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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