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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

Liveblogging: The Programming Historian

William J. Turkel, professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, is on the UNL campus today giving a talk titled, “Interactive, Ambient and Tangible Devices for Knowledge Mobilization.”

11:03 Following a brief introduction, Turkel described his talk as the exciting work he is currently undertaking, rather than presenting a published paper. Some of his current work stems from Geocoding photographs of the Chilcotin region , which was the focus of his dissertation. Turkel states that he sought to tell a story with no written archival record and tell an environmental history of an area over 300 million years.

11:05 As soon as he started searching for sources, he found thousands and thousands of sources including an interesting story of the people performing research extraction in the region. Turkel came to find every place as an Archive. Things come from a past that is progressively deeper. In his work, Turkel wants to consult the archival record while performing field work to better reconstruct the past with the present. Mostly historians have to take the field back to the archives, or vice versa, but it would be excellent to have the archival record with you in the field. Historians are able to do this via digital means. Turkel discusses instances where students digitized maps and documents and geocoded them so that they are usable with ArcGIS, so that this information could be used in the field. This is partially how Turkel involves people in digital history. Additionally, he notes that he put together a pilot project with area youth to get them involved with digital work in the field.

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Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Technology, , , , , , ,

The Challenge of Digital History

Over at his blog, Dan Cohen writes about “The Pirate Problem” in digital history. He says that “the digital humanities represent a scary, rule-breaking, swashbuckling movement for many historians and other scholars. We must remember that these scholars have had—for generations and still in today’s graduate schools—a very clear path for how they do their work, publish, and get rewarded.” It is a somber look at what digital humanitarians have to face when explaining what digital history means the profession.

The transformation of the way we research, write, and present the past is no doubt a big change for the profession, and apprehension is to be expected. Prof. Bill Turkel, who is visiting UNL today and tomorrow, remarked this morning that the transformation must be akin to the introduction of the word processor. Historians who had for years labored over a typewriter must have been stunned by how quickly their students could produce assignments. The same thing is happening in digital history, where our ability to search Google or online databases such as American Memory or America: History and Life eases the process of research. Rather than spend copious amounts of time straining my vision with a microfilm machine, I can keyword search the 19th Century U.S. Newspapers database to locate articles related to my topic at hand. I can type in William Jennings Bryan and locate the ninety-five citations of his name in their database in an instant. The process of locating sources quickens, but the job of the historian to assess the source remains.

As Cohen pointed out, this is a new way of research. Rather than examine letters and newspapers contained in a bankers box, we have instant access to thousands of digitized resources. The traditional path of scouring archives, reading sources closely, generating copious notes and examples, synthesizing and analyzing the information, writing a monograph, and receiving tenure has been changed because research and the presentation of history itself is changing. I want to assure those who are skeptical of digital history that this field is not trying to upend the traditional practice of history; this is not Cliometrics 2.0. One of the great aspects of digital history is the ability to utilize new tools to make our jobs easier, like Google Books or newspaper databases, and to present the past in new ways that cannot be replicated in a monograph. In a large sense, digital history will combine both the “old” and the “new” realms. We have new ways of locating historical material, but the ways that we assess that material will not go away.

Cohen’s clarion call that digital historians “threaten to take that calm ship into unknown waters” certainly rings true, but that does not mean we should avoid the concepts that allow us to explore and understand the past in new ways. Additionally, more and more people are turning to the web for information and go no further. Shouldn’t historians have a role in helping define and create what constitutes “good” history on the web?

[Photo credit: jcarter]

Filed under: Academia, Scholarship

What is Digital History?

Digital History is the use of digital tools including audio files, interactive maps, video, timelines, and textual analysis in the quest for historical understanding. Since the Web emerged in the mid-1990s, sites devoted to history have pervaded the proliferating public space. In 1997, Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig suggested of the Web that it would less likely present a radically new paradigm or way of thinking regarding history, but rather serve as a space with speedy access to existing resources.[1] At that time, O’Malley and Rosenzweig’s prediction seemed fair. However, an interesting and noticeable progression surfaced in history’s uses on the Web, beginning with rapid access to teaching materials, then to research, and finally to scholarship.

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Filed under: Research, Scholarship, , ,

Liveblogging the Rawley: The Historical Community Online

Today, the UNL History Graduate Students’ Association is hosting the Third Annual James Rawley Conference in the Humanities. The panel coming up is entitled “The Historical Community Online: Using Digital Tools to Interpret the Past,” which features my colleague, Brent. More below the jump.

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Filed under: Conferences, ,

Bobley Visits UNL

Last Tuesday, Brett Bobley, Chief Information Officer and Director of the newly-minted Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) visited the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to discuss grant programs, tips and suggestions on what makes a great application, how the NEH peer review process works, and the future of digital humanities at NEH. As somebody just entering the professional study of history and learning the ropes about grants and funding, Bobley’s talk was illuminating and addressed some of the issues confronting digital scholarship.

