Teaching Digital History

The readings for this week dealt with teaching digital history. In particular, the emphasis was that digital history/humanities need to be taught. The assumptions that teenagers and incoming university students are part of a generation of digital natives fails to stand up to even moderate skepticism. Danah Boyd brings up a great point that great inequality exists in access to the skills of using digital media as well as access to the media itself (192-95). This is particularly apparent in my household since my wife teaches third grade. At the beginning of every school year she asks her students if they have a computer at home. Without fail, there is always at least one student who raises his or her hand. This year there is one student. Last year, when she taught in Carrollton, GA, there were two students. When she taught in Griffin, GA (a significantly less prosperous area) there were consistently five to eight students who did not have computers at home each year, and this was out of  around twenty-two students. One might say that they can gain access at school, but my wife’s classroom only has two computers other than hers. In Carrollton, it was the same way. The schools have a computer lab, but access is limited. So to  Boyd’s point, one can only expect that those students with a computer at home will be much more adept at using the internet and all the features that it brings.

Nevertheless, even if students are adept at using Facebook and other social networking sites, it does not mean that students are willing or excited about using digital tools in traditional classrooms. As Allison Marsh and Adam Robinowitz indicate, some of their students were disinterested in the digital tools that they were confronted with using.  To be honest, I was equally disinterested in digital history at the outset of this course, but I have since been converted to the possibilities that digital tools allow. I am currently using network analysis in the final project for this course, and I fully plan on using it throughout my research. I already have plans to expand my network analysis of the letters (and topics in those letters) to the French Kings as well as Catherine de Medici for future projects, including my dissertation. I think my experience is exemplary of why we need to teach digital methods more in the academy.

To do so means thinking outside of the box in the assignments that we give. While Mills Kelly had a novel idea that certainly seems to have energized his students, perhaps he took it a little too far in constructing a historical hoax for the class project. I think the spirit of his course is interesting and can be replicated in a less dramatic fashion. In the past, for a World Civilizations course I thought at the University of West Georgia, I assigned a paper in which I gave them a series of notable, yet outdated, theses on various historical events, and their assignment was to chose one,  dispute it, and provide an alternative thesis that better explains the event.  The goal like Mills Kelly’s was to get them to think like a historian, and most importantly to understand that our understanding of history is not stagnant, but dynamic. I think this assignment can adopt some of Mills Kelly’s approaches as well, albeit in a slightly different way. The students can blog about the research process and seek out Wikipedia and other online sources to understand how pervasive some of the theses remain (one might consider Max Weber’s outdated Protestant ethic thesis, for instance). In addition, perhaps after writing their paper, they could write a review in their blog of Wikipedia’s entry on the topic.

Copyright, Fair Use, and Dissertation Embargoes

This weeks readings discussed in various ways how limitations to the dissemination of information impacts the historical profession. Such issues as copyright, fair use, and dissertation embargoes have significant impacts on the historians–especially the digital historian. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig show in their chapter, copyright not only has a complicated history, but is complicated in itself. We frequently assume that all works after 1923 are under copyright, but that is not necessarily so. It was not until 1976 that copyrights were automatically renewed, and many did not renew their copy right, or they did not make notice of the copy right (which was necessary until 1989. This should be of some hope for twentieth-century historians. There are must be many books out there that they can utilize that have fallen out of copyright for those reasons.

More importantly, however, historians should take advantage of fair use. From the readings, we really ought to treat fair use like sick days: if you don’t use it, you lose it. According to Aufderheide, Jaszi, Bello and Melosevic, Our lack of understanding of fair use has led to many studies being changed or abandoned all together. I think this is most pertinent when it comes to studies of the visual arts, but it does influence other scholars as well.

I was most fascinated with the readings on dissertation embargoes. I found the outrage against the AHA statement rather interesting. I think much of the visceral comments came from a position that saw the embargo as another means by which information can be cut off from consumers in a similar way as the massively long copyrights discussed in Cohen and Rosenzweig. I think that the side of the debate against allowing PhD students to embargo dissertations are trying to make open access scholarship the default for the academy. The only problem that I see with such an approach is that they essentially are exploiting the least powerful members of the profession to do so.  It is easy to force others to disseminate their hard work in the hope that either university presses will publish the revised copies nevertheless or that tenure review will be transformed away from the central piece being the monograph. I am not against posting dissertations through Proquest, but I am against forcing graduate students to do so. I think it is important to indicate here that I do not necessarily intend to embargo my dissertation, so this is not a self-interested argument.

