Saturday, November 8, 2008

PL 55/08: Digital history

Filed under: Uncategorized — plinius @ 11:56 am

sounionLibrary people often note that we were early adopters of digital technology.

Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Greece.

The same is true of historians. Their interest in quantitative analysis, which required data processing, goes back to the glorious sixties. I have spent much of my professional life at the intersection between the exact and the fuzzy sciences – and remember teaching statistics and FORTRAN programming to Norwegian history professors in the era of the Hollerith punched card.    

Forty years later historians are still pushing the virtual envelope. More importantly, they are integrating digital tools – and quantitative analysis – deeply into their professional work. The process of integration started in the sixties. I am not saying that history as such has been fully digitized. But the new tools have been accepted at the highest professional levels.

Dan Cohen reports that the Center for History and New Media has won the 2008 James Harvey Robinson Prize for its resource Historical Thinking Matters. The prize, which is awarded by the American Historical Association, is offered biennially for the teaching aid that has made the most outstanding contribution to the teaching of history in any field.

CHNM has now won the prize for the third time in a row. In 2008 the prize is shared with the Stanford History Education Group.

Another voice

Looking at the range of interests represented so far on the blog, I also wanted to share an idea that caught my imagination raised recently by Geoffrey Rockwell, digital humanist and TAPoR director, at last week’s New Horizons in Teaching and Research 2008 Conference at the University of Virginia.  The humanities research process has made quantum leaps in terms of widespread access through mass digitization efforts such as Google Books and the Internet Archive, and the development of citation tools like Zotero and text analysis tools.  These enabling tools have and are making significant impact on the discovery and selection stages in the humanities research process. 

These however are discrete steps in the whole process.  Geoffrey envisioned the day when there would be a comprehensive tool or suite of tools that would carry research data from the very beginning stages of search & discovery, through selection, text analysis, and right through to publication.  He painted a future where humanities scholars can move and relate research material through the entire research cycle, not just portions of it. 

What would a tool or suite of tools like that look like?

Source: Endrina Tay.  The humanities research process – what could the future look like? . May 2008.


Nobody is surprised by the digitalization of science and technology. Mathematics has formed part of their foundation since the seventeenth century. But I am often impressed by the ability of humanistic scholars to weave data, math and statistics into their substantive discussion of issues. I hope library researchers and professionals will be inspired to do the same.


  1. History Matters
  2. World History Matters.
  3. Historical Thinking Matters

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