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.


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