People are excited by how history can be presented online and the insights that can be revealed by innovative use of digital tools. While many say “wow!” they often follow it up with “but I can’t do that”. I started Stumbling Through the Future because I realised that there was a shortage of online digital history tutorials and blogs aimed at the beginner in digital history. We know that teaching a skill is the best way of cementing what we have learned. I knew that if I could explain how to do things in clear and simple steps to others I had developed the level of competency I desired.
At the recent ‘Working History’ conference organised by the Professional Historians Association of Victoria I presented a paper about how I use digital tools in the research process. This conference focused on our professional practice rather than the outcomes of our work. I titled my paper ‘Life of a Fragment of a History’, but really I could have named it ‘You Can Do It Too’. In this post I will write about the paper and some of the thinking behind it rather than replicating it. As it turns out, this post has taken a rather different track to my presentation. Rather than tracing the life of a fragment of history as I capture it, process it and file it, this post is largely about the IT learning process. If you are interested, you can flick through my presentation slides (spot the unintended steam punk and a cultural reference courtesy of some back-channel fun):
Earlier in the conference digital historian Tim Sherratt delivered a keynote presentation about ‘Telling Stories with Data’. I owe Tim a great deal as I have learned so much from him. He is very generous as can be seen by him making his paper freely available online. Continue reading
Photo by Julie-Ann Robson.
Mining Big Data is very useful for producing longue-durée history as Jo Guldi and David Armitage note in their book, The History Manifesto (read my post on this aspect of their book). However Big Data mining techniques have been equally productive for recovering the history of the millions of people in the past whose lives have before now, been largely hidden from view. We can home in on a chance comment about one person who does not appear in any archival indexes and using a multiplicity of sources build up a fuller impression of their life. Alternatively we can collect the hundreds of scraps of evidence and gain a greater sense of communities which have been previously ignored.
Over one million men from the Indian subcontinent were involved in World War I, whether as soldiers or in support roles, yet their role has rarely featured in the histories that we have told of this War. This is large-scale history that has been ignored until recently.
Over the last few months I have become interested in the interaction between Indians and Australians in World War I. Alerted to the participation of Indians in the War by Australian historian Peter Stanley, I had another look at the World War I diaries I am working with and found numerous references to them by Australian soldiers. Peter Stanley has recently published a book about the Indians at Gallipoli, Die in Battle, Do Not Despair: the Indians on Gallipoli which I am looking forward to reading. I have written about Indian soldiers at Gallipoli on my Stumbling in the Past blog in a post titled, ‘Indian Soldiers Fought at Gallipoli‘.
‘The Needle in the Haystack’: My #OzHA2015 Paper
We are in a time of extraordinary change in research practices in history and are only beginning to discover the potential of even the most simple technical tools. At last week’s Australian Historical Association Conference in Sydney, I delivered a paper where I discussed the methodology that enabled me to find previously uncovered references to Indian soldiers at Gallipoli.
I would not have been able to find out about Indians from these diaries or make the gains about the research on the beliefs of Australian soldiers on the front line, without the generosity of the digital humanities community. Everything that I have learned about using technology in history I have learned from digital humanists on Twitter, writing in blogs, THATCamps and most recently the Global Digital Humanities Conference in Sydney.
In the spirit of giving back, I have attached the paper I delivered at the conference at the bottom of this post. It is not exactly the same as the paper I delivered because I ran out of time so cut some of the comments towards the end of the paper. I have added hyperlinks, lots of references and some of the images I included in the slides which accompanied my talk. Continue reading
At some stage or another any historian in the twenty-first century will consider embarking on a digitisation project of their own. Back in 2010 I briefly explored the possibility of organising the digitisation of some old school text books that I had been researching as part of my work on the Teaching Reading in Australia project. If I was to organise this I wanted to do it properly and ensure the resulting data could be linked to other similar historical data and be useful for other researchers. I did not want to do another project that merely reproduced pretty pictures of text (pdfs) which were not machine readable.
