from google books to a digital humanities/digital history divide?

I was one of those people engaging in the Twitter back-end during The Association for Computing and History’s panel, “Is Google Good for History?” (or rather, google books) at last week’s AHA. As makinghistory notes, that panel was probably the most successful of the conference from a twitter coverage perspective because almost everyone who was at the conference and on twitter was there. (The tweets for that panel are here.) That also resulted in a plea for #twitterstorians to diversify their panel attendances a bit. It certainly highlighted the extent to which a back-end discussion channel is dependent on a critical mass of individuals, which we just didn’t have.

The combination of Dan Cohen’s comments (posted here on his blog– read the comment section too) and those of Paul Duguid, and the evasions of Google’s Brandon Badger highlighted a dynamic that I think is, in a certain way, related to the sparring over digital humanities and new media studies going on over twitter and in the blogosphere (here’s a list of recent posts on the subject). Dan’s comments pointed to the limitations of Google Books for historians from the perspective of usability, and with a desire for the text mining potential of all those old books. And its the old books he’s interested in, as far as I can tell, because the only full text accessible works are those in the public domain. Of course that’s what historians are interested in, otherwise we’d be journalists (snark). Duguid’s comments focused on the completely botched job Google has made of the metadata in scanning the books. I completely agreed with both of them. I, for one, would love to see the LOC data attached to all the scanned books so that one could have more robust searches, but also to reproduce the experience of browsing the stacks. How often do we find adjacent works in the stacks that end up being important but never showed up in searches? <!–more–>

Anyway, Badger’s response, belying his last name, was to grin and bear the criticisms, and evade truly responding to them. He was interested in two things– 1. improving the search algorithms, and 2. highlighting a potential user experience that was aimed at what regular people are currently reading and connecting that to some sort of social media on the site. Now, Google’s interests, and those of its engineers, are about search in support of ads and also, depending on the outcome of current litigation, its ability to further monetize orphaned and copyrighted books by selling them. The search algorithms and the social media meet there. And, with Badger, this was highlighted by his allusions to what he was reading on the plane (a book on how to improve one’s short game in golf) as an example of the perceived limitations of Google’s ability to get good metadata on their scans, and to “sharing what Sally’s reading” on the social media side. In neither case did these responses reply to the the type of reading and search that Cohen and Duguid were speaking about. The panelists were talking past each other, rather than too each other, often using a shared vocabulary. (You can also find a write up from IHE here.)

So, what does this have to do with a digital humanities/digital history divide? The past week or two there has been a lively discussion on the future of digital humanities, essentially in the wake of the MLA, Brian Croxall’s MLA paper, and the (if still somewhat) hesitant embrace of new media at the MLA. I was struck in reading Ian Bogost’s manifesto on the future of DH, and even more so in the comment section as the discussion quickly evolved into a debate on whether or not New Media Studies and Digital Humanities were synonymous, by the extent to which digital humanities as a concept is used in the blogosphere actually as a synonym for some for or another of literary studies, criticism, rhetoric. Certainly, if New Media Studies defines the digital humanities, then History is straight out. But, that’s also the case if digital humanities conceives of the humanities simply within the disciplinary perspective of the MLA. We do read differently, and in fact we also present/represent our knowledges differently. Reading the comments struck me much the same way that Cohen, Duguid, and Badger were speaking past one another with different languages that hinged on the relevance and use of text in their own forms of reading. If the clarion call of interdisciplinarity or disciplinary destruction is to put the Humanities in Computer Science and Computer Science in the Humanities, or engineering, or simply outside the academy, then there are real limits to how this will transform the practice of History. Bogost’s post and the comments therein struck my by their pervasive presentism. Is it that case, then, that digital humanities and digital history are not the same thing, that there is a divide propelled by our own forms of reading and representing, our own peculiar disciplinary epistemologies? Dave Parry suggests in part that this is the case in his recent post “Be Online or Be Irrelavant”:

Generally speaking (painting really broad but accurate brush strokes here) Digital Historians, and Digital Literary Scholars have had significantly different approaches to incorporating “the digital” into their respective scholarship. Digital Historians have leveraged the digital to expand and engage a wider public in the work of history. As examples of this think of Omeka, or leveraging social media to engage in crowd sourced projects. That is, Digital Historians have often begun by asking “how does the digital allow us to reach a larger/public audience?” Now this could be because many of the folks working in Digital History come from a public history background . . . But in the case of literary studies the “digital” projects have not, as much, changed the scope of the audience. So that if you look at digital literary projects they often look remarkably similar to projects in the pre-digital era, just ones which have been put on steroids and run thru a computational process. Seems to me that the Digital Historian model is a better one.

I think it may be the case, though, that the difference between Digital History and Digital Humanities described here goes deeper than an interest in building audience (which all too often is far from the radar of practicing professional historians), and more to do with notions of how we historians read and what we are trying to represent, particularly in the post-narrative age of historical writing.

My own path towards digital history (I’m not saying I’m there yet) was first eased by my use of digital tools to conduct my research. What digital tools? Well, a camera and a research database. I used a 5 megapixel camera to photograph almost every document I used for my dissertation and first book. I took tens of thousands of photos of manuscript pages. This enabled me to put together a portable set of thousands of cases that I analyzed the good old fashioned way- by reading, transcribing, and taking notes on all of them. The manuscripts I work with are all handwritten from the 18th and early 19th centuries- so there is no OCR solution on the transcriptions. Handling this large body of information went far beyond my own capacity to remember, and I made inventories of my own that I marked up by hand to code for what each case could do for me. I put it all in research databases, first ScholarsAid and later DEVONthink Pro Office when I switched platforms. And now, I’m working on another set of documents gathered this past summer– some 19,000 more photos to transcribe and analyze. This time, I’m experimenting with hacking ethnographic QDA software for my purposes, and producing .txt files to code/tag. I’m interested in contextualizing language at varying points of criminal prosecutions of sexual deviance to help find popular expressions/understandings of tolerable sexual behavior within litigation.

My path towards digital history has also been pedagogical. It combined hatred of Blackboard and a recognition that my own use of technology in the classroom was gimmicky. I wanted to use technology to more effectively present, and also engage and discuss the historical phenomena that provided the fodder for my classes. In discovering the possibilities of wiki, blogs, and other forms of social media for the classroom, I also began to rethink how I would present and represent my research work in the future. The result has been a real rethinking personally of the role of this blog, or the need to construct web spaces for any number of projects I’m working on as a means of disseminating my work in accessible and attractive formats, of the possibilities of something like comment press, etc. For me, there is no distinction between the research half, utilizing digital tools, and the presentation half, utilizing digital media tools. They are the two faces of professional historical endeavor, and by extension I would suggest of digital humanities itself.

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Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Conference Reports, Digital History
2 comments on “from google books to a digital humanities/digital history divide?
  1. Great point about there not being a distinction between the research half and the presentation half. Simplistically, the first is critical for DH to gain a stronger foothold within the academy, the second half for expanding beyond its borders. Depending on the individual’s position and goals, one might take some precedence over the other, but both should ultimately be working in tandem.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by krismcabee: RT @parezcoydigo: from google books to a digital humanities/digital history divide?:

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