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Has Big Data Changed Historical Research?

The use of quantitative methods in historical research is not new. Quantitative research methods were a part of economic, political and social history during the 1960-1980s. Modern technological advances in computing means collecting data no longer has to be difficult and time consuming. So it is easy to see why, in 2012, Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford believed the era of big data had begun. [1] Large data sets, often seen as the defining feature of big data, can be created and manipulated on desktop computers. Technological advances led to big data becoming more accessible and naturally it was introduced into digital humanities. That does not mean it has been welcomed with open arms into either digital humanities or digital history. Scepticism as to the arguments or evidence big data has to offer has been high and the impact it has on historical research and the types of research question it creates has been a big bone of contention for digital historians. This essay will examine whether big data changes the nature of historical research, narrowing the types of research questions or whether it opens up other avenues of historical research and allows for the possibility of expanding our historical knowledge.

While quantitative methods have been implemented in historical research, the research method most associated with history is ‘close reading’. Historical research has been dominated by the interrogation of a small number of carefully selected, often text based, primary sources which can provide valuable insights. Jean-Baptise et al. argue ‘reading small collections of carefully chosen works enables scholars to make powerful inferences about trends in human thought’ [2]. Yet, as Franco Moretti argues, the trouble with close reading is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon and as such cannot provide an insight into the underlying system or social phenomena. The hostility towards big data could be contributed to the challenge it presents to primary sources. The expertise of ‘close reading’ is not only central to humanistic disciplines but ‘to the self identity of lots of humanists themselves’. Historical research methods implementing big data can open up other, larger avenues of research to the historian but it involves stepping away from the text and it is in this way big data changes historical research.

Distant reading focuses on the quantitative data removing text from its context. Instead of analysing sources for its literary forms, conventions and semantics, the source is text mined to create statistics and probabilities. Big data offers a different way of reading primary sources, either by reducing the text to units smaller than itself such as devices, themes or tropes or expanding it to include larger units such as genres or systems. This form of research allows cultural and historical trends which would have remained hidden. A good example of the historical trends missed by historian but found through distant reading can be found in n-grams database created by Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptise Michel. The censorship of unknown authors and artists during the Nazi period were found through the analysis of the database containing over two trillion words.[3] Thus there are advantages to big data. It has the potential to create a global history by measuring the various changes in human society. And it does this by opening up the bigger research questions historians, have always wanted to ask but have been restrained by a lack of time, funding and resources to endeavour on a task of such magnitude.Boyd and Crawford argue big data creates a radical shift in how we think about research by looking at new objects and new methods of obtaining historical knowledge. [4] For them, big data is not considered in the binary conversation of close versus distant reading but how big data ‘reframes key questions about the constitution of knowledge, processes of research and how we should engage with knowledge’[5]. However, it is important not to over emphasise distant reading as a revolutionary new practice of digital history, big data does have its disadvantages and limitations.

The first limitation of big data is the reliance on computers for research purposes. Arguably, the majority of historians and history students are tech-savvy enough to have a good handle on standard programmes such as Microsoft Word and Excel. However, big data requires the use of more sophisticated representations of its research findings than the tables, graphs and charts created with a fair knowledge of Microsoft Office programmes. The creation of Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Application Programming Interface (API) and the gathering and analysing of large amounts of data is a ‘skill set generally restricted to those with a computational background’[6]. Perhaps it is the lack of computational knowledge which makes digital historians sceptical about the benefits big data has to offer digital history. Boyd and Crawford argue humanists use digital resources all the time, but due to their naivety are on how the resources work, they are unaware of the potential to get more out of them. Instead humanists arrange resources in ways that make it far harder for them to be used. But big data is not just limited to the computer literacy of the digital historian; the data sets, themselves, carry their own limitations.

