Tag Archives: digital history

NEH Digital Humanities Project Directors’ Meeting

Almost a week has passed since I attended the Project Directors’ Meeting at the offices of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington DC, and I’m struggling a bit to recall the joy I was feeling after four days almost straight of spending time with friends and colleagues who are practitioners of digital humanities. A cancelled flight home, post-travel exhaustion, and demanding local responsibilities tend to force even the most immediate and energizing of past experiences into the background.

So I want to take some time to recall the pleasure of having sat in a room filled with digital humanists for a full workday last Tuesday (which was also, by the way, Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s birthday). We began with a session just for us, hearing presentations from various members of the NEH staff. Then at 10:30 the meeting opened to the public, which included such members of the press as the reporter for Inside Higher Education who wrote up the event in a piece entitled “The Promise of Digital Humanities.” The main events in this portion of the day were two sessions of “lightning” presentations–three-slide, two-minute talks in which a total of sixty projects were summarized.

I was utterly delighted to learn about the creativity and technical innovation of classicists, historians, literary critics, and others who are developing mobile applications for subjects from Shakespeare to local history, constructing games to teach students about topics from daily life in 17th-century English villages to 18th-century medical history, and building tools to share local data for large-scale analysis. I can no more summarize the range of the projects than could the reporter from IHE.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that distinguished digital humanist Cathy Davidson would talk about her new book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. I deeply appreciated her counter to the myriad books focused on scaring us about the implications of our digital culture. And I am pleased to have heard that she is giving this talk to business people and other decision makers. Hers is a powerful voice for the promise of our digital future.

Best of all, after I offered my own “lightning” report in the meeting’s afternoon session–giving the briefest of overviews of our work to date on developing standards for using TEI-conformant XML to mark up transcriptions of historic financial records–I met several people who expressed support for the work. A few of these new colleagues are interested in participating in the next steps of our project, when we are ready to test our nascent guidelines more broadly.

As I read the comments on the IHE article, I agree with historian Crandall Shiflett, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech University and one of the innovators who was working in digital history twenty years ago. He gives credit to his colleagues in that work and writes: “The promise and challenge of digital humanities in the new age will be to break down walls of disciplinary separation and forge collaborations among scholars across these borders, if the revolution is to become truly revolutionary. It will require private and public support on a large scale, but the reward will be the creation of new knowledge and knowledge in new ways.” Hear, hear.

*Our project “Encoding Financial Records” has received financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post or other publications related to the project do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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User-Friendly XML

As I continue to think through how I do history digitally, I note both that historians have been using computers for a long time and that what I do differs from the statistics-heavy social science computing people were learning when I was in graduate school. Programs like SPSS didn’t seem relevant to my dissertation project, which focused on small communities that would not have yielded statistically significant analysis. I didn’t know about Arc-GIS, and it might be interesting to see what one could learn by imposing census data on Whitney Cross’s maps of the Burned Over District. Might, at some other point.

I’m struck by how easily I accepted the idea that transcribing and marking up journals, diaries, and now financial records could yield interesting results for understanding the nineteenth-century United States. But an analogy that came to me this morning clarifies the process for me.

I’ve noted here before that I came to comfort with code as a result of the coincidence that my post-secondary education began just at the moment that computing was becoming democratized. At Rice, my own experience with mainframes began with learning to use word processors to type papers. In my early post-collegiate jobs, my comfort with learning to use similar applications earned me a position as the WordPerfect expert among the secretarial staff of a department at the UVA Medical School. I bought my first PC in grad school and developed minimal comfort with DOS, but I didn’t become a power user until I bought my first Mac and learned the joy of the Apple interface.

My development as an academic user coincided with the spread of the Internet in the 1990s, though I remained a low-end user focused on email and word processing until my first exposure to TEI and XML in 2004. The utility of statistical data remained relatively opaque to me, and my fondness for Macs and parallel contempt for Windows as a DOS-impaired lesser version of the Apple interface prevented my exploring possibilities. Coupled with my interest in pedagogical uses of technology, the advent of the World-Wide Web led to my involvement in discussions about cross-platform applications, and I became more and more comfortable in conversations about technology. Thus, I had been primed for the next stage–learning about XML through exposure to TEI and therefore becoming a different kind of academic user.

