The Technology of a Canadian Environmental History Network

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Let me tell you about old websites, the early internet, and how NiCHE got its Groove™. The ways that environmental historians in Canada connect and communicate have changed considerably since the field first emerged at the start of this century. In a recent book chapter, Jan Oosthoek and I reviewed the development of online networking in environmental history around the world and argued that the field developed in relationship with changing network communications technologies. The same has been true in Canada, of course, and the Network in Canadian History and Environment has been part of that technological change in scholarly networking. But the website you read here today is quite different from the forms of online networking and communication that were more common twenty years ago.

In 2004, I attended the annual Quelques Arpents de Neige symposium at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. Arpents was a regional environmental history group for scholars whose work focuses on Quebec, Ontario, and adjacent parts of the US. This group was founded the year prior and, at the time, it was one of the only meetings focused specifically on Canadian environmental history. As a first-year PhD student new to environmental history, it was an opportunity for me to start to connect with others working in this exciting new field.

I learned about the symposium via the email listserv, H-Environment. H-Environment began in 1991 as ASEH-L, a listserv started by Professor Dennis Williams from Southern Nazarene University and hosted by Texas Tech University. Email was the primary form of online communication used by environmental historians in the 1990s and early 2000s and it continues to be the most widely used communication technology in academia. H-Net has evolved and continues to serve as a massive online network of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. As a new graduate student, I signed up for several email listservs to learn about conferences, scholarship, and public lectures. People occasionally used these listservs to write to one another and hold open conversations about the field.

At this meeting of Quelques Arpents de Neige, I learned about a new effort to build a network of environmental historians in Canada called NiCHE. That year, NiCHE was awarded funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to start a national network for historians and historical geographers studying history at the intersection of nature and society. The challenge, of course, was that there were very few environmental historians in Canada and they were spread thin across the country. NiCHE proposed to link those researchers via the internet. They built a website to share information about this new effort, but the main tool for collaborating across the vast distances of Canada was a program called Groove.

Groove was productivity software with novel features, for the time. It looked a bit like many of the instant messaging desktop applications from the early 2000s (MSN Messenger, AIM, etc…). It allowed users to send chat messages to one another, but it also facilitated file sharing, collaborative editing, and commenting on documents. These features are absolutely common today across numerous cloud software services from Google Workspace to Office 365, but in 2004 this was almost completely new. In fact, one year later Microsoft acquired Groove Networks and used its underlying technology to build SharePoint and Onedrive.

For NiCHE, Groove was experimental. I remember just a couple draft papers getting circulated on the platform with some comments and feedback for the authors. It was novel, but it didn’t last.

Soon after, NiCHE launched a new website, one built using Drupal, an open-source content management system for website development. Hosted by the University of Western Ontario, NiCHE lived online at http://niche.uwo.ca for several years. This was, what was then known as, a Web 2.0 site. The internet was changing and Web 2.0 was a term that captured a lot of different ideas. The main one was that the web was becoming a platform for user-generated content. Web users were writing blogs, posting photos, and sharing things with the world via content platforms like Blogger, Live Journal, and Typepad. Drupal enabled user-generated content on the NiCHE website and allowed members of our community to start writing publicly about Canadian environmental history and other topics on the site. These were the tools that enabled me to publish the earliest episodes of the Nature’s Past podcast and a semi-regular blog called “Notes on Knowledge Mobilization.” Eventually, NiCHE launched its own regular blog called Nature’s Chroniclers (which was re-named The Otter not long after the blog launched).

NiCHE website on Drupal ca. 2009.

Web 2.0 and blogging allowed the NiCHE community to publish and speak to a growing audience of readers, listeners, and viewers interested in environmental history research in Canada. The advent of online social networking, however, mobilized our publications, helped build a larger audience, and connect more researchers than ever before. I’ll leave it to our social media editor Jessica DeWitt to chronicle this part of the story in more detail, but I did want to point out some highlights:

  • NiCHE created social media accounts on nearly every major platform including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram.
  • Traffic to the website grew and was increasingly driven by our online social networks.
  • Online social networking facilitated connections among members of the NiCHE community that included research collaborations, conference panels, workshops, new books, and more.

Finally, in 2013 NiCHE migrated to a new platform, WordPress. Now the most popular content management system on the web, WordPress offered NiCHE a web platform that was more explicitly oriented toward publishing. It placed The Otter front and centre on the site, recognizing that the blog was the heart of daily site traffic. It was also a much simpler system to use. By 2014, funding from SSHRC ended and NiCHE transitioned to a volunteer model. The simpler WordPress system meant that the site could continue to operate with the volunteer work of the executive board and editors and without more complicated website administration costs. It also vastly expanded the publishing capabilities of the site. Video, audio, interactive maps, project pages, and large-format images were all much easier to publish using WordPress. Since migrating to WordPress, NiCHE has expanded into e-books, a peer-reviewed journal, video, and research project pages.

What’s next for NiCHE, Canadian environmental history, and how we network as scholars? Looking back at the old websites, blogs, and podcasts I’m reluctant to make any predictions. It is clear, though, that web technologies have played a central role in shaping the way environmental historians in Canada communicate, collaborate, and share findings with one another. Whatever tools and technologies we use in the future, I hope that NiCHE continues to be a place (virtual or otherwise) where we can gather, share, and learn.

Image by ptra from Pixabay 
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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and vice dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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