It is important to interrogate textual sources before carrying out qualitative research; similarly it is important to ask critical questions of big data before quantitative research is carried out. Regardless of the size of the data set, the properties and limitations should be understood and the biases of the data should be determined before carrying out quantitative research.[7] Furthermore, historians should assess the limitations of the questions they can ask of big data and determine what interpretations are the most appropriate.[8] Boyd and Crawford argue big data is problematic in it enables patterns to be read in the results where they do not exist.[9] But is this not also a problem faced with textual sources? While the research methods differ both close and distant reading suffer from the same problems of using primary sources. Both require the retention of context. When a word, sentence, phrase or paragraph is removed from the entire document, it loses its context. So too does quantitative data lose context when data is interpreted at scale and it is ‘even harder to maintain when data [is] reduced to fit into a model’[10]. But this is not the only similarity between close and distant reading. The process of generalisation in close reading and the process of categorisation in distant reading both rely on historians’ judgements.  The fear of big data changing historical research could be a manifestation of the fear of digital history being ‘no more than a colonization [sic] of the humanities by the sciences’[11].

Big data may apply some of the quantitative methods of computer science but it does not apply objectivity as readily as its connection with science would imply. Big data requires an interpretive framework and is thus subjective. Big data’s tools of representation: summary tables, charts, line graphs and other modes of visualisation all require interpretation themselves. Trevor Owens argues data can be constructed artefacts, texts and processed information which can be interpreted. Data sets are created by historians who make choices on what data to collect and how to encode it. Therefore, as constructed artefacts, data has the same characteristics as textual sources created by authors. So consideration of its author’s intended audience and their purpose for the data should be undertaken. Even in the visualisation stage, data is not evidence but new artefacts, objects, and texts that is generated and which can also be read and explored. Ben Schmidt supports Owens, arguing the ‘graphs derived from big data require nuanced, contextual interpretation [and] . . . give a new source to interpret’. While the objects of interpretation are not manuscripts stored at archives, or digitally for that matter, these new artefacts created by big data are still reliant on literary canons. Big data, for the moment at least, is mainly created from textual sources. Although these textual sources are not studied in-depth but are mined for word frequency, use of semantics or for other such statistical purposes, the interpretations created from them are still reliant on textual information. Tim Hitchcock argues this is why distant reading, to a certain extent, does not provide new insights to historians. Research questions are still being determined by literary canons and still resemble those asked through older technology. This is why big data does not always change the research questions historians ask. Retention of old concepts and methods can lead to historians imposing limitations on big data. By reading data in terms of the interpretations already amassed, the value of the information data has to offer is lost. Heuser and Le-Khac have recognised the problems of such impositions on big data. They argue there is a tendency to throw away data that does not fit established concepts which potentially damages historical knowledge. Big data needs to be more than validation of existing interpretations otherwise ‘quantitative methods [will] never produce new knowledge’[12].

Historians too concerned with whether big data changes historical research miss the opportunities provided by big data to increase their historical knowledge. Instead of arguing over which research method should be employed in digital history, historians could employ a mixture of both close and distant reading to provide both the depth and breadth they have been striving for. Owens argues ‘big data is an opportunity . . . to bring the skills . . . honed in the close reading of texts . . . into service for this new species of text’. By employing close reading methods on artefacts created by distant reading methods, historians receive both the in-depth and specific human experience and the broader trends of society that experience sits within. Big data may be a new research method but the sources it creates can strengthen pre-existing methods.

Quantitative methods may not be new to historical research but technological advances has allowed quantitative research to penetrate history to such an extent that it sparked debates over the effects it has had on historical research. This debate has centred on the use of close and distant reading, the advantages and disadvantages of both methods of research and the contributions each makes to historical knowledge. The main concern of historians is how big data changes research questions. While big data offers the opportunity to explore larger, cultural research questions, its reliance on narrow literary canons allows big data to create sources which in turn can be closely read and thus can be used in the same research questions we ask of non-digital primary sources. Big data has the potential to not only inform historians of new trends, both globally and socially, but can be used to enhance pre-existing research questions.

 

Referencing

[1] Danah Boyd & Kate Crawford, ‘Critical Questions for Big Data’, Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 15, No. 5 (2012), p. 662-679

[2] Jean-Baptise Michel et al, ‘Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books’, Science, Vol. 331 (2011), pp. 176-182

[3] John Bohannon, ‘Google Opens Books to New Cultural Studies’, Science, Vol. 330 (2010), p. 1600

