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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.


When I first enrolled in History 291, I really had no idea what I was getting into. As I said in my introductory post, the HIST 291 was only described as “Special Topics in History”. When I learned that it would be a course on Digital History, I was intrigued.

“What is Digital History?”

Even a week after the last class, I’m still unsure of exactly how to answer that question. To me, the study of Digital History is a combination of adaptation, assimilation, and speculation.

Emerging technologies, namely Internet and information technologies are fundamentally changing the academic world, and as has been mentioned over the course of the term, Historians have been somewhat slow to realize this. For example, during the development of the Google N-Gram Viewer, a number of Historians were initially consulted, but had their comments dismissed because of their inability to contribute to some of the more technical aspects of the project. Tools such as the Google N-Gram viewer, which can significantly benefit those studying the Humanities, need to be understood before they can be used. The documents that Historians rely on such as government ledgers, diaries, financial records, are being written and stored digitally, and in order for Historians to be able to study them in the future, we need to be equipped with the tools to access and analyze them. We need to adapt to the immense changed that digital technology is bringing to the field.

And how do we equip ourselves to survive these major changes? In many ways, we need to assimilate these tools from fields which are more adept to dealing with digital information. I know my fellow Star Trek fans might get a little edgy at the mention of assimilation, but I truly believe that resistance to the global shift towards a digital paradigm is futile, and in order to survive, we need to learn from non-humanities disciplines and assimilate their knowledge and tools into our collective disciplinary consciousness. Tools like the Programming Historian, the Google N-Gram Viewer and Topic Modeling programs very well might become essential for the History discipline to survive in an increasingly digital world.
And yes, I do realize that this just might have been one of the geekyist paragraphs I’ve ever written for anything school-related.

Lastly, I think Digital History has a lot to do with speculation. Digital technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that it is near impossible to predict where it’s going. Like the Industrial Revolution, in this Digital Revolution we are now at a point where technology is in many ways evolving on its own and we are all just along for the ride. We need to look at emerging technologies and try and figure out how we might be able to repurpose them to better approach the changes in the world we will be studying. I think a great example of this is the application of 3D Printers. While this technology was originally developed for engineers to be able to easily construct models of various components they were building, it can now be used to reproduce historical artifacts, making aspects of the past much more real. Similarly, programs like Google Earth can be used to create a sort of digital historical atlas by overlaying old maps, recently digitized, onto the surface of Google Earth.

As Historians, we tend to spend most of our time in the past, which for our discipline is a good thing. However, as the world changes around us, we need to be mindful of what will happen in the future with the rise of digital technology. Our present, our future, will one day be the past which Historians, like ourselves, will need to study. When it comes to equipping ourselves with the tools that we will no-doubt need to study our future-past, there is no better time than the present, and courses like HIST 291 are essential to understanding how the discipline will need to change in order to remain relevant.

Simply put, Textual Analysis involves quantitatively studying the use of language in a given text, looking at the frequency with which words are used, rather than a qualitatively study of the text itself. My initial reaction to this type of analysis was that it was counterintuitive or counterproductive with regards to studying history, since History is based almost entirely on qualitatively studying documents and texts. But as the article in Science Magazine “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books“, the Mining the Dispatch project, and the Google Ngram Viewer demonstrate, taking a new and different approach to dealing with text can radically alter how we think about studying the past. 

The article in Science Magazine deals with a project to digitize roughly 5 million books, about 4% of all books ever printed, in order to better understand changes in language, collective memory, changes in culture and censorship, among others. By looking at the frequency with which a particular word is used, they were able to learn a great deal about how changes in language reflect changes in culture, caused by historical events. One of their examples involves looking at the frequency that the terms “The Great War”, “World War I”, and “World War II” are used. Looking at how often these terms are used between 1914 and 2013 using the Google Ngram Viewer, a Google project which applies textual analysis tools to the vast number of books digitized in the Google Books database, you can clearly see how popular usage of the term “Great War” dropped off significantly after the 1940s, replaced by “World War I”, and a significant increase in the use of “World War II”. 

There are some problems with this kind of approach to studying history. Simply looking at how often a term is used gives absolutely no context to the reader. It gives no reason for the decline in “Great War”, or the increase in “World War I” or “World War II”. As people studying History, we of course know that the term “World War I” didn’t exist until the early 1940s, because until then there was no need to differentiate between the Great War which began in 1914 and the Great War of 1939.

However, this lack of context can provide very interesting opportunities for Historians. On example is the Mining the Dispatch project, which applies Textual Analysis tools to digitized copies of the Richmond Daily Dispatch newspaper, between 1860 and 1865, in an attempt to better understand the city which played such a significant role in the American Civil War. By searching and graphing various terms, they were able to find specific trends in the use of various terms in the newspaper, giving a deeper look into life in the city.

Tools such as the Google Ngram Viewer definitely provide some rather fun and interesting opportunities, both for Historians and people who are generally interested in cultural trends. I personally had quite a bit of fun searching terms which have to do with my own personal interests, and then trying to figure out why the term is graphed the way it is. For example, I indulged the somewhat geekier side of me and searched “Godzilla”, looking specifically at English-language texts. The graph shows little-to-no use of the term until the early 1980s, steadily increasing until its use spiked in 1993, and sharply declining after 2000, but leveling off in the mid-2000s with a relatively high rate of usage. With a bit of reading, I figured that since the search was limited to English-language (ie, Western) sources, the term wasn’t popularized until the early 1980s when some of the Japanese films began to be edited and re-released for a Western audience. The release of Jurassic Park in 1993 accounts for the spike in its use in that year, due in part to the “giant lizard-monster” theme of the movie, and talks for an American remake around that same time. Use spiked in 1998 with the release of the film, and then sharply declined afterwards, but staying at a steady rate, significantly higher than it had been prior to 1993, with the character and series being introduced integrated into Western culture.

