Research

With our return from Spring Break, our rotation in the Research division has come to an end. Our main projects were working on documentation and testing for Tropy and contributing to the redesign of the PressForward website. In between, we were also able to spend time learning HTML, CSS, and Python and doing lessons on the Programming Historian.

From the beginning of our time in Research, we participated in meetings with other members of the division to brainstorm the contents and design of a new PressForward website. We had to take on the mindset of marketers without relying on jargon or soon-to-be-outdated buzzwords and without sounding either too academic or too corporate. It was a difficult balance to strike, but it forced us to really think about what it is that PressForward does and how it can be useful. By the time everyone settled on the language and layout of the main page, Jessica and I had developed a working knowledge of HTML and CSS through online lessons, so we set to work coding it using Foundation. Once we had the basic structure, we spent the rest of the day testing out fonts, color schemes, and other design elements. Some of our ideas might end up on the finished website, but more importantly, we got to play a role in many parts of the process, influence the design, and practice our web design skills.

The other main project that we helped out with was Tropy. As a tool for historians to organize the digital photographs they take in their research, Tropy is also meant to help historians better manage rights and metadata, so our first task was to research best practices and create first drafts of documentation. Learning about rights and metadata may not be the most exciting thing, but it’s always useful to brush up on them. What was exciting, though, was actually getting to test Tropy. Because Tropy is still in development and has not yet been released, Jessica and I got to be the first to see and use it beyond the project’s core contributors. Knowing how excited everyone at CHNM is for its eventual release, it felt important to be as detailed as possible and to try to break it in as many ways as I could think to. Getting to see how useful this tool will be for my own future research made testing all the more interesting.

Starting the Data and Visualization in Digital History course at the same time that we started in Research  meant spending a lot of time with programming languages over the last several weeks. Having taken two computer science courses as an undergraduate, I came into the program knowing that I enjoyed learning and using programming languages, so I was eager to learn more and to see how that work can be integrated into historical research. I had the most fun doing text analysis with Python and tried it out on some documents relevant to my own research. I haven’t yet determined if or how I’ll use all of these tools ultimately, but even without having exact plans for the future, it’s good to know what the possibilities are and to be able to approach historical questions with a “toolbox” of many skills. At the very least, it’s also important to me that I have a sophisticated enough understanding to be able to critically assess other digital work. Thinking about programming in these ways has been an important take-away from the last couple of months.

Throughout our time in Research, Sean Takats, Director of Research, asked us to think critically about how the Research division fits in at the Center and, more broadly, in the historian’s research process. We had to consider what it is that historians do and how the research process is mediated by digital technology. In other words, how does technology shape the research process and what do we think technology could or should do in the future? I’ve thought a lot about whether digital tools—both those built specifically for historians and not—have significantly changed the practice of history. The argument can be made, for example, that many historians use online search uncritically, without understanding how search algorithms or OCR work, and this causes them to miss potentially useful or important sources. Alternatively, it can be argued that this is far from a fundamental change; historians have always missed sources and information because of the selective nature of archives, absences in inventories, misplaced documents, etc. I’m inclined to believe, though, that the changes taking place are more than superficial. Whereas historians have been trained to use archives, to understand basic archival principles, and to look for and try to overcome silences in the records, training in digital tools is usually not explicit enough. Because almost everyone uses the internet and its tools in their daily life, there is the prevalent belief that this frequent use is enough to understand them. But the effect is a tendency to treat things like interfaces and search algorithms as natural and neutral, without realizing that these are actually highly controlled ways of interacting with historical sources.

So how do I imagine the possibilities for what technology could do? Ideally, there should be more transparency in how searching works, although this seems an unlikely future when most searching is run by Google. Technology should also force users to think critically about the technology itself, rather than lull us into trusting its accuracy, neutrality, and objectivity. Additionally, instead of boxing users into controlled ways of searching and viewing items, databases should be facilitating multiple ways of manipulating and interacting with items, making it easier to put things together or pull them apart and to view them outside the confines of the database. Of course, it’s much easier to imagine this future technology in theoretical terms than to actually design something that functions smoothly and doesn’t scare away users, but these are just my preliminary thoughts on digital technology and the research process. The rotation in Research was a great opportunity to learn some very technical skills but also to really reflect on the broader context of the projects we were working on and the skills we were learning. This week, we start our final rotation in Public Projects.

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