I find the argument that the ideas of a dissertation in Proquest are more likely to be stolen unpersuasive. Ideas can always be stolen–either from conferences, articles, or traditionally published books. But unlike in a conference, if the dissertation is on Proquest, it is much easier to point to the piece of plagiarism since it is out there. Moreover, there is no copyright protection for ideas, as Cohen and Rosenzweig show, so the public dissertation has as much protection as the published book

My whole reasoning for supporting the ability of the student to embargo his/her dissertation has to do with the publication of a revised dissertation into a book–a necessary condition for tenure at most schools. Digitized dissertations may, however, impact the ability of a scholar to turn it into a book. Even if the number of presses that will avoid such typescripts are small, it will still influence some careers. Perhaps, when universities begin forcing their professors to digitize their pre-print typescripts and make them available, it will be fair to do the same to those professor’s students. Of course this is a tongue-in-cheek statement, since it will not happen.


This weeks readings focused on historical gaming–that is the use of games to aid in historical understanding. One might ask in the vein of Carl Smith, can you do serious history in a video game? This would probably be the wrong question. The goal of the historians and programmers producing the games is not to produce new historical insights that interact with the historiography, but as an educational tool. As the creators of Pox in the City state, their goal is to “support a key facet of history pedagogy, teaching student to make inferences about the past based on historical evidence.” I wonder, however, how successful this is. The question being what are the students taking away from the game. How can we know if students are indeed “making inferences about the past?”

Without actually doing research in what students take away from historical games, the best we can do is place the issue within pedagogical knowledge we have of how students learn about history. Games present the possibility of posing questions to the player and forcing the player to use historical evidence to figure answer them.  This is a clear goal in the creator of Pox in the City, and it is also demonstrated in The Lost Museum, in which the player tries to evaluate who burnt down P.T. Barnum’s museum based off of evidence that demonstrates the complex relationship between Barnum and various groups in anti-bellum  New York. Such a question-based investigation allows the student to actively participate in a discovery process.

Having said this, I still wonder how players are approaching and understanding the material in the game. As Sam Wineburg has demonstrated professional historians approach the past and especially historical texts much differently than our students do.[1] Why should we expect that students are getting out of the video game what we want them to? The game is inherently indirect in its presentation of material. It is completely contingent on the decisions the player makes in the game itself.


[1] Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Act: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

Crowdsourced History

How productive is the public in processes of historical production? All of our readings in digital history for this week dealt with this question in one way or another. In terms of crowd-production of historical discussions, I was surprised to see how few factual inaccuracies Roy Rosenzweig found in Wikipedia relative to other more authoritative encyclopedias. I find myself frequently impressed by Wikipedia, actually. This is primarily because I keep the bar fairly low for the website, however. Moreover, I am more impressed with the variety of articles on the site. For instance, Wikipedia has articles on various French ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire that one will never find in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nevertheless, one must not forget the gender bias in Wikipedia that Leslie Madson-Brooks discusses, or the problems that academics have in contributing to Wikipedia exemplified by Timothy Messer-Kruse’s experience (reading the comments should truly frighten anyone who considers the chasm between what historians do and much of the public’s perception of what historians do). These issues aside, I think both Roy and Leslie make very valid points that we ought to learn from the Wiki experience and use the Wiki platform to our own ends: producing wikis for primary sources as well as open-source text books that professors can actively manipulate for the uses of their classes.

Such Wikis, especially those of the primary source variety that Madsen-Brooks discusses could utilize the the “amateur volunteers” that Trevor Owens discusses as well as professional volunteers to fill the Wikis. The long-term possibilities of such a project would allow the wiki to be filled over time as the few volunteers who actually care can participate at their leisure. This would avoid some of the time limitations that the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank ran into. Although such a primary source wiki might open up such primary sources to the sort of mal-use that are pervasive in the “history_pic” issues that so upset Rebecca Onion, I find the positives much outweigh the negatives. Moreover, if one wants to discuss the issues in how the public interact with history, I think that un-contextualized or miss-contextualized pictures are the least of our worries. I think there is much more pertinent problems related to Wikipedia (which actually informs much of the public on historical issues) than decontextualized photographs.

