How Research Databases Changed My Life!

Does anyone else remember the joy of the first moment when you realized what Proquest’s Historical New York Times does? Sitting in a library resource presentation, the librarian clicked in the little search box and in a few seconds was searching the entire full text of the hundred some years of history of the New York Times. Not only is it a fantastic way to kill a weekend, as a historian interested in twentieth century America its a indispensable first stop for almost any research project.

In particular, these sorts of databases provide a amazing platform for jump-starting projects. For a specific example when I first started exploring children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein I made a brief virtual stop at the OCLC’s Worldcat. From their advanced search pane I was able to search for the keyword “Albert Einstein”, and only English language juvenile literature. I could then sort and search them, (This was one of those moments where Zotero would have been a godsend) but most importantly the OCLC counted them for me. When I did the same search for Marie Curie I found, much to my surprise that there are more children’s books about Curie than Albert Einstein, or for that matter any other scientist. By switching Juvenile to non-Juvenile in my search perimeters it was easy to see that this is exactly the opposite of trends in books about scientists for a adult audience. (Yes I know “Adult Audience” is a clumsy term, it is really too bad that ‘adult biographies’ sounds like something that would be bought at an adult bookstore)

With about half an hour of work I had acquired information about over a thousand books, cataloged the information, and was already brimming with questions all because of the amazing aggregate power of Worldcat. Now this was by no means definitive, and I did end up spending 7 hours paging through the 19 editions of the H. W. Wilson Company’s Children’s Catalog on a upper floor of an obscure library finding out which of these books were recommended to libraries over the last hundred years, but I may not have had the impulse to do so if not for the quick and easy search power of Worldcat.

In short both examples demonstrate the way the research database has transformed how we start projects. I will post a few more links with some other ideas for ways things have changed tomorrow!

Osama bin Laden For Kids

Book Cover: Osama Bin Laden: War on Terror

It might surprise you to know that at least 10 children’s books about Osama bin Laden have been published in the last 6 years. I was intrigued, just what do publishers think children should learn about this contemporary villain?

To start to try answering this question I took a look at two biographies of bin Laden published in very different series. The War on Terror Series “covers the full range of topics and issues needed for meaningful discussion, clear understanding, and hope for the future.” they offer “reassurance that democracies are doing what is necessary to make the world safe.” In contrast the Middle East Leaders Series “presents the life stories of those leaders who, for two generations, have been most important-or notorious-to their people and to international politics.” While both series explicitly frame Bin Laden a bit differently, as either part of a conversation about the war on terror or a Middle East Leader they are remarkably similar, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re both terrible “biographies”.

Book Cover: Osama Bin Laden: Mideast Leaders

Often, children’s biographies start off with extensive discussion of their subjects childhood and school experiences. These stories are almost entirely absent from the bin Laden books. Instead, both books begin with sections on the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As far as children’s book publishers are concerned, the story of Osama bin Laden starts at the world trade center. The books both quickly gloss over his early life, and cut to the heart of the matter: Each book has the bold headline, “Why bin Laden Hates America“.

The books depart slightly from each-other in how they answer this question. The Middle East Leaders series explains bin Laden’s hatred for America in very specific complaints. While “Osama bin Laden hates America, its government, and its citizens for several reasons: “two reasons in particular stand out… the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia…(and) support for Israel.” After discussing these two specifics, the author offers further explanation. “As much as Americans believe that Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, bin Laden himself believes that Americans are the real terrorists. “

Bin Laden’s plans for world dommination

The “War on Terror” biography offers a more general explanation about bin Laden’s perspective . The low quality, heavily tinted image of bin Laden to the left is indicative of the general approach of the book. “He hates everything about us and will fight to the death. Bin laden and his Muslim extremist groups fear a U.S. conspiracy will destroy traditional Islamic culture and values. He believes America has the worst value system in the world. He thinks that democracy and our free society make us materialistic, with a sick desire for possessions instead of spiritual enlightenment. He believes the only way to create a pure Islamic state is to wage jihad, or holy war, against the U. S and its allies and drive their forces out of Muslim lands.”

To answer the question I started with, these children’s books about bin Laden exist to address his role in 9/11 more then they exist to explain his life and failing to achieve the later insures the failure of the former. These books have no interest in making him human, in understanding how someone can be driven to such a terrible extreme. While they each offer slightly different reasons for why he hates America, without a more personal story readers cannot really understand this hatred, instead they are left with vague impressions of a monster lurking somewhere in the Middle East. Possibly the 4 to 8 year old children the War on Terror series targets just aren’t the right audience for biographies on bin Laden.

