Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Doing Digital History

I can think of a lot of reasons to be interested in doing digital history, so I am always curious to find out why other historians are not. In talking to a variety of people, I've heard the following objections, in no particular order.

The sources that I need for my project are not online. I understand this one. If you are in the middle of writing a book about the Hudson's Bay Company's use of ships, you are not going to find many of your key primary sources online. You may be able to find a lot of contextualizing material, however. Cross-referencing the ships' area of service (from the HBC archives in Winnipeg) with the visual records search from the BC Archives in Victoria immediately turns up an illustration of the HBC ships Prince Albert and Prince Rupert (B-00261), and models of the schooner Cadborough (B-00499) and barque Columbia (B-00500), which can be returned as images in a handy contact sheet. Of course, these aren't the only two Canadian archives with information online. The page of Canadian Archival Resources on the Internet lists 82 archival websites for British Columbia alone. One of these links takes you to the British Columbia Archival Information Network, which has a page of online databases of historical photographs. Not only are there more sources online than you think, but with a bit of programming it becomes much easier to automate the process of finding and collating them.

We tried this in the 60s and 70s and it didn't work. I hear this one from more senior colleagues. Remember quantitative history? People spent a lot of time creating databases and linking records and now all of the information is inaccessible on old magnetic tapes. The difference, as my friend Marcel Fortin likes to point out, is that neither the World Wide Web nor open source had been widely adopted yet. When a resource such as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is made available online, it can become a platform for further innovation.

Won't someone else write a program which I can use? Yes and no. We all use word-processors, spreadsheets, e-mail, search engines, library catalogues, and so on. No one wants to re-invent those wheels. Digital history has become very promising because we have access to those tools and so many others: high-level scripting languages that make web programming easy (like Perl or Python), archives of powerful modules that can help you do almost anything you can think of (like CPAN for Perl), and application program interfaces (APIs) that allow programmers to build their own applications on top of those provided by Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, and thousands of other companies and institutions. (See Dan Cohen's excellent article for more on APIs in the digital humanities.) Sure, a few people are writing useful tools for historians. But if you want something tailored to your own research, and you need it now, you're going to have to roll your own. That means doing digital history.

And, as Steven Colbert would say, "that's the wørd."

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