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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

Tool Review: TokenX and Language Analysis

The proliferation of linguistic tools for analysis has opened new avenues for historians working in the digital realm. Textual analysis is the study of newspaper articles, books, laws, oral histories, and other forms of human communication. Textual analysis digital tools better enable historians to decipher language usage, frequency, and significance in the context of discourse, rhetoric, and ideas. These robust digital tools thereby provide numerous possibilities that can inform historical research and communication strategies that can introduce new thinking into the current historiography. Brian Pytlik Zillig at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln developed TokenX as a powerful tool for analyzing text. While TokenX continues to undergo revision and further development, tools like this one can help historians integrate textual analysis in their research to analyze connections in language and across several texts.

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Tool Review: Google Earth for Digital Historians

With tools like Google Earth, historians can construct interactive and engaging forms of history. Users can generate graphical representations of events to visually convey events. For instance, Google and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) collaborated to spread awareness of the genocide in Darfur [link]. The overlay they generated includes descriptive HTML that presents users with first-hand testimonies, pictures, the locations of refugee camps, and links to video clips. The Darfur map included an overlay that could be turned on that displayed 3D columns to visually represent the numbers of displaced persons. Teachers may speak of 200,000 displaced individuals, but to visually represent such numbers conveys greater weight to a subject. The same approach could be taken with historical events, such as using columns to display war casualties in World War II or the location and relevant information of Nazi death camps. Additionally, students could get an idea of how early cartographers viewed the planet with the Dave Rumsey historical maps [link] or explore the geographic and historical data related to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake [link].

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Foundational Material in Digital History

This post by Rafael Alvarado has been making the rounds on Twitter and got me thinking about, more specifically, what material would be a useful introduction to digital history (as opposed to digital humanities).  Here’s my list in chronological order:

  1. Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic (July 1945)
  2. Jacques Barzun, Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanta-History and History (1974)
  3. Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier, and Josh Brown, Who Built America? From the Centennial Exposition of 1876 to the Great War of 1914, CD-ROM (1993)
  4. Roy Rosenzweig and Michael O’Malley, “Brave New World or Blind Alley?  American History on the World Wide Web,” JAH (1997)
  5. Edward Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History”  (1999)
  6. Edward Ayers, “History in Hypertext” (1999)
  7. Robert Darnton, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-century Paris” AHR (2000)
  8. Philip J. Ethington, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge” (2000)
  9. Roy Rosenzweig and Michael O’Malley, “The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,” JAH (2001)
  10. David Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology will Transform Our Understanding of the Past (2002)
  11. Orville Burton, Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities (2002)
  12. Edward Ayers and William G. Thomas, The Valley of the Shadow (2003)
  13. Edward Ayers and William G. Thomas, “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” AHR (2003)
  14. Roy Rosenzweig, “Scracity or Abudance?  Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” AHR (2003)
  15. Dan Cohen, “History and the Second Decade of the Web,” Rethinking History (2004)
  16. William G. Thomas, “Computing and the Historical Imagination” (2004)
  17. Edward L. Ayers, “Doing Scholarship on the Web: Ten Years of Triumphs–And A Disappointment” Journal of Scholarly Publishing (2004)
  18. Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web (2005)
  19. William G. Thomas, “Writing a Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account,” Digital History (2007)
  20. William Turkel, The Programming Historian (2008)
  21. Andrew Torget, Texas Slavery Project (2008)
  22. Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” JAH (2008)

If you were completely new to digital history and trying to get a grasp of what it was about and what it entailed, this is the list I would probably hand you.  The texts might be a bit heavy on the development of digital history as a field rather than the theory of digital history, but at twenty-one books, essays, and projects, I thought I’d cut the list off before it became unwieldy. Perhaps I’ll add a post about reading material for a theory of digital history to my blog post idea list (which grows and grows…).  Clearly, this list is not a definite canon of digital history, but I think it gives you a good picture of where the field has been and where it might be going.  I’ve tried to catalog a variety of projects and reading material that I found important to my understanding how the field has (and is) developed.

Any other suggestions?  Nit-picks?  Disagreements?  Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

EDIT: Fixed link on the Thomas (2007) piece.

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WSSA: Scholarship in the Digital Age

On Friday, Brent, myself, and our colleagues Nic Sweirscek, Michelle Teidje, and Robert Voss will be participating at the Western Social Sciences Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a roundtable we proposed entitled “Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age: Asking New Questions and Exploring New Forms of Scholarly Communication with Digital Techniques.”  You can find our abstract below the fold.

The conference is open to the public, so we hope some of you can join us.  If you cannot, we will be doing a wrap-up of the discussion on the blog.  Also, I hope to provide a live feed of sorts on Twitter by tweeting the roundtable (you can follow me @jaheppler).