So what does this tell us about kids books about villains? I have one preliminary thought. Children’s books about heroes generally distill virtues for children to follow. (The clearest and most blatant example is ValueTales biographies) One might think the contrary would be true for books about villains, transforming their lives into parables of what not to do, but if these few bin Laden books are indicative of a larger trend it would not seem to be the case. But I suppose what can we learn from him if he isn’t presented as a person?


bush and bin laden same cover

There is something very striking about the cover from the War on Terror Series. Something about a picture of Osama surrounded by stars, stripes, and a little red white and blue ribbon really seems to send mixed messages. I suppose they are trying to say, “yes its about bin Laden, but the accouterments of the American flag tell you what side we’re on.” When looking at the cover I couldn’t help but think that this kind of cover would make more sense with a picture of a patriot than a picture of public enemy number one. Indeed, it appears that that is exactly the publishers thought. See the image to the right, with George Bush framed by the same cover. (Note to publishers, there are times when it is appropriate to mix things up the covers within a series.)

Playing History:Hacked Screen Shot

Playing History Screen Shot

Here is a quick mock up of a individual games page for Playing History. (Click on the image to see it at its native resolution) Everything isn’t perfectly lined up but you get the picture.

Curie and Einstein Go To School

These are two of my favorite pictures from my research on children’s books about Einstein and Curie. (You can click on them to see the bigger images). They are I think, the most visual example of my thesis’s argument and I think they are also illustrative of exactly what we need to pay attention to in Children’s biography.

Stories about famous figures’ biographies are the most directly applicable aspect of children’s literature. This is the part of the story that with which children can most readily identify. Tragically, this part of the story of these lives is generally the thinest part of the historical record. Because children’s literature is so rarely reviewed by historians, this is not an issue for many children’s authors. They can simply invent the figures childhood.

Albert Einstein and His Tutor

The first picture is a picture of the young Albert Einstein terrorizing his baby sitter. Albert is described as cruel, and angry, he throws tantrums the text tells young readers that “His temper so terrifies a tutor hired to help young Albert prepare for school that she runs away, never to be seen again.” In the picture Albert and his anger are foregrounded as the tutor runs away in terror, apparently never to be seen again. You will be hard pressed to find historical precedent for this story: By all accounts Albert was a much more timid boy, but it is easy to see here how masculinity and power are imbued on this child.


The second picture is of Curie crying in the arms of her teacher. Before I get into the details, consider the differences between these two images. Notice the relative size of Curie and her teacher. Einstein is bigger than his tutor, while the small (and surprisingly Aryan) Curie is presented as significantly smaller. In the second picture, the teacher does not come down to her level and instead maintains her size and visual power. This story appears in almost every single children’s book about Curie. The young Manya Skłodowska was the youngest and smartest student in her class. Her school, which was run by Polish teachers, was under constant threat from the Russians who occupied Poland. The school was barred from teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves she cries.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. Readers are told that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class and because of her impressive memory; she saves the class from the inspector. While the stories of Einstein were exaggerate stories that stress his clashes with authority the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts. However, Eva Curie tells several other stories about Manya that only make it into one of the children’s books, and thus the picture of the young Manya is shaped more by exclusion than by exaggeration.

The following anecdotes come from Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie. Doorly’s book went through many printings and was highly acclaimed, being recommended in three consecutive editions of the Children’s Catalogue. Doorly states quite clearly in the opening of her book that it is a children’s adaptation of Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. This book stays very close to Eva’s biography and offers insight into a different trajectory that could have been developed in accounts of Curie. These selections come from the second chapter of her book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl,” she said, “than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Eva tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’” Manya responded “‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings.”

In the second series of stories, the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her crying in front of the Russian inspector is interesting it should be seen as just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Brown, Don. Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein . Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939.

A Use Case for Playing History: Games for the Classroom

Kevin Ryan a 9th grade world history in Fairfax Virginia is planing out a unit on Vikings. Looking over his lectures and activities he realizes it would be great to have his students spend half a lesson using a game or interactive to introduce the subject . Kevin logs on to playing history and searches for Vikings, specifying that his students have 30 minuets for the game or simulation. Because he already has an account with Playing History the results are tailored for him, only returning games relevant to a 9th grade audience. The search returns several resources, each listing weather they have attached lesson plans or links to lesson plans in sites like Yahoo Teachers or Teach Ade. Because the searches privilege freely available web games and games with positive reviews from other teachers the BBC’s Game Viking Quest is one of the first search results. When the Kevin clicks on Viking quest he can see reviews from other teachers, the beginning of lesson plans from sites like Yahoo Teachers and Teach Ade, related content from Teacher Tube and the filtered by his ip address the Virginia State Standards and National Standards that the game engages with. The most salient feature of this page however is a screenshot of the game linking directly to the game, which Kevin can now preview. If he decides the game is useful he can email the games information to his class, save it to his calendar, or add it to his website or account with a variety of other teacher web services, all with just the clicks.

Time from Kevin starting his search for the resource to finding a game or simulation which fits his specific needs: Two Minuets.

Video Games In The Classroom: A look at Super Smart Games

Before coming to the Center for History and New Media I worked on the planing committee for the Games Learning and Society Conference, an annual conference on the role of video games in teaching and learning. For my project I am thinking about bringing my interests in games and education together with my background in history to create a web portal for teachers looking for games to integrate into their classroom. By walking through the educational games site Super Smart Games I can unpack some of the features that I think would more effectively position a site toward integrating games in the classroom.

