More resources for digital history

The American Historical Association has a page on its website with a summary of its 2015 Digital History Workshop (there will be another at the 2016 annual meeting) and a slew of resources for those interested in exploring this world:

Mapping histories of medicine

A great post by my friend, the Dutch historian of science Marieke Hendriksen, on employing digital humanities techniques.

Marieke Hendriksen - The Medicine Chest

Over the past few months, I have started exploring the many possibilities offered by Digital Humanities technologies. Digital humanities ‘can be described as a set of conceptual and practical approaches to digital engagement with cultural materials’, as this excellent online resource from UCLA puts it. Another excellent resource for historians to learn more about digital tools and techniques is Adam Crymble’s ‘The Programming Historian.’ One of the things I find most fascinating is the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to represent historical data. While keeping in mind that maps are always distorted in some way, entering historical data about events, people, and dates into a GIS application can visualize connections and networks that are otherwise difficult to grasp.

Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project. Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project.

For example, the ‘Knowledge circulation in the 17th century’ project in the Netherlands gives insight not only…

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The Codex is Dead, Long Live the Codex

Yesterday’s New York Times included this paean to MOOCs by Tom Friedman, fan of all things techy even if he does not understand their implications very well.  MOOCs (massive open online courses) were one of the topics covered in a very lively workshop (or symposium) I organized last Friday on “Digital Humanities.”  I think MOOCs are swell but I don’t think online lectures are teaching.  They’re lecturing, which is not the same thing.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  The workshop (or symposium, which sounds a little too Platonic to me), started with four short presentations on varying aspects of the digital world and its impact on the humanities.  Dan Rosenberg of the University of Oregon gave a lovely riff on the term “data” and its numerous ramifications.  The term “data” to refer to pieces of information emerged in English in the seventeenth century; “data” comes from the Latin “dare,” to give, whereas “fact” comes from “facere,” to do or make.  Data are givens, and rhetorical as opposed to the ontological fact.  Patrick McCray of UC-Santa Barbara talked about “big data” and how it has been used in sciences such as astronomy, noting increasingly complex organizational structures (according to this recent piece in Perspectives on History, historians’ organization of data is rather lacking in technological expertise).  He asked the important question of how data relates to our identity as historians.

I talked about Google books and the N-gram, again raising some of the points I had made here.  I went on to talk about the claim that history needs to be more rigorous and scientific, and what that might mean, pointing out that some of these critiques are not new, but that now more than ever we need to communicate what it is that historians actually do.  Rob Iliffe, who gave a wonderful keynote talk the day before on the Newton Project, declared that the impact of digitization in the humanities meant the end of close reading and the end of the life of the mind, turning libraries into “information hubs.”  bibliobimbo-erik-heldfond“Modern books, “ he announced, “are museological artefacts,” and (my favorite bon mot) “presence is a fetish.”  But his conclusions were not all gloom and doom.  We humanists are on the edge of a brave new world, and we need to seize it and shape it – and in so doing rearticulate the value of the humanities to an increasingly skeptical world.  The two hours of passionate discussion that followed did not resolve anything but gave this “bibliobimbo” a lot to think about.

Of Books and Google Books

In the summer of 1979, I helped to proofread Never at Rest, the biography of Isaac Newton by my graduate advisor Sam Westfall.  Being the meticulous scholar he was (a trait I hope he conveyed to me), he also had me check all of his footnotes.  I marveled at the number of archives and libraries he had visited in his quest to see everything Newton wrote; only an obscure library in Geneva had denied him access, and in his preface he “wished them the joy of their possession.”  I can hear Sam’s inimitable voice in those words, not that I ever dared to call him Sam until I was safely a Ph.D.  That same summer I worked at the Lilly Library at Indiana as a receptionist, a job I held through graduate school.  I learned most of what I know about rare books from Josiah Quincy Bennett, the Lilly’s legendary rare book cataloguer.

In my own research over the past thirty years I’ve visited my share of libraries and archives.  But increasingly over the past few years, I’ve also gone to Gallica or Google Books or EEBO or ECCO and downloaded what now number hundreds of PDFs onto my laptop.  Were I still working on Newtonian matters, I could go to Rob Iliffe’s or Bill Newman‘s excellent websites and read Newton’s manuscripts online.  I love Tim Hitchcock’s Old Bailey website.  I can read the minutes of the Paris Academy of Sciences in my study in Corvallis, Oregon with my cat in my lap and no jet lag.  I can find that stray page number within a few minutes.  In one of her books, Natalie Davis thanked a library’s staff for staying open late on a Saturday night so she could squeeze out that last bit of research, and as a parent whose research has often taken place in manic slots of a few days, I find it unimaginably luxurious to have access to so much that was previously locked up far away.

And yet there is something lost in depending on digital copies for my primary sources, and I don’t just mean access to restaurants in Paris.  I’ve talked elsewhere about what I see as the limits of “culturomics,” the Google n-gram tool. Culturomics sees books as simply units of text, bricks in an edifice of words.  My time at the Lilly made me very conscious of the book as an object and an artifact.  Recently Gallica digitized the Paris Academy’s 1671 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux.  I have been reading this book for the past decade, in at least four different libraries.  I am thrilled to have it so easily accessible.  But on the screen, the physical presence of “le grand livre” (as the librarians called it who hauled it out for me in Salle Y at the Bibliothèque nationale) is completely lost.  It’s an elephant folio, over two feet high, almost too big to fit in a book cradle.  Most of the copies that I have seen have been bound in red morocco with gold tooling at the corners and Louis XIV’s  fleur-de-lis in the center of the cover.  At the British Library in the summer of 2010 I looked at five copies, all different, including Hans Sloane’s own copy, which was bound in blue cloth.  I propped them up side by side on giant book rests, monopolizing two desks in the crowded rare books reading room.

Of course all books don’t have such presence, but recent studies of reading and note taking should remind us that reading and writing in the pre-digital age were deliberate acts that involved a number of physical objects, sometimes now referred to as “paper technologies”:   loose sheets, notebooks, ink, pens, books, presses, engravers, later perhaps typewriters and carbon paper.  The differences between a broadside and a textbook are not simply in the number of pages but in the quality of the paper, the typeface, the size, even the shape, none of which is conveyed very well by a digital copy.   Likewise a manuscript is not only the words on the page but the page itself.

My second concern, one that I find ample evidence to confirm in my students, is that if a book is not digitized it ceases to exist.   I fear the increasing loss of the physical book to the electronic copy as library budgets continue to contract; we already can see the wholesale unloading of periodical collections.  Wide scale digitization would, it seems, make a project like Never at Rest much easier to do.  But I wonder if in fact the opposite might be true, and that by trusting in the digital we increasingly overlook that other world of print and paper, diminishing our range of vision rather than expanding it.

Perhaps my concerns are unfounded, and I’m not going to delete all those PDFs from my laptop.  But I still go to libraries and archives as often as I can.

This essay also appeared in the April issue of the History of Science Society Newsletter.