Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Methodological Transparency (Digital History Week 10)

For this week’s assignment, our class looked at “the call for methodological transparency in historical writing,” specifically as it pertains to print articles that involve digital components; more specifically, we looked at the costs and benefits of producing a metagraph in addition to digital projects and print articles based on born digital projects. But, why is this important? Personally, I think methodological transparency would help digital projects receive the same respect and recognition as traditional, print articles. Let me explain.

As we have already determined throughout the semester, as a growing field, digital history seeks to earn the same respect and consideration as traditional, print articles. To help establish digital history as a respectable element of academia, scholars have published print based on born digital projects like William G. Thomas III and Edward Ayers’The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two Communities and Camron Blevins’ “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston.”  While these print articles help explain digital projects, they can still leave the reader wondering, how did the author reach these conclusions? For traditional historians who are used to relying on close readings of primary sources, perhaps explaining the methodological process and reasoning behind distant reading (and other methods of digital history) would help scholars see the value of digital projects.

For example, in their essay, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing,” authors Gibbs and Owens pose the question, how can digital historians expect others to receive their new methodologies when the “new ways of working with data seem like a mysterious black box?” Considering this, they conclude that “the new methods used to explore and interpret historical data demand a new level of methodological transparency in history writing.” As part of explaining methodologies, Gibbs and Owen suggest that authors should be clear what their data implies and does not imply, how they interpret evidence, and how they intend to use their evidence. For example, with the opportunities created with digital technologies, data does not always have to be used as evidence; rather, it can also be used to create new research questions. For instance, according to Gibbs and Owens reveal that tools like Google NGrams can help promote the creation of new research questions.

A great example of this is Robertson’s Digital Harlem project. In a recent AHR Exchange, Sternfield criticized Robertson for not contributing a histiorographical argument to the scholarship on everyday life in Harlem. Robertson responded to this critique, saying, that “Digital Harlem is an opportunity to think about digital mapping as a research method, not as a means of making or illustrating arguments,” but as a way to investigate sources (AHR Exchange, 166). Considering this, I believe that a metagraph designed to complement Digital Harlem would have clarified the aims of the project and prevented the criticism it received due to methodological misunderstandings. Echoing this suggestion, Gibbs and Owens plainly state, “One way of reducing hostility to data and its manipulation is to lay bare whatever manipulations have led to some historical insight.”

One author who answered the call for methodological transparency is Cameron Blevins. In 2014, Blevins published “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” as a print article to share his findings from his spatial history research of late 19th century Houston. Then, in 2015, he published “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space” as the first digital methods essay (a metagraph) to be published as a supplement to a JAH article. Personally, I found his metagraph to be very useful and informative. Compared to his 2014 article, Blevins’ metagraph helped to contextualize the way he approached his methods; in his metagraph, Blevins explained each of his visualizations, the meanings behind them, and the way he interpreted them.
Perhaps the most insightful thing I found in his metagraph was the way he explained what exactly his map represented. For example, as Blevins sought to map the space created by the Houston Daily Post, he shares that his Occurrences of Place-Names in the Telegraph and Texas Register, 1836-1851 visualization is “not a comprehensive view of every place-name… but a measurement of how frequently selected places appeared: ‘a’ view of the world from Houston rather than ‘the’ view of the world from Houston.” He then shares how by counting every instance of place names, he was able to “flatten” the text and ignore context; for example, he shares that the word “Dallas” on the front pate headline was given the same weight as the word “Dallas” in a retail advertisement. Sharing these methodolgocial processes helped me to better understand the meanings behind the conclusions Blevins reached. By better understanding his conclusions, I am able to appreciate his scholarship much more!

            In conclusion, considering Gibbs and Owens insights, criticisms of Digital Harlem received, and Blevins’ metagraph, it becomes evident that a metagraph has many benefits. Metagraphs helps users understand the data, how it was used, and the conclusions it produced. Furthermore, metagraphs help protect authors from criticisms based on misunderstandings. Considering the cost of a metagraph, the only cost I can see is the time it takes to write a metagraph. Personally, though, I believe the cost is well worth the benefit of methodological transparency.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Educational Projects with the DPLA (Internship Week 10)

I know we’ve spent the past couple of weeks looking at the Digital Public Library of American  (DPLA)…. But….. the more I look into it, the more I discover about it, and the more I want to share it with you all!

