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I started this course not knowing what I was getting myself into. I just heard the title of digital history and thought it might be an interesting course to take. Taking this course ended up being

In this course I have learned about a lot of things which I might not have considered to be part of history.  Starting off with digital archives on the web, the course also thought me about blogging, podcast, programming and 3D modeling. If I was asked if these could be used for historical purpose before the course, I would have been highly sceptical.  It helped me understand that history does not have to all essays, books and sometimes video. There are other means of transferring the knowledge and it could be made interesting for other people to look at.

Before this course, I was not aware other ways of searching for information aside from Googling it or going to library to find the book. I was not aware that our library had extensive archives of historical documents or that we had geospatial centre. It opened my eyes evolution of research techniques that came with rapid development of technology.

I leave this course taking a lot more than I anticipated. This course helped me understand that history is constantly evolving and that it is happening right now. Someone can make a site or create blog or video, and these would eventually be considered part of history.

Overall, I enjoyed this course very much and further motivates me to pursue History.


I had exposure to Python language prior to this class. Initially a math student, I was forced into taking computer science courses in first year and learned Python. It was actually very interesting going over the python language using the lessons.  Although I have already learned python language once, looking at it again in history class showed me that there is many different ways to use it.

Programming Historian site is a tutorial site which tries to teach people programming for more practical needs. The tutorial begins with simple string function such as creating “Hello World”.  The lessons quickly advance to something of more practical use of finding frequency of the words on the website.  The site was made to be very friendly to people who might not know any coding.  By going through the lesson, the tutorial shows the glimpse of potential that programming has. Python could be used create a program made specifically to fit the needs of the research and it could cut down significant amount of time. I was able to look at all the lessons provided on the site. Lessons were quite challenging to understand at first and looked intimidating. But once I look it line by line and understood what each line did, it was actually very easy to understand what was going on.

As always with the code, I found it very tedious and frustrating when it came to checking for errors. Since the code would not work properly if there was a single letter that is different, if the coding gets really long and complicated, it is very difficult to fix. The debugging sometimes cannot pinpoint the error as well and this could be a nightmare situation if the program written is hundreds of lines long. The frustration with the error lessens with more study on the python and its structure since eventually you will be able to figure out why it does not work and where it is causing problems.

I believe programming can be very useful for historians to learn. Although it is useful it is still very difficult to learn. One might wonder why not just hire someone who can program and get them to build you a program? Although this can be done, hiring programmer who do not have the knowledge on the field of research might not be able to deliver the same quality of worked that might have been done by who knew exactly what to build. Learning programming is like learning a second language. Although it could definitely prove to be useful, it is hard to master. However, by learning it, it opens up another door for person to communicate their idea to the world.

Modern technology is now being used to change the way we do research and looking at data. Vast amount of information is provided just by searching it all up. The real problem nowadays is not having enough research material but actually effectively using all the information we can get.

In order to help combat these problems, new methods of looking at data are being formulated. Program such as N-gram Viewer and Mining the Dispatch are examples newer tools to looking at information. N-gram Viewer and Mining the Dispatch are tries to sort and present the information through techniques called textual analysis and topic modeling.

N-Gram Viewer

N-Gram Viewer is a textual analysis tool that provides visual representation of how often certain word is used in given time period. This is search is done through finding out how frequently the chosen word appear in collection of books provided by Google Books. N-gram viewer has simple and easy to use design. In order to graph the data, you would just type in a word and decide on the time period. Using N-gram view, user can see the “history” of the word.

donut n-gram

Looking at the example of “donut”, it shows general timeline of the use of word donut. According to the N-Gram Viewer, word donut wasn’t in use until 1860s, fell out of use until 1930s and became increasingly popular.

In addition to general search method, N-Gram Viewer offers more interesting way to use the graph using their built in functions. N-Gram Viewer can used to find a number of times sentences starts or ends with certain words using _START_ or _END_ function. It can also be used to find out how often two words come up together using => function. Aside from the techniques mentioned, N-gram viewers could also use Google search operators (“+”, “-“, “*”, “/”, and “:”) and find out how many times the word was used as either noun or verb. This isn’t the full list, but some of more interesting ones offered.

Above shows how => is used to find food is dependent on the word cheap. Examples of words which are considered are cheap food, cheap delicious food, or cheap Chinese food.

Above shows how => is used to find food is dependent on the word cheap. Examples of words which are considered are cheap food, cheap delicious food, or cheap Chinese food.

While N-Gram Viewer provides interesting way to look at information, I feel that the lack of way to get more specific information makes the tool feel very lacking. It does not tell you anything about the sources used to make the graph. You cannot find the name of the book or the context of the word. Furthermore, we have no real information about the database, Google Books, which is used to generate the graph. Google Books does not hold all the books in the world. Since the database is not complete, the graph presented might provide misleading information. In the first example with donut, it states that the word donut has not been use since the 1861. However, the word donut has been in use as early as 1803 in English cookbooks. Also, if we were to use the graph to compare two different words, we would have no way of knowing if the information is accurately represented; Google Books might have more collection on certain topic of books skew the graph.

Mining the Dispatch

Mining the Dispatch does same function as N-Gram Viewer except the information is limited to 1860 to 1865 American Civil War. It provides information on the American Civil War subjects such as on soldiers, slavery and economy. One feature which is given in Mining the Dispatch but not in N-Gram Viewer I really liked is Exemplary Articles. This section shows Daily Dispatch articles which were published during the selected month from the graph and ranks them according to the relevance to the topic chosen.