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Framing Red Power: Newspapers and the Trail of Broken Treaties

Commentators, participants, and historians have suggested connections between the media and the political movements of the 1960s and their interactions that allowed activists to communicate their agendas. By utilizing media coverage of the Trail of Broken Treaties and ensuing occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972 by the American Indian Movement, Indian activists secured a medium in which to voice their goals. The study of the relationship between mass media and the protest movements is important, historian Julia Bond has argued, because “until historians unravel the complex links between the southern freedom struggle and the mass media, their understanding of how the Movement functioned, why it succeeded, and when and where it failed, will be incomplete.” Bond’s declaration can be extended to other movements of the 1960s and 1970s that utilized mass media to their advantage.

The American Indian Movement forcefully inserted their agenda into public discourse and used the print medium to insert their voice into public policy debates. What sort of things were activists talking to the media about? What was the media reporting? Omitting? What was AIM’s message? Did the media report the demonstrator’s goals or was the message lost in the sensationalism of the occupation? Was the occupation of the BIA a successful strategy for disseminating their agenda? Framing Red Power analyzes the ways newspapers covered the American Indian Movement by bringing together digital technologies and traditional historiographical methodologies, allowing historians to pose new questions about the interaction between media sources and political actors.

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Google Earth Election Overlays from the University of Richmond

I’ve neglected to point out that our good friend Andrew Torget and the crew at the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond partnered up with Google Earth and created map overlays to analyze state and county voting results from 1980 through 2004.  The Voting America map also includes demographic information from the U.S. Census that allows users to get a county-level look at how populations voted over time.  The collaboration builds upon the DSL’s Voting America: United States Politics, 1840-2004, which explores the last 164 presidential elections through cinematic and interactive maps.

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Designing Digital History

Our digital history seminar is currently in the midst of designing our digital projects and has gotten me thinking about how to design digital scholarship and the tools that are available for helping in the construction of projects.  Beginners to digital history are somewhat daunted by the design process.  The lingo of web design – HTML, CSS, Javascript, XML, metadata, hypertext – seems like an endless alphabet of ambiguous elements in the digital environment. This post means to highlight some tools and resources digital humanists might find useful in constructing their own projects, as well as impart some of my first-hand experience thus far in the design process.

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Print is Not Dead, but Reading and Knowledge Dissemination are Changing

After my recent reading of Jeff Gomez’s new book Print is Dead: Books in our Digital Age, I began thinking about print media.  Print is not dead, but it is fading as the preferred medium for reading. The world today, as Jeff Gomez points out in his book, is increasingly digital with hundreds of millions of people electronically linked.  Electronic media appears to have surpassed print media as the primary means of recording and disseminating information and entertainment.  Many, perhaps most, people read their news, get their information, communicate, share, take notes, and listen to music digitally. With more engagement and interaction with reading in a digital form, it becomes necessary to reconsider the book and its paramount place in historical scholarship.  As the nature of reading changes from linear and page turning books to circular interlinked digital literature, the form or forum for producing and distributing words and literary content must also change so that people will read and share new historical discoveries, understanding, and knowledge.

Books, according to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, “are the last bastion of analog.” In a primarily digital world, why then do print publications remain the ideal for disseminating historical understanding?  Historians research and write to have their work read and discussed, not just amongst their colleagues, but for the interested public as well. The digital realm can reach far beyond that interested public who might pass over a book in a bookstore, if a bookstore will carry a nuanced historical monograph in the first place. When considering that libraries worldwide only purchase roughly 200 copies of a book, it seems clear that access to and reading of that research and writing is inhibited. Logically then, in print form, historical work is not read widely. As Gomez suggests on his blog, “As a writer you can only hope that people read, or think critically, about your work. With a physical book, you know if they bought it but not if they read it (not mention whether or not it’s being discussed).”

Conversely, a study produced digitally and available on the World Wide Web to hundreds of millions of linked people will have a wider readership and probably a higher level of discussion amongst all readers. Read the rest of this entry »

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Fun With Wordle

A word cloud of this blog, created with Wordle (click to enlarge):

Here’s another using Bill Turkel’s blog:

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Textual Analysis

In order for digital history to embrace and employ the great potential of the technological age, text encoding becomes necessary. Text encoding is one method of taking original textual materials from analog to digital representations, electronically searchable for scholarly research. XML is an encoding standard that assists in the creation, retrieval, and storage of electronic documents. Through text encoding and XML, researchers can gain a higher level of expertise about original texts and documents in electronic form. Such technology allows for systematic manipulation and analysis of complex historical texts, deciphering their intricacies into a more understandable form while preserving that complexity. Furthermore, Perry Willett asserts in his article “Electronic Texts: Audiences and Purposes,” “Electronic texts give humanists access to works previously difficult to find, both in terms of locating entire works, with the Internet as a distributed interconnected library, and in access to the terms and keywords within the works themselves, as a first step in analysis.” The digital tools available to historians for textual analysis have opened new realms of historical analysis. As a tool for researching, analyzing, and teaching, XML and textual analysis offers avenues of research to describe and analyze the literary and linguistic past.
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