Week 6 – Argument and narrative: do maps build the bridge?

Maps are arguably the most successful forms of historical images that have been digitsed, as they are easy to digirally manipulate adn change. Maps were first created with reference to religious landmarks, with one destination in mind. When maps were then made to be more flexible, they were constantly being redrawn as new areas were plotted. With digital maps this is no longer the case, data is much easier to add to and fix errors than with pen and paper, and large amounts of data can be plotted with ease.

Maps as visualisations of data create a form of narrative, but leave much of the interpretation up to the user. For historians especially, these visualisations can take the argument of academic history and create a narrative that is engaging for all audiences, without losing any of the stories that were trying to be told in the first place.

The Oxford Knights Archive can be used to do just that. Created by students, the data contains information from a series of mini-biographies of students who graduated from Oxford University before 1715, from a published book called ‘Alumni Oxoniensis’ that was digitised by British History Online. The students worked together to extract the birth places of all of the graduates who went on to be given a knighthood.

Using this data alongside Google Fusion Tables, you can map the data and filter it in various different ways. The most useful method of doing this is heatmaps. Heatmaps create coloured diagrams that show the concentration of people, rather than individual entries, giving a better visualization of an area on a map, not just a myriad of dots which would be confusing to the untrained eye. The maps are able to be filtered by any of the different types of data available in the original table, including college and matriculation year, meaning the large data set can be manipulated for any number off projects or historical enquiries.

As the data set is so large, it would be close to impossible to do the same thing on a physical map, especially when it comes to filtering by different variables – the possibilities are simply too large. Furthermore, having the data already laid out in a table, and having the technology to input it onto a map saves the time of trying to physically input the data onto a digital map, which would also be incredibly time consuming and close to impossible without a program to do it for you. While you may be able to analyse the tabular data for the answers to any enquiries, it would take much longer and you would be far more likely to miss the bigger conclusion if the data is not displayed visually, on a map.


Week 11 – Flickr: the dumping ground for visual culture?

Visual culture is an important but vastly overlooked aspect of historical enquiry. Whilst there are lots of images in academic texts, they are usually overlooked because the images are presented as illustrations of the written history, rather than of sources of history themselves. Images can be key sources in understanding the daily lives of people from all backgrounds, and much like large quantities of text, they are more manageable in large amounts digitally.

Having primary source images online in database, such as the British Library image collection on Flickr, gives a much easier platform from which to engage with visual historical documents, regardless of geographic location. This resource is invaluable to those who cannot travel to access physical image archives, so the sources can still be used for varied reasons. Furthermore, because the images are under a Creative Common License, audiences are able to do anything with the images without repercussions.

The collection of over one million images came together in one place after the sections of the British Library had undergone Optical Character Recognition, in order for the texts to be placed in an online archive. However, as the pictures were not text, the programme was unable to recognize them, and filtered them out. The images were then lumped together, and for lack of ideas of what to do with them the British Library posted them online for the public to use.

Education has been a big factor in the digitization of these images; students of history have proclaimed that having images makes the past seem more accessible, as the worlds they are trying to visualize now take shape in the form of these images, and with the sources being available online, they can be accessed and used for education all over the world, spreading this visual culture.

There are a number of ways these images could be used in other ways to help teach about the past and help us as historians to understand it.

Overlaying maps.  

The database has a vast number of maps of all types available; to be able to place these maps in their modern context, and to be able to explore them interactively would be a useful tool to understand how the landscape has changed over time, as well as how the art of mapping itself has developed. This technology has been used in the past so it is not outside of the realm of possibility, and would be an excellent use of the large amount of various maps the British Library has in its archive.

Mapping by source/location 

Another way a map could be harnessed is by placing images of buildings or landscapes, or even people in the context of where they are in the world. The subject(s) portrayed could be placed in their geographical context, allowing users to search for items by location, rather than having to know what the object is immediately. To further this technology, filters could be applied to sort the objects portrayed by what they are, be it portrait, landscape, object, and so on. Date filters could also be applied so images from certain periods can be searched for. This will help users that are looking for specific sources, therefore reducing the time spent aimlessly searching the database, but also for the casual user looking to make interesting connections between different sources. To take this idea even further, the map could be toggled to show not only the location of what the source is portraying, but the location of where the source was created. For example, a book written by a Spanish botanist with drawings of plants found in South America could be placed firstly in South America, where the plants are located, but on a different map be in Spain, where the source itself was printed. These two maps will show interesting juxtapositions about the creation of images themselves, and how these vary between type and date – especially interesting for new discoveries.

