The Needle in the Haystack

Photo by Julie-Ann Robson.

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.

This paper is about the importance of historians sharing their research methodologies with their readers. Technology is a boon to historians but as digital humanist Tim Sherratt has noted, we need to be wary about the unthinking use of technology. It can affect our research in ways we do not expect. Historians need to tease out issues with new research methodologies – even the humble search hides issues which may affect our work. There is plenty of discussion about these issues in the digital humanities field, amongst archivists and people involved in manuscript studies, but I would also like to see thorough discussion about research methodologies in regular history journals.

In a section of the paper which I had to cut greatly, I also call for statements of digital provenance to be attached to records of digitised works by cultural institutions in their catalogues. Just as the physical provenance of an item is important for historians, the digital provenance also has a potentially significant effect on our research. The statement of digital provenance would address questions such as why the item was selected for digitisation and similar items not digitised, details of the digitisation process such as how the original image was captured and what manipulation was done on the image after capture etc. As was discussed in the ‘Introduction to Digital Manuscript Studies‘ workshop I attended at the Global Digital Humanities Conference, digitisation creates a new item, it is not a facsimile of the physical item. As historians it is important that we recognise this and account for it in our research.

Finally, I talked about the plight of the financially constrained cultural institutions which are providing historians with such wonderful collections and working hard to provide the digitisations that enable us to do ground-breaking research. They need our help. Historians need to be vocal about the budget cuts which are affecting the services provided by libraries and archives.

Libraries and archives also need to hear from historians whenever we use their digitised material for a digital history project. They need to hear from historians every time we publish a paper with significant use of their material. They need to know about every blog post where the stories from their collections are shared with others.

Both my paper this year, and my paper last year drew on the World War I diary transcripts from the State Library of New South Wales. I am very grateful for all the work and funding that has gone into this digitisation project and in the coming months I hope to access the physical diaries. I am also very grateful to the National Archives of Australia for the digitisation of World War I records. This digitisation project has transformed research on the War simply because the records are now easily accessible from all parts of Australia and the world. I also thank the Australian War Memorial for the use of photos which demonstrate my points about Indian service in World War I.

As I was listening to the papers over the course of the conference I was struck by how much work is going into recovering the history of the forgotten people of the past. Whether we are recovering the histories of Aboriginal people, Chinese-Australians or Indians, microhistory is not small at all. It is the largest history of all because it makes us think about the millions of people in the past who have been ignored instead of just focusing on the tiny percentage who had power.

Before I leave you to read my paper, I would like to draw attention to ‘Sources, Empathy and Politics in History from Below‘, a blog post written by Professor of Digital History, Tim Hitchcock. In this post Hitchcock argues for the value of history about the ordinary people of the past and rejects the criticisms of microhistory voiced by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in The History Manifesto. As I have said there is value in the history of the longue-durée that Guldi and Armitage advocate, but I agree with Hitchcock about how important it is to recover the history of those people history has neglected in the past. As an aside, Hitchcock’s and Sherratt’s blog posts demonstrate the increasing importance of blogs as a medium for professional debates in history.

I recall one tweep saying last week, Hitchcock’s post is one of a bookend pair to Tim Sherratt’s keynote address which impressed attendees at the Global Digital Humanities Conference and those following the proceedings via social media around the world.

So do yourselves a favour, read Hitchcock’s post, Sherratt’s keynote address and…

Download: The Needle in the Haystack paper

Access accompanying slides from Slideshare

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