Digital Clio


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.

11:10 “Material Environment and Historical Consciousness.” Turkel shares his interest in pervasive and ubiquitous computing, the embedding of technology into our daily lives. Through this, technological objects in the material world can be scanned into a webpage and traced so that future historians can know their past, documenting the entire lifespan and detailed documents from digital history.

11:14 Thinking about field, places, and context. Google Earth Globe – tangible interface globe and projecting the Google Earth operated by a microcontroller. Turkel describes several of his students projects that introduce the idea of building a tangible interface into an educational context. Teaching students to teach themselves how to learn in the digital realm emerges as a key theme in Turkel’s talk and in his teaching approach.

11:19 Ambient communication through artificial landscapes. Web monitoring technology converting measurements from one place to another. As the data stream changes the parameters change and the visualization of the artificial landscape changes.

11:22 Geo-DJ is another in progress project to turn historical land use data into a set of equations that have an ambient soundscape. Through this tool, GIS knows where you are and can change the music you listen to based on, not what is there now, but what used to be there in the past. For instance, if you were at an old slaughter yard you might hear something pretty harsh.

11:23 How to get started making your own projects and digital tools – contact Bill, he wants to Collaborate. Again, Turkel’s ability to teach people to teach themselves how to work in this medium shines, as he describes how his students build these physical objects to inform digital projects. Students have no prior understanding of electronics, yet through seemingly simple techniques Turkel demonstrates to them how to design hardware without knowing they are inventing hardware. As simply as you play with legos you can develop these systems.

Two books to help you help yourself are Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers and Making things Talk: Practical Methods for Connecting Physical Objects.

11:29 The Programming historian – This is Bill’s latest project. It is an open-access publication, a freely available work in progress on how to program for working historians, focusing on research oriented tasks, using the python language. Lessons give practical knowledge (not providing a language guide), but provide historians with enough tools that they can do this themselves. Use Wiki software, people can interact and make the work better. Turkel indicates that writing a book online will count on peer reviewed scholarship, hopefully, someday. The work will officially be announced on May 1, and interact give comments and feedback.
For more information see

11:32 Questions – What about long distance collaboration? Turkel suggests that one of his missions is to bring together researchers, the idea of bringing people together digitally and not physically is important. Obstacles to doing this are primarily social and much less technical or data transmission oriented. It is always better to have a high bandwith for fast connection.

11:35 Anybody can pretty easily get into this, particularly through the art community, are you hooked up with that community? Turkel responds that it makes sense for our research communities to be fluent here and have a two-way connection with this open-source hardware community. In a comment, Dr. Douglas Seefeldt notes, that creeping in from the art community, those of us who are archived bound can still use these digital tools and techniques to inform our historical writing. Dr. William G. Thomas intimates that art as a medium and a profession has a willingness to change the shape of what art is, while the history community is wedded to the idea of what history is… traditional monograph and journal articles.

11:39 Dissemination of history in this new medium? If you had to republish your book, what would you do? Turkel notes that Google books and Flicker would change his ability to see anything in excruciating detail in a rapid manner, the ability to see inside millions of books in a short time changes the way we can write and understand. Turkel informs that he loves books, but there must be a balance with different types of understanding.

11:48 Turkel concludes by suggesting that with The Programming Historian, he hopes to create a community, a network, who identify themselves as programming historians, with interests in new media and e-text, where people are motivated to learn more about how these tools can inform their research and analysis. Strength of network lies in the diversity, networked learning. A next step after this could be The Computational Historian.


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