3D scanning

Another idea that revolves around mapping the images is grouping the images by the object or landscape they are portraying, and being able to view the same object from different perspectives, eras and artists. For example, having the different drawings of the Sphinx over time grouped together, and being able to click through them to see a 360 degree view of the landmark, or at least as wide a view as you could get with the images available for that landmark. This would give the viewer the opportunity to see the progression of drawing styles over time, and even the decay of the objects, especially when applied to landmarks that are now ruinous, a greater narrative of the object can be gathered from the perspective of sources from all over the globe.

Of course all of these methods have their drawbacks. If there aren’t enough images for a landmark, we are not going to be able to get a full 360 degree view of it, and for sources of unknown origin, or those that do not fit into a category, there is the issue of making them fit into the maps. Also, visual culture is limited to those without visual impairments. To make these sources accessible to those who cannot see them is another hurdle that needs to be crossed in the boundaries of making history accessible to the masses, but having these images free for all to use is a start in the right direction.

Week 8 – 3D printing: the future of public history?

Computers have always been useful with analysing and sorting text, but it is now being challenged to do the same with images and even physical objects. With the rise of 3D printing, whereby a computer scans an object and recreates a copy of it in minute detail, has also come the demand for a greater look into the material culture of the past. Those in the public history field have especially become involved, for 3D printing’s many benefits. Recreating priceless objects for the public to physically interact with could spell the end of the era of ‘Do Not Touch’, and empower audiences to physically engage with the past they are looking at. For the first time, material culture can be taught with the objects (or at least, copies of the objects) themselves, brought to life though the power of technology. Artist Oliver Laric has taken this one step further, creating 3D scans of objects in the Usher Gallery, and made them available online for free under the Creative Commons Licence.

Henry VIII’s crown was seen as a symbol of his wealth and power as King, and then as a symbol of religious authority, and thus melted down at the Tower of London in 1649, after the abolition of the monarchy. When the Crown was recreated in the mid 2000’s, it was designed based on detailed inventories that detailed the construction, as well as the size and position of the 344 rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and pearls that decorated it. The new crown, as spectacular and detailed as it is, is still a replica. Because of the nature of its past, we will never be able to experience its true glory and regality, but this method of interpreting and using historical sources to recreate a piece of material history using technology is one that has proven extremely popular over the last decade. Furthermore, the Historic Royal Palaces have now made a 3D model of the crown available to download, and created a plastic version to use in public exhibitions at Hampton Court Palace.

Tim Powell, Digital Producer for the Historic Royal Palaces said “It’s deeply exciting to be able to use 3D printing technology to put this piece of history into people’s hands – and allow them to imagine what it must have felt like to wear something so spectacular and meaningful.” However, just printing a plastic copy of a recreation of something that was spectacular and meaningful raises some issues that perhaps if audiences are truly going to gain from the learning experience, the object should be improved.

Given an unlimited budget and some technological developments in 3D printing, it would be much more realistic to create a crown that more accurately represented the original, by firstly making it out of metal, and secondly make it in the same colours. The sheer amount of detail on the original crown is lost in the bland white plastic model, and therefore teaching about its glory is much more difficult. One of the aims by the Hampton Court Palace was for the public to experience what it was like to wear the crown, and using the plastic copy currently available would not achieve this goal. The original crown, with its gold and vast amount of jewels, would have been heavy – to create a cheaper copy out of a form of metal will put this experience across much more realistically, and still not be as expensive as actually using gold and jewels.

Another use of this 3D model would be to create cheaper smaller models, available for sale. Replicas of art have been created for centuries, and used to make money. Using an actual 3D model of Henry VIII’s crown is a close-to authentic way of creating a piece of the past that visitors can touch and has the added bonus of bringing some profit to the palace, that can be put back into more educational recreations of objects.