I was quickly confronted by the sad fact that my ambitions exceeded my skills. From attending THATCamps, reading blogs and following digital humanists on Twitter I knew that I should encode the data in XML using the framework provided by the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), but I didn’t know how to do that. I don’t like doing something unless I do it properly, and I always have too much to do, so I dropped the idea.
Like all historians I have transcribed many hand-written documents from photos of primary sources I have taken for research purposes in the archives. Each document is idiosyncratic. The relevant items on a page are not restricted to words. There are underlines, crossed out words (who did the crossing out?), notes scribbled in the margins by the original author at a later date or someone else. There are arrows, drawings or diagrams. Too often the writing may be illegible. Each of these important bits of information needs to be recorded in the transcription. Quite often I will use markup borrowed from html or make up my own methods to signal a type of message in a transcription.
Since then I have been fascinated by a project of Dr Melodee Beals who is a Senior Lecturer in History at Sheffield Hallam University. Beals is marking up her transcriptions of historic documents in TEI. Separating the design from the text is a fundamental principle of web design. TEI enables us to prepare the transcription in a way that can be easily formatted for display on websites via XSLT. Beals’ project makes so much sense for historians. Why not incorporate some basic TEI markup in our transcriptions from the moment we start transcribing documents?
I needed to learn more about this mysterious TEI.
Fortune smiled and one of the workshops offered at this week’s Global Digital Humanities Conference covered basic TEI. For the last day and a half I have been learning about TEI and manipulation of images in the workshop, ‘Introduction to Digital Manuscript Studies‘ conducted by Elena Pierazzo, Professor of Italian Studies and Digital Humanities at the University of Grenoble 3 ‘Stendhal’, and Peter Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at Kings College London. (Have a look at the impressive results of Pierazzo’s TEI transcription work on Proust’s notebook).
I now have the kickstart that I need. Last night I worked on marking up a transcription I had done of a document from my own project to reinforce what I had learned. One thing that has been bothering me about some transcriptions available on the internet is the lack of consistency with date formatting. There are many ways we can write dates and authors of handwritten documents use all sorts of approaches. Last night I discovered ‘13 Names, Dates, People, and Places’. This is the TEI chapter for me! I discovered how to encode a consistent, searchable date format while preserving the idiosyncratic way it was recorded in the original document. Oh, the potential of this! Continue reading
A simple search is quick and easy using the Trove API but these are often too broad to provide the information we need. Any insights to be made are lost in the sludge of irrelevant results. In this post I will explain how to narrow the search down so that you can close in on the data that is more helpful for your research. If you have not used the Trove API before and need to learn how to do a simple search using this tool you should first read ‘An Introduction to the Trove API’.
Trove is a huge database of information contributed by over two thousand libraries in Australia as well as other organisations. It is an ever increasing data mine. Today the Trove website says that it holds 389,961,760 items. The Trove API gives access to items in several zones: book, picture, article, music, map, collection, newspaper, list. This series of posts focuses on the article zone which allows access to digitised newspapers.
This post is designed to be used as a reference when you need to find answers for particular types of searches that you are most likely to be conducting. Keep in mind that there is a lot more that you can do in the newspaper zone via the Trove API, and that there is also a large amount of data to explore in the other zones. If the answer to your question is not here then you should consult the Trove API Technical Guide. The other essential document you will need to consult regularly is the URL Encoding Reference so you can translate non-ASCII characters into a code that will be recognised on the Web. Continue reading
In the last post I explained the basics of using the Trove API by importing the results into the browser window. A more powerful way to use the results returned from the API is to import the results into an Excel spreadsheet. Excel has its limitations but it is one way that people who don’t have any programming skills can store and analyse results gained through the API.
There are two methods of importing the data into Excel:
- In a blank workbook in Excel go to the Data tab. Click on the ‘From Web’ button in the ‘Get External Data’ section of the ribbon on the left hand side. Copy and paste your API call into the ‘Address’ window and click ‘Go’. You will see the same results that you saw in your browser window. Click the ‘Import’ button at the bottom of the window. A message will dome up saying “[t]he specified XML source does not refer to a schema…” Click ‘OK’. Specify which cell your table should start from and the data will load into your spreadsheet. Continue reading
Are you tired of downloading items one by one after doing a successful search in Trove? Do you want to get an overview of what the entire search looks like? Do you want to connect items which are stored in Trove with like items from another archive?