[4] Boyd & Crawford, ‘Critical’, p. 665

[5] Boyd & Crawford, ‘Critical’, p. 665

[6] Boyd & Crawford, ‘Critical’, p. 674

[7] Boyd & Crawford, ‘Critical’, p. 668

[8] Boyd & Crawford, ‘Critical’, p. 670

[9] Boyd & Crawford, ‘Critical’, p. 668

[10] Boyd & Crawford, ‘Critical’, p. 671

[11] Ryan Heuser & Long Le-Khac, ‘Learning to Read Data: Bringing out the Humanistic in the Digital Humanities’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 54, No. 1 (2011), pp. 79-86

[12] Heuser & Le-Khac, ‘Learning’, p. 81

 

Hyperlink Bibliography

Hitchcock,Tim, ‘Big Data for Dead People: Digital Readings and the Conundrums of Positivism’, Historyonics, http://historyonics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/big-data-for-dead-people-digital.html; consulted 10th April 2014

Manning, Patrick, ‘Big Data in History’, We Think History, www. http://wethink.hypotheses.org/1485; consulted 10th April 2014

Moretti, Franco, ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, New Left Review, Vol. 1 (2000), www. http://newleftreview.org/II/1/franco-moretti-conjectures-on-world-literature; consulted 12th April 2014

Mullen, Abby, ‘”Big” Data for Military Historians’, Canadian Military History, http://canadianmilitaryhistory.ca/big-data-for-military-historians-by-abby-mullen/; consulted 10th April 2014

Owens, Trevor, ‘Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?’, Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2011), http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/defining-data-for-humanists-by-trevor-owens/; consulted 11th April 2014

Schmidt, Ben, ‘Assisted Reading vs. Data Mining’, Sapping Attention, www. http://sappingattention.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/assisted-reading-vs-data-mining.html; consulted 11th April 2014

Schöch, Christof, ‘Big? Smart? Clean? Messy? Data in the Humanities’, Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2013), http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/2-3/big-smart-clean-messy-data-in-the-humanities/; consulted 12th April 2014

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Digital History

Reflection on Digital History

Mirror Against A Wall

This image was taken from PublicDomainPictures.net. Photographer: Lynn Greyling. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=59258&picture=mirror-against-a-wall This image falls under the Public Domain License.

This may sound really naïve but it never occurred to me that I would need a sound knowledge of how the internet worked for a digital history module. Being computer literate and having grown up with the internet I thought the module would be a walk in the park. But within the first week I realised I would need to research and understand how things such as the search function really worked. Because even this simple feature (which I have used without ever once wondering how it worked) can have an impact on the usefulness of a digital history project and has an even greater impact on how easy it is to use.

This brings me to my other misconception. I thought the module would consist of essay writing on historical topics using only digital history projects as research sources. I’m pleased that I was wrong. Had I not learned how to create a digital history project, I would never have thought to evaluate their usefulness for historians. Considering there are loads of digital history projects available than I initially thought, the ability to identify which project is more useful and easier to use is essential when thinking about the way historical research is carried out and how technological advances shape historians research methods.

The role technological advances have in shaping digital history projects impressed upon me the problematic nature of digital history. When weighing up the best method of digitising primary sources, the basis on which method is selected seems to be determined by expense. Discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of digitisation and representation methods highlights how historians are trapped between wanting to create a detailed and useful tool and the lack of funding to enable them to use the best digitisation methods available.

I’ve come to realise historians (and historical institutions for that matter) have moved towards social media as a way of getting around this problem. Take for instance the British Library’s Flickr account. The move to hosting their digitised images on a social media site has many advantages for the British Library. Firstly, they only had to create a page image as the images can be tagged and searched for by the tags. No need for OCR, advanced search features or even XML or API. Secondly, by placing it on a social media website there is no hosting fees, no need to update their software or buy more servers to host all this digital data. Flickr does this all for them.

Personally, I think there are issues with hosting the images on Flickr (removing the image from its original context is just one of them). But hosting the images on Flickr allows for open access to images otherwise withheld from the public domain and the encouragement of tagging by Flickr users has created a crowd sourced project. Public engagement is often a stipulation for project funding, yet the expensive nature of digital history methods can make this difficult. I think this is why so many historians have taken to Twitter and blogging to disseminate their research. I was quite surprised to see historians had a sizeable presence on social media. Who knew there were so many Twitterstorians!