Week 4 – Programming – a help or a hindrance for historians?

Historians have made use of computers in their research and teaching almost as long as computers have been in existence, according to Dr. Ian Anderson. Computers can analyse far more information than the average brain of a historian can, and organise it with much greater precision. The use of computers has revolutionised the way historians store and organise their data, as well as the method to find more sources. As computing has progressed, so have the various ways computing can be used to help historians. One of these ways is programming.

Programming is not for everyone, and often cannot be learned overnight, but historians often spend years learning how to analyse sources, or spend the same amount of time working on a single project, so learning how best to organise and analyse the information they handle is priceless. Programming has been proven to help historians foster computational thinking, that is, to build logical connections that would not have been possible without laying the data out differently. Most historians work with a large amount of information, so it seems wise that they should have the best way to systemise this information. Archive use these systematic databases, and algorithms, to sort the information, and return the requests from keyword searches. Historians that know how to program have the advantage over those who don’t as they know what algorithm systemises data the best, making their information available faster, and therefore saving them both time and money.

There are some negatives to using these programming languages. For those who are new to the subject, it’s no easy feat to understand how the technology works. It will not be something that can be learned overnight, it will take time and practise to fully comprehend how the language works. Languages like Python with its strictly regimented syntax  requires more intensive self-discipline when learning, otherwise your written program will fall flat. Furthermore, the tools only work on well formatted data; any data sets with missing or partial entries will often confuse a computer program, or will end up with only a limited amount of information displayed if the historian is not careful. But, all these nuances can be worked on, if the academic historian wishes to get ahead of the information game.

There are hundreds of programming languages, but the average digital historian only really needs to learn 1 or two. There are also appropriate teaching tools that go alongside these programmes, to help those who may be new to the programming world., CodeAcademy for example, which uses markers and badges to reward those who are making progress in the language. For languages like python, there are extensive natural language processing libraries, expanding the potential for its use. Because there are such a range of resources, Python is easy access for the beginner.

The relationship between the computer and the historian was attacked for turning historians into statisticians, but the work being produced with the aid of programming has disproved these doubts. History is still about creating a well argued narrative, and knowing programming is not going to change that, but help historians know how to reach that goal as smoothly as possible. Despite its small complications, if a historian doesn’t program, their research processes will always be at the mercy of those historians that do.

Week 3 – Optical Character Recognition vs. Double Re-Keying – Quality vs. Quantity?

In the digital age, the online archive is a historians greatest ally. However, the accuracy of the search functions in these archives can hide key sources if they are not fully understood. The texts in the digital archives more often than not started life as paper documents, that had to be digitised. The most popular method for doing this is Optical Character Recognition, a programme that scans the documents and recreates digitally the way it believes the document reads. With sources that contain handwriting, especially from previous centuries, this can cause great issues with spellings and words that are not accurately copied, hindering key word searches in these archives. Another form of digitisation is ‘double re-keying’, whereby the text is typed twice, by two different typists and then the two transcriptions are compared by computer. Any differences are then manually resolved. (1) As double rekeying involved manual labour, it is also much more expensive, with Michael Lesk approximating the cost to be around £1/KB of data vs. £0.13/KB for OCR. (2)

In order to discuss the differences between the two types of digitisation, British Newspapers 1600 – 1900 and British History Online can be compared, which use OCR and double rekeying respectively. Using two common words, ‘Irish’ and ‘Yesterday’, that had common misspellings or that would have been spelled slightly differently in Old English and comparing the actual spelling with some alterations there are varying results:

Spelling British Newspapers 1600 – 1900 British History Online
Irish 837, 778 11,018
Irifh 21,987 2
Jrish 1614 1
Jrifh 309 0
I rish 4349 35
J rish 267 35
F rish 127 35
Yesterday 1537542 12668
Yefterday 165986 0
Yesterdae 128 1*

As you can see from these results, despite the British History Online archive having fewer sources they are altogether more accurate.  Out of the 866,451 variations of the word ‘Irish’ that were searched, 0.03% for British Newspapers were inaccuracies, compared to the 0.003% of search returns on BHO, making it 10 times more accurate. For ‘Yesterday’, 0.09% inaccurate results against 0.00007%, an infinitesimal amount. From this small pool of results alone it can be seen that the difference between OCR and double rekeying on keyword searches can be the difference between finding a key source and not, for historians.

