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When I first signed up for Digital History last fall, it wasn’t very clear what the course would be about. Fortunately, since I was already taking a course with the instructor of the course I was able to ask him about it and it sounded like it would be interesting for me and so I took it hoping to expand my knowledge of technology and how it can be applied to the humanities; something that I am hoping to find useful as a teacher, the career I aspire to. While taking the course, I learned about so many thing I had never even heard of before such as the Google Ngram Viewer, Python, Google Sketchup and even WordPress, all of which I found very useful and have used since. One of my favourite parts of the course was our visit to the school’s archives and seeing how these important and irreplaceable documents are being preserved and digitized for better access. Having completed this course, it has become clear to me the importance of making sure the Historical discipline embraces rather than resist technology and make use of modern technology to make History more accessible and to preserve those things which can never be replaced. If Historians do not embrace technology, the discipline could fall into irrelevancy.

Looking back to the beginning of the course, I thought of Digital History as a course about the history of digital technologies and programs, things such as that. As it turns out, it was so much more then that. Not only did we learn interesting things such as the origin of the internet, we got an in depth look into many programs that are relevant, not only in History, but also in so many different disciplines. Google Sketchup, for example, is a great program for creating 3D images. While rather rudimentary compared to programs such as CAD, Sketchup would allow an inexperienced user to quickly and easily design things in 3D such a room they’d like to decorate or perhaps even an idea for landscaping their yard, the possibilities are nearly endless really. The Google Ngram Viewer, yes Google has quite a foothold in programs relating to Digital History as they do in many areas, is a great tool to quickly and easily determine the relevance of certain topics at any given time by typing in the keywords you’d like to compare which it will then cross reference with published material from any given time period in order to see how much that word was used at any given time. Our trip to the school’s archives and rare book room was also very interesting and it was great to see the resources the school has available for our use, resources that I was completely unaware of previously. It was also great to see the efforts that archives are taking to try to make the information they contain more accessible and to ensure that it is preserved for future use.

Overall, Digital History was a great course. It opened my eyes to so many great things that are out there for the History discipline and for conducting research. I hope to be able to use some of what I’ve learned in my own classroom one day and I hope that Historians learn to embrace technology better going forward as it’s a great asset for the profession. This course has definitely spurred a new interest for me and this is an area I’d like to look further into. If you asked me what Digital History is now, my answer would be “the study of digital technology and how it applies to and benefits the discipline of History.”

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Before taking this class I’d never even heard of, let alone worked with the Python programming language or Komodo Edit. In fact, other then a bit of minor programming that I used in high school, I have mostly steered clear of it for lack of understanding and failing to see how knowing how to write programming language could possibly benefit me as a History major. However, having worked through the lessons found on the Programming Historian website, I found that there are actually ways to manipulate texts using the Python language to assist in researching .

As computers are able to process information many times faster than a human can, using computers to assist in researching can be a very good time saving tool if you know what you are doing. Working through the lessons in the Programming Historian modules allowed me to create a program that would cut out stop-words, punctuation and similar unnecessary information in order to create a list of word frequencies that allowed me to get a general idea of what the article was about. Is this really useful though as such tools already exist without having to do the programming yourself? Perhaps not, but it was still certainly interesting to see how these tools work and to learn that I could also create such tools with a little work.

The biggest problem I found working with the  Programming Historian was the layout of the lessons. Sometimes while working through the lessons they do not specify where to enter parts of the code which I found confusing as my codes would not work despite following them exactly. For the most part I was able to find out my mistakes later on in the lesson as it became clear what I’d doe wrong but it would have been nice if the lessons were more specific as you work through it rather then waiting to the end to clarify what you’re doing. Ultimately I was only able to complete lesson five before getting completely stuck on lesson six to the point where I could not figure out where I’d gone wrong. I even went back over the line of code that created the error message and compared it to the code in the lesson to no avail. Perhaps if I was better versed in the Python programming language I could’ve caught my own mistake.

Ultimately I found Python very interesting and it was cool to see what you could create yourself using the programming language and it is definitely a very useful tool. However in the end I found the Programming Historian confusing and aggravating to use.

Technology has had a huge impact on the way we, as researchers, conduct ourselves when doing research. The sheer number of tools we now have at our disposal is incredible and they allow us to quickly and easily find the information we need to complete our research projects.

The article Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books takes a look at two of the major advancements in the way we can now conduct our research; digital archives and the ngram viewer. According to the article, about twelve percent of all books ever published have now been digitized and are available in some way electronically. This provides a huge benefit for researchers of any discipline as it allows easy access to materials anywhere at anytime. Digitizing books also allows us to ensure that books may be preserved in some form or other regardless of age so that the information they contain may be preserved as well.

