supposed to have such a heavy tax burden that it has earned the nickname Taxachusetts, there are “so many tax breaks ... that for every $5 it collects in corporate income taxes, it forgoes $4 more in tax breaks.” (p. 101) Ultimately, LeRoy argues that these dynamics have led to a huge shift in the tax burden, as companies increasingly pay the minimum corporate tax, zero tax, or even get tax credits. So who will pay the piper? According to LeRoy, as schools and local services continue to get pinched by lack of corporate investment in the community, low– and middle–class families and small businesses are having to pick up the slack.

Despite the addiction to these tax breaks and subsidies, LeRoy argues that they are a waste of money, because “companies are getting huge subsidies to go where they would go anyway.” (p. 47) Why is this the case? Because executives determine site locations not based on taxes but on business fundamentals like labor, transportation, and utilities. Therefore, LeRoy concludes, subsidies only truly matter when an executive faces two exactly equal options, a situation that is extremely rare. But while LeRoy is right to question the efficacy of these giveaways, he is too quick to dismiss their attractiveness. I’m not as convinced as LeRoy that executives stick by business fundamentals and avoid the seduction of sweetheart deals. Moreover, LeRoy discounts his own argument later when he explains that companies that rely on low–paying jobs are the most likely to benefit from subsidy packages, and thus we might conclude that they have a greater incentive to accept such arrangements. (p. 73)

LeRoy’s agenda for reform acknowledges that there is “no silver bullet” and that it will be a challenge to end the bipartisan support for the cozy relationship between the public and private sectors that contributes to the excessive amount of subsidies and tax breaks. The key to reform, he argues, is an “organizing approach” that will “bring lots more people into the process.” (p. 185) He also offers numerous commonsensical ideas to combat these problems. For instance, LeRoy maintains that the heat and light provided by full disclosure is the key to making honest deals. Since the current system of subsidies has no accountability, he wants to hold corporations responsible by demanding that they meet specific timetables and offer money back guarantees. In order to foster regional cooperation over local competition, he believes the federal government should offer incentives to end job piracy. To prevent subsidies for low–paying jobs, he proposes that communities only grant subsidies for jobs that provide a living wage. But ultimately LeRoy’s call for accountability seems too utopian to this reviewer; even though these are good suggestions, in reality it will be difficult for his proposals to become policy or law, let alone be implemented.

The great American jobs scam is an informative and eye–opening book. One of its benefits is that you do not have to read it cover to cover to learn from it; you can merely dip into it now and again. As for disappointments, LeRoy rarely mentions the influence of globalization. In contrast the obligatory sections on Wal–Mart (or Sprawl–Mart) and professional sports seem unnecessary, perhaps because these are targets that have been harpooned so often. Moreover, as a general warning, some of the sections on tax policy are relatively complex. Finally, if after reading LeRoy’s book you believe that his suggestions for reform will substantively change policies in our country then I applaud you for your optimism. But personally, I think that we will continue to live in a world where the Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt’s words are more likely to ring true: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” — Alan Bloom, Assistant Professor of History, Valparaiso University. End of Review

 


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