The analogy between the comparative difficulties of DOS/SPSS and Mac/XML has considerable explanatory power for me as I think about how I have come to be convinced that XML/TEI tools for transcription and markup have a place in undergraduate classrooms. I think it goes a long way towards expressing some of the assumptions behind my notion that liberal education should include exposure to computational thinking.

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Learning ArcGIS

Decades ago when I was still taking math classes, I got appallingly accustomed to the moment when I stopped being able to keep up. Math pedagogy at that time focused on modeling how to work through problems, practice working through problems as homework, and finding out how well you were doing by going over problems in the next class meeting. Frustratingly, I often found myself unable to reproduce for my homework problems the logic that had seemed so easy to follow as the model problems were solved during class meetings.

I was thinking about these experiences a little over a week ago because I was taking a course in ArcGIS, a suite of applications that has been around since the 1970s and can be used to create maps out of quantitative data gathered at some point in the past. The whole process is most interesting when the mapping leads to the development of new questions, ones we hadn’t considered before we started looking at events with an eye to spatial and geographical relationships.

On about Wednesday morning of a week-long course, I hit the wall that felt familiar to me from those math classes I had taken long ago. We had gotten to an exercise that asked us to reproduce a process the book had walked us through before, and I kept hitting glitches. Things got better when I resolved to return to the exercise at some future point and move on to the next thing for the moment.

I don’t think any of this means that I should stop trying to learn how geographic information systems can help me as I continue to dig into historical research and how digital tools and methodologies can advance historical thinking in general and the research I’m doing with the Wheaton College Digital History Project in particular. But I am interested in this particular wall and what my hitting it means for teaching my students to ask geographical questions as they approach the study of the past.

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Good News

This is a good day. There is real joy in receiving a phone call from a granting agency, and today that call came from the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here at the Wheaton College Digital History Project, we proposed a meeting to begin conversations about using TEI to mark up financial records, and reviewers agreed with our assertion that there is enormous potential here for increasing access to abundant and underused archival documents. We are fortunate to be joined in our efforts by colleagues at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, and the Women Writers Project at Brown University.

We look forward to sharing our ideas as soon as our work is complete.

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Creating Reference Files for an Expanding Project

I spent much of Labor Day 2010 in the land of XML/TEI, adding to a personography file I began to work on after a TEI seminar in April. This rather intensive set of tasks arose because we at the Wheaton College Digital History Project are proceeding apace with imaging financial records created by Laban Morey Wheaton and his agents between 1828 and 1859. (Thanks, Chris!) This is exciting news in a project that began with transcription of Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s diaries in spring 2005.

The need for a consolidated personography is related in part to our extending this work in P5, the current version of the TEI. I can’t remember whether we were using P3 or P4 when we began the project. I took a rather distant approach to the project at the time, relying on my colleagues in Archives and Special Collections and in Research and Instruction to manage much of the daily work of transcription and coding undertaken by our undergraduate research assistants. In the past couple of years, I have been learning more and more TEI and taking more responsibility for being able to communicate the needs of the program to a changing (growing) group of technical and library colleagues as the project has expanded from diaries to financial records.

When we were working on the diaries, my colleagues created a reference file that included name identifiers for people whose names appeared in them. As we began to transcribe the financial records, we kept another list of names that appeared in them. Now that we have established a workflow for transcribing and coding the financial records, we are ready for a consolidated personography that allows us to assign unique identifiers for every name in the Wheaton Family Papers.

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Is It Out There?: Undergraduate Research as Digitization at Analog Pace

In the poster session at the NITLE Summit, I presented the portion of the Wheaton College Digital History Project on which my students are currently working.  This is the second time that students in my iteration of the methods course for history majors have transcribed and encoded transactions from a daybook that Laban Morey Wheaton kept in Norton, Massaschusetts, between 1828 and 1859.

Viewers of the poster saw images of Wheaton and his wife, Eliza Baylies Wheaton, as well as sample images of the daybook, XML files, and a visualization based on student interest in commodities traded on days of the week from spring 2009.  I explained that asking students to transcribe and encode financial records gives them an opportunity to learn a host of principles and skills meant to prepare them for doing their own research in primary sources for their senior seminar projects.

More than once, viewers asked me whether the data was “out there” for other students and faculty members to use, and I had to reply that we have not yet reached that stage.  Our college is participating in a planning grant for a presentation tool, but the tool is very much still in the planning stages.  Which leads me to reflect that producing data through undergraduate pedagogy might appear at a pace closer to that of analog publication than we are accustomed to in a digital world.