Public History

The digital age has had an impact on public history in a much more fundamental fashion than it has on traditional historical scholarship. Up until our readings this week, I had not given much consideration to the impact of the internet on public history, perhaps because I have focused on traditional mediums of disseminating historical knowledge. In such traditional mediums, the internet age has not changed that much other than easing the access to our sources as well as producing new methods that one can choose to use or not.  For public history, the internet has produced new expectations among the consumers of public history projects. As Bruce Wyman indicates, not only do we expect technology to be present in exhibits, but we expect that technology to be current. Thus one is forced to think about how technology can aid in the presentation of historical material. The presentation is not as simple as adding technology wherever one can. It must actually aid in the popular consumption of history.

Museums do not just have to deal with issues of technological interaction in the brick and mortar buildings, but also the various issues of meeting the history consumer who expects to interact with institutions on the web far before they ever make it to the actual exhibit–that is if they ever choose to go. How does one provide a historical experience online that can either act as a preview for an exhibit or perhaps stand in its place altogether for what Anne Lindsay refers to as the “virtual tourist.” Both Mark Tebeau and Bruce Wyman have focused on holding fast to the story, the narrative, that people are interested in while presenting the material. I think it is important also to remember that central to the historical pursuit is answering questions. By making questions central to the presentation of material, it can help to draw people in. People go to museums not just to see or hear stories, but to have questions answered–often times vague questions, but nevertheless, questions. Moreover, by making questions central, it can also cause history consumers to think differently about the topic at hand.

How to present material does not provide the only difficulties, but what material to present and to whom. Here I am referring to the digitization of archival/museum collections and who has access to them. I agree with Tim Sherratt that the fear of misuse or losing context overlooks the amount of people who will treat the documents appropriately and within the appropriate context. Nevertheless, I think this is a rather ridiculous discussion. As long as the documents are not part of private collections, I do not fully understand why they would not be provided to the public.

Mapping History

The mixture of textmining and new open-source software has made possible new ways of presenting and interpreting data. As Tim Hitchcock argued in his article, digitization of sources have turned texts into data pieces that can be set against other data pieces: for our concerns, maps. Perhaps Hitchcock overemphasizes the importance of textmining in this endeavor, but the emphasis on attaching the products of textual analysis (through either close reading or distant reading) to geo-coordinates and representing it in map format can present new ways of thinking about our historical topics.

Edward Ayers and Scott Nesbit as well as Stephen Robertson have demonstrated how using these mapping methods can re-orient the way we think about historical problems. Visualizing the proximity of large numbers of union armies to large numbers of emancipation events led Ayers and Nesbitt to be able demonstrate that individual agency and that of armies (or scales, as they prefer to think of it) combined to emancipate slaves during the civil war. Union armies disrupted the regular channels that kept slaves from fleeing as well as provided a sort of indirect protection to slaves who chose to run away during such times of chaos. Nevertheless, the slaves were still emancipating themselves, even if the nearby armies provided an incentive for them to do take such a chance. Ayers and Nesbit accomplish this feat by applying the small scale of individual emancipation events as well as army movements against the scale of the national map to see a much larger patter. One can find their mapping here. Robertson uses mapping to see new patterns in Harlem, albeit on a much smaller scale. By applying every event in 1920s and 1930s Harlem recorded in his sources to the digital Harlem map, Robertson was able to see the neighborhood in a much more local fashion. This showed him that there was a greater white presence in the Harlem than most appreciate. Moreover, this presence was made most obvious in traffic accidents, which were a particularly acute area of interracial interaction, and at times conflict, since most drivers were white. Interestingly, even on opposite scalse, mapping allowed Ayers, Nesbit, and Robertson to see new patterns in their historical topics.

Mapping has also been used as a way of simulating the historical past in the form of ORBIS, and interactive scholarly work depicting transportation networks in the Roman Empire.  While ORBIS provides a means by which individuals can interact with the trade/transportation networks of the ancient world, it only provides calculations based off of generalized weather patterns (for the seasons) mixed with the time it took to traverse geographic features with technology from the time. Unfortunately, the simulation (which has its own historical challenges in terms of modeling that I will not discuss here) avoids any presentation of change over time. The features that were particularly problematic for pre-modern transportation (corsairs, ongoing conflicts, political crises, plague outbreaks etc.) that might have influenced (and were at least in the minds of the travelers in determining their route) have no place in this simulation.

In other words, the most interesting aspects of Ayers, Nesbit, and Robertson to the historian–the ability to cross reference events presented in sources with geo-spatial awareness over the duration of time on a single map–is lost in ORBIS because the concern of change over time is lost. Thus the historical patterns–what mapping makes most visible and I think where mapping provides the greatest opportunities for historians–are lost in ORBIS. Instead, it presents a static picture of transportation only influenced by nature and geography, not the ebb and flow of political, social, demographic, and biological events that drove and often interrupted that transportation.

