Getting the Jump on History

4 Mar

Much of the conversation around data mining has focused on the potential value of large data sets for the purpose of macro-analysis. The practice has generated concern among some historians who fear that emphasis on quantitative analysis somehow runs counter to the central narrative mission of historians. Likewise, because quantification of large data sets enables historians to chart, map or otherwise visually represent their findings using customized digital tools, some critics have questioned whether digital historical methods can effectively answer historical questions.[1]

I think it is worth thinking about how digital historians are really engaged in two separate, but inextricably related projects: One involves the compilation and presentation of large sets of data to public or semi-public audiences. The other involves the interpretation and analysis of those data sets or subsets on a variety of scales.

Projects of the first type generally require cooperation between library and information science professionals, information technology experts, content specialists from a variety of disciplines as well as the archivists, librarians and museum professionals whose collections are to be digitally archived, catalogued and curated online. Even an individual working on a small-scale project will ideally incorporate best practices from these various fields. These projects amount to something more than a virtual archive, because their products reflect the perspectives of their various designers and the digital tools used to access the collections reflect the purposes of the various developers vis à vis the intended user audience.

The second type of project can look very much like historical practice common throughout most of the twentieth century, but without the necessity of travel to multiple archives and with less wear and tear on archival materials. It can also appear to be entirely divorced from the traditions and conventions of historical scholarship, as with Dr. Michael Kramer’s work on Digital Sonification. Most digital historical projects fall somewhere between these two extremes, with some element of data visualization or large-scale data mining and analysis.

Toni Weller, in her concluding essay in History in the Digital Age,[2] emphasizes the importance of recognizing that current historical practice allows for a continuum of engagement with the digital aspects of history. Participants do not have to be digital specialists or even identify as digital practitioners in order to incorporate elements of the digital in their scholarship. Indeed, it seems safe to say that historians universally utilize some computing technology in the production of their scholarship. The degree to which they do so, and the extent to which they frame their investigations as digital projects and/or digital products varies greatly depending on the scholar, their area of interest and the purpose of their scholarship.

Whether historians identify as digital humanists or not, existing digital history projects and those in development now present opportunities for scholars to expand the scope of their inquiries and amplify the impact and reach of their findings through digital visualization tools and the use of open access publishing and social and professional media networks. The collaborative work of digital specialists is reducing the barriers to collaboration for all scholars, and has established new avenues for communicating findings with our students, colleagues and general readers. These conduits of communication are also multi-directional, allowing for communication from readers and enthusiasts who may have relevant evidence or expertise to share, thereby enriching the product.

The rapid developments in the digital humanities have given rise to a third kind of project that amounts to a form of meta-scholarship about the work of digital humanities scholars; the study of how practitioners in a variety of fields work in partnership to arrive at innovative solutions to technical, disciplinary and interdisiciplinary challenges. The Cascades, Islands or Streams project provides a good example of this type of endeavor involving large data sets in the natural sciences. Another 2011 recipient of the Digging into Data Challenge Award, DiggiCORE, is attempting to create a software infrastructure that will enable scholars to trace, measure and analyse the interactions of scholars working with a large-scale repository of linked data across multiple platforms. This mind-bending scholarship aims to get out in front of the history of the history of historical scholarship in order to (hopefully) improve our understanding of the past.

[1]Scheinfeldt addresses this question head-on, concluding that digital humanities can and should answer questions, but that it does not have to do so yet, in his essay: “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?,” Found History, May 12, 2010,


[2] Toni Weller, History in the Digital Age (London; New York: Routledge, 2013),



One Response to “Getting the Jump on History”

  1. angelabpotter March 4, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    I really like how you were able to be broadly inclusive in the historians and humanists covered in your post. I think there is not one continuum of the digital, but many (audience, data, presentations format, etc). I always appreciate your projects from the “hard” sciences, because seeing projects outside of the discipline help us look at the underlying structures with more clarity. A very exciting time to be a historian.

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