An online historical community has many benefits for the academic historian. Research can be shared as easily as a retweet, it allows historians to perfect their writing skills and can give valuable feedback not only from other historians but from the general public who can often be a untapped source of knowledge. Personally, I’m pleased to know that once I have left university my involvement with academic history doesn’t have to stop. I can still interact with and follow historical research.

Bibliography of Links

‘Big Data for Dead People: Digital Readings and the Conundrums of Positivism’, Historyonics – Tim Hitchcock’s Blog, http://historyonics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/big-data-for-dead-people-digital.html; consulted 27th March 2014

Cohen, Daniel J and Rosenzweig, Roy, ‘Becoming Digital’, Digital History, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/appendix/1.php; consulted 27th March 2014

‘Historians on Twitter’, Active History, http://www.activehistory.co.uk/historians-on-twitter/; consulted 27th March 2014

‘The British Library’, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/people/britishlibrary/; consulted 27th March 2014

‘What is Public Engagement?’, National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, http://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/what; consulted 27th March 2014

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Digital History

Critique of the Clergy of the Church of England Database

The Clergy of the Church of England Database (CCEd) is a relational database (a database which stores information in multiple tables) which links primary sources relating to the clerical careers of the Church of England between 1540 and 1835. The creators of the database feel its contents are of use to the general public and genealogists but it will be best utilised by political and social historians, wanting to trace individual career paths, understand the structure of the Church of England or determine patterns in clerical migration.

Hompage of the CCEd

Homepage of the CCEd

The presentation of the database is simple and clear. The layout is minimal and does not distract the user with garish or numerous images.

Homepage of CCEd Evaluated for Accessibility and Design

Evaluation of Web Design for Accessibility

One of its best features is the how to use the database section. However, the navigation is a bit cumbersome and it often suggests using another section but does not link to it.

For the CCEd a web database is the most appropriate tool, permitting quick and complicated queries to be carried out from the web page. The ease of updating from any computer and the ability to link records, allow the project to create career narratives for an in-depth analysis of the sources. These narratives save historians the time and hassle in trying to plot the career of clergymen themselves and can quickly show them the major events taking place in clerical careers.

Career Narrative of William Paley

Example of Career Narrative

This simple database with limited visualisations would be relatively cheap to create and maintain compared to high-end technical supported databases. But is complex enough to hold a large amount of data (the CCEd contains 1,250,000 individual records).

A big data project (like CCEd) allows for both close reading and distant reading. Patterns and trends in the structure of the church and clerical migration can be ascertained through distant reading. However, we can lose the human element by looking at big patterns; the individual experience can challenge the overall arching trends. Engagement and imagination is an essential part of a historian’s interaction with primary sources and close reading can provide such interaction. However, direct engagement with the primary sources is not facilitated by the database.

Digitisation Methodologies

The data capture method of textual input, although time consuming, increases the accuracy of the information captured. Especially when compared to other methods, such as Optical Character Recognition, which struggles with early manuscripts and handwriting (it so renowned for its mistakes there is even a Twitter account satirising it!). However, the selection of only very specific information contained in the primary sources calls into question whether other valuable information has been missed?

Old Typed Print Scanned by OCR with Terrible Replication

Example of OCR Going Wrong. Image from A Report and Review of the Scanning Claim by the Editor at janelead.org (Link via Image)

It is understandable for a project of this magnitude to want to contain only the most essential information but a low resolution page image of the primary source would help the historian feel connected to the primary source without taking up too much storage space.

Although, a page image cannot be searched or manipulated, for the purpose of the database it would not have to be. It could simply function as a standalone feature, adding another layer of understanding to the interpretation of the sources. The image quality would not have to be high either, as long as the source retained its readability when zoomed in.

Old handwritten register scanned into a digital format and presented as a page image

Page Image of an Old Register. Image from the Wellcome Library, who retains the copyrights.

Instead the user is presented with a ‘screen format’ of the records used, giving the user no feel for the primary source and certainly no engagement with it.

Screen Format Version of Primary Sources. Information is presented in typed up tables.

Example of Screen Format of Primary Sources

To facilitate the dissemination of work interpreting the records in the database, the website has its own online journal. This is where the website uses XML to facilitate the searching of articles, although it does not provide any transparency in the use of this tool. The limited use of XML is due to the search engine within the database itself which does not have the time consuming disadvantage of having to create building blocks as XML does.

