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 wordle.net. 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.