From the 126th Annual Meeting column of the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

The Future Is Here: Digital Methods in History to Be Discussed at the Annual Meeting

Jacob Soll, October 2011

In 1999, a crisis gripped the publishing industry. Young scholars found it increasingly difficult to publish scholarly monographs, and many observers—including some editors—predicted the demise of the genre. Robert Darnton, the pioneering book historian and then AHA president, founded the Gutenberg-e program to harness digital publishing to save the scholarly monograph. The program produced some of the first well-made historical e-books.

Despite continual reports of its death, the scholarly monograph staggers on. But the web, e-books, and digital technology have, as Darnton predicted, played an ever more central role in the historian's craft. Voices within the scholarly world as well as a series of articles in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education have shown that the scholarly opportunities offered by technology are far more profound and more varied than we previously thought. How can historians take full advantage of new technologies? Can the AHA help them do it?

One of the goals of the 2012 AHA annual meeting in Chicago is to respond to these questions through a series of featured sessions, entitled "The Future Is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History." Historians like Darnton, current AHA president Anthony Grafton, Peter Burke, Adrian Johns, and most recently, Ann Blair, have examined the history of information technology and grappled with its relationship to the humanities. Pioneers like Roy Rosenzweig, Edward Ayers, and Dan Cohen have provided powerful examples of how sophisticated use of digital technologies can enrich historical teaching and scholarship.

As yet, though, there has been too little substantive dialogue between historians and technology architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Using the model of TED (the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference), we want to make the AHA annual meeting a major forum for presentations, discussions, and demonstrations to discuss how computational methods might assist historical research and the humanities in general. The AHA hopes that its annual meetings will become a hub where scholars and digital technologists come to debate, present new work, and stay up-to-date in research and publishing technology.

Dan Cohen, a member of the 2012 AHA Program Committee, has pointed out that a surprisingly small number of historians use modern digital tools to organize their research (for example, to combine sources from different places). Indeed, e-books are only one aspect to a rich set of growing research and publishing technologies. Cohen, the Program Committee, the AHA staff, and Anthony Grafton have identified a number of often underutilized yet essential digital tools for historians: RSS (web updating formats); content management systems for historical materials (primary sources and secondary sources); research management software (such as EndNote and Zotero); social media and networks; Geospatial tools (Microsoft and Google Maps/Earth/GIS); statistical software search mechanisms and indexing data and metadata standards and principles; digital preservation/repositories/institutional repositories (most universities now have one); and shared writing environments (Google Docs, for instance). There is much to discuss, both about how existing tools can enhance classical forms of historical study and about quantitative analysis and modeling, and how they can work in concert with more classical methods and outputs.

As our first foray into the digital humanities, the Program Committee has organized sessions and demonstrations for the 2012 annual meeting in Chicago. We have also invited a number of leading speakers from the world of TED who have done cutting-edge work in the digital humanities. Among them are Blaise Aguera y Arcas, Erez Lieberman Aiden, and J.B. Michel.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas, chief architect of Photosynth and Microsoft's Digital Mapping Unit, is also the inventor of Seadragon, a mind-blowing technology for viewing and interconnecting visual materials. Working at the Scheide Library at Princeton in the late 1990s, Aguera y Arcas developed a program to analyze Gutenberg's type on the page to show that his moveable print was made of hardened glass and not metal.

Erez Lieberman Aiden and J. B. Michel are fellows at Harvard University, where they direct the Cultural Observatory. They are the inventors of—among other things—the astonishing Culturomics project, which uses millions of digitized books from Google to offer quantitative analyses of the evolution of language and culture. Their work, first presented in Science and widely discussed since its public appearance last year, has already yielded the Google N-Gram viewer, the first publicly available tool that can precisely and rapidly quantify cultural trends.

Aguera y Arcas, Lieberman Aiden, and Michel will discuss the past and prospects of digital humanities in a presidential session (Session 67), "The Future is Here: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities."

The meeting will also feature the first THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) AHA, an "unconference" at which historians interested in technology will create sessions, ideas, and collaborations on the spot. Other featured sessions include a hands-on digital humanities workshop led by Dan Cohen (Session 36); a presidential session on new directions in spatial and GPS history (Session 101); an experimental session on crowdsourcing history (Session 138); a session on text and data mining for research (Session 202); a number of digital teaching panels; and panels concerning the history of networks and information technology from the ancient world to the modern age. The sidebar on this page lists all the sessions under this rubric.

We look forward eagerly to engaging members in a conversation about digital methods for research and teaching in history at the annual meeting in Chicago.

Jacob Soll (Rutgers Univ.) is chair of the 2012 Program Committee.