Historian, Program! Self-Help for Digital Neophytes

Seth Denbo, May 2017

Harvard University Library now lists, among proprietary databases and other e-resources to which the university subscribes, a website called The Programming Historian, which offers free online tutorials on digital methods, tools, and techniques. Not just for Harvard, The Programming Historian, launched in 2007, is a free and open resource that anyone can access and use. It’s also unique in the world of online education—its lessons are primarily created by, and geared toward, historians.

Scholars looking to develop digital history skills today have a range of options. Many graduate programs now include digital methods and skills training. Historians can also look for resources in other departments on campus, in the library, or at training institutes. But The Programming Historian offers another, autodidactic model that uses the web to offer materials that can help scholars find digital solutions to common problems.

When Douglas O’Reagan needed to create an online digital archive, for example, he turned to The Programming Historian for help. At the time, O’Reagan was lead archivist for the Hanford History Project, which manages the US Department of Energy’s collections related to the Hanford site of the Manhattan Project. Once O’Reagan had identified Omeka—an open source web publishing platform—as the right tool for the job, he taught himself how to use it with the help of The Programming Historian. O’Reagan describes the tutorials on the website as “very well done, very useful . . . they broke things down into clear steps.”

With over 50 published tutorials, the site has a wealth of resources on a broad range of topics. These include relatively straightforward things such as using Markdown (a simple markup language) to more complex activities such as textual analysis or GIS (Geographical Information Systems). Some lessons are explicitly related to the disciplinary work of historians, such as “Geocoding Historical Data Using QGIS” and “Creating Network Diagrams from Historical Sources.” Others, including “Creating New Items in Zotero” and “Introduction to the Bash Command Line” are of more general interest. With so many options, The Programming Historian can be daunting in its breadth. In a review, Cameron Blevins (Northeastern Univ.) suggests that the site is best used to help solve specific problems instead of general education about digital history methods.

Many lessons use real historical data and pose historically relevant questions.

What’s unique about The Programming Historian is that it teaches skills through examples that are suited to historians. Many lessons use real historical data and pose historically relevant questions. For example, a tutorial by Martin Düring (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) on network analysis is built around a case study of a first-­person narrative written by a Jewish Holocaust survivor. The tutorial approaches the case study with historical questions such as “How did social relationships help Jewish refugees to survive in the underground?”

The Programming Historian is run and managed by an international editorial board, much like a scholarly journal. Tutorials undergo a process of peer review by outside experts who provide feedback and recommend revisions and improvements. “Reviewers are selected on the basis of their expertise, just as you’d expect for a journal,” says Adam Crymble, a member of the editorial board and digital historian at the University of Hertfordshire. “Reviewers see themselves as colleagues helping to test and refine lessons before they go live.”

Crymble and historian Katrina Navikas (Univ. of Hertfordshire) recently published a methodological article in the Journal of Victorian Culture in which The Programming Historian had a direct impact on their scholarship. They adapted the code Crymble had developed for the tutorial “Using Gazetteers to Extract Keywords from Sets of Free-­Flowing Texts” to turn Chartist newspaper announcements into a digital map of grassroots meetings in the early 1840s. The map enabled the two scholars to argue that Chartist activities in London were “part of the everyday rather than the extraordinary.” The methodologies developed as part of this lesson enabled Navikas and Crymble to contribute to a long-standing scholarly conversation about a key modern political movement.

Tutorials often espouse a philosophy for the use of computational tools by humanities scholars. “Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text Using Pandoc and Markdown,” for example, includes a section called “Principles” that sets out why the recommended practices benefit scholars in the humanities. At the core of these principles is the idea that the tools used should support scholarly needs and ensure that the work can be easily saved for the long term and reused for other purposes.

The project is active and growing, with several more tutorials in the works. In 2016, The Programming Historian won a DH Award, a community award given by digital humanists. There is also a team currently translating the tutorials into Spanish. Even though The Programming Historian doesn’t fall into the usual category of digital resources, listing it on library catalogs will facilitate discovery and enable more historians to take advantage of the possibilities offered by digital research. By lowering barriers to doing digital scholarship, vibrant, community-driven projects such as The Programming Historian are vital to the future of the discipline.

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

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