Overall, the database renders the primary sources redundant. The pre-selection of sources and of the information required from them, the presentation of their data in field format, the lack of images of the primary sources and the methods of analysis (record linkage and career narratives) seem to place an emphasis on the database as a source of historical information rather than on the primary sources.

For historians, who like to read the primary sources, the extraction of information must rub against the bone. Could there have been other contextual information that might have been contained within the primary source?

Bibliography of Links

‘Advanced’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/how-to-use-the-database/advanced/; consulted 1st March 2014

‘Big Data for Dead People: Digital Readings and the Conundrums of Positivism’, Historyonics – Tim Hitchcock’s Blog, http://historyonics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/big-data-for-dead-people-digital.html; consulted 1st March 2014

‘Bibliography of sources used in the Database’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/reference/bibliography-of-sources-used-in-the-database/; consulted 28th February 2014

‘Close Reading’, University of Warwick, http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fulllist/second/en227/closereading/; consulted 1st March 2014

Cohen, Daniel J and Rosenzweig, Roy, ‘Appendix – Database’, Digital History, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/appendix/1.php; consulted 28th February 2014

Cohen, Daniel J and Rosenzweig, Roy, ‘Becoming Digital – Digitizing Text: What Do You Want to Provide?’, Digital History, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/2.php; consulted 1st March 2014

‘Contents of Database’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/about/about-the-database/content-of-database/; consulted 1st March 2014

‘Data Capture’, University of Oxford, http://digital.humanities.ox.ac.uk/methods/datacapture.aspx; consulted 1st March 2014

‘How to Use the Database’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/how-to-use-the-database/; consulted 28th February 2014

‘Information for Genealogists’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/information-for-genealogists/; consulted 28th February 2014

‘Information for General Public’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/information-for-general-pubilc/; consulted 28th February 2014

‘Interpreting Career Narratives’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/how-to-use-the-database/interpreting-career-narratives/; consulted 1st March 2014

‘Introduction to XML’, W3Schools, http://www.w3schools.com/xml/xml_whatis.asp; consulted 1st March 2014

‘Journal’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/journal/; consulted 1st March 2014

‘OCR (Optical Character Recognition)’. TechTarget, http://searchcontentmanagement.techtarget.com/definition/OCR-optical-character-recognition; consulted 1st March 2014

‘OCR Fail’, Twitter, https://twitter.com/OCRfail; consulted 1st March 2014

Schulz, Kathryn, ‘What is Distant Reading?’, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/books/review/the-mechanic-muse-what-is-distant-reading.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&; consulted 1st March 2014

‘Welcome to the CCEd’, Clergy of the Church of England Database, http://theclergydatabase.org.uk/; consulted 28th February 2014

‘What are Relational Databases?’, How Stuff Works, http://computer.howstuffworks.com/question599.html; consulted 28th February 2014

‘When OCR Goes Bad: Google’s Ngram Viewer & The F-Word’, Search Engine Land, http://searchengineland.com/when-ocr-goes-bad-googles-ngram-viewer-the-f-word-59181; consulted 1st March 2014

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Digital History

An Evaluation of Bob Nicholson’s Blog – Digital Victorianist

Out of the three blogs I have looked at this is my favourite blog. Nicholson has injected it with humour and his own personality and the style and layout really appeal to me. Plus it helps that I like his field of research.

I’d say Nicholson’s blog is in between the cluttered and stylised look of Trevor Owens blog and the minimalistic and simple layout of Melissa Terra’s blog. Although the layouts for all three blogs are pretty similar, Nicholson’s use of a colour scheme and background image make his blog look much more stylised and sleeker. The background image, which is just as busy as Owens, doesn’t distract or overpower the look of the blog as Owens’ does. Perhaps because it’s black and white and the rest of the blog is in black and yellow that there is not too much of a contrast between them. The colour scheme of charcoal and Dijon mustard, tone down the image and the white text is easy to read on the black background. This colour scheme is even incorporated into Nicholson’s logo of a top hat with a computer mouse sitting on it, framed by a mustard coloured cog (sun?).

