Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web

Digital History coverThis book provides for the first time a plainspoken and thorough introduction to the web for historians—teachers and students, archivists and museum curators, professors as well as amateur enthusiasts—who wish to produce online historical work, or to build upon and improve the projects they have already started in this important new medium. It begins with an overview of the different genres of history websites, surveying a range of digital history work that has been created since the beginning of the web. The book then takes the reader step-by-step through planning a project, understanding the technologies involved and how to choose the appropriate ones, designing a site that is both easy-to-use and scholarly, digitizing materials in a way that makes them web-friendly while preserving their historical integrity, and how to reach and respond to an intended audience effectively. It also explores the repercussions of copyright law and fair use for scholars in a digital age, and examines more cutting-edge web techniques involving interactivity, such as sites that use the medium to solicit and collect historical artifacts. Finally, the book provides basic guidance on insuring that the digital history the reader creates will not disappear in a few years. Throughout, the book maintains a realistic sense of the advantages and disadvantages of putting historical documents, interpretations, and discussions online. It is also written in a tone that makes digital history accessible to those with little knowledge of computers, while including a host of details that more technically savvy readers will find helpful. And although the book is focused particularly on historians, those working in related fields in the humanities and social sciences will also find this to be a useful introduction. Co-authored with Roy Rosenzweig. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

“The definitive introductory guide for professional and amateur historians wishing to understand and use the Web. Chapters that flow seamlessly together present the nuts and bolts of Web site creation…Amazingly, the prose is jargon free and at a level that neither offends nor stupefies. The explication of technique, moreover, never overshadows the more theoretical discussions…In an online world marked by evanescence, this book will long remain a vade mecum for dedicated amateurs and professionals working in the historical and social scientific fields. Summing Up: Essential.” —Choice

Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith

Extending a tradition stretching back to the ancient Greeks, many Victorian intellectuals saw mathematics as a divine language, a way to ascend above the profane realm and commune with the mind of God. This religious vision of mathematics motivated numerous Victorian mathematicians in both their research and social agendas, including major figures such as Benjamin Peirce (the father of Charles Sanders Peirce) and the British co-founders of mathematical logic, George Boole and Augustus De Morgan. From unpublished sources it is apparent that these mathematicians were intensely concerned with interdenominational agreement in a chaotic era of belief. While their pure mathematics later became a way for philosophers to render spiritual questions irrelevant, in the nineteenth century their theories were often seen as a way to transcend sectarian boundaries in the name of a true and universal faith. Dealing with important mathematicians and intellectuals in England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as in the United States, this book is a wide-ranging study in trans-Atlantic Victorian thought and culture that sheds new light on the history of science, religion, and philosophy. Because of the broader themes that the book illuminates and the many fields it touches upon, the book will appeal to readers in a variety of disciplines, including those interested in the evolution of modern thought, the history of science and religion, and Victorian life in America and Great Britain. The book covers a vast array of materials, from highly technical mathematical notebooks to populist sermons to secret diaries to the musings of amateur circle squarers, and is written in a way that makes the mathematics themselves accessible to non-mathematicians. It also conveys to the reader the elegance of thought and concept that the Victorian mathematician saw in the world of numbers and symbols. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities

hacking_the_academy_book_coverScholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy as they have existed for decades, even centuries, aren’t becoming obsolete. Every aspect of scholarly infrastructure is being questioned, and even more importantly, being reordered. In Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teach from Digital Humanities, a wide array of scholars present their thoughts and approaches with a vibrant intensity, as they explore and contribute to ongoing efforts to rebuild scholarly infrastructure for a new millennium. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

“Is Google Good for History?”

In Jeffrey Young and Tim McCormick, eds., Rebooting the Academy (HighWire Press, Stanford, 2012).

“A Conversation with Data: Prospecting Victorian Words and Ideas”

Explorations in text mining over a million Victorian books. Victorian Studies, Fall 2011.

“Digital Ephemera and the Calculus of Importance”

How important are small written ephemera such as notes, especially now that we create an almost incalculable number of them on digital services such as Twitter? Some of the most critical collections of primary sources are ephemera that someone luckily saved for the future. The New Everyday, June 2010.

“The Idols of Scholarly Publishing”

In Jerome McGann, ed., Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come (Rice University Press, 2010), 311-322.

Engaging and Creating Virtual Communities

When historical artifacts go online, scholarly and amateur enthusiast communities arise around them. How can cultural heritage institutions (and others) curate those communities as well as the artifacts? Proceedings of the Cultural Heritage Online Conference, December 2009.

“Pragmatic As Well As Prescient: Digital History Education at George Mason University”

In 2001, George Mason University’s Department of History and Art History enrolled ten graduate students in its nascent doctoral program, listed in the original brochure as “A PhD with a Difference.” The difference? An emphasis on digital history. Perspectives, May 2009.

“Digital History Interchange”

A freewheeling discussion by eight historians about the nature and potential impact of digital methods and technology on their discipline. Journal of American History, September 2008.