So far we’ve looked at the background of the DPLA and the way that artifacts end up on the DPLA website. But – there’s still more! Let’s explore some of the educational projects the DPLA is involved with.

Primary Source Sets

First, there’s primary source sets. Recognizing the role it plays in connecting the community with primary sources, the DPLA has created what they call “primary source sets” to help students explore primary source material. According to the DPLA website, each primary source set “includes an overview, ten to fifteen primary sources, links to related resources, and a teaching guide” (DPLA). Created, reviewed, and maintained by the DPLA’s Education Advisory Committee, these primary source sets provide students with pre-selected primary sources related to various topics. For example, if you wanted to look up primary sources related to the Civil War and Reconstruction, this is what you find:

Clicking on The Freedmen’s Bureau set, one is directed a webpage dedicated to primary source material on this particular topic. At the top of the page, the DPLA provides a brief description of the topic. Then, the page has 13 thumbnail images that users click on and are directed to the primary source material. Examples of primary sources for this set include: a letter to the assistant inspector general of the Georgia Freedman's Bureau (1868), a freedman’s work contract (1865), and an excerpt from the semi-annual report on schools for freedom (1866).

Looking at one of the primary sources, like the freedman’s work contract for example, users are provided with a digitized image of the primary source, a transcription of the source’s content, citation information, and links to the source’s host website.

What is really neat about these primary source sets is that they are designed to assist students and teachers in k-12 and higher education by connecting them with trustworthy, primary sources. According to Dan Cohen, the DPLA hopes to have over 100 of these primary source sets by this summer (

National History Day

Recognizing the importance of history, the DPLA “is proud to be a part of National History Day, a series of contests in which students present research projects framed within a general historical topic that they’ve developed using primary and secondary sources. Containing millions of primary and secondary source, DPLA is the perfect complement to National History Day” (DPLA). Thus, as part of National History Day, the DPLA provides students with research guides in addition to providing them with opportunities to win awards for the best use of DPLA source material.

Education Advisory Committee

To help facilitate the DPLA’s involvement with National History Day and primary source sets, the DPLA works with its Education Advisory Committee for direction and insight. With over 300 applicants, the DPLA’s Education Advisory Committee is comprised of 10 individuals who are involved with education in grades 6-14. These individuals are responsible for building and maintaining primary source sets in addition to planning future educational projects.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Digital Project Reviews, They're Here Folks! (Digital History Week 9)

Reviewing Digital History Projects

While the American Historical Review has previously featured traditional articles based on “born-digital” projects, like William G. Thomas III and Edward Ayers’The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two Communities,” until now, the AHR had yet to review actual, digital scholarship. Thus, it is significant that for the first time ever, in this month’s publication of the journal, the AHR featured two reviews (and author responses) of digital history projects.

Not only is this significant in the development of the journal, but it is also significant for the field of Digital History as digital projects seek to earn the same respect shown to traditional, print scholarship. Reviews of DH projects in scholarly journals like the AHR are so important to the development of DH as a field given that the lack of a normalized peer review process has been a controversial topic that has prevented DH projects from receiving the same consideration and approval shown to print publications.
Thus, helping to create a normalized process for reviewing digital history, the AHR Exchange provides an introduction, two different reviews of different projects, and two responses from an individual involved in the project’s creation. While authors do not traditionally respond to reviews in this format, being that these are the AHR’s first digital history reviews, allowing authors to respond may help shape the way digital projects are reviewed in the future. Encouraged to “engage with questions of presentation, legibility, organization, historiography, research, and interpretation—to evaluate the effectiveness of the medium as well as the message,” the reviewers presented their findings and the project creators responded (141).
For its first DH reviews, the AHR looked at two interactive web based projects: Digital Harlem: Every- day Life, 1915–1930 and Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761: A Cartographic Narrative. Both digital mapping sites, these two projects show how “digital tools can reveal both geospatial and sociohistorical patterns not visible through a more “traditional” reading of the historical sources available” (141). So, let’s check it out!