Mining the Dispatch does same function as N-Gram Viewer except the information is limited to 1860 to 1865 American Civil War. It provides information on the American Civil War subjects such as on soldiers, slavery and economy. One feature which is given in Mining the Dispatch but not in N-Gram Viewer I really liked is Exemplary Articles. This section shows Daily Dispatch articles which were published during the selected month from the graph and ranks them according to the relevance to the topic chosen. Another textual analysis I really liked which had similar function was Voyant Tool. Voyant Tool is combination N-Gram Viewer and Wordle, and does analysis on a single document.  It has a neat feature of provide the context of the word used in a document. I can understand how this might be difficult task in N-Gram Viewer since there could be millions of sentences from all the books. But similar feature can be used to find what books are about instead of sentences.


Example of Voyant Tool using the review of The Donut: Canadian History. The analysis displays Cirrus, Reader, Word Trend and Keyword in Context and Word in Document categories.


Although N-gram viewer is intuitive way to look at information, there are room for improvements. Even by just incorporating many features from similar tools, N-Gram Viewer can improve what it can offer to the users. While other tools provide more comprehensive data, the database is not as big as N-Gram Viewer’s. While these methods of researching provides interesting and new way to look at information, I believe improvements are needed. It could be used to get some general information or perspective on topics but would be inadequate for serious research. However, I still see potential textual analysis tools such as N-Gram Viewer and refining these tools might perhaps change the way we do research in the future.

The September 11 Digital Archive is a site created with intention of collecting and preserving digital copies of media records relating to the history of 9/11. The media they have stored vary largely from emails and communication records during the attack to digital images/animation and interviews of people. This site is able to offer to their viewer three features: browse, research and contribute. The browsing and researching component of the website allows viewer to learn and check out all the information that 9/11 Digital Archive has to offer regarding the incident. Contribution is the biggest part of this website since large part of the archive is created from submission by visitors. Anyone can essentially add and upload media to the site after filling in some of the question boxes which comes with the uploading process.  I believe this site is valuable for its database which was created by the website creator as well as contributors. During the visitor’s process of uploading the media, two interesting questions are asked by the site: “How has your life changed because of what happened on September 11, 2001?” and “How will you remember the September 11 attacks on the anniversary?”  These questions are there to give the incoming media source to the database a personal insight and touch of humanity. It gives otherwise normal picture or bad drawing done by 5-6 years old an emotional impact which can only be attained with answer to the two question. The idea of creating an open source like database was also an excellent idea as it captures the events of what individual people went through during the time of event. It also shows what people around the world that weren’t directly affected by it via their communication history. The website is well made website which represents the event of 9/11 very well.

Hurricane Digital Memory Bank website is a website created for collecting stories of hurricane Katrina and Rita. The website contains over 25,000 items in the collection which shows the devastating destruction that Katrina and Rita left behind. Similar to the September 11 site, this website offer massive collection of media and function for visitors to contribute their story via digital collection to the site. Each collection contained in the database had a description which appealed to the reader’s grief. Although the September 11 and Hurricane Digital both do exactly same thing, I believe September 11 has pull it off better. This came mostly from the difference in interface and design of the website. Navigation was much better in September 11 and. Hurricane Digital was built very simple but it still carries out their intended purpose. In that respect, I believe Hurricane Digital website to be still valuable and good representation of event of hurricane Katrina and Rita.

The last of the three website is Occupy Archive, which has the purpose of collecting stories relating to Occupy Movement of 2011. The features on the website are same as the previous two but the database is considerably smaller with whole collection adding up to 3000. Of the 3000, almost all of them were pictures. Although pictures do show ongoing events at the time, the other categories which come with the picture, such as title and subject among many other categories makes the viewing of picture more confusing than it had to be. Furthermore, there might be problem with the website as I saw duplicates of picture. All this only showed me that admin aren’t checking the quality of submission they are getting properly and not bothering to fix simple stuff which could improve user experience. The quality of website was very poor and the pictures it provided, only real source of database, were subpar. The website is not really valuable since it does not provide much meaningful resources and is poor representation of the event since I haven’t really understood much from it.

My name is Eric and I am a third year History and Economics joint honours student.

I first came to University of Waterloo and enrolled into math faculty with the plan of studying Actuarial Science. Prior to entering university, I had no idea what I actually wanted to study or wanted to become and just followed my friends and program they chose. I wasn’t exactly sure what Actuarial Science major do for living but when I heard they make lots of money, I decided to apply for it.

To no surprise, I eventually got tired and had no motivation to continue studying math. Although many people would decide to just continue and finish the study after studying it for three years, I did not want to since I couldn’t picture myself  working  as one for rest of my life. I eventually decided to change my program to be a History major.  The biggest obstacle to changing was not the courses and marks required for transfer but my Asian parents. They did not approve of it at first, but with some convincing they agreed to let me change with the condition that I study economics with it.

I am interested in studying social, political and economic history. I am very curious about how different policies or changes, whether they were small or big, impacted and altered the lives of people living in that time period. I like to believe that every single decision made in the past is significant because it shows evolution of humanity and  it is also fascinating to see the accumulation of changes and decisions which shaped the society that we currently live in.

I decided to take this course initially since it fit my schedule very well and course description made it sound interesting. I wanted to see how technology have now changes or evolves the way we study and look at history. After attending the lectures and learning about what we will do, I came to see that the tools we will be learning in the class are not only interesting but might actually come in handy later on.

I hope this semester goes well for all of us and I look forward to spending time with you all.