Super Smart games offers reviews of educational games for Teachers, Students and Parents. Site visitors browse through various categories to find reviews of games dealing with different subjects, and do simple searches that search through the entire collection of game reviews. Visitors can then comment on the reviews but it looks like they cannot post their own reviews. (Thanks to Elle Sanders from Super Smart Games for correcting me, visitors can write reviews, see Elle’s comments below) Sadly the site does not offer any ways for visitors to do advanced searches through the games. For example teachers cannot search via state standards, the time it requires to play a game, the age level of students, or specify only free web games, games free to download, or commercial games. The site also does not interface with existing Teacher social networks like Teacher’s Ade.

My fundamental problem with the site is that it is really more of a game review site than a games site. If it were a game site it would connect visitors to games. While reviews are useful they are ultimately of secondary importance. If you are looking for reviews of games from an educational perspective, then this is a good spot, but I think this is a relatively shallow apreciation for what the web can do. For the sake of comparison consider the non-education games site Kongegrate. This site aims at gamers and game developers. One of the stated goals is that at any moment a visitor should be no more than a few clicks away from actually playing a game. Kongregate (warning this is a fantastically addictive site) offers a much more robust way to interact with games. Some of these features would transfer to a site dedicated to teachers, some of them wouldn’t, but all of the design choices clearly mirror the needs of the gamers and developers.

instead of reading about games at Kongegrate you get to play them and interact with a community built around those games. It would be interesting to consider if it would be possible to do something for teachers. Extract the things most meaningful to them and offer those features alongside the games. In my next post I will explore a use case for the kind of site I am imagining.

A More Scientific Aproach To Comics

banner1.pngWhile not exactly a historical website The Periodic Table of Comic Books is an interesting web resource which has historical value. Designed by a chemists at the University of Kentucky The Periodic Table of Comic Books allows visitors to see how elements have been used and in some cases abused by American comic books.

Be forewarned, the website is not attractive. There are a few typos and the repeating background is quite atrocious, but still I think the idea is ingenious!

The site offers the viewer an image of the periodic table of elements. When you click on any element you jump to a page offering small multiples of images excerpted from pages of comics that mention that element. The resource immediately suggests new avenues for thinking about the popular perceptions of the history of science.


When you look at the small multiples it is clear that these chemists get comics in a way that the Library and Archives of Canada does not. Instead of offering tiny images of full pages from the comics viewers are given little piece of the action in the thumbnails. The bibliographic information is still present but the presentation respects the artifact being presented.

For whatever reason the site does not appear to have a database back-end. Instead each page for each comic seems to have been individually added to the collection. While taking advantage of the non-hierarchical basis of the web page format the site does not take what would seem to be the natural next step and run the site from a database of comics and elements. I would hazard to guess that this is due to lineage issues. It is entirely possible that the site has retained its initial structure from 1996.

History Through Children's Literature

sothatsmanborder.jpgThe stories we tell children are also very telling about our history. This blog will present brief examples of these telling moments. Points for consideration of history in children’s literature and facilitate discussion of the issues therein. Children’s books are a very visual medium, but sadly it is overly complicated to get pictures into print publications. Blogs work well for talking about other visual medium, like comics, so why not Children’s Literature.

Two years ago I took Marjee‘s advice to explore the history of children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. In the process I came across a whole host of materials of historical interest that just didn’t fit into the project but nonetheless warranted discussion. Inspired by some of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media‘s blogs I have been looking for a approach and topic for blogging and Marjee and I have been looking for projects to collaborate on. The blog will explore history in children’s books, from that perspective it will focus much more on ‘true stories’ (non-fiction) than on works of fiction. Our particular interest in the history of science will most likely translate into us spending more time on history of science topics. In particular you can expect to see a bit more of Curie and Einstein to begin with.

A bit about us. My name is Trevor Owens, I work as the Technology Evangelist for the Zotero project at the Center for History and New Media. Aside from that I am a graduate student studying American history at George Mason University. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a BA in History and the History of Science. My undergraduate thesis explored how children’s books about Albert Einstein and Marie Curie diverged from more authoritative biographies. My other work has focused on the history of school science fairs, children’s books about evolution, and creation/evolution discourse in online communities.

Marjee, works as a Associate Director for PBS TeacherLine, developing, directing, and facilitating professional development for teachers across the United States. Marjee taught high school physics and chemistry, and has studied the history of science education and educational technology. She has previously explored Sputnik’s impact on American science education, online creation science communities, and her work on scientific reasoning in video games has been cited in Science.

Our first experiences with history are crucial, while many of those experiences are impossible to capture children’s books provide a record of many of our first impressions of history. On some level these books represent our first past. Children’s books that make historical assertions and this blog is a attempt to start unraveling those assertions. To start taking a serious look at historical children’s literature. The study of Children’s Literature is in many ways in its infancy, and the study of its history even more so. The short pieces in this blog are intended as a way to help develop a dialog about these books.

Oh, and our views are our own, and in no way reflect the views of our respective organizations etc.
(image from Russell Ray Baker. So That’s Man!. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1949.)