Digital Harlem

            In reviewing Digital Harlem, Joshua Sternfeld made several key points. First, throughout his review Sternfeld seemed to believe that Digital Harlem lacked historiographical contribution. With a constant emphasis on the lack of contextualization, Sternfeld criticized Digital Harlem for lacking “digitized photographic or full text source material” and for lacking comprehensive sampling data (147). Furthermore, Sternfeld argues that Digital Harlem focuses too heavily on criminal activity as opposed to “everyday life” in Harlem. Finally, Sternfeld notes that by “combining data from these disparate sources into a single searchable database, the authors have decontextualized the data” (152). As a whole, Sternfeld seemed to suggest that Digital Harlem was in adequate in its source material, its argument, and its historiographical contributions to the historiography of everyday life in Harlem.

            In response to Sternfeld, project contributor Stephen Robertson explains to readers that Sternfeld misses the main contribution of the project. He explains that as Robertson “only fitfully engages with spatial orientation… his emphasis remains on collecting digitized sources, not on visualizing them” (151). Then, explaining the technological and copyright limits prevented the project creators from implementing some of Sternfeld’s suggestions, Robertson shares that Digital Harlem was not designed as a public history project, teaching resource, or archive, but rather as a spatial visualization of historical sources (160). Thus, where Sternfeld criticizes Digital Harlem for neglecting to make a historiographical contribution with an accurate argument, Robertson explains that “Digital Harlem is an opportunity to think about digital mapping as a research method, not as a means of making or illustrating arguments,” but as a way to investigate sources (166). Then, addressing Sternfeld’s critique of the site’s attention to criminal records, Robertson explains that the criminal records represent the cultural (places) and economic (numbers game/gambling) everyday life of Harlem (161).

Slave Revolt in Jamaica

Distinctly different from Sternfeld’s review of Digital Harlem, Natalie Zacek offers a positive review of Slave Revolt in Jamaica. Describing the site as a cartographic narrative, Zacek reveals the sites’ two primary contributions: 1) challenging the traditional narrative that the revolt was the result of a series of disconnected rebellions by providing insight into the rebels’ strategic aims and tactical dynamics of the entire insurrection and, 2) suggesting the rebels’ long term goals of establishing their own society. While Zacek believes the second contribution is a bit of a stretch, she praises the project for providing an argument based on primary sources.

Responding to Zacek, principle investigator Vincent Brown echoes Zacek’s point about argumentation by emphasizing that scholarship should evidence and interpretation over the medium of presentation. Acknowledging that his rationale for the project was primarily historiographical, Brown explains that by viewing the slave revolt spatially, he was able to “advocate interpretations of the past that might otherwise go unarticulated” (179).

Final Thoughts

Reading the reviews and author responses was very intriguing. What stood out to me most was that Sternfeld criticized Digital Harlem for its lack of argument while Zacek praised Slave Revolt in Jamaica for its historiographical contribution. Yet, the fact that Robertson writes that Digital Harlem is not a “means of making arguments,” suggests a point of definition needed in the review process of digital projects: should digital projects be reviewed for their argument?

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Digital Public Library of America, Continued (Internship Week 9)

Last week you were introduced to the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Because the DPLA is so unique, I wanted to share a little more about it.

But first – a few points of clarification.

What is the DPLA again? The DPLA digitally connects “America’s archives, libraries, and museums” and make them available to the public (

Yet, the DPLA is different from traditional libraries in that it does not actually host the digital files or even store the digital files presented on its site. Instead, the “DPLA is an all-digital library that aggregates metadata about digital objects held by libraries, museums, and archives around the country. “ ( For example, if you search Helen Keller’s bathing suit, you’ll see a thumbnail of the image along with the item’s metadata. But, when you click “view object,” you are directed to the SAILS Library Network, the institution that hosts artifact and its information. Here are screen shots of both the DPLA and SAILS’ presentation of the bathing suit.  

