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(Digital) Maps as a way to expand the historical horizon

Sean Wright

Originally posted to my ANU blog.

I’ve found it fascinating to see the ways in which historians are interacting with GIS to add value to historical understanding. It has been fun to play with and see ways you can quite easily import a table of data to Google Maps to give visualisation to the subject.

In terms of Digital Humanities, it is a great example of how the digital can expand the historical horizon. Geoff Cunfer’s article on “Scaling the Dust Bowl” was an example how long-standing assumptions can be questioned and new ideas allowed to enter what were considered settled debates. The reality is that even if the data (and the visualisation of it) changes the findings or not, it allows new angles to question — and see — the past. I think this is an example of the potential of the disruption that is the Digital Humanities and Digital History.

In time, it may well be a given that data and visualisation is considered as much a necessity as a review of the relevant literature in a given area of study. While this may be a difficult hurdle for someone of my generation to get over, it will invariably be ‘par for the course’ for later generations. But this is not to play one off against the other: traditional methods will still have their importance. What these new approaches bring is a way to gain even greater focus on a subject area despite that finite resource that is our time.

One question that comes to mind is whether the digitisation of historical records that is being undertaken at present easily allows datasets to be created that can be used for purposes such as geospatial analysis. I fear a lot of digitisation undertaken is simple conversion of source materials to plain PDF images or similar formats, not the value adding of OCR or text of the digitised source. This slows down the process of taking the digitised historical record and mashing it up in such a way as to provide some analysis. But perhaps that is the reality: historical work will still take plenty of effort and time for sources to be processed into useful formats for analysis and visualisation.

A few words on Digital Research, Synthesis and Curation

Sean Wright

I'm doing a little blogging over at the ANU's Historynet on the subject of Digital History and Heritage. Nothing too serious... I'll repost my posts here, but feel free to head over and see everything that is going on there.

The web really affects the way I undertake research. I would say that it is more positive than negative, for the speed and synthesis of researching on the web easily surpass the manual process of research in the stacks or the archive. Not to discount research in the stacks and the archive: it’s more horses for courses, so to speak.

What do I mean by speed and synthesis: speed needs no explanation in terms of using the web — it’s all there, all of the time — ready and waiting, quick to the chase. Synthesis, for me, is the curatorial aspect of the web: the rich summaries and pointers that help you distil research down to the key components. Part of Leitch’s argument (Wikipedia U) hinges on who is doing the role of the curation and whether they have the authority to do the curation (subsequently inheriting the power of direction). Search is one thing, but direction to information is critical when there is simply too much of it.

Synthesis is critical from the aspect of avoiding the pitfalls of research in general: it has been done for eons, through use of general reference texts or collections (such as encyclopedias etc) to help give a base understanding and a point to begin. This, for me, begins with the first page or two of search results from Google or Supersearch. Where can I flesh out my basic understanding of the topic I’m researching before hitting the depths of texts I will identify. Often, if it is easy to crowd-source the basics from sites such as Wikipedia, and it can be a useful starting point. While I understand the academy’s dislike of Wikipedia, the reality is that when you go looking for answers (in general) on the web, all you have to do is ask and somebody will provide you with an answer. Wikis are the natural extension of this, and they supplement search really well.

But there is a danger with these synthesised sources at the outset: the hyperlink. While hyperlinks are, for the most part, the key to the success of information on the web, they also provide the rabbit holes for research that can extend the time it takes to come to an understanding of the subject of your research. Invariably, the curated content leads to interesting material beyond the scope of your research and this serves as a distraction. When you’re in the stacks looking up a call number, you’re focussed on the items you’re looking for, as well as keeping an eye on the surrounding items for anything of interest. This traditional method gave (gives) you focus. You’re less likely to be distracted by other responses. And if the item you’re looking for is on topic, then it, in turn, leads to other focussed results. The web, in contrast, can provide you with the gold, but you need to avoid the interesting weeds on the way.

And the curation isn’t limited to wikis: it can be blogs, special interest pages, articles, abstracts et al. You really need your wits about you to determine whether the curated source is of value and should have some weight as you undertake your research. The qualitative difference between traditional methods of research and using the web is the weight given to the curated materials and sources. The decision has been made for you in many respects in traditional research. You need to do the finer analysis of the resources you discover. The web, on the other hand, opens up the opportunity for you to draw a wider range and amount of thought on any given subject that you need to weight yourself before you undertake the finer analysis.

I’ll have more to say on this over the next few posts.