A digital year in review

At the end of 2017, I’m able to catch my breath and reflect back on the past year. It was a digital year, among other things.

Most concretely, our History department’s Digital History Lab was finally completed. Two long years of planning and grant-writing, and almost 800 emails later, my quixotic labor of love is (almost) done! A generous anonymous donor gave us enough money to find a room one floor above our offices, and to find the money to stock it with PCs and iMacs, a Surface Hub touch-display, scanners (including a microfilm scanner and a ScannX book scanner), and a Surface Book tablet/laptop to pass around the seminar table and project to the Surface Hub. These tools will allow our undergraduate department to use the lab for a variety of projects: digital-centric history courses and digitally-inflected courses; independent studies and tutoring; faculty projects and internships; as well as public history projects with local museums. Not to mention the Skype-enabled Hub.DHL reduced.jpeg

JoeW at Hub reduced.jpeg

In the process of designing and overseeing the lab’s construction, I’ve learned a lot about institutional paranoia and the rules they necessitate, and how the digital humanities’ love of open-source software doesn’t play well with IT’s need for locked-down systems. So the lab had to forego many of the open-source tools used by digital historians and humanists. But I did try to provide the computers in the lab with commercial programs with similar features. The software includes:

  • ABBYY FineReader for OCRing texts
  • the standard Microsoft Office suite (including Access for relational databases)
  • the standard Adobe Creative Suite, including Illustrator
  • statistics software (SPSS and Minitab)
  • EndNote (because we can’t install Zotero)
  • Aeon 2 timeline software (for semi-interactive timelines like this)
  • mapping software, including Google Earth Pro, ArcGIS, QGIS, Centennia and Euratlas historical digital maps, and MAPublisher to tweak geospatial data in Illustrator.
  • OutWit Hub for web scraping and tagged entity extraction
  • online software, such as Google Fusion Tables, Palladio, Voyant, etc.
  • the machines also have Python, but I’m not sure about how easy it will be to constantly install/update new libraries and the like, given the school’s security concerns
  • the department also has a subscription to Omeka, for our planned public history projects.

And there’s more to come. The anonymous donor made an additional donation which will allow us to replace that retro chalkboard with a 90″ monitor display. As well as purchase a few other software packages, and even a reference book or two. All the tools you need to do some digital history. And build a digital history curriculum for our undergraduate majors.

The DHL will be the centerpiece of our department’s new foray into digital history. Since we’re an undergraduate institution, our goals are modest. Having just taught the first iteration of my Introduction to Digital History course, it’s pretty clear that having undergraduates mess with lots of open-source package installations – much less try to learn a programming language like Python – would’ve been a nightmare (especially since I’m just learning Python myself). So our textbook, Exploring Big Historical Data, didn’t get as much use as I’d initially planned. But we did spend some time looking at the broader picture before we dove into the weeds.

Slide1.png

And to make sure the students understood the importance of kaizen and the “There’s gotta be a better way!!!” ethic, I beat them over the head with the automation staircase:Slide2.png

 

As a result, the students were introduced to, and hopefully even learned how to use at least a few features of, the following tools:

  • Adobe Acrobat automation
  • Zotero
  • Excel (don’t assume today’s college students know how to use computers beyond games and social media)
  • OpenRefine
  • MS Access
  • OCR (ABBYY FineReader and Adobe Acrobat Pro)
  • Regular expressions
  • Voyant
  • Google Sheets and ezGeocode add-in
  • Google Fusion Tables
  • Stanford Named Entity Recognition
  • OutWit Hub
  • Palladio

A digital smorgasbord, I realize, but I tried to give them a sampling of relational databases, text mining, and mapping. Unfortunately, we proved again and again that 60%-80% of every digital project is acquiring and cleaning the data, which meant there wasn’t as much time for analysis as I would’ve liked. And, to boot, several of the tools were extremely limited without purchasing the full version (OutWit Hub), or installing the local server version on your own computer (Stanford NER) – did I mention students had problems installing software on their own machines? But, at the least, the students were exposed to these tools, saw what they can do, and know where to look to explore further, as their interests and needs dictate. I’d call that an Introduction to Digital History.

Fortunately, I was able to play around with a few more sophisticated tools in the process, relying on the Programming Historian, among other resources:

  • Vard 2 and GATE (cleaning up OCRed texts)
  • MALLET topic modeling
  • QGIS
  • Gephi network software (Palladio also has some basic network graphing features)
  • VOS Viewer for bibliometrics – if only JSTOR/Academic Search Premier/Historical Abstracts had the bibliometric citation datasets that Web of Science does (yes, JSTOR’s Text Analyzer is a start, but still…)
  • Edinburgh geoparser
  • Python (also with the help of Automating the Boring Stuff with Python).

So now I’ve at least successfully used most of the tools I see digital historians mention, and have established a foundation to build future work upon.

So, what are my resolutions for 2018?

More of the same, but applied toward EMEMH!

More digitalia – adding a few more toys to Eastern’s Digital History Lab, training the other History faculty on some of its tools (Zotero and Omeka, for starters), and practicing a bit more with GIS. And figuring out a way to efficiently clean all those 18C primary source texts I’ve got in PDFs. And, just as mind numbing, creating shapefiles of the boundaries of early modern European states.

More miltaria – I’m teaching my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course again this Spring, and will try to figure out a way to have the students’ projects contribute towards an EMEMH dataset that will eventually go online.

And did I mention a year-long sabbatical in 2018-19, so I can finish the big book of battles, and start the next project, a GIS-driven operational analysis of Louis XIV’s campaigns? Yeehaa!

So here’s to wishing your 2018 might be a bit more digital too.

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