Digital History Hacks

William Turkel, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, runs a great blog, "Digital History Hacks: Methodology for the infinite archive." I first ran across his blog last year via a couple of his research-related posts, the kind of "how to succeed at grad school" material that I continue to scarf up. One, on knowing when to stop doing research, offered great advice from one of his advisors: "Your research is done when it stops making a difference to your interpretation."

Another post recommended just writing down the direct quotes and avoiding paraphrasing. He diagnoses his students' note-taking problems as simply not using enough sources (but, again, know when it's time to stop looking).

But what really fires Turkel up is using technology to grapple with history and I find his ideas and opinions invigorating. Similar to how historians want to get their hands on old documents, Turkel wants to use today's digital tools to examine historical evidence.

His About page says, "In my blog I discuss the kinds of techniques that are appropriate for an archive that has near-zero transaction costs, is constantly changing and effectively infinite. " Given that one of the themes of my education includes providing curated homes for digital materials, I'm curious as to his attack on the subject of dealing with digital records as historical documents and historical documents transformed into digital records. I also think his embrace of technology--especially programming--within a humanities-oriented discipline provokes some interesting ideas on how technology could be used or promoted within the academy.

He has a definite zest for the tech side and encourages digital historians to embrace programming as a tool that's as creative and useful and ubiquitous as email or RSS feeds have become. He has co-authored an e-book and web site called The Programming Historian that introduces the tools and basic knowledge needed to create simple programs in Python and JavaScript. The goal isn't necessarily to become a programmer, but to introduce to historians and other scholars in the humanities a new set of tools they can use to further their research and scholarship. Instead of scouring SourceForge for a unique one-off utility, says Turkel, create your own. The intellectual experience alone is enough to grow your capacity for looking at problems in a different way and, I would say, builds your confidence for attacking bigger and more unusual problems.

Turkel provides a great example of what he's talking about in his series of posts titled "A Naive Bayesian in the Old Bailey," a step-by-step account of the tools and approaches he used to perform data mining on over 200,000 XML files of digitized records from the Old Bailey. His final post sums up the experience, his decisions, and the value such an endeavor can provide.

Turkel's vigorous advocacy of learning basic programming and tech tools reminds me of this post from the blog "Getting Things Done in Academia," where Physiological Ecologist Carlos Martinez del Rio suggests that science grad students pick up two tools, with at least one being a programming language. This enables the eventual scientist to add to their own toolkits, encourages logical thinking, and enables a flexibility and enhanced ground speed when it comes to research.

This is not an attitude that I've seen in many of the courses I've taken so far at SILS, I think. There is certainly a zeal for programming and technology that arises naturally from the students themselves; they're so fluent with the web and a zillion different web apps and sites, that they can imagine a solution to a problem in their minds and see PHP, CSS, JavaScript, and so on, as building blocks--or perhaps, a latticework--that will eventually solve the puzzle. And I know the faculty encourages the students to explore. No one is holding them back.

But, to be fair, it's more likely that that attitude really isn't germane to the primarily introductory classes I've been taking for the last 4 semesters. I've only recently settled on a focus area that will help me choose courses and a line of study for the next 4 semesters. Most of the technology I've played with so far--such as the Protege ontology editor--has served as a fine introduction to what's out there, but there's no time to practice mastery.

The master's program's primary goal is mainly to introduce us to a body of literature and a field of study; soak us in the basic ideas and concepts; and raise our awareness of the issues and problems that exist. If you want to go deeper and more technical, that's fine, you can do that, and your master's project offers an opportunity to develop a skill if you want it. But SILS occupies an unusual position in the campus course offerings. UNC's computer science department doesn't offer some basic courses, so SILS feels it needs to offer them; for example, courses on web databases and XML. It's acknowledged that the standards of these courses are not up to those taught by the regular faculty. Still, these courses offer a safe place to practice and make mistakes, and that's valuable. And, as one professor told me, if you're smart, you'll be able to pick up what you need and get out of it what you want. The important thing is to just start, wallow around for a while, and see what emerges.

The last word goes to Turkel, who says here that historians, more so than other practitioners in other disciplines, are uniquely positioned to pick up the basics of programming, in a passage I find rather inspiring, and not just for students:

Historians have a secret advantage when it comes to learning technical material like programming: we are already used to doing close readings of documents that are confusing, ambiguous, incomplete or inconsistent. We all sit down to our primary sources with the sense that we will understand them, even if we're going to be confused for a while. This approach allows us to eventually produce learned books about subjects far from our own experience or training.

I believe in eating my own dogfood, and wouldn't subject my students to anything I wouldn't take on myself. As my own research and teaching moves more toward desktop fabrication, I've been reading a lot about materials science, structural engineering, machining, CNC and other subjects for which I have absolutely no preparation. It's pretty confusing, of course, but each day it all seems a little more clear. I've also been making a lot of mistakes as I try to make things. As humanists, I don't think we can do better than to follow Terence's adage that nothing human should be alien to us. It is possible to learn anything, if you're willing to begin in the middle.