So, after understanding what the DPLA does, we can consider how items end up on the DPLA website.

Well, the DPLA staff works with its associated content and service hubs located around the country. According to the DPLA,

“Service Hubs aggregate data on behalf of a given state or region. Each Service Hub offers a full menu of standardized digital services to local institutions, including digitization, metadata consultation, data aggregation and storage services, as well as locally hosted community outreach programs that bring users in contact with digital content of local relevance.

Content Hubs are large digital libraries, museums, archives, or repositories that maintain a one-to-one relationship with DPLA. Content Hubs as a general rule have more than 200,000 unique metadata records to contribute to DPLA, and they commit to maintaining and editing those records as needed.”

In considering how this relates to the FBCWP project, it is important to understand both types of hubs. For our purposes, the closest content hub is located at the University of Florida as part of the George A. Smathers Digital Library. The closest service hub is located in Georgia as part of the Digital Library of Georgia. So, while the content hub is closer to central Florida, we would actually need to connect with a service hub to get the digitized scans of the scrapbooks online. But, before we could connect with a service hub, we would need to have a partnership with an institution willing to host our images (like the Winter Park Library, or RICHES MI).  As it stands, the DPLA does not host any items from RICHES or the Winter Park Library. Personally, I think the DPLA would benefit immensely from a partnership with RICHES and all of its digitized items. But, until there’s a service hub established in FL, UCF would have to reach out to the service hub in Georgia to get its digitized items online with the DPLA. Perhaps, maybe one day, RICHES could coordinate with other libraries in the central Florida area and apply to become a service hub. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Historians' Macroscope (Digital History Week 8)

            For this week’s reading assignment the class looked at The Historian’s Macroscope: Big Data in Digital History by Graham, Milligan, and Weingart. The Historian’s Microscope is a unique publication as the open draft version subtitle explains, it was “an experiment in writing in public, one page at a time.” So what does that mean? Well, the authors wrote the draft of the book online, then, as the public commented on the draft, the authors revised their manuscript based on feedback from the comments. Once the revision process was finished, the authors launched their book on November 17, 2015.
            What is fascinating about this book is that not only is it available in print, but the book’s pre-publication “Final Draft” is made available online, free of charge. With permission from the press, the authors kept the final draft available online free of charge for those who are unable to afford it. The publishers agreed to this arrangement based on the agreement that as long as the free version did not hurt the book’s sales, then the free version would be able to remain online. If it did hurt sales, however, the authors agreed to remove the online version. It is likely that the publisher agreed to this arrangement hoping that those who could afford the book would purchase it (as the authors encourage their readers to do), and believing that those who could not afford the textbook would not have bought it in the first place. Reading the free online version of the book, I most definitely recommend that those who are in the field of digital history purchase the book to use as a resource.
            So who is this book for exactly? Well, according to the authors their “ideal reader is an advanced undergraduate looking for guidance as they encounter big data for the first time” (13). This book could be used in undergraduate and graduate digital history courses. It could also be used by researchers trying to figure out how to effectively research their topic using digital tools. Yet, while the book’s intended audience ranges from students, to instructors, to researchers, anyone interested in learning to manipulate digital tools can benefit from reading this book.
            Being a good resource for a variety of people, this book reflects its authors varying areas of expertise. For example, one of the authors, Ian Milligan, is an assistant professor of digital and Canadian history at the University of Waterloo. Bringing in experience in text analyzes and data mining, Milligan believes that anyone can learn to do computational work. Another author, Scott Weingart, is the digital humanities specialist at Carnegie Mellon University. Scott is unique in that he has a dual graduate degree in the history of science and information science. The final author, Shawn Graham, is an associate professor of digital humanities at Carleton University. Shawn is unique in that while he was originally trained in Roman archeology, he has used his talent to become a digital archeologist and digital humanist. Together, these three men bring a unique variety of expertise to the subject of digital history and big data.
            Tackling the topic of digital history and big data, the authors structure their book in a specific way. Divided into three sections, the authors effectively structure their book around three areas of emphasis: the first part of the book provides an overview of the field of digital history, the second part of the book holds an “emphasis hands-on textual analysis,” and the third part of the book looks as networks as being a type of analysis and a powerful visualization (11). While I found the book to be well written, I found it somewhat disengaging. Although I think the authors did a phenomenal job of explaining the various digital tools (what they are, why we should use them, even how to download and operate them), I personally struggled to stay engaged as a reader. For example, I found the authors explanation of regular expressions to be very thorough – consequently, if I ever need to use regular expressions, this book is an incredible resource. Yet, since I do not have a need for regular expressions at the moment, I struggled to stay engaged reading this part of the book. Nevertheless, the authors are incredibly thorough in their research (evidenced by their footnotes) and coaching (evidenced in the many illustrations demonstrating how to use technology). Looking at the interactive visualizations, however, I found them a little confusing to use (but, they do look really cool).
            Still, even though I found myself struggling to stay engaged with some of the more advanced digital tools, I found some of the more simple tools effectively explained and presented in the book. Personally, I really enjoyed experimenting with Overall, this book is a great resource and I would most definitely recommend it to others.
            As a final note – one interesting thing about the book is that the authors published an online companion essay,  "Diversity in Digital History," Acknowledging that it is impossible to cover everything in digital history in one book, the authors explain how they regret including to cover diversity and equality. Believing that digital humanities should not be “a playground for the privileged,” the authors explain that diversity and equality is an important topic vital to the field.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Digital Public Library of America (Internship Week 8)