Mapping seems to me to be most productive, then, when we can map events across time. Imagine if ORBIS could calculate travel duration and routes during different epochs. For instance, during the third-century crisis. one can imagine that travel times to some areas were expanded, some routes avoided, some places essentially cut of from others. This is certainly asking a lot, especially since much work went into the creation of ORBIS, but the patterns that the time variable would helps produce would truly transform ORBIS from a tool into a piece of scholarship, which Meeks and Grossner already contend that it is.

Network Analysis

After this week’s readings, I find myself somewhat on the fence concerning network analysis. The concept seems incredibly interesting. Being able to visualize the networks between French ambassadors, for instance, would be very helpful in my own research. I wonder if some, such as Theibault, might be overestimating the utility of these visualizations when he argues that visualizations may at time “substitute for” text. This seems difficult if this includes “educating fellow historians about how to interpret visualizations.” How can these visualizations “substitute for” text if one must receive some education in how to interpret those visualizations? To what degree are we insulating ourselves more than we already are if we are trying to use visualization in that way.

The question seems particularly astute when one considers Johanna Drucker’s argument that we “rethink the foundation of the way data are conceived as capta by shifting its terms from cetainty to ambiguity and find graphical means of expressing interpretative complexity.” I certainly agree with her argument. We are constantly making assumptions and assertions when we, for instance, graph the population of a country–do we count transients or not in this population, etc. Nevertheless, the graphs she presents that intentionally demonstrate the ambiguity of the “interpretative complexity” look to be much more difficult to understand.  I fear that the use of these interpretative tools in a way that seeks to substitute them for text undermines one of the goals of historical research: making it clear and available to the public. While one might argue that the historical methods lend themselves already to a more turgid prose that the public would prefer not to interact with. I assert that interested non-historian readers can nevertheless still understand the essential arguments posited and evidence used in a historical journal in a way that one probably cannot  if one opens an economic journal (that is to say if he or she has not learned higher level math and econometrics).

I am not asserting that we avoid network analysis, but that we not overestimate its explanatory power.  I certainly accept that its use can provide a very productive complimentary role (and to be fair Theibault does call for its use in this way, not solely a substitutive one). Moreover, I would also agree with Scott Weingart that we ought not to include network analysis because it is a really cool looking graph.

Nevertheless, similarly to topic modeling and text mining, I imagine we can use network analysis not solely as an explanatory or evidentiary tool, but also as an exploratory tool. We can use it to help generate questions, find new connections that need to be investigated. One can see these possibilities through only a cursory glance at the case studies page of “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” But in doing so we must take care to remember that some of the connections that some central figures and a network map may in fact be red herrings and not actually hold the central position in a letter network that the map shows (see Weingart). As I get into more hands-on interaction with network analysis and map interpretation, my position may change, and I may see how these maps can easily substitute themselves for text. At the moment I am skeptical. This said, I do see a productive role for network mapping in historical research–especially as a means of illuminating connections that deserve fuller investigation.

The Possilities of Text Mining

The most abundantly clear message to come out of the readings for this week is that text mining cannot and should not replace traditional historical methods, but that it should be used as a means of complimenting those traditional methods. It provides a means of dealing with what is becoming an increasingly unwieldy amount of historical information. This is made clear by the Miki Kaufman piece on quantifying Kissinger that uses text mining to poor through the “memcons” and “telcons” from Kissinger’s 17,500 meetings. that is a fantastic amount of information to try to make sense of. The problem is not limited to the 20th century.

Text mining can provide evidence about a mass of texts that we then look at more closely. In other words, through distant reading, we find areas to read more closely. Where text mining seems to me to have the greatest impact, however, is through generating new questions by finding trends one may not otherwise find. A good example of this is in Robert Nelson’s “Mining the Dispatch: Introduction,” in which the graphs generated from his topic modeling show an increase in runaway slave ads in 1562 causing him to ask if an increase in chaos from war mobilization in and around Richmond provided slaves with increased opportunity to runaway in larger numbers. From here, he would have to bring traditional methods to bear on the question. The point, however, is that text mining and topic modeling made it clear that there was a question that needed answering.

Text mining can provide another analytic approach that historians bring to bear on their available sources. However, we must remember that it does not provide conclusive proof, but another type of evidence to demonstrate a point or a new way to formulate questions.

