You Can Do It Too!

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

#DH2015 – Introduction to Digital Manuscript Studies Workshop

Sign saying 'Building EA/DH2015/Global Digital/Humanities' with an arrow behind the writing.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

Know Your Database

First published on my other blog 17/4/2011

Over the last week I finally got a chance to try out the tools that Wragge (aka Tim Sherratt) has devised to mine digitised historic Australian newspapers accessed through Trove. This post is about the results of applying his tools.  If you want to do this yourself check out Wragge’s posts, Mining the Treasures of Trove (Part 1) and (Part 2). Firstly let’s look at Wragge’s graph of a topic that I have been writing about this year – floods.

Graph of the occurrence of the word "flood" in Australian newspapers, from the early 19th century to the late 1950s

Wragge has produced the graph above  showing the occurrence of the word “floods” in Australian newspapers digitised and accessible on the Trove website.  As we would expect the word is mentioned more in years when there was severe flooding such as 1893. Continue reading

Digital History

First published on my other blog 19/11/2010
Person looking at Trove Australian Newspapers online on laptop

Digitisation of Australian Newspapers

During this year I have become increasingly interested in how technology and new media can assist historical research.  As I said in my acknowledgements for my thesis, I owe a great debt to the digitisation of Australian newspapers currently being conducted by the National Library of Australia (NLA).  While I was researching the NLA was digitising The Brisbane Courier, an important source for my thesis. Each week I logged in to find more issues had been digitised for the period I was researching, 1906-1910.  None of the researchers who had explored my topic before me had this resource available to them.  Most of them did not even have the advantages of a word processor.  They were working with pen, paper, and if they were lucky, microfilm. Continue reading