While digital archives are becoming increasingly more popular with historians, as they can make the process of finding primary sources much cheaper, many lack the technological education that will allow them to access a much greater bank of sources. Both of the archives cost around £2 million to create and maintain,  but British Newspapers 1600 – 1900 is only around 22- 52% accurate – a very large margin of error, and BHO having less sources but they are all much more accurately transcribed and searchable for the untrained user. (3)  When historians are selecting their online archives from the hundreds available, it is no longer a case of blindly searching for keywords – they must be educated in the individual archive’s search algorithm, and take advantage of it. The strength of the British Newspapers 1600 – 1900 archive is its vastness, this is also its downfall. British History Online benefits not only in using double rekeying for accurate results, but better quality of searching for users. While its price tag can be seen as a limitation to some, the phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ is relevant in this case. The search for primary sources in the digital age is no longer a question of quantity, but of quality.

* The source with this misspelling had been written with a sic erat scriptum, changing it from ‘Yesterdae’ (the term actually searched) to ‘Yesterda[y]’, automatically changing it and thus including it in the search for both spellings. This pre-corrected term can help historians who are searching for only ‘Yesterday’, and still give them results of different spellings; this would only happen with physical typists in double rekeying, not with a computer programme such as OCR, highlighting one of its many benefits.

(1) Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, ‘Old Bailey Online – About This Project’, Old Bailey Proceedings Online (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org; consulted 27 April 2015)

(2) M. Lesk, Understanding Digital Libraries (California, 2005), p. 55

(3) ‘About This Project – Connected Histories’, Connected Histories (http://www.connectedhistories.org/about.aspx; consulted  27 April 2015)

Crowdsourcing and Transcription – all for one or one for all?

In the age of a move towards digitizing a large variety of sources, it can be overwhelming for one person or one dedicated group of people to work solely on digitizing thousands of individual documents. Transcribe Bentham and Old Weather are two examples where these historians have made the sources they have available to the public for transcription via crowdsourcing. The Oxford English Dictionary describes crowdsourcing as “The practice of obtaining information or services by soliciting input from a large number of people, typically via the Internet and often without offering compensation”, which highlights the first thing about the participants of these transcription projects – they are volunteers. 1 These ‘citizen historians’ spend their time looking over photographs of documents and transcribing them into text, so that they can be turned into searchable archives. For the owners of the projects, this involves minimal costs, as they do not have to employ expensive transcription methods like Optical Character Recognition, and much like the Galaxy Zoo project with its 100 million images, these can be transcribed multiple times in order to filter out any user-based inaccuracies in the transcription. 2

When analysing the outcome of these projects it is important to understand who their audiences are and how the projects aim to use the archive after the transcription is complete. For the Old Bentham Paper project, its aim is to ‘create an authoritative scholarly edition of the Collected Works’ of philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham. 3 As these works are owned by University College of London, the use of the searchable archive after its transcription will be limited to academics who have access through a university to the archive. This can limit the will of ‘citizen historians’ to take part, especially amateurs who will not be able to see the fruits of their labour, but on the other hand this may not be the case. Many amateur historians who do take part in these projects do so for the greater purpose of digitising these important documents, rather than because they have any specific use for them. The Old Weather project, a collaboration between a group of companies including the National Archives and the Met Office, involves volunteers transcribing ships’ logs to from the mid 19th century to help historians track past ship movements and create a fluid history of crew and voyages. The project ranks its volunteers as different positions on a ship, which correspond to the amount of logs they have helped transcribe, from Officer to Captain. This can be seen as a motivation factor to progress up the leader board as a form of competition between fellow citizen historians.

One main criticism I had when using both systems was their technological complications, moreso for Old Weather. Transcribe Bentham used basic html code to give more accurate transcriptions, and had small icons to be able to insert these automatically without having to know how to use them yourself. For Old Weather however, the transcription method was much more complicated, using bulky highlighting and drop-down arrow methods, which quickly cluttered up a page, leaving the user unable to see some of the text they were trying to transcribe. However, this has somewhat to  do with the type of data that was being transcribed; Transcribe Bentham is handwritten letters and manuscripts, whereas Old Weather harnesses tables and ship logs. The layout of the latter is much more complicated for a user to create, which is why the archive gives a set amount of information that they wish to gain from each log. When crowdsourcing transcription, this must be taken into account – what does the archive want to gain from this information, and how is it going to be harnessed after it is complete?

