Category: dhminor

Digitization and the Historical Profession

If last week was about defining digital history as methodology, a frequent theme in this week’s readings was using digital methods in common historical tasks to research without thinking through some of these choices. Last week was about characterizing what “digital” historians “do” and why they do it. This week’s readings frequently reminded me how different historical work now looks from twenty years ago, but how unacknowledged these differences are among those who don’t define themselves as “digital historians.”

Ian Milligan’s work on Canadian historians indicated many ways in which historians were not thinking about how online access affected their research choices. Newspapers which were not online were ignored significantly more. This even prioritized Toronto history over that of other cities without digitized newspapers. Historians have long acknowledged the danger of prioritizing the metropole at the expense of regional voices and perspectives, yet here was another example happening in twenty-first century historical work. [1]Ian Milligan, “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997–2010,” The Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 94, no. 4 (2013): 540–69. Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner of the OCLC have argued that a focus on maximum digitization (access over preservation, quantity over quality) will allow institutions to see which types of material gets the most researcher eyeballs and this can help drive future investment as well as reducing the impact that lack of access has on certain research. [2]Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner, for OCLC Programs and Research, “Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow,” 2007.

Milligan noted that historians likely missed some examples due to a reliance on full text search. As Simon Tanner, Rosenzweig and Cohen have noted, OCR is far from perfect and digitalized text  can be created in a variety of ways. Other scholars have noted the error rates of computer programs, particularly when creating OCR text for historic newspapers. Bob Nicholson and Nicole Maurantonio, argue that using digital databases is and should be a different mindset than merely using full text search to replace old microfilm methods of visually scanning in a chronological fashion. Sarah Werner and Marlene Manoff provide further examples of how the digital is very different from the physical. Both in the ways in which technology can obscure meaning from physical objects, but also the ways in which technology can illuminate texts in new ways. [3]Marlene Manoff, “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives,” Portal : Libraries and the Academy; Jul 2006; 6, 3; 311-325

This week’s readings also attacked the authority of historical professionals as the arbiters of public historical work. Besides the previously discussed criticism from Milligan, Roy Rosensweig and many of the authors writing on crowdsourcing indicated the skills and abilities that the educated public can bring to cultural heritage and knowledge projects from Wikipedia to the Papers of the War Department. As long as guidelines were clear, project goals aligned with best practices of crowdsourcing, and cultural professionals were willing to cede some flexibility and discretion to “the crowd”, then engagement and labor could be brought to traditional institutions of cultural heritage used to knowledge only moving in one direction from professionals to the public. This was well described by Sheila Brennan and Mills Kelly as History Web 1.5. Not as fully unmediated as web 2.0, but more so than traditional historical practice.

I expect we will discuss many similar problems alluded to by Milligan in next week’s readings on search and databases, but professional historians need to learn that even when not “doing digital history,” they need to approach digital sources with respect for the public’s contributions and new appreciation for how research into digital sources is very different from that in paper or even microfilm.


1 Ian Milligan, “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997–2010,” The Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 94, no. 4 (2013): 540–69.
2 Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner, for OCLC Programs and Research, “Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow,” 2007.
3 Marlene Manoff, “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives,” Portal : Libraries and the Academy; Jul 2006; 6, 3; 311-325

What Is Digital History?

Today is the #dayofdh2015. It’s a day to celebrate the extraordinary in digital humanities your projects, pretty maps, cool visualizations, amazing findings. It’s also a day to explain the mundane tasks of DH aka what we actually spend our time doing- filling out grant proposals, munging data, updating Java so that MALLET works. The idea is that our non-digital colleagues will see more of the former than the latter and come to value our methodologies.

So what is digital history? For me, there are many binaries in which I recognize digital history, each of which urge elaboration, but which I will only briefly mention now. The first is micro vs macro viewpoints. Successful digital history almost always zooms in and out between the these poles of evidence. From the single story- a name plucked from the record via full text search to the  overarching- historical forces marching across maps over time. Digital history most successfully displays the macro-level analysis, while not missing the human stories that ground great histories. The second binary is unfortunately a part of digital history, the commercial vs. the open. The historical and archival discipline has ceded vast quantities of our history web to corporations, from ProQuest to Google. These collections and tools are in various levels of access, but are certainly not in the public domain. This is both a threat and a call to action to maintain our discipline’s role as open and democratic sources for historical knowledge.

The third binary describes visions of digital history which I first discussed. There are the utopian- DH will “save the humanities”, and the mundane- DH is merely tools to make stuff (and these tools have their own perils of power relationships).

As Tom Scheinfeldt has noted in his post on the Dividends of Difference, digital humanities comes from a computational linguistics and cliometric world of Father Busa and “Time on the Cross.” It also comes from a radical history of collecting stories from below using the tools of oral history and folk collecting. This collecting was technological, archival, public, collaborative, political, and networked. Both of these branches are simultaneously utopian and mundane approaches to scholarship.

I also approach digital humanities with a slightly different influence. Considering my time at CHNM, my “DH” is Digital History and I define this work as: the use of computers in researching, presenting, or teaching history. It’s a deceptively broad definition as its goals are deceptively broad in its attempts to use modern tools in pursuit of past experience.

In this vein, it’s a forward looking methodology. Digital history is, as Cameron Blevins noted during a recent AHA talk, “in a perpetual future tense.” Though Blevins meant his discussion as a call to action- to use new tools to challenge accepted historical narratives, I think there’s something in DH’s utopian genes that will always push the methodology’s envelope in performing its roles of research, presentation, and teaching.

I use the term methodology deliberately. There are some aspects of disciplinary formation common to digital humanities- I use similar tools and speak the same language as my literary colleagues. We have common goals and approaches in our work. Yet I believe my fundamental questions and missions align with history, the discipline and the digital is a way to achieve these. Though we use different approaches, Eric Foner and I both attempt to “democratize history” (he more successfully than I).

This definition is not meant to exclude those who fall in the liminal spaces of discplines. Andrew Prescott’s work crosses boundaries of science, museums, literature, and archives to illuminate the human condition. Prescott has worked in many different positions within these discplines, but it is work that is rooted in materiality. Will Thomas, Ed Ayers, Dan Cohen, and Roy Rosensweig, all describe fantastic visions of what digital history can create, but each vision- from Ayers historic virtual worlds (1999) to Thomas’ call of merging the past with the present (2015) is rooted in a materiality that is foundational to history.

So if you’ll accept my premise that digital history is perpetually forward thinking methodology, I hope you’ll also accept that this requires grinding work of the “non-DH” variety. So like Roy and Dan have urged, we should “sit down in front of our computers” on this #dayofdh2015 and “get to work.”