AHA Day 1: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities

The panelists at session 67 “The Future is Here: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities,” the presidential session chaired by outgoing AHA President Anthony Grafton, included presentations by Erez Liebman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel from Harvard University and Blaise Aguera y Arcas from Microsoft. Both presentations emphasized the necessity of collaboration and opportunities that digital computing offers humanist inquiry while also warning about the pitfalls of relying on digital technology.

Aiden and Jean-Baptiste outlined culturomics in their talk that almost exactly followed their TED talk. Aiden and Jean-Baptiste provided examples of word-frequencies and usages over time. Using 5 million books digitized by Google, they insisted their methods gave insight into a sort of cultural genome. They also confronted five “myths” of those critical of their approach to analyzing historical documents, insisting they were not trying to replace historians with machines but rather build tools that historians may find useful in their work. In their most provocative section of the talk was a discussion of new work they’re undertaking in to “cultural inertia,” or asking the question of whether we could use cultural data and history to predict the future. History, they concluded, will remain the domain of close reading, primary sources, and interpretation, but will also include big data, massive collaboration, data interpretation, computation, and science.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas, known for his work on Photosynth, discussed his effort to understand typefaces in Gutenberg’s printing press. He examined how type was configured using clustering software and high resolution images of letters to analyze the components that made up the text. Moreover, he asserted that Gutenberg’s real contribution was the development of fonts rather than moveable type. At the core of his talk was an emphasis on collaboration. Only through collaboration in several areas of expertise could he come to understand different aspects of typesetting. The same holds true for any aspect of the past. Collaboration will be essential after the digital turn because we cannot make assumptions about digital data — the rise of proprietary digital environments, the inability to truly own data, the misguided notion that one can own a gadget, the filter bubble, and no guarantee that the lights will remain on. Invention does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, collaboration is essential for exploring or generating new ideas.

AHA Day 1: Digital Humanities: A Hands-On Workshop

On Friday, January 6th, Session 36, “Digital Humanities: A Hands-On Workshop” sponsored jointly by the AHA Research Division and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, introduced attendees to a variety of approaches in digital methods for research and teaching. Six stations were arranged around the room that allowed attendees to wander from topic to topic and engage in conversations, questions, and demonstrations. Topics included digital publishing with Dan Cohen, who discussed a variety of different methods that scholars use to communicate their work. He also talked about Digital Humanities Now and the platform that runs it, PressForward.

Jeff McClurken presented on teaching with social media and shared his experiences with using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs for the classroom. McClurken collected many of the resources he discussed on a page he created.

Fred Gibbs discussed text mining and offered examples from his experiences in using the method for research. Gibbs also has a companion website.

Rwany Sibaja talked about digital storytelling and using multimedia in narrative. He has collected several tools and resources for others to check out.

Jennifer Rosenfeld talked about the resources available at TeachingHistory.org and how the website can help students gain a better understanding of the types of evidence used by historians.

Patrick Murray-John discussed content management systems, including Zotero, and its usefulness in categorizing, tagging, and collecting data and information.


Digital Historical Scholarship and the Civil War

The Civil War lends itself greatly to the digital medium. In addition to the subject’s scholarly contingent, it also possesses a great public audience of increasingly computer literate members. This question of audience was something addressed in the AHA Panel wittingly titled “Hardtack and Software: Digital Approaches to the American Civil War,” a digital spin on John D. Billings’ popular 1887 reminiscence Hardtack and Coffee: Or The Unwritten Story of Army Life.”

Of the four projects presented during the session, two seemed to be readily open to the inclusion of the general public as well as the more general scholarly audience—Visualizing Emancipation and Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory. Yet the ability to play with data and explore the history provided by the digital medium promotes public use as well. Civil War Washington, while being a repository for scholarly information about the nation’s capitol, may also be of interest to “amateur” Civil War scholars. Mining the Dispatch is admittedly geared toward academics, however, Nelson’s findings will be of interest to any student of the Civil War, with or without professional scholastic credentials.

Each panelist provided an overview of their respective projects, which I shall not repeat here. Readers are encouraged to visit the sites and interact with them for themselves. Instead, each presenter introduced the scholarly findings or evidence displayed or exhibited in the projects. The tools and technology employed by each project received relatively little attention. During the comments section of the panel, Robert Nelson asserted that the challenge is to produce scholarship that is going to be of interest to scholars of the subject not the technology. We must focus on historical questions and historical moments, not on techniques.

This thought was one that stayed with me more than any other aspect of the session. If we want the discipline of history to be receptive of works created through and with the digital medium, it is essential that we emphasize the scholarship that is being produced, not the way in which it is being produced. In order for “doing digital history” to become synonymous with “doing history,” we need to convince the field of the validity of digital scholarship.

Back to the issue of audience, users outside of the academy—Civil War “buffs,” teachers, and students—are likely unconcerned with whether or not what they are interacting with is considered scholarship by academics, but rather what they can learn from utilizing such projects. To me, a Master’s student with career ambitions in the public history sector, this is the most exciting aspect of combining technology with doing history—its ability to make history more accessible and appealing to the public. Whether through providing access to documents and visualizations which allow a thorough analysis of Washington, D.C. or using an algorithm to reveal large societal and cultural patterns over thousands of newspaper articles, the digital medium is truly an effective way both to craft history and to communicate it.

The Future is Here: Digital History at the 126th Annual Meeting

The Future is Here,” a series at the 2012 AHA meeting, will feature numerous presentations and discussions on Digital History. Several graduate students who are attending these panels will post reactions to these panels as well as participation at the THATCamp hosted on January 5.


