Musings on Digital History

Mapping History

Module 3: CLIO Wired

I have long heard about mapping projects being the next big thing in history and in the humanities, but I guess I never fully appreciated what that meant, and how one maps a project.

GIS stands for Geographic Information System, which is a “framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. Rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualizations using maps and 3D scenes. ​With this unique capability, GIS reveals deeper insights into data, such as patterns, relationships, and situations—helping users make smarter decisions.”1

This week, we got into the weeds with a program called QGIS, a free and open-source software. While it definitely takes some getting used to, and can be somewhat finicky if you have made an error, the opportunities for mapping multiple data sets to look at historical trends is pretty incredible. In the demo for this unit, we looked at data related to London, its neighborhoods, and then also mapped statistics related to the plague onto it. The next example which we did on our own, was actually quite relevant to a volunteer project I am working on with the Fairfax County NAACP related to voter registration and voting at the local level. It was cool to get some clarity regarding earlier election results in the county, and to see how it has changed in the present.

I have to say, this whole mapping project was a serious challenge for me, but I am still working on it! I first downloaded the incorrect version of the software, so I experienced some serious frustrations when it came to trying to get the data to visualize in the way the tutorial said it would. Once I got it to work, after downloading the correct and more stable version, I was able to see how powerful this program really is, but I still feel like I have only scratched the surface. Once I made it to the independent tutorial, I found a little more success, but I think it is going to take me more time to really figure it all out. Most of my work does not really involve mapping, but I would like to become proficient in QGIS because it is a powerful tool way to visualize geographic data.

The way data is visualized, and one’s color palette choice is incredibly important, as I learned. I think a lot of the style choices—colors, shading, etc, REALLY affect how the data is interpreted by the viewer. For example, I used olive green and brown for some horrible reason and the results were NOT PRETTY. If you use two separate colors that do not look good together, or are too bright, or too similar, the points you are making end up not being well understood. In the future, I would maybe start by planning out the color scheme before diving in.

Mapping projects allow us to see trends or unlikely similarities between distinct sets of data. And mapping is becoming a common tool for researchers across disciplines, from geographers, to historians, to ethnomusicologists! For example, the New York Times published a mapping project which showed the similarities between districts which had been red-lined, and the heat island effect that these same areas are facing. In another project, a colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Allie Martin, uses mapping to study the musical and sonic effects of gentrification in DC over time, which includes how gentrification affects music cultures, including DC’s GoGo Music and the traditions of buskers and street musicians. Her projects also have an aural component in relation to the maps, which is an important part of how she shares her research. Daniele Salvoldi explores how mapping has allowed researchers to attempt to reconstruct sites in ancient Nubia, by using archival materials spanning geography, history, natural history and ethnographic source materials2. Having personally researched musical instruments excavated in Meroe in Nubia, I think this type of project is incredibly important, and might help us figure out why Greek musical instruments were excavated at the tomb of a Nubian queen. By using data points from so many different areas, the possibilities for understand the past are endless.

In efforts related decolonizing museum collections, I could see mapping projects being a useful way to visualize the geographic makeup of a museum collection, especially as it pertains to gaps in collections. Or to see how a collection has been built over time, and being able compare geography and dates to political and social unrest to see if that may be why a given object is in a museum collection half way across the world.

Susan Grunewald writes that

Digital mapping works best in conjunction with more traditional sources. It can be crucial to making research conclusions, but not without the context and evidence of the standard building blocks of historical studies. Indeed, GIS mapping and the traditional methods and sources of history are symbiotic. As my research process shows, initial mapping work can help scholars refine their research questions and navigate information contained within written documents and oral testimonies.3.

I really appreciated this succinct take on how mapping projects can help guide research, and can help point researchers in new directions. But I think we also need to be careful not to infer meaning about a situation purely based on the map we create. I think we, as humans, want to organize and make sense of ourselves and our pasts, but meaning that we derive from a given set of data on a map may be coincidental, so I think we need to proceed with caution. I think the map is one in a set of tools at our disposal to find meaning in our pasts.

