fragmentary notes from the “dork shorts”

In the Research Methods section of yesterday’s workshop, I jotted down brief notes from each attendee who shared their favorite tool or digital resource. These notes are fragmentary (I was, after all, also trying to lead the workshop and listen attentively to each person).  However, given how productive the sharing part of our session was, I wanted to post these rough notes in the hope that it will inspire those who shared their sources in the session to write about them at greater length on the blog.  And thank you to all who participated–the discussion in our workshop was vigorous and enthusiastic.

On a related note, I welcome your feedback on the format of our session.  Please feel free to drop a comment here or email me personally (janaremyATgmail).


googlebooks for early 19th century literature

U.S. Geological Surveys, (exhibit), MIT freeware for mapping, timelines, database-driven sorting   (free trial)

Early California Newspaper database and (has searchable pdfs)

Lexis-Nexis Congressional, and also

Chronicling America: interact for Worldcat records, ICON (Icon Digital Newspapers)

Digital Library projects, all are useful (like Territorial Kansas Online to Making of America),

Central Pacific Railroad Museum Site: photos, complete RR surveys w/illustrations, integration with book offers timely updates, expanding over the next few years

Wyoming State Historical Society with online exhibit of state history journal, Montana Historical Society also indexed online

GoogleDocs for groups projects with research assistants, ProQuest, British Library Collections

“Dork Shorts” at the WHA

This past weekend I attended THATCamp Bay Area, an “unconference” for digitally-minded humanists. Though I’ve attended two other THATCamps, this was the first one that did a “dork shorts” session, where each person that wants to present gets two minutes at the podium (similar to “lightning talks“). I liked the informality of this session and how it gave each presenter just enough to show what was important about their project, and to give a URL for those who wanted to learn more.

I was thinking about the dork shorts this morning as I was contemplating the challenge of teaching a workshop at the WHA conference–where there will be participants who are seasoned digital humanists and those who are just starting their first experiments with technology. Certainly the scope and variety of our projects will mean that we approach digital tools quite differently. So I’m setting aside some time in our workshop for some dork short-style talks to give attendees a brief opportunity to share their digital research successes, so we can all learn from each other.

Digital Frontiers Workshop Twitter Hashtag: DFWHA2010

Whether you are planning to attending the free Digital Frontiers digital history workshop on Thursday 10/14 from 3:00-4:30, or are just interested in lurking, we encourage you to visit at the blog before, during, and after the conference. If you are attending the WHA conference, there is no registration fee for this workshop and wireless access for the session will be free for participants thanks to our co-sponsors, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of History and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. If you will not be at Lake Tahoe, follow the workshop on Twitter with the hashtag: DFWHA2010

We look forward to hearing from you online and seeing you at Lake Tahoe!

Digital Research at the WHA

Download the support document for this session

Since I’m leading the Digital Research segment at the WHA, I thought I’d briefly outline what I intend to discuss and solicit your feedback.

General digital research resources:

  • Google Books
  • Google Scholar
  • WorldCat
  • Western History resources


  • Adding items to a library
  • Adding footnotes to a document via Zotero
  • Creating a bibliography

Specific Digital Tools for research

  • Wordle
  • Googlemaps
  • Blogging (as a research journal)

What are your favorites?

Doug Seefeldt and Leslie Working suggested for those of us interested in the increasingly important role technology plays in our teaching, research and scholarship to share our favorite digital resources.  There are few opportunities for us to share what we use and gain some understanding of what else is out there.  We need to share what we have – our best digital practices.

As one interested in multiple digital technologies, I find myself drawn to a few key tools. I appreciate Zotero as a research tool. It is a free, open-source, and now extendable note taking tool that allows for automatic bibliographic file creation.

I also am interested in Anthologize, a new application for WordPress blogs that “Use[s] the power of WordPress to transform online content into an electronic book.”

We are not all about the tools we use, but also about the research we are involved in. I have been fortunate to be using the variety of digital methods available through MIT’s Simile Project. Timeline gives us new ways of viewing data over time, while Exhibit extends our understanding of information through maps, timelines and graphs in a simple and easily implementable manner.

These are just some of the tools that I use and am interested in. What are you interested in and what do you use? Why do you use what you do?

Open Access Scholarship and Computers in the Humanities

In an Atlantic Monthly article published in 1945, the brilliant engineer Vannevar Bush, who had served as the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development through World War II, outlined the new tools emerging that promised to “give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages.” His essay, “As We May Think,” expressed an optimistic and ambitious future of machines that would aid scientists — and other scholars — in the tasks of their research. Bush envisioned a machine that operated like the human mind, which “operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts.” He called this machine a “memex,” and pointed to history as a way to suggest the machine’s possibilities:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozensof possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds and interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected, Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outranged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

The Internet, of course, has become our memex. But how history can be linked to and enhanced by the Internet is a topic still open for discussion. Can history be enhanced by the massive capabilities of machines? How might computers change the way we communicate in the humanities? The Internet, I would suggest, allows historians to query and explore materials in new ways as well as provides new ways to communicate what we discover.

When Edward Ayers and William G. Thomas coined the phrase “digital history” in 1997 with the founding of the Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH) at the University of Virginia, the earliest institution devoted exclusively to history, they were part of a wave of scholars testing the potential for computers to influence research in the humanities.  Scholars began exploring ways that hypertext, databases, CD-ROMs, and other electronic mediums could be used to communicate knowledge or generate new insights into scholarly work.