Bios: Editors

This post contains professional biographical information on the history journal editors who will attend and participate in the collaborative efforts of the Sustaining Digital History meeting.

Eliza E. Canty-Jones is Editor of the Oregon Historical Quarterly. She earned a BA from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she was founding co-editor of SlackWater: Oral Folk History of Southern Maryland, and an MA in Pacific Northwest and Public History from Portland State University, where her thesis focused on World War II conscientious objectors and artists. She serves as President of the Oregon Women’s History Consortium, a new organization whose main project, Century of Action: Oregon Women Vote, 1912–2012, is leading the centennial commemoration of Oregon woman suffrage.

Tamara Gaskell is Historian and Director of Publications and Scholarly Programs at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). As such, she edits the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and Pennsylvania Legacies. In addition, she oversees HSP’s fellowship and other scholarly programs as well as HSP’s new online digital history projects. She has been at HSP since October 2002. Tamara graduated with a degree in American Studies from Amherst College and received a PhD in American History from Brandeis University, with concentrations in early American history, social history, and women’s history. Prior to coming to HSP, she was assistant editor of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers project, a documentary editing project based at Rutgers University. She has also worked as a reference librarian and as editor of the publications of the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis.

Christopher Grasso is Professor of history at The College of William and Mary and is editor of the William & Mary Quarterly. Grasso earned a BA in journalism and an MA in English at Southern Connecticut State University, studied in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University, and received his PhD from Yale in 1992. He taught for seven years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, becoming an associate professor in 1998. His book, A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut was published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press in 1999.  Grasso won the Ralph D. Gray Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic for his article “Skepticism and American Faith: Infidels and Converts in the Early Nineteenth Century,” published in Journal of the Early Republic (Fall 2002).  His specialization is early American religious and intellectual history.

David Rich Lewis (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1988) is Professor of history at Utah State University.  He has been part of the editorial faculty of  the Western Historical Quarterly since 1992, becoming that journal’s Editor in 2003.  He is author of Neither Wolf Nor Dog: American Indians, Environment, and Agrarian Change (Oxford University Press, 1994), numerous book chapters and articles on American Indian ethnohistory, the environment, and Utah history published in journals such as Ethnohistory, Agricultural History, Western Historical Quarterly, American Indian Quarterly, and Utah Historical Quarterly. He is also coeditor of Major Problems in the History of the American West (2d ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1997) and Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).  Lewis’s current research explores Skull Valley Goshute and nuclear waste issues in Utah, and he is general editor of a forthcoming textbook on Utah history. Complete CV and contact information is available at: http://www.usu.edu/history/faculty/lewis/indexlewis.htm .

John McClymer is a professor of history at Assumption College in Worcester, MA as well as editor for online projects for the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and co-editor of H-ETHNIC. He has published eight books, including the American Historical Association’s Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media, and numerous articles. Two web sites he created or co-created have been selected by EDSITEment as outstanding humanities sites, and he has co-directed two Teaching American History grants for the Worcester Public Schools. The onlineJGAPE has just launched a forum, moderated by Kate Sempsell-Willmann, on using the child labor photographs of Lewis Hine in teaching and research, http://www.jgape.org/node/90.

Willis G. Regier has been the Director of the University of Illinois Press since November 1998.  He holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from the University of Nebraska.   He began his publishing career as the Reviews Editor for the literary journal, Prairie Schooner, and joined the University of Nebraska Press as its Humanities Editor in 1979.  He became Editor-in-Chief at that Press in 1983 and in 1987 was promoted to Director.  He moved to Baltimore in 1995 to become Director of the Johns Hopkins University Press.  In 1998 he was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.   Regier was twice elected to the Board of Directors of the Association of American University Presses and served as its President in 2000-2001.  He is author of Book of the Sphinx (2004; selected as a Choice “Outstanding Academic Title” for 2005), In Praise of Flattery (2007, with translations into Korean (2008), Italian (2009), and Turkish and Chinese forthcoming), and Quotology (2010).  His articles and reviews have appeared in American Academic, the Baltimore Sun, the Chronicle of Higher Education, French Forum, Genre, the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Language, Modern Language Notes, Paideuma, World Literature Today, and other journals.

Robert A. Schneider is Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington and also, since 2005, Editor of the American Historical Review. For the academic year 2010-11 he is Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at Bristol University (UK). In march he will also be Visiting Lecturer at the University of Toulouse-Mirail.  He has degrees from Yale, Wesleyan and the University of Michigan. He is the author and editor of several books and articles on early modern French History, including Public Life in Toulouse, 1463-1798 (Cornell, 1989) and The Ceremonial City (Princeton 1995).  He has been visiting fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, Paris, and All Souls College, Oxford; and visiting professor at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He has held fellowships from the Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the French Government (Bourse Chateaubriand).  He is currently completing a book manuscript on writers and intellectual in the age of Richelieu.

For the past two years, Carl R. Weinberg has served as editor of the quarterly OAH Magazine of History, published by the Organization of American Historians. He writes a column for each issue and has contributed a number of articles that are available online. See “Does Lincoln Still Matter?” from the January 2009 issue on the Lincoln Legacy:


Or “The Discomfort Zone: Reenacting Slavery at Conner Prairie” from the April 2009 issue on Antebellum Slavery:


He is currently working with consulting editor Matthew Pinsker on an upcoming issue of the Magazine on “Civil War at 150: Origins” that will include a digital history component in conjunction with the House Divided website at Dickinson University. Carl received a PhD in history from Yale University in 1995. He has taught U.S. history at the college level for twelve years, initially at North Georgia College and State University and most recently at DePauw University. He is author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).