Ngram viewers, such as the Google Ngram Viewer, allow us to search these digitized books for specific words. By plugging specific keyword(s) into the Ngram Viewer we are quickly able to see how significant those word(s) were at a particular point in time which can help to narrow down a timeframe to study. For example, I plugged in a few keywords relating to cars: Mercedes, Benz, Ford, Toyota, gasoline and diesel to see how frequently these words were used in the English language from 1800 to 2000. I was quite surprised by my results to find that “Ford” was actually frequently used all the way back to 1800, although likely because it is also a fairly common surname. “Mercedes”, “Benz” and “gasoline” had very limited use until the turn of the twentieth century likely due to the very recent introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile at that time. The word “diesel” reaching peak popularity during the 1930s and 1940s, likely due to the introduction of the first diesel-powered car in the 1930s and the extensive use of diesel-powered Mercedes vehicles by the Nazis. Not surprisingly, “Toyota” shows up relatively little in English until the 1960s and 1970s when Toyotas began to be sold in North America. The Google Ngram Viewer is a great tool for anyone trying to find out the historical significance of different words.

Mining the Dispatch is very similar to the Google Ngram Viewer except that in this case the site focuses specifically on texts from Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War. During the Civil War, Richmond, Virginia was the capital city of the Confederate states during the war and this website draws largely from the Richmond Daily Dispatch. This site is a great tool for anyone looking to study the Civil War, especially if they are looking in the Confederate side of the Civil War, as it allows you to quickly see how significant certain words were in the Confederate media during the war. It also helps to get a sense of the events of the war and Confederate war propaganda. The ngrams posted on the site also show how the war was going for the Confederates such as for war bonds which shows a dramatic spike in the use of war bonds towards the end of the war when the Confederates were running out of resources to continue fighting. The ngrams for death notices and casualties can also be used to identify major battles or lulls in the fighting.

These are just a few examples of what is out there on the web to support researchers today. We, as researchers, must get to know these tools and use them as there are many great benefits and time-savers to aid us as we delve into the past.

The first of the three archives is all about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. or 9/11 as it is widely known as now. This archive compiles a vast range of primary sources from the events of 9/11 including email exchanges and other electronic media. Also, there is a collection of pictures, videos and sound clips that were taken of the events of 9/11 along with first hand accounts from witnesses and survivors of the attack. This type of archive is very valuable as it ensures that these events, the people who were involved and the documents we have available regarding the event will be preserved in an effort to help preserve the memory of these people who did not survive and their families who were so heavily impacted by this tragedy. It is rare for a major historical event to be so well documented and for those documents to be so well preserved and it is definitely worth a look for anyone wishing to delve into what happened on this tragic day.

The second of the archives is about Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, two separate but incredibly powerful and devastating storms that hammered the southern United States in 2005. This site compiles a very large collection of images, videos and stories from the survivors of these two very devastating storms that hit the area within weeks of each other. When looking at the pictures you get a sense of the sheer strength of these storms and the devastation that they caused with piles of rubble and flooded homes being the focus of many of the pictures. The site itself also has a search engine which makes for easy navigation of the site if there is something specific you wanted to look for. Like with the 9/11 archive, it is rare that such a vast number of primary sources like this are preserved making it a great place to start for anyone wishing to research anything to do with the history of these storms or even just hurricanes or major storms in general.

The final of the three archives is not nearly as well made as the first two archives. In fact, having clicked the link to the site, it was not even immediately obvious what the site was about. The site is about the “Occupy Movements” of 2011 that took place in major cities around the world; however, this information requires looking past the big attention grabbing photos so that you notice the small heading of the page. From the home page it still isn’t even immediately obvious what the Occupy Movements were about. Looking to the small sidebar you notice the link “About” which links to a page describing very briefly what the movement was about and how it started. The archive itself  seems to include pictures, links, videos, posts and other primary sources from the movement that you can delve into to find out more about what happened. However, as you actually start clicking on links, there are a lot of dead ends, blank pages or just generally useless information that has little to nothing to do with the events that took place. Unlike the other two archives, this archives seems to be pretty well useless for doing any real research in its current format but could be a useful tool if quite a bit of work was done to improve the available information and make the site more easily navigable.

Hi!

I’m Chris Brook and I’m a third year History major at UWaterloo. My areas of interest in History are very broad with interests in technological history (cars in particular), Medieval/Early Modern European history, Classical history, Eastern European/USSR/communist history and the Cold War. I have had the pleasure over my years at Waterloo to explore these topics more in depth and discover many new areas of History I’d never even encountered before.

I am taking Digital History for a few reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is that I wish to become an elementary teacher and I see the need for tech savvy educators in our education system so that our future students will be able to have every possible advantage when they graduate high school and head off into the working world. I am hoping to be able to pick up on new skills and learn about new programs through Digital History that will allow me to better educate the students of tomorrow and to just simply be able to better my own technological knowledge as I move forward in school and later my own career. Also, Digital History also ties nicely in with my interest in technological history so that was a good fit for me with my personal interests.

I look forward to learning more about Digital History this semester and I wish everyone in the class the best!