As a comparative novice in TEI, I have only recently come to realize some of the complexities that result from our collaboration among students, the College Archivist, an academic technologist, and a faculty member.  Among these is the fact that we are creating digital versions of documents for at least three related but distinct purposes:  pedagogical, archival, and scholarly.  And for all three of these, results and publication are far from instant.

As students transcribe and encode the daybook, the pace can seem positively glacial, not least because learning to decipher nineteenth-century handwriting takes time.  We assign each student a single page spread, so at the end of this semester, we will have completed transcription and encoding of about forty pages.  And the daybook is only one of numerous account books in the collection.  From a certain pedagogical perspective, pace does not matter, and we will have plenty of material for the students to work on the next many times I hope to teach this assignment.  Aggregation of the data means only that future students will have more material to query.

Similarly, for archival purposes, pace is less important than having someone do the work.  And from the archival perspective, accuracy of transcription is often more important than speed.  In fact, the need for multiple instances of proofreading has become one of the most significant obstacles in online publication of the letters, travel journal, and pocket diaries that student workers finished transcribing, encoding, and proofing at least two summers ago.

And, as having adequate time available to proof behind the students stalls archival publication, lack of time slows my own ability to reflect and produce scholarly versions of this material.  Scholarly use of the financial records awaits digitization of adequate amounts of data to aggregate and query meaningfully.

So, no.  The data we are producing is not out there yet.  Digital methods offer important learning opportunities for our students.  They do little to speed the pace of careful archiving and scholarship as yet.  I do remain convinced that eventually there will be significant research value in the data that we will produce.  Especially if we can manage to tolerate the incremental (analog) within the digital.

________

References:

http://www.nitle.org/events/event.php?id=49

http://www.tei-c.org/index.xml

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From Flogging Shoggoths to Blogging Clio

“Whosoever floggeth a shoggoth loggeth off.”*  I was sitting in front of a dumb terminal in the new computer science lab at Rice University.  The year was probably 1983, and my friends in comp sci/math sci were helping an academ newbie learn to type her papers in the word processor that was available on the mainframe for us non-SE types between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.  They had shown me how to log on, type the correct commands at the flashing prompt, and now that I was finished with my session, they instructed me to type “Flog a shoggoth.”  Which prompted the above response.

I had neither read nor heard of shoggoths or H.P. Lovecraft before that day almost thirty years ago, though as a longtime fan of Star Trek I liked the idea of using a computer.  Since entering Rice in 1980, I had typed all of my papers on electric typewriters, which represented a considerable upgrade from my mother’s 1950s vintage manual typewriter that I had used in high school.  In my first post-college job, I parlayed my word processing experience into a position that was a step beyond data entry, and I moved up to a secretarial position where my computer skills scored me the opportunity to learn WordPerfect and serve as an expert on the program for my fellow medical secretaries.  By 1987, I had entered graduate school, and in the following year, I bought my first PC, with two 5-1/4-inch floppy drives.  I bought my first Mac when I took a teaching position at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in 1992.

The college was switching over from bitnet at that point, and I had many opportunities to think about the best ways to use technology in the classroom.  Having trained as an analog historian at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I was becoming a digital professor at a residential liberal arts college.  Following the breadcrumbs on the teaching and technology trail led to my learning XML/TEI in 2004, and my students began to transcribe and encode primary sources that fall.

Six years later, I am far from the first or only historian to turn to blogging.  Having come to digital history through exposure to the generous and long-standing digital humanities community, I think I might have something to contribute to the growing discussion about the application of digital methodologies to historical inquiry.

This blog will address topics in digital history and digital humanities, including my current project in which I am writing introductory essays for transcriptions of letters, pocket diaries, and a travel journal written by Eliza Baylies Wheaton, who was the primary force behind the founding of Wheaton Female Seminary in 1834.  My plan is to post at least weekly.

Flog a shoggoth.

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*My discomfort with the reference to flogging and the implicit evocation of slavery is affirmed by Elizabeth Bear’s Hugo Award-winning “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008).

References:

Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Asimov’s (2008). http://www.elizabethbear.com/shoggoths.html, accessed 3/20/10 1:30 PM.

H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness (1931). In The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated and with an introduction by S.T. Joshi. New York: Dell, 1997.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoggoth, accessed 10/31/08 and 3/20/10 1:23 PM.

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