What is important to note about transcribing as potential growth in the digital history field is that these projects are often just traditional forms of research and historical documentation on a larger scale. As Causer and Wallace state, the technology is used mainly to speed up these traditional methods rather to revolutionise them. Furthermore, it was found that only 6% of historians used these forms of digital history in their research, and only a similar amount were willing to use software to speed up familiar techniques, rather than any new or more complicated software that would yield different results. 4 5 This data shows the positive aspect of Transcribe Bentham and Old Weather, but also highlights how these projects do not push the boundaries of building better digital history tools.

  1.  ‘Definition of ‘crowdsourcing”, Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/376403?redirectedFrom=crowdsourcing; accessed 22/03/15
  2. Raddick, M. J., A.S. Szalay, J. Vandenberg, G. Bracey, P.L. Gay, C. Lintott, P. Murray and K. Schawinski, ‘Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers‘, Astronomy Education Review, 9:1 (2010):
  3. Tim Causer and Valerie Wallace, ‘Building a Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from Transcribe Bentham’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Vol. 6 No. 2 (2012).
  4. Summit 2006 Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities. A Report on the Summit on Digital Tools. University of Virginia, 28–30 September 2005. 2006.
  5. Fred Gibbs and Trevor Owens, ‘Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Towards broader audiences and user-centred designs’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Vol. 6 No. 2 (2012).

Week 2 – Twitter – the future of the past?

In the realm outside of the academic, historians have been trying to find a way to nurture ideas and create conversations in a way that does not require lengthy peer review or substantial and intricate research, and what they found, alongside its many other uses, was Twitter.

Founded in 2006, Twitter has been a tool for academics to generate communities of fellows with similar interests, and a way for them to become more familiar with current events in a given field. However, given the limitations of 140 characters versus the usual standard of 8,000 words minimum for journal articles, is Twitter the way forward for academia? Or is it just a side-along for more laid back musings?

Being a mainly mobile platform, Twitter is generally limited by not only number of characters, but the interface that it requires. While it is available on all mobile platforms, traditional academics may see the digital aspect as a drawback to its use in the first instance. The internet can be fickle, and when updates for mobile applications are required, or even server issues for web platforms occur, Twitter can become unreachable and therefore unusable for historians. A further issue in the use of Twitter for historians is the brevity required. Whilst browsing the popular #twitterstorian tag, it is difficult to find a tweet within the 140 character limit, with tweets often linking to other pages to continue the discussion. While this is a valuable way of promoting blog posts or other such articles, it can be argued that this defeats the object of Twitter’s set out parameters.

However, Twitter had become a widely utilized platform for discussion despite these reasons. The use of ‘#hashtags’ has expanded the means of connecting people as it is much simpler to identify interest groups by era or subject, on a more informal  level. Organisations as well, that have their own twitter page are a hive of information, not only about collections, but about links to other opinions in the wider debate. For academics, the ability to share thoughts on conferences is an effortless way to network with others in the field, creating communities in an instant outside of grey brick university offices and peer review journal articles.

Bringing history to be ‘down with the kids’ on Twitter can be seen to demean its prevalent academic standing, but perhaps creating a more open community for the new generation of historians working in the digital age is what history is calling for, to bring the study of the past into the 21st century.

About the Author

I am a Level Five student at the University of Hertfordshire, currently studying History with a minor in Public History. I have particular, if juxtaposing, interests in Cold War history with a focus on the Stalinisation of Eastern Europe, and witchcraft and sexuality in early modern England. As part of my course, I am a part of the Introduction to Digital History module, led by Adam Crymble, which requires me to host a blog based around the topics that are covered in class. Not to say that I am being held against my will…

My aim is to share snippets of the module that are covered, with my own reflections and interpretations, in order to create greater conversation about the world of digital history, and how it is shaping the academic world.