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

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. 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