Digital History – a Starting Point


Digital history, using computers to “do” history, is only a recent idea. Only ten years ago Dan Cohen and Ray Rosenzweig from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University published Digital History, a ground breaking text calling historians to explore new ways of practicing the craft. As we have continued to hone our craft, digital history has grown to encompass two different but related areas: using computers for calculation and processing power including data processing and word processing and using computers to display historical research in new ways that remove the tyranny of the text that has confined understandings of history for generations.

I began my journey into digital history at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, where under the guidance of Dr. William Thomas III, we explored what we could do with computers and history. One of my first projects was on the Railroads and the Making of Modern America website. I attempted to understand all of the movements of “contraband” actions during the American Civil War. I used the Official Records of the Civil War as a data set and manually entered records, looking up geographical coordinates as well as linking to pages in the Official Record. Using a combination of json coding, css, and basic html I was able to convert a spreadsheet of information into a map and timeline that worked together to display information in a way that a book or journal article could not. The end project consumed several months of work and many starts and stops.

It was from this starting point, a simple project as part of a larger whole, that I began my journey into Digital Humanities. From there, I worked with Dr. Thomas on several other projects, as we sought to understand the role of railroads in the Civil War. I worked on Civil War Washington, a major project that explored the various relationships of people in the city during the war. We focused our discussions in the planning components on the end user’s experience – what would the final project be looking like and how could they get the most use out of our website?

These two major projects consumed significant resources of undergraduate data entry, graduate student funding, full professors as project directors, and full time project managers, not to mention the resources of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at UNL.

As I began teaching at the undergraduate level, I understood the potential for larger digital projects, but I also understood that those resources that were widely available at UNL were not widely available elsewhere. I wanted to see what digital work could be done at the smallest of levels, but with the most impact.

Creighton University afforded me my first foray into this. While teaching Western Civilizations, in one class period I had my class crowd-source a Google Spreadsheet of all of the explorers/conquistadores from 1300-1700. The class of around 50 students used internet sources to list home ports, names, expeditions, objectives, and other pertinent information. Each student was instructed before class to bring their laptops and they worked in pairs to pull the information and share it through a shared Google Spreadsheet. It was a quite successful effort to work in a collaborative environment with a common objective.

Beginning at Northwest, I attempted to build on the crowd-sourced data collection model. The success that I had found at Nebraska in DH relied on large resources and many data points. The challenge for

smaller digital history projects is data collection. My first idea was to use a collaborative model to generate a usable experience. The first attempt at Northwest was to use a project I had seen called Neatline. Neatline promised to plot your work in “time and space”, essentially using maps and timelines in an interactive way (like I had done at Nebraska) but in a much more usable manner. I had fiddled with the project and thought that I could use it in the classroom.

It turned out to be very difficult. Neatline was not robust enough to handle multiple users at once. Also, there was no easy way to import a data set. So while I had students working through historical projects in class, there was no simple way for them to combine their work into one coherent whole. I did not have the time or energy to do the work for them in a way that would make full use of the projects.

By the following semester a new digital tool emerged from Northwestern University. The new tool was timeline.js, a simple to use interactive timeline. There are multiple digital timeline tools online, but this one used a Google Spreadsheet as the data set. My idea was to crowd source that data like I had done before and use the information from students to populate a timeline. My upper division history class created a digital timeline of Gilded Age inventions. We used Timeline.JS from Northwestern’s Knight Lab and it went very well. The students were engaged with the work. They were interested in seeing a final product that they could share with others. The final project worked well and interacted smoothly.

I tried Timeline.JS several more times, each with a new class and with a new focus. It was clear that a timeline was interesting, but did not do enough to really display work. It was difficult to get beyond a list. The timeline felt like it was suited as a supplemental project to the more concrete work. In the spring of 2016, my American West class took the next step. We used StoryMap.js from Knight Lab. The class researched traditional history papers and based on those papers, divided them up into chronological components. They sourced images and locations based on their research and using the StoryMap tools, built individual interactive digital projects that display their findings. This work consumed about one semester of effort and required multiple classes to be used with Digital History rather than other course content.

Student digital history can be fantastic. Even students with rudimentary technical understanding were able to easily develop digital projects that displayed their work in methods outside of the confines of the text. Giving clear instructions with follow up and multiple checks for understanding are key to the endeavor.

I will continue to develop student work in Digital History and humanities. Dr. Dawn Gilley and I, with the help of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, now are operating Digital Humanities Northwest, a website for our work and to direct student interests. Out of that site, we will be hosting Scholastica, a digital journal of undergraduate research in the humanities. The intention of the journal is to build on the digital humanities at Northwest Missouri State and offer a platform for peer reviewed student work.