The study of History has remained relatively static, with very few changes in how Historians conduct their research. Even with the advent of online databases for scholarly articles, research methods have remained more or less the same for years. As time goes on and more historical information is ending up online, it is becoming more and more necessary for historians to understand how to conduct their research digitally, analyzing online databases of information such as statistics or digitized documents. However, this kind of research can be absolutely painstaking, trying to look for a specific piece of information or finding trends in the information by searching page after page, document after document , it can take hours only to find what you’re looking for, or find out that what you’re looking for isn’t there in the first place.
Textual Analysis and Topic Modeling tools such as Mallet can be helpful for analyzing large amounts of information to find trends such as the frequency with which a word is used and the words which appear around this word, in order to define trends in the data. This can be really useful in, for example, taking the entire text from a digitized book and by analyzing it, figuring out what the book is about. By looking at the use of language, one can easily determine if the author had any kind of bias with regards to what they are writing about, and in which direction that bias leans.
While this is an incredibly useful way for analyzing digital texts such as electronically published books or journal articles, trying to apply this to something like an online database, such as the Old Bailey Online, an online database of London, England’s central criminal court from 1674 to 1913, would take days to do. Luckily, the Programming Historian website offers free tutorial-based lessons for teaching basic computer programming, using Python script, to write a simple program which will allow Historians to analyze the text from an entire website, finding trends in the information.
When I first encountered the Programming Historian, I had a difficult time wrapping my head around why a Historian would need to know this kind of programming skill. As the lessons progressed and I learned how to copy all of the text from the Old Bailey Online, and strip it down to its most basic level, and applying textual analysis and topic modeling tools to it, it started to make a lot more sense.
Presently, there are relatively few databases like the Old Bailey Online, which store massive amounts of historical information. However, as we move further and further into the Digital Age, more and more historical records are being digitized and stored in online databases, and this is fundamentally changing how Historians will conduct research in the future. The image of a Historian in an archive in the basement of a library, poring over boxes of archived documents is slowly being intermingled with that of someone looking through pages and pages of online information. In order to process these massive amounts of information, Historians will need programs like the ones presented by the Programming Historian to conduct their research.
On a personal note, I think that in a world that is increasingly dependent on computers and digital technology, we as a whole should have at least a basic know-how of how computer programming works. Otherwise, we’re simply using a computer as a blunt instrument, blindly swinging it around until we get it to do what we want, when what we should be doing is using it like a finely crafted instrument, carving the information we need out of the shapeless mass that is the Internet and all its resources.