Friday, February 16, 2007

How To: See the Field at a Glance

Sometimes you want to know what's going on in a field that you're doing work in, but don't have much time to keep up with it. Wouldn't it be great to have your own 'situation room' to drop into for a few minutes at irregular intervals? Fortunately, it's quite easy to create a constantly-updated page to monitor any subject that you're interested in.

For example, I like to have a general idea of what is happening in environmental history. Usually this information comes to me by e-mail (e.g., the H-Environment mailing list), in my subscription to the journal Environmental History, by browsing for books and reading book reviews, by talking to colleagues, and so on. When things get busy, I find that I skip or delete e-mail messages and put journals on the shelf unread. It would be better for me to have one 'place' where the information accumulated without my intervention. Here's how to set that up.

First of all, create a (free) account at Netvibes. This service allows you to put together a collection of feeds and other useful modules. It's kind of like a cross between a customizable newspaper and a computer desktop, but one that you can access wherever you can log in to the internet. When you create your account, it will give you a sample page with lots of stuff already on it. You can clear it off by deleting those modules and then start adding new modules.

I decided to lay out my page by putting the stuff that changes most frequently on the left hand side, and by color coding my sources of information: blue for news and discussion, green for announcements, yellow for books, orange for journals. Obviously, you can set this up in whatever way makes sense for you. For news sources, I added RSS feeds for Jan Oosthoek's "Environmental History News" (RSS), recent traffic on the H-Environment mailing list (RSS) and a blog search for "environmental history." That gives me a spectrum of discussion ranging from edited, through mildly moderated to free-for-all. In order to get announcements, we again make use of an H-Net RSS feed, but we only want to see environmental announcements. So we pass the feed through a Feedshake filter. This is a free service that lets you combine and manipulate RSS feeds online. To get the latest book news we grab a feed of reviews from H-Environment (RSS) and create a feed of recent environmental history books at Amazon. We can do this using Paul Bausch's Amazon Feed Generator. We do a search for keywords "environmental history" or "ecological history," limit the results to English language books, and sort them from most recently to least recently published. Next we want to get links to the tables of contents for the journals Environmental History and Environment and History. To do this we make use of the Feed43 service that I described in my last post. Finally, we toss in a notepad module, to jot down anything we want to remember while skimming. The finished page looks like this:

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