What is digital history for me anyway?

What is digital history for me anyway?

Digital history represents two things to me:

  1. The preservation and sharing of artifacts using digital media.
  2. Using computers to process, analyze and visualize data for history.
  1. Preservation and sharing of artifacts using digital media.

Figure 1 Oxen competing in a pull at the South Shore Exhibition, Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.
Figure 1 Oxen competing in a pull at the South Shore Exhibition, Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. 1940’s-1950’s. Photograph. Clifford Blackadar is in front of the ox team. Author’s personal collection.

The photo in Figure 1 represents a physical artifact that has been electronically copied for preservation. The photo is interesting to me not only because my grandfather is in it but also because his oxen were able to pull hard enough that the competition organizers ran out of boxed weights and supplemented them with people riding on top of the sled.  This photo was stored in a detergent box of other photos with no other context or information and was at risk of being thrown away. Making a digital copy of an artifact increases the chance that a reflection of the object will survive longer in the passage of time and be available to historians.  Sharing artifacts digitally offers the chance that someone else can add to the story of the artifact.  Perhaps someday, a person or even a computer program will be able to tell me the exact year this photo was taken because I was able to share it with them.

Carleton University History professor Dr. Bruce Elliott has spoken about the loss of the inscriptions on thousands of marble gravestones in Philadelphia due to acidic air pollution.  If the text that was on these stones was also available electronically, at least it would still be available to consult and combine it with other data.

2. Using computers to process, analyze and visualize data for history.

Digital Historians examine data, look at patterns and document them.  Nevertheless, as historians first, Digital Historians interpret and marshal evidence to make an effective argument. DH related or not, historical evidence must be directly related to the historian’s argument or else it should be left out. As James Baker writes in his article The Hard Digital History That Underpins My Book, “history writing is concise, precise, and selective: not telling your reader everything you know is central to how we present interpretations of the past.” (James Baker, “The Hard Digital History That Underpins My Book”, https://cradledincaricature.com/2017/06/06/the-hard-digital-history-that-underpins-my-book/. Accessed July 9, 2017.)  As Angela Chiesa notes “you can’t add everything to your finished product.”  (Angela Chiesa, annotation,  https://hyp.is/V_hTdGTMEeeGVu9qHthJKA/cradledincaricature.com/2017/06/06/the-hard-digital-history-that-underpins-my-book/.  Accessed July 9, 2017.)

At the same time, the method, data and outcome of all work related to a historical inquiry should be documented in a systematic manner so that other historians can make use of the work.  Other historians may repeat the research exercise and draw a new conclusion or repeat it and find flaws that when fixed provide new insights.  The documentation of DH work so that it can be repeated and refined necessitates the use of same type of discipline and methods scientists use with their experiments, where even failed experiments, properly understood, can provide important discoveries and be the productive fail. Here, the Digital Historian is a scientist with data.

An excellent in-class example of this type of DH visualization was Bethany Pehora’s Annotation and Slack post comparing the publication of novels in Paris and London between 1820-1920.  (Bethany Pehora, https://hist3814o.slack.com/?redir=%2Ffiles%2Fbethanypehora%2FF663W7V4P%2Fparis_novels_vs._london_novels.pdf.  Accessed 9 July 2017.)  A spike in publication of French language novels in Paris during the time of the Franco-Prussian war was evident, a very interesting pattern deserving further investigation.

Why I am in this class?

I was first exposed to Digital History during a lecture by Dr. Shawn Graham as part of Dr. Paul Nelles’ course on the Historian’s Craft. The lecture and assignment intrigued me both as someone returning to the academic study of history and also a user of computer technology.

I graduated from Carleton University in 1992 with a 3 year Arts degree with a major in History and I decided to return again to Carleton in the fall of 2015 in order to complete an honours year part time. Each history course I have taken has taught me a great deal, regardless of the topic.  I have been looking forward to taking this course and I plan to gauge the potential for me to continue to study in this area.

As an amateur historian, I have been interested in areas that relate to Digital History. For example, I did some work on the 19th century history of the Ottawa Horticultural Society, a local gardening club.  Some of this work involved scanning annual reports of the Ontario Horticultural Association over previous years and converting them to text.  In the course of doing that I made copies of these reports available to other local horticultural societies here.