Some of the other interesting terms I searched, and then felt compelled to research include medical terms such as “Amputation”, and “Amputate”, which show a high rate of use until the 1790s when the words’ use declined as the procedure became less necessary, as well as terms such as “Communism” and “Communist”, which show a slow and steady increase, peaking during the American Red Scares, and slowly declining after 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Bloc. 

The September 11 Digital Archive is a site which collects documents pertaining to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.  Some of the documents include photos, stories from witnesses, as well as videos, audio recordings, and newspaper articles on the attacks. It’s very well organized and easy to navigate without much difficulty at all. A large portion of the information on the page seems to be contributions from site visitors. It does a very good job at selecting documents which both show the traumatic effect of the people whose lives were impacted by the attacks, but does it in a way that doesn’t come off as sensationalist or messing with people’s emotions in order to rile up American patriotism or enthusiasm for the military campaigns which began as a result of the attacks. Again, it’s easy to navigate, lots of interesting and engaging information, and put together in a rather tasteful way.

The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank was put together to preserve a digital record of the destruction to the city of New Orleans, and the surrounding area, caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.  There are a lot of pictures of the aftermath, much more than I recall seeing in the news at the time, which really helps to understand the scale of the damage caused by the storms. I found this one a little trickier to navigate, mostly due to the limited number of items per page. While they did a really good job at separating out the different media (images, stories, videos, maps, etc.), constantly having to reload the page over and over again got old quickly. This got even more annoying when I wanted to go back and find a picture, but couldn’t remember which page it was on. The same goes for their Collections. Well put-together, but difficult to find specific ones if you can’t remember their page number.

The Occupy Archive, meant to document and archive the Occupy movement which began in 2011, both succeeded and failed at doing this. As far as an archive, it’s difficult to navigate, and generally not all that well put together. In order to see the pictures in the Images tab, you have to click on each link, and then scroll about halfway down the page in order to see them, and when so many of the pictures have similar titles (there is about a page and a half’s worth of pictures all with the title “OCCUPY SANDY”, and all bearing the same description and tags). If it weren’t for the browser feature which darkens the colour of a link once you click on it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell if I’d seen the picture before. However, in providing up-to-date documents as the events were happening, I feel like it would have done a good job. It seems as if they wanted to build an archive, but ran it as a blog. There are no Collections, at least not as far as I can tell, which leads me to think that the site was used more for posting documents “as it happens”, rather than organizing an efficient archive of the movement.  

Hi, I’m Mike. I’m the tall guy who wears lots of black (I just really hate separating out my loads of laundry and washing stains off clothes).

I’m not exactly sure what year I’m technically in, or how many I have left, since I only take about 3-4 courses per term. I’d rather take my time and enjoy it rather than being stressed out all the time. I also spend a lot of time doing non school-related things as well. I work most mornings at the Valu-Mart in Uptown Waterloo unloading trucks and doing general “Grocery” work, as well as hosting a weekly radio show on 100.3fm or, along with 3 others. I mentioned this in the tutorial, but I figure this is as good a place as any for some shameless self promotion. The show is called Rebel Time Radio, which is an offshoot of a punk/hardcore record label from Hamilton called Rebel Time Records, which puts out records by punk bands who usually have more of a political edge to them. We try and keep the show at a good mix between music and talking, while trying to find a good theme for each episode. But that doesn’t always work out. Anyway, the show runs from 9:00pm-10:00pm on Wednesday nights. Outside of the radio show, I also spend a lot of time involved with the local independent music “scene”, helping to promote and set up (usually) all ages shows around town. That being said, I try not to be a music snob, and will likely give just about anything a listen.

I’m also a huge horror/science fiction fan, which works perfectly with the Science Fiction English Lit class I have right now. I’m really interested to see what kind of parallels I can draw between these two courses, as the theme of most science fiction is looking at how humanity reacts in the face of technology, where in this class we’re looking at the study of history in the face of new technologies.

I’m currently “Undeclared”, but since I’m planning on switching over to History, I just say that’s what I’m in. I find that I’m much more interested in more modern social history (Let’s say mid-1800s – Present), than say, studying Greek/Roman, Medieval or World War II history. Not to rip on the Greek/Roman/Medieval/WWII historians in the class, but those just don’t interest me all that much. I find that moreoften, I’m interested in how these huge events affect specific aspects of culture, for example: how the Vietnam War affected American horror movies (much more significantly than I thought). Specifically, I’ve been hugely interested in Canadian punk rock history, both because I really enjoy the music and ideas of the culture, and that the Canadian story is largely ignored, compared to England, New York or Los Angeles. I also find studying Canadian bands and people much more interested than British or Americans, mostly because it is much closer to home. Just the fact that I could be reading about a certain neighborhood of Montreal or even Hamilton, and know exactly where the author’s talking about makes it feel so much closer to home, than having to imagine what a particular neighborhood in London, England is like.

When I first signed up for this course, I only saw it listed as “Special Topics in History”, so I really had no idea what I was getting into. After first few weeks, I’m really glad I took the gamble, and am excited to see what we’ll be up to in this class!