The Trove API (Application Programming Interface) helps you to do these things and more. People who can program can program can use this in an imaginative way and explore its limits. Yet despite its technical sounding name this is also a tool which people who have no programming skills can use. This introduction to the Trove API is written for those with no background in programming. Continue reading
Hard at work – Rails Girls Canberra.
Women were programming pioneers. Ada Lovelace is recognised as the world’s first programmer. In the nineteenth century she wrote the instructions which could activate Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her feat is recognised today through the Ada Lovelace Day which falls on 15th October in 2013.
It was not until the mid-twentieth century that computing really took off. The ENIAC computer developed during WWII is recognised as the first electronic computer. The entire ENIAC programming team were women. Grace Hopper wrote the first automatic compiler and led the development of the COBOL programming language which went on to become one of the world’s most popular business programming languages.
Yet the proportion of women programming has declined over the last couple of decades. Today women are only a small proportion of software developers. There has been much wringing of hands about this, but wringing of hands does not achieve anything other than warm up our hands.
One development community is taking action to increase the numbers of women in website development. I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in one of their events earlier this month.
Ruby on Rails is a popular development framework that is used to create websites. The Rails community has supported a training program for women called Rails for Girls. It started in Finland and is now well established in many countries including Australia.
I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in one of their introductory workshops in Canberra recently. Continue reading
A few weeks ago I attended the 2013 annual conference of the Australian Historical Association in Wollongong. There were many tweets from the conference and a few blogposts were written. Yet many sessions were not reported online.
In order to give a view of the whole conference, not just the sessions I attended, I have analysed the conference program and shared the results on my history blog, Stumbling Through the Past. I also analysed the conference tweets in order to understand more about the live reporting of the conference using this medium.
This post explains the methodology underpinning my analysis. I do this because I believe that it is important that researchers allow themselves to be accountable for their work by allowing others to check what they have done. I also believe that it is important that researchers share their data where possible so that other researchers can use it to do their own analysis.
There is also a third reason for this post. I hope it will help other people learn some simple but powerful techniques that they can use in their research. This blog is aimed at people starting out in digital humanities so the explanations will be basic. Continue reading
A first year Arts student turns up for enrolment. She wants to enrol in three units offered by the Arts faculty but she also wants to exercise her option under the rules of her degree to enrol in a unit offered by another faculty. She wants to learn website design in a unit offered by the computer science department in the Faculty of Engineering.
The person handling her enrolment says he can’t process her enrolment in the Information Technology (IT) unit. The student has to fill in a form, get someone else to sign it and then hand it in – but she is not told where to hand the form in, she has to work this out herself. New to the university she feels frustrated and a little weird because she is clearly doing something that few Arts students do.
There is an added complication. Two of the IT lectures clash with two other lectures she is supposed to attend. Never mind, the university’s website says that the lectures of both these units are recorded. Knowing that it is important to listen to all lectures, she plans to attend one set of lectures and listen to the recordings of the lectures she misses each week.
There have already been two obstacles set in her path deterring her from enrolling in the IT unit but she has worked out how to overcome them and persists. However, a third obstacle crosses her path. Even though the university has said on their website that the lectures of the two units that clash are recorded, she is told they are not. Recognising the importance of lectures and the fact that she will be at a disadvantage if she cannot attend, she finally gives up on her ambition of including some IT in her degree.
One more young person has been denied the opportunity to improve their IT skills. One more woman is prevented from gaining the technical skills necessary to fully participate in the world of technology.
The Underlying Issues
The ability to engage with information technology and use it to create is a fundamental skill in this era – for everyone. It is a tool that is useful for every discipline. It is a vital medium of communication, of information dissemination and acquisition, a means of discovery and creativity. Continue reading