from 'traditional' to 'digital' history

Amanda Goodrich gave a paper on the meaning of aristocracy at the C18 Britain seminar at the IHR yesterday. She explored text-mining various sources (British Library 19th century newspapers, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers) and using other digital resources such as Google ngram viewer to chart the use of the word 'aristocracy' in eighteenth and nineteenth-century print.

Two points emerged from the paper, which related more to methods rather than content:

1. using new digitised sources and databases as a 'layperson'. 

Amanda (and indeed I) researched and wrote a PhD thesis back in the days before digitised sources. The old way of calling up books and pamphlets in the British and Bodleian libraries, trawling through card catalogues in public libraries and local studies centres, transcribing text, cross-referencing using notecards and folders and post-its: all these are the main methods of doing text-based research.

Now we have huge databases of digitised sources at our disposal. This is a massive change that has only really taken off in the past couple of years. We can call up those books in minutes at home rather than having to travel to repositories and wait for them to be delivered from the stacks. We can use computer databases and keyword searching to do some of the legwork of making connections for us.

How does that change our research, both in the methods we use and the results we come up with?

As Tim Hitchcock hinted in his plenary lecture to the Gerald Aylmer seminar the week previously, to some extents historical research is no longer based on a selected number of texts. This number was often circumscribed by various factors including the particular library the researcher uses, the collection held by the library, the amount of time taken to make notes from those books, and the intellectual capabilities of the researcher to make connections between those texts.

Now we have a potentially limitless number of books and texts to 'mine', with constantly evolving and increasingly sophisticated tools to do so. Some are scholarly and 'curated' such as Eighteenth Century Collections online, but others are less well catalogued, in particular Google Books.

So although historians have always looked quantitatively at sources, they can now do so with much larger numbers of sources from a much wider range of repositories than is usually feasible physically. When a survey of 500 pamphlets took three years to complete, now it can take a few hours to consider 5000 texts.

Do our research methods therefore change? Moreover, do we come up with new conclusions based on more quantitative, 'data-mined', research?

Most of the talks and papers that I've seen and heard about this topic are normally from the producers of the databases and resources, rather than by their end users. We need to consider in more detail how as 'laypeople' use and can train themselves to use these resources. How do we make sure they are aware of the problems? The OCR of the digitised texts is still very poor and inaccurate. The key-word searches are often clumsy or too fuzzy, or inaccurate. Issues of cost and access to certain sites still comes into the process.

2. how to use these new sources in teaching and PhD supervision.

New students starting out in their PhD research (and indeed undergraduates), now have all these sources at their disposal.

How does this change the nature of their historical research methods? How do we as supervisors, who did our PhDs the 'old fashioned' (and some would argue hard, although I beg to differ) way, teach students the skills to use such resources? Is it possible, and intellectually defensible, to research an entire thesis using just digitised sources and database search methods to do so?

We all have to consider these new possibilities, our methodologies, and our training as historians in this new age of the 'digital humanities'.


  1. Check out this new and much more compelling version of the ngram viewer:

    I think it helps to answer some of the queries over the ngram stuff, and makes a much more useable resource for non-programmers. Having said this, my third year students couldn't see why it would be useful for historians!


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