Digital History

Reflection on Digital History

Mirror Against A Wall

This image was taken from Photographer: Lynn Greyling. 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,; consulted 27th March 2014

Cohen, Daniel J and Rosenzweig, Roy, ‘Becoming Digital’, Digital History,; consulted 27th March 2014

‘Historians on Twitter’, Active History,; consulted 27th March 2014

‘The British Library’, Flickr,; consulted 27th March 2014

‘What is Public Engagement?’, National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement,; consulted 27th March 2014

Digital History

Introduction into Digital History


I’m Sinead and I’m a final year student at the University of Hertfordshire, studying History. I’ve created this blog to accompany the digital history module I’m taking. It is my platform to examine and explore digital history projects and apply the things I’ve learnt from the module.

I’ll start the blog with a brief examination of the digital history project, the Old Bailey Online. I’ll briefly run through a few of its features.

Digitisation of Trials: Starting out with high definition page images of the trials, which were converted into GIF and JPEG files for easy uploading to the internet. The project then used a dual methodology for creating searchable text of the trials. Early trials were marked up using the method of double rekeying, while the later trials were created using OCR software and rekeying both methodologies were compared and manually resolved. While time consuming the manual typing and checking ensures the accuracy of the text and this is vital for creating a accurate and reliable body of resources and for the accuracy of searching. The inclusion of the page images of the trials with the searchable text allows for searchability while also keeping a feel of the primary source.

Searching: The search feature of the website is very useful. Firstly, it retains the Boolean search features most of us are used to using but it also has an advanced search option which offers a more structured search. A great search feature is the ability of generating statistics automatically for the user. However, this would not be possible without the use of marked up text.

Marked Up Text: Aside from the fact that the project informs you of the categories created for the use of statistics in the ‘about this project’ section, each trial has a link to the XML marked up text. This allows you to see the categories created that allows for structured searches and the creation of statistics. Again, this was carried out manually and with computer software. The great thing about using marked up text is the accessibility and speed with which a researcher can search through the 197,745 criminal trials, a daunting prospect if done manually. Yet the marked up text and the advanced search features allow the researcher to refine their results and receive them within seconds.

API: A feature I’ve only just learnt about and still need to fully understand but one that I can see the use for. The Old Bailey Online uses API to export data/statistics to Zotero (a bibliographical web tool) and Voyant Tools (a suite of tools for linguistic analysis). This software to software interface allows for data from the Old Bailey to be exported to either one of these other tools and removes the need for the research to do this manually.

Web Design: The design of the website allows for ease of use and accessibility. The headings are self explanatory, the search feature can be accessed through several links on every page of the site, the images are on a high quality for viewing digitally and the text is easily readable.

I’m sure anyone who has used this digital history project will already appreciate how good a resource it is for research into crime without me having to point out its features. Personally, I think the project is good because of its transparency in its methods of digitisation. The explanations it provides of how and why certain methods of digitisation were used is very helpful in introducing digital history to students.