Down the rabbit hole with “Crafting Digital History”

This year for me was supposed to be about completing unfinished projects and definitely not jumping down any new rabbit holes.

So much for that.

The rabbit hole I’ve found myself down? The open version of Crafting Digital History, a course run by Shawn Graham at Carleton University, Ottawa. As Shawn describes it:

“This course is about crafting digital history, about data mining documents, about reading distantly thousands of documents at once, about graphing/mapping/visualizing what we find, and working out how to best communicate those findings. It is about writing history in digital media, which are primarily visual media. Thus, we will learn how to scrape data, how to find meaningful patterns within it, and how to visualize (via websites or infographics) those results.”

Each of the five modules involve practical exercises, readings and reflecting on as well as logging the learning process. The essential elements of the digital workspace to engage in the modules requires a blog for writing/reflection, Github for notes and tracking work, for annotating readings, and DHBox, a “digital humanities laboratory” provided via a web browser which comes pre-equipped with the following DH tools: IPython, RStudio, Omeka, and NLTK.

What am I hoping to get out of this?

After reading, thinking and writing about the digital humanities a bit recently, I’m ready for some hands-on practical experience of learning how to do digital history, including developing some knowledge and skills in using digital tools to be able to craft something using data/archival material, which I can then apply to particular projects.

I feel very at home with the course philosophy, where failure is not only accepted but encouraged, and learning is self-directed. I can accept where I am at with my current knowledge and skill level and can build confidence to push at the boundaries knowing that mistakes are inevitable, and indeed necessary, to learn.

Where am I at right now?

My level of comfort with digital technologies varies depending on what it is. For example, I like to think about the possibilities that various digital technologies offer, and love to try out and use digital tools. On the other hand, my programming skills are non-existent and I often feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge about what is going on ‘under the hood’ of these technologies. So, I am hoping that engaging in the practice of digital history through this course will give me some insight in that regard.

There are three different areas of digital history that I am interested in.

1. Exploring the historiographical aspects of digital history – ie the possibilities of the way history can be constructed when we use digital technology. Not only does DH offer the potential for writing a unique kind of narrative based on certain evidence that is produced from ‘big data’, but also new ways of crafting history as a complex network of multiple, coexisting, non-linear narratives, presented through different media and textual formats.

2. Doing historical research using existing archives. Recently I’ve been delving into the digitised newspapers in Trove, the collection of the National Library of Australia, to uncover some of the social and cultural history of Perth’s laneways over the 100 years from the mid nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, and found it completely fascinating. I’m aware of, and would like to be better equipped to explore and use the many wonderful tools, ideas and help available to develop DH projects using Trove data.

3. Learning how to digitise material correctly and well, in order to create an archive using Omeka, based on a paper-based legacy collection of African Studies material and research data that I have access to, and responsibility for (this is beyond the scope of the Crafting DH course, I know).

My journey so far

This first week of ‘getting started’ has seen me set up my digital workspace by dusting off my blog, which I haven’t used for about a year; checking in on my GitHub account which I set up recently during a software carpentry workshop and haven’t used since; installing and testing out the plugin that aggregates annotations by hashtag (it worked, yay!); creating an account with DHBox; connecting with Shawn and other participants of the ‘open edition’ through Slack; and have started to look at some of the readings.

Now, can anyone point me in the right direction to the Mad Hatter’s tea party?

5 Responses

  1. Tut tut Newspapers aren’t archives – they are published. Old newspapers are kept in morgues (true). In libraries they are in libraries.

    I’m glad you are having fun 🙂


    1. ha ha! I was thinking about you as I wrote that bit, and wondering if I was using the wrong terminology!

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