As we all know, this has been the first semester in which Digital Methods in History has been offered here at Cal State Long Beach. Before this class began I believed that the class would focus more on presenting historical research on a digital platform. Since then I have learned of different approaches in which technology could be used to analyze data which otherwise would have taken months if not years using traditional means. Although this class is very new, through class projects and discussions, it has shown the importance of knowing how to utilize technology within historical scholarship to enable students to analyze and document their findings using methods previously unavailable to them.
Having no real tech background I never really considered how technology could be used in historical study other than scouring online databases and Wikipedia for research. One basic use of digital methods in history is to provide different platforms on which to present historical information. Sites like Omeka visually present historical topics in a manner that textbooks and monographs simply cannot do. Using the internet to present history also broadens the historians audience to include people that may not have access to monographs or scholarly journals. Online archival projects can also bring people together to archive history such as in the case of the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. This makes it possible for historians to access a growing database of primary sources and allows continuous examination of these subjects. Digital history creates a community that brings together people from all over the world to pursue historical “truth” and distribute their findings to anyone who will listen.
Digital history not only allows historians access to a larger audience, it also enables them to analyze large data sets in new ways. When looking at census records, programs like Google Fusion make it easier to analyze all of the data instead of focusing just on averages within a given physical area. Ngram type software can be utilized to search through hundreds of documents to find relevant keywords. StoryMap JS can be used to bring together these findings to show movement over space. For example, one can plot the movement of specific people during the Great Migration just by searching for their names in government documents..
The Elizabeth Murray Project brings together letters, laws, and various other sources to show how one woman was able to start her own business and use her resources to enable other women to do the same, ultimately allowing for deeper analysis into feme sole traders and women’s agency in colonial America. However, the project also shows how one chain of events can affect another. The project demonstrates this with its timeline, showing that events leading up to the start of the Revolutionary War affected Elizabeth Murray’s life. It also shows how wars between the French, Spanish, and British on other continents had an affect on the American colonies through taxation as well as changes in territorial control. In revamping this project we are not only able to add to the online archive, we are able to present a timeline, with information relevant to the topic, in a more user friendly way. This will give those who use the site a simpler and more interesting way to learn about the life of Elizabeth Murray.
Unfortunately, even after this digital class, I still do not have much of an online presence. I only posted to the blog when it was required and never comment on other’s posts. I have no grasp of any sort of computer coding. Although a knowledge of coding was not necessary for this course, it does help in knowing how websites operate and ultimately how a site can be formatted and displayed. Even within the project my primary job was transcribing Murray’s letters and posting them to our site. No coding, just a lot of copy and paste. Perhaps basic coding would have been useful in adding pictures to the posts in a visually appealing arrangement as well as trying to format the drop down menus. In the future I hope to improve my tech skills by creating my own Omeka site as a favor for some friends of mine.
All in all, this class, at its core, shows students how to use technology in their research. However, there’s more to it than that. One could make the argument that not only is it in every student’s best interest to take this class, but that this class should be seriously considered as one of the history major’s core classes. History 301 and 302 provides students with the basic necessary skills to conduct historical research in a traditional manner, whereas history 305 offers a chance for students to learn and improve technological skills that will one day be required for historical scholarship.