Image

The use of a header which contain an About Page, a Research Page, a Tit-Bits Page and a search feature, allows the blog to have a cleaner and less cluttered look while still retaining all of Nicholson’s important information and features. His About Page is provides a detailed academic biography and has a tongue in cheek picture of Nicholson dressed up as a Victorian Gent. His research page includes his published research and his PhD thesis. One of the things I particularly like, and it’s something the other two blogs did not feature, is the front page which has a small summary of the blog, with a image and the date it was posted. This allows the user to skim through the posts when browsing for topics relevant to their individual needs. Of course once you’ve found a post you want to read, you just click on it and you’re redirected to the full post.

Nicholson’s writing style is also what makes the blog easy to read. Just like the other two blogs, Nicholson writes in the first person, in an informal and conversational manner but refrains from using colloquial language. His posts are injected with some satire and irony, take for example his joke about the NSA and Terrorists in his post about Gale. Part of the easy readability of Nicholson’s posts is the word limit he seems to stick to. Posts seem to range between 800-1500 words, with some much shorter than this. But even his longer posts don’t feel like a chore to read as he uses images and hyperlinks to break up the text. Although Melissa Terra also used images and hyperlinks to break up her text and clarify her arguments, I found her posts to be far less enjoyable then Nicholson’s. That’s not due to a bias towards his research topics but due to the length of the posts. From reading the title of Terra’s post on representations of academics in children’s books I thought I would enjoy reading it. But the post is around 3,360 words and no amount of images stopped the “I’m reading an article rather than a blog” feeling.

As I’ve already noted the features in the header I won’t reiterate them here except for the Tit-Bits Page. This page is quite fun to view as behaves as a gallery, linking the images Nicholson’s posted to his twitter account to his blog. You can even view these images as a slide show. By having links to his other social media profiles and accounts (such as his Reddit Profile, his YouTube, Twitter & Facebook accounts) as icons in the top right hand corner of the page, the right hand side of his blog is freed up for other features without looking cluttered. These features include:

  • Recent Tweets – linked to his Twitter Account (perhaps not a very important feature seeing as he already has a link to his Twitter account.
  • Recent Posts to the Blog
  • Archive
  • Categories
  • Search Bar (Again, something which is repeated and doesn’t need to feature here)
  • Links to blogs similar to his own

My favourite feature of Nicholson’s blog is the header bar which follows you down the page and the little button which pops up after you scroll which brings you back to the top of the page.

Image

I think this feature is something which could be utilised in Melissa Terra’s blog especially as she doesn’t have a front page and her blogs can be rather large.

Overall, despite using similar layouts and features, I prefer Bob Nicholson’s blog, it’s quirky name, the humour in the writing, the layout and style make it a very interesting and entertaining blog to read.

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Digital History

An Evaluation of Melissa Terra’s Blog

Melissa Terra’s blog is another Point of View blog and as stated in her About Her paragraph, it is Terra’s personal blog. The purpose of her blog is similar to Trevor Owens blog, in that Terra uses it to express her opinions on issues and topics in digital humanities, digital cultural heritage and academia, but uses it also as a space for her to explore her research ideas and results.

In terms of style, again, Terra is similar to Owens, Terra uses the same layout as Owens. There is no front page with summaries of her posts, rather her posts are displayed one after the other. There is the use of a header where Terra has the title of her blog and a brief description of it, with a background of a light green block of colour.

Image

There is loads of white space making the posts and features stand out and the lack of a colour scheme means images won’t clash with the layout and style of the overall blog.

As for the posts and Terra’s writing style, this too both matches and differs from Owens. The writing style is in the first person, is conversational and does not use colloquial  language but there is still the feeling of reading an essay or article. Whether this is because the content of her posts are often about her research or projects or because her paragraphs can be a bit lengthy for a blog. The posts, overall, are a bit skimpy with the images or visual media, especially when compared to Owens. Some posts completely lack images while others are almost entirely made up of them. It seems Terra’s uses images where she thinks they would clarify her arguments. This can be a problem with some of her longer posts, one post is 2,106 words long without a single image breaking it up.