Building off of last week’s blog post, I wanted to continue to share about topics that I plan to include in my final paper. Last week we looked at history harvests and this week I’d like to look at the Digital Public Library of America.

But first – quick update on my scrapbooks.  I started scanning my scrapbook this week! While the scanning itself was boring, it was exciting to see my project start to come full circle.

When Dr. French first told me about the Digital Public Library of America, I asked him if this was a real project or a project in the making. He told me it was definitely a real project and to check it out for myself. So, I did! And let me tell you, it is quite the project.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA for short) is an online library that seeks to digitally bring together “America’s archives, libraries, and museums” and make them available to the public ( The DPLA is led by Executive Director Dan Cohen, a staff team of approximately ten people, and a Board of Directors. The idea for a national digitized library has been around since the 1990s. According to the DPLA, “Efforts led by a range of organizations, including the Library of Congress, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive, have successfully built resources that provide books, images, historic records, and audiovisual materials to anyone with Internet access” ( Yet, where many of these materials exist independently attached to universities or libraries, the DPLA purposes to bring “these different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together in a single platform and portal, providing open and coherent access to our society’s digitized cultural heritage” (

But how did the DPLA get started? Well, in 2010 leading scholars in fields of preservation, technology, law, and education gathered together to discuss the potential of an online digital library. After this meeting, beginning in 2011 this group of scholars embarked on a two-year journey, during which time they “brought together hundreds of public and research librarians, innovators, digital humanists, and other volunteers,” and ultimately founded the DPLA ( Then, following the DPLA’s launch in April 2013, the DPLA staff constructed the organization’s “strategic plan” for 2015-2017. Outlining its top priorities, the DPLA’s strategic plan explains that the organization’s top priorities include “completing its hub network, fully building its technology platform, and pursuing an outreach plan to the public (DPLA Strategic Plan). These three priorities are important being that the DPLA’s hub network is responsible for digitizing items, the technology platform is responsible for hosting the digital items, and the outreach plan is responsible for connecting with the community to collect items.

So, while you might be thinking, what makes a digital library so great when I can already use googlebooks or kindle? Well, the DPLA is unique in that it not only digitizes books, but it also hosts collections of everything from photographs, to post cards, to journals and diaries, to hand written letters, to video clips, and more. Perhaps the most interesting item I have discovered thus far is the digitized image of Helen Keller’s bathing suit!