In some ways digital history required a new set of languages.  The emergence of modern computers and servers allowed scholars to begin mastering new ways of communicating research.  Professors learned mysql; undergraduates had knowledge of server-side scripting; designers aided scholars in thinking about presentation on the web; graduate students aided in document encoding.  The revelation here is that no one could master all the skills necessary to write a piece of software or create a digital project — humanities computing was necessarily collaborative.

The growth of digital humanities centers initiated large-scale projects supported by large staffs of graduate students, faculty, computer science professionals, librarians, archivists, undergraduates, and many others that provided knowledge toward the successful completion of digital projects.  Projects like the Valley of the Shadow was a multi-year project that eventually compassed several thousand documents.  Other scholarly institutions such as the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, IATH at the University of Michigan, and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln emerged to support digital humanities computing and scholarship.  In recent years, graduate students have pursued smaller-scale projects completed in the course of a single semester or over a year in support of a Master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation.  Digital works such as Andrew Torget’s Texas Slavery Project and several projects at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln illustrate the potential for scholars to produce interpretive digital projects under much shorter timeframes and manageable scopes.

The result of this explosion of digital historical material and interpretation on the web has the potential to reshape the ways scholars reach audiences.  Open access historical work, through the web, becomes more visible, can be easily retrieved, potentially reach broader audiences, and thus have a greater impact than a book.  Digital scholarship could reach thousands of readers in search of historical material.  Scholars can also track usage on their projects and determine what people choose to read and use, a task impossible with a printed book (a purchased book does not necessarily equal a book that’s been read).  It is in the interest of historians to provide unrestricted, open access to their work, because doing so increases readership and recognition.  Open access means instantaneous access to research, the ability to correct errors almost immediately, and a radical democratization of knowledge production.

The web also holds the potential to develop new forms of narrative that reflect Bush’s idea of “associations.”  Digital history completes the task required of any historian — providing an argument within an interpretive framework on a given topic.  Computers allow historians to create distinctive forms of narrative that take full advantage of the interconnected, non-linear format of the web.  History, writes Orville Vernon Burton, “is badly in need of models beyond the monograph for the demonstration of excellence, and where the scholarship itself is in need of new genres and new strategies for reaching new audiences.”  Hypertextual history, Edward Ayers suggests, means historians must establish a coherent, layered analysis.  The narrative potentials of digital history opens the door to new models of historical scholarship.

If our purpose as scholars is to share with others what we know and have learn about the past, then democratic access to scholarship should be our ultimate goal as historians.  Digital technology gives us the tools to rethink the presentation and dissemination of historical scholarship.  Although challenges and questions exist, that should not deter historians from embracing open access historical scholarship and sharing knowledge.  “If historians believe that what is available free on the Web is low quality,” Roy Rosenzweig writes, “then we have a responsibility to make better information sources available online.”

Using Digital Resources in the History Classroom

Using scholarly, on-line resources to facilitate class discussions and writing assignments can be a boon to history instruction. Such websites place a wide array of conveniently-formatted primary and well-considered secondary sources in students’ hands for free. Additionally, they serve as tools to help students become more discerning in their internet usage. Although there are many valid reasons to continue using more traditional printed resources, moving some assignments over to the internet is worth considering.

On a more practical level, well-formatted writing assignments based on internet sources can ease some of the most blatant issues of academic dishonesty. Most scholarly sites contain huge amounts of information, often more than undergraduates — especially freshmen and sophomores — are able to contend with. Well defined questions aimed at exploring limited sections of specific websites not only comfort inexperienced scholars, they also offer course leaders a great deal of source control. Plagiarized essays stand out even when finding their origins is difficult because they simply fail to include the assigned sources.

Some of the websites I have assigned include Jamestown Rediscovery; Geography of Slavery; Railroads and the Making of Modern America; Black; and Farm Workers in Washington State History Project. A number of these work both for Regional History courses and the US survey sequence. The exciting thing about all these sites is the huge number of interesting assignments that can be generated. I encourage scholars already using these resources to share them with our colleagues. Perhaps we can develop some sort of repository in the near future.

Kurt E. Kinbacher
Spokane Falls Community College

Coming up on the Conference

What are people thinking about in terms of discussions/questions for the conference? I know I would like to hear about tools people have used successfully in any of the three areas of emphasis (teaching, public history, and research). I have had relatively good results with MIT’s Simile widgets (although I am currently wrestling with a weird code issue) and am thinking about other open source resources. Any one have any other tools to chat about?

Digital History Goes Mainstream

Western historians interested in digital history will find the topics and themes listed on the call for papers for the 2010 American Association for History and Computing of great interest:

Digital History Goes Mainstream: The Role of Digital Technologies in Historical Scholarship, Teaching, and Society
November 5-7th George Mason University, Fairfax Virginia
Proposals due: September 10th

Any of these topics and themes are fair game for discussion in this blog and in our workshop at the WHA meeting in Nevada in October.

Welcome Public Historians! Please Introduce Yourselves.

Are you a public historian, employed at a museum or archive or government office? Are you using digital technologies to help yo do your work and reach the public? Or are you “digital curious?”

One of our break-out sessions will be about Public History at the Digital Frontier. Our hope is to create a discussion where public historians can share their ideas, questions, and tips. It all starts here–so please tell us about yourself in the comments. I’ll go first!