Terra’s layout, like Owens, also places the blogs features on the right hand side of the page, following the page as it goes down. Terra’s features include:

  • About Her Paragraph

Image

  • Search Bar
  • Links to her books on Amazon
  • Links to essential reading on digital humanities websites and blogs

Image

  • Links to humanities computing blogs

Image

  • A box showing who her followers are – this could be good for networking
  • Blog Archive Section

It is the simple and clean design of the blog and the limited and carefully chosen features which allows Terra’s blog to use the same layout as Owen without losing clarity and purpose. The length of the posts could be cut down as blog audiences usually are used to posts of about 1000 words and there is the danger of Terra losing her audiences attention. Though this depends on her audience, I would hazard a guess and say most of her audience are fellow academics interested in digital humanities and are used to reading long essays and articles anyway.

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Digital History

An Evaluation of Trevor Owens Blog

Trevor Owens is a digital archivist and game enthusiast and could almost be described as a professional blogger. Having started blogging in 2006 for personal purposes, his blog has evolved into a quasi professional-personal blog with the emphasis on professional.

This point of view blog has become a place for him to explore issues and thoughts concerning digital archiving, digital history and online resources but it still has a personal element to it as the posts seem to relate to his personal interests as well as being shaped by his career interests.

This dual purpose can be seen in the style of his blog. Although a busy background image, the old adventure game picture, akin to the old Atari adventure games, shows the mixed purpose of Owen’s blog. It brings his two interests together, digital history and gaming, and could be a representation of cultural heritage and the history of gaming.

Image

The background picture aside, the layout of Owen’s blog is clear, I wouldn’t say it’s simple or minimalistic but the framing of his posts in a white rectangle makes the posts easier to read and limits the distraction factor of his background picture. The posts themselves are titled with a bold and large font, separating each one from the other but as Owens has a large amount of posts it would have been better if he had a front page, which gave a brief outline of each post so the user could quickly skim them for the most relevant post for their needs.

Having said that, Owen’s posts are relatively short and interspersed with images and pictures, videos, bullet points, hyperlinks and short paragraphs. The style of writing is easy to read; it uses the first person and is personal but doesn’t use colloquial language.

Image

In terms of features, this blog has it all. There is:

  • a separate About page
  • a separate CV Page
  • a section on the front page with a description of Owens (albeit it’s only a short paragraph

Image

Image

  • A link to Owen’s Stack Exchange profile
  • A section showing the recent comments on his posts
  • A box showing how many people are subscribed to his collective feeds
  • Tags allowing quick searching through his blog for specific and related posts
  • His Twitter feed showing his latest tweets, how many followers he has (3,482) and a button allowing you to follow his tweeter account from the blog
  • A short message on typos in the blog and his writing style
  • Archive section

While this is an impressive collection of features, which clearly shows Owens is very computer and internet savvy. The functions of these features can get a bit lost in the layout. I appreciate Owens wants to house his large internet presence under one roof, but some of the features become defunct due to the layout of his blog.

The search bar could easily sit up in the corner of the page, either in the white box or as part of the background picture. It doesn’t need to be kept on the side, although it is still relatively high up enough that you don’t have to scroll down most of the posts to find it.

The extra about section he has put on the front page is surplus to requirements. Owens obviously has a need to show everyone who he is but if someone really wanted to find out who he is and what he is about than they would use the About Page he put on the header of his blog. The message on typos could also have gone in the About Page.

The Archive feature he has is great for a blog which has been running for such a large amount of time. However, it was only after I had trawled through each page manually to find out how long he had been running the blog did I notice the Archive section on the right hand side of the page. Really a feature like this should be more obvious and user friendly and could have been placed on the header along with his About and CV Pages.

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By having the majority of his features run down the length of the blog, the blog looks cluttered and some of the features can be missed. I do like how Owens has used the blog as a way of advertising himself, not only by having a CV but also by linking to his other blogs and internet presence he is making the most out of his blog.

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Digital History

Blogs and Social Media – A Comparison of Three Blogs

This is just a quick introductory post to say the next three posts are part of a series which evaluates and compares three blogs picked at random from a list provided by my Digital History module. Any criticisms of these blogs are my own and are not intended to offend but is simply my own personal preference on what I like and dislike about them.

The three blogs I have looked at are:

  • Trevor Owens – A nice general blog on all things Digital Humanist
  • Melissa Terras – A blog by the Professor of Digital Humanities, UCL
  • Digital Victorianist – Bob Nicholson’s blog about digital research into the Victorian age
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