Databases and Historical Methods

This week’s readings brings up some interesting questions about how databases and what Bob Nicholson has termed the “digital turn” has impacted historical methods.[1] The most obvious problem, in my mind, discussed by Laura Putnam is the possibility that one may study the history of a foreign state without visiting it. The use of online archives places increased distance between ourselves and our subject. In an age when funding for travel grants are decreasing and online sources increasing, such possibilities are becoming greater. This is not just from possibly missing out on important knowledge of “in-country intellectuals,” but other, more pressing, failings. For instance, the Archives Municipales de Blois are online including all (or at least a majority) of the Deliberations du conseil municipale from 1565 to 1989. It is not inconceivable that someone could write a history of 17th century Blois without ever stepping foot in the municipality. I think many would find such a study problematic since actually seeing the geography surrounding the city, the lay of the land, walking the old quarters of the city may inform one’s study in very helpful ways. This is far from a cry that we should avoid such databases, but that we should not allow them and the methods they make possible to replace other traditional ones.

On the positive side, databases of newspapers and archival collections allow us not only to ask different questions, but also broader questions. Along with new methods, we are able to ask more global questions because we have greater access to material that was previously unattainable due to monetary limits. We must remain humble in this pursuit however. Certainly, growing archival databases, for instance in China and other areas around the globe, will make it easier to access and make connections in economic and cultural sphere previously incapable. Nevertheless, we must remember that as we expand our scope through databases, we have ever increasing historiographical literatures to tackle. My research topic in particular (Franco-Ottoman diplomacy during the 16th and 17th century) has been possible largely due to the growth of archival and literary databases (Google Books, Gallica, etc.), allowing me to access growing amounts of information and find previously unused sources due to indexing and keyword search. Nevertheless, the time gained from our new tools is replaced by the time it takes to master an increasingly expansive historiography. We should recognize that old frictions are replaced with new ones that come with new questions made possible by the increasingly numerous online historical databases.

1. Bob Nicholson, The Digital Turn: Exploring the Methodological Possibilities of Digital Newspaper Archives,” Media History 19:1 (2013), 59-73. DOI: 10.1080/13688804.2012.752963


Digitization and Document Searches

It has become apparent that the way a document is digitized has a significant impact on how historians use them. Digitization is far more than simply scanning a the source and placing it online for all to read. A librarian, archivist, digital historian, or OCR program often times placed another layer of text behind the visual image that makes it searchable. As our readings have made abundantly clear, this has significant impacts on how we find that information especially when it comes to large digitized archival sources or early modern books. Either somebody provided indexed keywords to the text, re-keyed the text, or used an OCR program to represent the text in a machine readable format. All of these have error rates, especially OCR. A good analogy for this transformation from the analog text into a digitally searchable text is the process of translation. When a Latin or French document is translated into English, the translator plays a pivotal role in how the text is read–how it is understood. The differences in how an author uses “langue” and “langage” (both french words for language) can be lost when the translator renders both as “language” in English. In such a case the text is understood differently to the French reader than the English reader. Similar issues come up with the digitization process, except the outcome is not a mis-translation in our understanding but in our findings.  Indexing digitized manuscripts leads to a discrepancy in what one may find through one’s search. One’s search findings are subject to the judgment of the indexer. The same goes for OCRed documents. The error rate may render certain searchable text unfindable–this being particularly apparent in sixteenth century type-setting, spelling, and character usage. This may lend a historian to not use (or use sparingly) a particular source.

Nevertheless, although this has a discernible affect on how we find the sources we use, it does not necessarily cause more problems than we previously faced as historians–just different ones. Previously, the sources we used/found was biased by the research of the historians that preceded us (and their sometimes less than judicious note taking/footnoting), the knowledge archivists had of their archival holdings, and sometimes simple happenstance. Now we have those biases as well as the error rates provided by OCR programs and which keywords were chosen to be indexed. These issues should be understood. But should the methods of finding our sources really be included in our writing along side our methods of finding our sources? Had we not had keyword searches available, would a document that was not used or used sparingly have been used at all otherwise? I think the difference here comes in how one is using the keyword search–in other words, how important OCR error rates are to ones analysis. If one simply uses keywords as a means of finding documents to read, such error rates are much less important and the methods of finding sources are far less important. But if keyword searches determine what parts of sources to read, then the search function is less a method of finding sources and becomes in many ways a method of analyzing them.  In such cases, OCR errors impact how a historian understands a source and play a much more important role in one’s research–thus meriting a place in one’s writing.