Stay tuned my next blog post for even more details on the DPLA!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The History Manifesto (Digital History Week 7)

For this week’s assignment, my digital history class read Jo Guldi and David Armitage's The History Manifesto (2015) and explored the form and content of the material as well as the debate surrounding the book. Some of the questions we considered area as follows:

What claims do Guldi and Armitage make about recent trends in historical scholarship and practice?

            According to Guldi and Armitage, by the twentieth century, the “longue durée (although generally not, of course, under that name) offered a canonical tool for writing revisionary history in the service of reform” (23). Then, coming out of a crisis of the general humanities, the term long durée emerged as Ferdinand Braudel and the Annales school believed that the solution to the crisis of the humanities could be found in a history “measured in centuries or millennia” (16). Yet, where Braudel and Annales school historians studied human agency in the environment over long spans of time, after 1968 historians began to narrow their time and geographic scales (39). As historians needed new material for their dissertations, they buried themselves in the archives and focused on short-term history as they embraced micro-studies of people in small time scales and reduced geographic locations. As historians retreated from the long durée, other scholars, like economists, embraced universal models to study the past and predict the future, a job previously held by historians and the study of historical data (46, 11). Fortunately according to the authors, a new form of long durée has emerged promising new studies and conclusions with the use of big data and new technology (9).

What do they see as the proper role of historians in society? What skills, in their view, make historians particularly well equipped to weigh in on pressing issues of the day?

            According to the authors, historians hold the role of studying the past to help understand the present and predict the future. Furthermore, in addition to the role of predicting the future, historians hold the role of prescribing ethical decisions in a society as they use long durée to overturn false myths (22, 37). With this role in mind, the authors describe specific skills that make historians particularly suited for contributing to studying the pressing issues of the day. For example, being experts in studying change over time, “Historians have special powers at destabilizing received knowledge, questioning, for instance, whether the very concepts they use to understand the past are of themselves outdated” (14). Moreover, historians are equipped with the skills of “noticing patterns… and finding correlations” whether studying micro-histories or big data (104). Additionally, historians are equipped to study a variety of data from different sources (108). In the words of the authors, historians tools “for weighing data rest on several claims: noticing institutional bias in the data, thinking about where data come from, comparing data of different kinds, resisting the powerful pull of received mythology, and understanding that there are different kinds of causes” (108)

How does digital technology come in to play here?

            Considering the role of digital technology, the authors believe that such technology offers great promises for historians and the return of long durée. As digitization allows historians to analyze more data and access more data than ever before, tools like Paper Machines/Many Eyes/Google NGrams “invite scholars to try out historical hypotheses across the time-scale of centuries” (93). Moreover, digital technology will allow historians to compare sources next to each other in new ways. For example, “By placing government data about farms next to data on the weather, history allows us to see the interplay of material change with human experience, and how a changing climate has already been creating different sets of winners and losers over decades” (99). Furthermore, digital technology helps to “illuminate silences in the archives” which 1) brings to the public history that some (like the government) might rather hide and, 2) helps to contextualize the history of groups without much written record (like Native Americans) (100).

On what basis do Cohen and Mandel take issue with Guldi and Armitage? How do the books' authors respond? Who, in your view, gets the best of the argument?

Looking at Cohen and Mandel’s critique of The History Manifesto, I find it interesting that Cohen and Mandel do not critique The History Manifesto’s “favored modes of historiography” but rather critique its arguments. In their critique, Cohen and Mandel take issue with Guldi and Armitage in claiming that the evidence used to support The History Manifesto’s arguments are often taken out of context, misinterpreted, and lead to opposite conclusions (AHR 530). For example, Cohen and Mandel claim, “There is no evidence either that historians concentrated on long-horizon research before 1968 or that there was a fall-off afterward, when the great shrinkage supposedly began” (ARH 532). In response to the critique, Guldi and Armitage first highlight the judgmental tone of the critique and then reaffirm their arguments in The History Manifesto by further explaining their evidence (544-547). Looking at book, the critique, and the response, I believe that Cohen and Mandel have the best argument. While I appreciate the points raided in The History Manifesto, Cohen and Mandel’s critique shows holes in The History Manifesto’s argument, consequently leading me to view the critique as having the strongest argument.