Publication Date

November 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting


Digital Methods

Do acronyms like HGIS, LDA, and TEI leave you nostalgic for the familiarity of New Deal alphabet agencies? Would you like to learn more about the ways historians are using big data, text analysis, and other digital methods in history? The AHA annual meeting is a great place to develop your knowledge of the burgeoning field of digital history. This year’s gathering in Atlanta will feature workshops, panel sessions, posters, and even a social event or two related to digital history. In keeping with attendees’ wide-ranging interests and the AHA’s mission to serve historians in all fields, presentations of digital scholarship will span the discipline.

Novices desiring an introduction to digital history and experts looking to discover new possibilities can take advantage of a variety of methodological and theoretical approaches. Before the meeting starts, THATCamp AHA 2016 (Jan. 6, Georgia State University) will get historians interested in technology in the conference mood. THATCamp participants can propose sessions to discuss issues and raise questions in a welcoming and informal environment. Starting bright and early the next morning is our third annual Getting Started in Digital History workshop (Jan. 7, 9:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.), open to anyone attending the conference (see sidebar, “Getting Practical”).

Once the meeting itself gets underway, you can investigate methodologies from digital mapping to web archiving—and from databases to text encoding. Those looking for a crash course in textual markup for computational analysis, a fundamental methodology that underlies many digital history projects, should check out Marking Text for Digital History: From Microhistory to Big Data with the Text Encoding Initiative (session 274, Jan. 10, 11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.). The panel will explore the intellectual activities that text encoding involves and how encoding sources can be a tool for interpreting a single diary or analyzing vast collections. Documentary Editors Engage the 21st Century (session 40, Jan. 7, 3:30 p.m.–5:30 p.m.) will include discussion of how historians preparing editions of historical documents are using technology, social media, and teaching to expand their audience.

Digital mapping plays a growing role in the discipline; several sessions analyze its technologies and interpretive strategies. In a year that has seen growing interest in the origins of racism and racial violence, slavery will prove a critical topic at this year’s annual meeting. Digital History, Slave Databases, and Mapping (session 27, Jan. 7, 1:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m.) will examine how two digital history methods can provide new insights into the history of US slavery. Since the 1980s, database technology has allowed historians to analyze the growing body of primary sources related to slavery, and mapping provides a way to interpret and present data from those sources. Digital mapping also takes us beyond Anglo North American cultures in Indigenous Counter-Mapping: The Use of GIS, Geovisualizations, and Historical Maps to Reconstruct Indigenous Perspectives and Histories(session 63, Jan. 8, 8:30 a.m.–10:00 a.m.). Geographic technologies open up vistas on the conquest and colonization of Peru through “ethno-spatial history,” the Cherokee Trail of Tears during the forced removal of 1838–39, and methodological questions about conceptualizing indigenous geogra­phical knowledge systems, such as Kiowa pictorial maps.

Moving from spatial histories to big data and the use of databases, Migrations, Databases, and Big Data(session 135, Jan. 8, 2:30 p.m.–4:30 p.m.) will explore the impact of technology on migration and its study. This wide-ranging panel will include talks about digitized population databases, how our interconnected world has changed the experience of migration and being a migrant, and the use of increasingly sophisticated code to link and analyze local archival data. The World Wide Web itself has become a vast, unstructured database of human culture, and as we move further from its inception, historians must face its importance as a potential primary source. Web Archiving: From Practice to Theory(session 202, Jan. 9, 2:30 p.m.–4:30 p.m.) will look at the complicated problems that surround this living archive and its preservation.

Discovering how digital tools enable new kinds of research is only one theme that an aspiring digital historian can explore at the meeting. Methodological and pedagogical issues will also be on the table (or the screen) at a number of sessions. Several panels analyze archival practice, an issue growing numbers of historians confront as we create our own digital archives and web-based scholarship. Digital History and Digital Preservation Projects: Challenges and Opportunities (session 249, Jan. 10, 8:30 a.m.–10:30 a.m.) and Digital Historical and Cultural Collections and Exhibits: Ethics, Creation, Dissemination, and Funding (session 54, Jan. 7, 3:30 p.m.–5:30 p.m.)will both prove instructive for those facing issues around creating and preserving digital projects.

Sessions on digital pedagogy and teaching techniques have drawn large crowds at past meetings, so be sure to get there early for Teaching History through Archives(session 212, Jan. 9, 2:30 p.m.–4:30 p.m.)and Digital Pedagogy In and Out of the Classroom: Lightning Round (session 83, Jan. 8, 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.). The former will explore the methods and techniques for using primary materials at all teaching levels, while the latter will provide a tasting menu of ideas and insights.

The reach of the web extends far beyond the classroom. As a discipline, more of us are using the web to connect with new audiences besides our colleagues and students. The organizers of one fascinating project involved in this endeavor, the AskHistorians thread on Reddit, are leading a session that will look at questions around doing public history on the web. And they’ve even crowdfunded their trip to Atlanta.

This is just a sampling of what’s on offer during the four days of the meeting. For a full list of digital sessions and events at the annual meeting, including our third annual reception for everyone with an interest in blogging and social media, check out our web guide and look out for the annual meeting app later this fall.

Seth Denbo is the AHA's director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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