I would like to take my ability to gain insight by working with data much further.

My level of comfort with digital tech.

Please indulge me while I describe my first encounter with the “Information Highway”.

My first experience posting content to the web.

When I first saw the web in July 1994, I didn’t really know what I was looking at.  I had a dial-up account with National Capital Freenet and was using Lynx, a text web browser where I followed links to content.  I remember telling my wife that I had reached Cleveland and Florida by following these links.  It was pretty neat, but I could not figure out what to do with it.

Once I saw the Mosaic browser, I was hooked and wanted to post content. I thought that the advent of World Wide Web was going to be my generation`s radio, the medium my father worked in for his career and greatly enjoyed.

One of the first web pages I made was about Ginkgo trees.  This type of tree has an interesting natural history, a unique look and grows well in Ottawa.  I had tried and failed to grow Ginkgoes from seed multiple times until I adapted a technique used to grow avocado pits.  I wanted to tell more people about this technique, and the web was at hand.  At the time I made the html page I could not find much on Internet about Ginkgoes and so I researched some of the content for the page at the Ottawa library. Here is a close to original version of the page a couple years after I first made it. When I made the page, I thought the subject might be of interest to only a few people and I stopped checking it.  A few months later, I was surprised to find the page had more than 15,000 hits and numerous comments in the guestbook. Since that time, many more and much better web pages about Ginkgoes have been published. It was interesting to me to see how rapidly the new medium of the web proved to be useful for communicating with many people who shared the same niche interest.

This was a very interesting time for technology to say the least.

Generally, I am comfortable with programming, using databases, web technology and different operating systems.  But I also know I have to keep renewing my skills and lots of things I was good at are now obsolete.  (Does anyone need any help with Lotus Notes?)

I am interested in different kinds of history.

I just completed Dr. Joanna Dean’s course Animals in History, hence my picture of an ox team above.

The histories of Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley, southern Nova Scotia, the No. 2 Construction Battalion and Environmental History are areas I have enjoyed studying and reading about over a longer time. Recent courses about the histories of Middle East and the Inuit gave me new perspectives.

What will I get out of this course?

I know I will learn new methods to examine history.  This will involve new theoretical ways to think about historical inquiry as well as the practical aspects of using data and software to look for patterns that shape a historical argument.

I know I will be challenged by the material, exercises and pace of the course. I will learn a lot from the talent of fellow students too.

Why haven`t I learned this before?

I am trying to log on and do a bit of work while at an airport, but I forget some of my passwords. My current passwords are strong and different, but I did not keep note of a mnemonic for them. This reminds me of some bad habits I have had for a long time. Often when I start computer related projects I am excited and dive right in. If I take any notes at all, they are cryptic. Poor note taking may be ok when I am working on something intensely, but when I`m interrupted it`s difficult to get started again. Sometimes these projects end up abandoned. So, one of the things I hope to learn from this course is to be more disciplined with my notes related to computer projects in the same way I am much better at writing down detailed references when I am working on a paper. Taking good notes saves time. You likely already know this, I am still learning that.

A quick introduction

This is a test post, but since I am writing this as I mop up the aftermath of my family vacation, I may have an excuse to tell you where I am.  I am writing from a fairly anonymous airport hotel in Richmond, Virginia as I am waiting to fly home to my family after returning a rental car that we needed after our van`s engine died. Of course Richmond has a great deal of history, but I did not plan to be here for long.

Our original vacation plans were somewhat related to interests I have in history.  I enjoy visiting the sites of early European colonization of North America and a few days ago we visited Manteo on Roanoke Island, North Carolina and saw the U.S. National Historic Site Fort Raleigh there.  It is also a site of a U.S. Civil War battle and the island became a settlement for freed slaves until 1867.

We camped at Cape Henlopen, Delaware the site of Fort Miles, a World War Two defensive fortress and later a listening post to detect submarines from the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. On the way there we dropped into the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  That was an interesting if somber place to see the evolution of penal practices in the United States as well as the prison`s original innovative but psychologically damaging design.

This blog will be much more concerned with digital history in future posts, but I hope I have conveyed a few of the things I am curious about.