An Experiment in Digital Resources

For this blog we were to search a topic pertinent to our upcoming digital history project in a variety of online resources, specifically Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and a popular search engine, then compare the results to an academic treatment of the same topic. In my case I have chosen “hairwork” as my search term. Hairwork is a term used to describe artistic items crafted using, historically, human hair. Hairwork was especially popular during the nineteenth century in Europe and America and many examples remain in tact due to hair’s natural durability. So, let’s see what our resources have to say about this historically popular craft.

A stunning bracelet crafted from human hair. This piece is a part of the Leila’s Hair Museum collection. Click the image to visit the gallery portion of the museum’s website.

Wikipedia

We have read much about Wikipedia in the past few weeks, both positive and negative. A search for “hairwork” leads the user to the page “Hair Jewellery.” In regards to Wikipedia, I tend to side with those who wrote responses to Jared Lanier’s “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”, rather than with Lanier, in thinking that Wikipedia is more a force for good with open and easily understood inner workings. In the case of “Hair Jewellery,” however, Wikipedia is severely lacking. The article focuses primarily on the broad use of hair in various crafts throughout history and its symbolic meaning therein, while briefly discussing the popularity of hairwork during the Victorian era. The article has no sources, is rather poorly written, and has no real organization. A peek at the View History page shows that Wikipedians have been editing the article for seven years and several editors have noted major changes they made regarding everything from the use of first person language, the removal of irrelevant information, and a minor debate about the spelling of “jewellery” vs “jewelry.” Frankly, this makes me a little concerned with what the original article looked like and the page itself warns readers that “(t)his article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay.” Not a great source for anyone attempting to do academic work on this topic at the moment.

(P.S. The bad thing about learning how to edit Wikipedia is the urge to change poorly done articles of interest and distract oneself from other tasks at hand. Case in point, I just couldn’t resist the urge to edit it, so this particular article now looks slightly improved but still needs further additions in terms of academic sources. I’ll probably edit it again once I get all my research done for this digital project and have a more firm grasp of the literature.)

“A hair brooch in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.” From the Wikipedia article “Hair Jewellery.”

Encyclopedia Britannica

Lanier worries in his piece about the loss of an individual authors voice through the use of crowd sourced sites like Wikipedia versus the tried and true reference resources like Encyclopedia Britannica. In this case, however, the Wikipedia article features a bit too much of the primary author’s voice while Encyclopedia Britannica remains entirely silent. A search for “hairwork,” “hair jewelry,” and the like pulls up nothing more than a scientific explanation of what hair is and various insects and animals with “hair” or “hairy” in their common name. This of course speaks to the limitations of older reference sources when it comes to niche topics which may not be popular enough to warrant paying an author to define.

Google

In his article, “Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now,” Marshall Poe hopes to convince historians of the need to create academic space on the web for their topics of interest. He states, “Google your own topic of research and review the top results. Likely you will see a Wikipedia entry and a collection of putatively educational sites, all of which are selling something.”1  Indeed, in the case of hairwork, this description of likely Google search results is still spot on five years after Poe’s article was written. The top search result is hairwork.com a largely disorganized looking site dominated by ads for various books, tools, and supplies for the art of hairwork. If you need a forum to find buyers for your own hair, then look no further! Among the ads and sales there are links to other interesting resources; for instance, one can navigate to a section full of collector’s stories. One of these collectors is Leila Cohoon who runs Leila’s Hair Museum. There are also links to a blog post about hairwork, the site of a historical re-enactor who does hairwork, and other similar enthusiast sites. One exception is a Project Gutenburg text of an 1867 instructional hairwork book.

Another piece from the Leila’s Hair Museum collection. This one is a decorative piece meant to be displayed under a glass dome. Click the image to visit the image gallery for Leila’s Hair Museum.

Academic Perspective

Locating an academic article was a bit of a challenge as well. JSTOR offered only reviews of the few books that have written about hairwork and other suggested sites come up with nothing relevant. Eventually through a hit on Google Scholar and then a trip to the library website, I located an intriguingly relevant piece. Helen Sheumaker’s “‘This Lock You See’: Nineteenth-Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self” offers an academic understanding of the use of hair in sentimental crafts of the nineteenth-century. While the enthusiast or “amateur” sites discussed above primarily focus on how hairwork was made and share past and present images of the craft, Sheumaker focuses on the ever-important academic question of “why” various crafts made with human hair took on a special meaning during the Victorian period. Sheumaker states “(i)t was precisely these aspects of hair-its seemingly stable individuality, its fragility wedded with materiality, its transcendence-that nineteenth-century American found so compelling.”2

Conclusion

This exercise leads me to an important conclusion. There is clearly a niche interest on the web for better understanding this type of craft work. Current sites offer how-to information along with stunning examples, but they lack in an academic grounding. If a history teacher or professor wanted to use hairwork as a visually engaging tool to help explain the sentimentality of the nineteenth century, there would be no “one-stop-shop” website to which they could turn. I believe this both highlights the continuing divide between academic and “amateur” sites online, while also making the need for a hybrid site on such a topic clear.

A brooch made of two sisters' hair. Item from the Minnesota Historical Society's collection. Click the image to visit the item's catalog record.

A brooch made of two sisters’ hair. Item from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection. Click the image to visit the item’s catalog record.

Footnotes

1. Marshall Poe, “Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now,” Historically Speaking 10, 2 (2009), 22. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/historically_speaking/v010/10.2.poe.html

2. Helen Sheumaker, “‘This Lock You See’: Nineteenth-Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self,” Fashion Theory 1, 4 (1997), 422.

 

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