Research Division

Laura and I spent the first half of the Spring 2017 semester in the Research Division. We were given a range of tasks, some of which definitely took me out of my comfort zone. First, we were asked to work through the Python tutorials on The Programming Historian. After that, we worked through the HTML and CSS tutorials on Code Academy. At the same time, we are taking Clio II (or, Data and Visualization in Digital History), which is introducing us to R programming. So, I suddenly went from having no real familiarity with any coding languages, to having at least a cursory understanding of four. Although a bit overwhelming at first, I can now see the benefits of this kind of exposure, as it better enables me to assess other digital history projects and have realistic understandings of how this could fit into my own research. We were also asked to try out some of newly acquired HTML and CSS skills by designing a mock-up redesign for the Press Forward website. After spending an entire workday tinkering with row sizes, fonts, and colors, we produced a mock-up that really wasn’t so bad, and was actually pretty fun to build once I started to get the hang of it.

During our time in Research, we were also involved with creating proto-documentation for Tropy, the division’s newest project. Tropy will provide a way for researchers to annotate, organize, and search through the increasing number of digital images we collect from physical archives, digital archives, and/or born-digital sources. This task placed me much more squarely in my comfort zone, as we were asked to think about metadata, copyright, and user testing, and write up outlines for future project documentation. It was also useful to get a kind of inside look at Tropy through early testing to understand the process of developing projects that are meant to offer specific functions to a wide audience. I expect that Tropy, much like Zotero, will become a vital tool for many researchers. After all, most historians (whether they consider themselves digital or not) can relate to the problem of having too many images and too little metadata.

We spent the last couple of weeks in Research discussing the work of historians—what is it that historians actually do—and what is gained and lost as the field becomes more and more digital. It seems to me that as we engage with representations of the past—whether in the archive, through mediating technologies like microfilm, or by searching through digitized records—the process of locating, reading, and contextualizing sources always obscures as much as it illuminates. Our discussions raised several questions along these lines. Doesn’t the process of rooting through dusty boxes or searching in Google shape what we can say about the past in analogous ways, and shouldn’t we be more transparent about the paths we take through both? Also, what is unique about the space of the archive? What do we lose when we can’t stumble upon unexpected ephemera, when provenance is replaced by keyword searches, or when marginalia isn’t retained in scanning? Conversely, what do we gain in digital research spaces? These theoretical questions are certainly things I plan to keep in mind as I progress through my career as a digital historian.

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