Technology is changing the way we create, store, and present history. Along with this comes issues of sustainability, copyright, and access. The NEH has recognized the role digital scholarship will play in our future and in 2001 founded the Digital History Initiative, which became ODH just last week. Part of their purpose for existing is to assist digital scholars in the production of online projects. After chatting with faculty and other students who attended the talk, we sense that ODH will play a large role in defining what exactly digital scholarship will be. As a leader in assisting humanities scholars utilize the web, NEH wields great power in dictating what exactly digital scholarship will look like. Looking at the types of projects NEH decides to fund or not fund will say a lot about how it and other funding agencies view digital scholarship. From Bobley’s talk, it sounds like NEH is focused on innovation and developing new tools for the digital age.

But what about those of us that simply want to use those tools in the digital realm, not produce them? Are they left out of ODH’s consideration? And if so, where will the funding come from for those who only want to utilize digital tools? Often times, funding agencies often follow NEH’s lead. If historians are left out of the funding opportunities, combined with the budget pressures in academia, there’s a real concern about where additional funding will come from for our projects, which are normally concerned with utilizing new digital tools to achieve analysis that cannot be replicated in print. I think it’s no stretch to say that, for better or worse, NEH’s role could determine the course of digital historical scholarship.

However, that NEH has committed itself to ODH shows that they are taking digital scholarship seriously, as Dan Cohen pointed out a few weeks ago. Indeed, despite reduced budgets, the NEH is there with the funds to help the field develop. I also sense that NEH is very concerned with accessibility, which is an ongoing discussion in digital history. NEH is committed to allowing anybody access the great heritage of this country. As more and more people turn to the web for their first (and sometimes only) stop for information, it’s important that accessibility for all is maintained.

It’s important that historians maintain a role in this conversation.

Filed under: Academia, Scholarship, , , , ,

Digital History and Wikipedia Part II

Last month, Jason, colleague Leslie Working, Dr. Douglas Seefeldt, and I created the ‘Digital History’ page for Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. More recently, as an earlier post indicates, an editor flagged it for failing to meet certain Wikipedia standards, namely editorial conflicts of interest with the subject matter and writing that reads like tributes to professors and founders that no one outside the field knows. Currently, we are working towards wikifying the page so that it remains available for generating public knowledge of digital history and its minutiae. Coupled with these current problems and Wikipedia’s prevalence in the recent press relating to the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Wiki Wars, it seemed an excellent opportunity to discuss further digital history and Wikipedia.

Wikipedia seeks neutral, reliably sourced information and does not desire contributions that promote one’s own interests (apparently the problem we are facing with the digital history page). Created by an open community of unregulated and anonymous authors, Wikipedia allows anyone anywhere to add, change, or delete information about topics or people or places of their interests, to share that information so that others can come to appreciate and gain knowledge relating to those interests. In the few years since its creation, the free online encyclopedia has become, for many, the be all and end all for finding information. That said it becomes pertinent for teachers, at all levels, and history teachers in particular, to enter into a discussion with their students concerning the potential and pitfalls of the online encyclopedia. Wikipedia lacks analysis, critical thought, or evaluation. Its pages face continuous revision and remain in flux. Therefore, users should not blindly accept the information as accurate or correct. Students and the public alike must understand this crucial component.

Wikipedia does offer, however, a unique research and teaching tool. It provides an excellent place to start in research, providing basic background information and popular resources to consult on nearly any subject or topic. The online encyclopedia provides somewhere to begin for quick, easy, and free access to valuable information that may otherwise take much longer to find tucked away in the library stacks.

As a teaching tool, Wikipedia proves useful for engaging teaching in history because it fosters verifiability and citing sources. Participants in the editing process also can learn a complex lesson about history writing, as renowned historian Roy Rosenzweig states, namely that the “facts” of the past and the way those facts are arranged and reported are often highly contested.[1] Through this digital environment, historians can instruct their students to focus on the process of history rather than concentrating on the product.

Regarding digital history, Wikipedia embodies much of what digital history is all about. Sharing knowledge and providing accessible information to the masses compose a core component of digital history. Rosenzweig suggested that Wikipedia represents the largest work of online historical writing, the most widely read work of digital history, and the most important free historical resource on the World Wide Web.[2] To enhance popular historical literacy, historians must lend their high quality knowledge to inform others and build up the public historical web.

So crucial to digital history, Wikipedia echoes the idea of collaborative scholarship and can provide historians a model to remove themselves from isolation, to work with a diverse body to share historical knowledge in a new media. Wikipedia is a place of convergence for the armchair and the expert, written collaboratively by editors from around the globe. While it is unlike digital history in that it excludes original research and nuanced accounts, Wikipedia provides an immense and increasingly important digital resource for historians and the public alike to engage in historical discussion and foster the growth of historical knowledge.


[1] Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” The Journal of American History 93.1 (June 2006): 117-146. Also available from http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/42.

[2] Rosenzweig, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.”

Filed under: Education, Web, , ,

The Rise of the Digital Humanities

At Inside Higher Ed, Andy Guess uses the establishment of the Office of Digital Humanities to discuss the rise of digital humanities and the problems and potentials it has in academia. It’s a great introduction to our field, so be sure to give it a read.

[Hat tip: Dan Cohen]

Filed under: Academia, History, ,

Digital History and Wikipedia

We’ve been informed that the digital history Wikipedia page we created needs some work. Help us contribute to and wikify the digital history Wikipedia page!

Filed under: Technology, Web,