“Creating Scholarly Tools and Resources for the Digital Ecosystem: Building Connections in the Zotero Project”

In a Web 2.0 environment, no application or repository should be an island; to live in this digital realm, applications and repositories must connect with each other, must be able to give to and take from other applications and repositories, and must be able to leverage the combined knowledge and actions of scholars from around the world. Thinking in this way has serious pragmatic implications for the way in which all of those who serve the scholarly enterprise should orient their online creations for maximal utility. First Monday, August 2008.

“The Promise of Social and Semantic Computing for Historical Scholarship”

Recent trends in computing, including new forms of information sharing and the semantic encoding of the information shared, may very well change the way historians and other scholars in the humanities conduct their research, find relevant documents, and collaborate. In Perspectives, May 2007.

“From Babel to Knowledge: Data Mining Large Digital Collections”

What might be possible once Google and others have digitized millions of books? How will we extract information from these enormous digital libraries? This article addresses these questions through a detailed explication of some of my software tools that scan, sort, and analyze large online collections. It also makes some important recommendations for those creating and maintaining substantial digital resources. In D-Lib Magazine, March 2006.

“No Computer Left Behind”

Just as the calculator—an unavoidable modern technology—muscled its way into the mathematics exam room, devices to access and quickly scan the vast store of historical knowledge on the Internet (such as PDAs and smart phones) will inevitably disrupt the testing—and thus instruction—of humanities subjects. In particular, these developments likely spell the end of the multiple-choice test. The death of this testing method is to be praised; just as the teaching of mathematics should be about higher principles rather than the rote memorization of multiplication tables, the teaching of subjects like history should be freed by new technologies to focus once again (as it was before a century of multiple-choice exams) on more important principles such as the analysis and synthesis of primary sources. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2006.

“Web of Lies? Historical Knowledge on the Internet”

Scholars in history (as well as other fields in the humanities) have generally taken a dim view of the state of knowledge on the Web, pointing to the many inaccuracies on Web pages written by amateurs. A new software agent called H-Bot scans the Web for historical facts, and shows how the Web may indeed include many such inaccuracies—while at the same time being extremely accurate when assessed as a whole through statistical means that are alien to the discipline of history. These mathematical methods and other algorithms drawn from the computational sciences also suggest new techniques for historical research and new approaches to teaching history in an age in which an increasingly significant portion of the past has been digitized. Co-authored with Roy Rosenzweig. In First Monday, December 2005.

“Reasoning and Belief in Victorian Mathematics”

An examination of the way in which Victorian mathematicians attempted to create new forms of logic in the midst of a seemingly illogical culture. The social experiences, religious beliefs, and technical work of the British founders of symbolic logic, including George Boole, Augustus De Morgan, William Stanley Jevons, and John Venn are explored, providing a sense of how cultural interests collided with research agendas to shape a new field in mathematics. Chapter 6 in Martin Daunton, ed., The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press/The British Academy, 2005.

“By the Book: Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses”

What is the role of American history textbooks in the U.S. survey courses that use them? Using my Syllabus Finder software to create a specially constructed database of nearly 800 syllabi from these courses (ranging from 1995 to 2004 and including 462 different educational institutions), this article for the first time provides a precise measure of the centrality of textbooks by showing how few additional texts are assigned in the average survey course, and how such courses are put together. The article includes revealing information about the most popular textbooks, the most popular additional works assigned, the place of non-textual material such as websites and film, and the grading structure of these courses at different kinds of institutions. In the Journal of American History, March 2005.

“The Future of Preserving the Past”

Beginning with a comparison of how institutions such as the Library of Congress approached the critical task of saving a rich and representative historical record of December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001, this article discusses the challenges presented to those in charge of preserving our cultural heritage by the changing nature of the historical record—now largely digital rather than analog. In CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship, Summer 2005.

“History and the Second Decade of the Web”

Over ten years of experience with the web has allowed us to understand what the medium does well and what it does poorly, and how we may be able to improve online historical efforts so that they capitalize on the web’s strengths while avoiding its weaknesses. This article explores three possible ways to advance digital history: interaction between historians and their subjects, interoperation of dispersed historical archives, and the analysis of online resources using computational methods. Thinking about such possibilities raises important, age-old questions about how we should preserve and chronicle the past. In Rethinking History, June 2004.

“Digital History: The Raw and the Cooked”

This article presents the question of whether, and to what extent, it is worth structuring historical efforts on the web (by using, for instance, XML). It looks at the benefits, and the costs, to both producers and users of highly structured digital works, and whether technical alternatives in the present as well as unpredictable historical interests in the future might render such structuring obsolete. In Rethinking History, June 2004.

“Idealism and Pragmatism in the Free Culture Movement”

A review of Gary Hall’s Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), including a discussion of the tensions in the open source and open access worlds. In the magazine Museum, May 2009.

“Making the Macintosh”

A Web site review from that highlights the connection between the early history of the Macintosh computer, 1960s Bay Area radicalism, and today’s open source and free software movements. In the Journal of American History, December 2002.