  1. []
  2. Daniele Salvoldi, “A Historical Geographical Information System (HGIS) of Nubia Based on the William J. Bankes Archive (1815-1822),” DHQ 11.2 (2017). []
  3. Susan Grunewald, “Beyond the Archives: What GIS Mapping Reveals about German POWs in Soviet Russia,” Perspectives on History, February 26, 2019. []
Musings on Digital History

Databases and Digitization: Using Online Tools for Historical Research


Things I Wish I Learned Earlier In My Research Career.

Clio Wired: Module 2

Open Source Research Management Tools

Zotero Citation App

Since I began GMU’s PhD program, now two weeks ago, I have been trying to establish good habits and organized workflows for my dissertation research. I experienced the horrors of not having a good system for keeping track of my research materials during my masters, and I am really trying to avoid a repeat of that in grad school, part 2. About a year ago, when I decided to focus my research on Instrumental Women, I started using Zotero citation software, a secondary source management system. Zotero allows you to organize your source materials by folder and subfolder, and also generates footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies in your preferred style. Zotero has a plug-in for your web browser so that you can add citations directly from the web. It generally has had life changing impacts on my research. I am still glad to know how to write individual footnote citations, or bibliographic entries using Chicago Style (thanks Dr. Norton!), but Zotero is a powerful tool to keep track of everything in a way that actually makes sense, and interfaces with your web browser. I started learning how to use Zotero from my husband Jeff, who uses it for his scientific publications, bt it wasn’t until recently that I learned it was developed by the George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Tropy Archival Material Organizer

This week, I learned about the wonders of Tropy, a research app for organizing digitized archival photos and documents. I have always had an incredibly frustrating relationship with the photos I have taken in archival collections. What should I name this photo? Can I combine these photos without turning them into a PDF? Where do I keep the metadata for these photos, most importantly, which box/folder did the damn thing come from so that I can properly cite it? Well luckily for me, the Rosenzweig Center has me covered. Tropy (est. 2017) solves these problems.

Here is a screenshot of the interface. I used a set of photos I have taken related to instruments made for women by men. This particular image, below, came from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, and I used it for a blog they asked me to write about my research. I was able to add dates, box and folder numbers, and even save a zoomed in shot of an important part of this advertisement:

Last year, I was hired as a proxy researcher at the Archives for American Art for a client in England. I took thousands of photos, and really wish I had Tropy to use! Tropy allows the user to group items, but also do batch edits. For example, you can add “Box 10” to hundreds of photos at one time. How cool is that? Note to self: do not delete the photos you are using in Tropy. The app needs to communicate with your computer’s storage, so the images don’t “live” on the app. This was learned after furiously searching for a photo uploaded a few days before.

Open Refine: Cleaning Up Messy Data

As a museum cataloger, I have been tasked with database management, cross-checking data with approved style guides, and grooming object records for consistency. Sometimes, generating an excel spreadsheet of over 1000 objects to groom can be an incredibly tedious process. Over the years, catalogers have used different date naming conventions (19th Century/1800s/1800-1900/c.1800-1900/about 1800-1900). When trying to generate statistics about the make-up of a collection, these seemingly innocuous date names can prove to be time consuming and frustrating to fix. Open Refine is a data grooming software that is far more agile and equipped to deal with grooming large amounts of data in quick order. While it definitely has a learning curve, Open Refine has the ability to let the user separate names into multiple columns (easier than excel in regards to names that are comprised of multiple words, hyphenations, etc.). Open Refine also can allow the user to zero in on subsets of data to groom in smaller batches. I am looking forward to using this software on my Instrumental Women database, which needs some serious grooming!

Admittedly, I was hesitant and nervous for the tutorial on Open Refine. When I hear the term data, I think math. I guess I never considered my research points data points. But now that I rethinking how I look at my materials, I am interested in data analysis and visualization. Christof Schoch states that as historians, “we need smart big data because it can not only adequately represent a sufficient number of relevant features of humanistic objects of inquiry to enable the level of precision and nuance scholars in the humanities need, but it can also provide us with a sufficient amount of data to enable quantitative methods of inquiry that help us transgress the limitations inherent in methods based on close reading strategies. To put it in a nutshell: only smart big data enables intelligent quantitative methods”1. Henceforth, I am going to seriously consider the information I gather and it’s potential uses in both qualitative and quantitative ways.

Open Source = Free!

I must mention that all of these tools are open source and free. Given last week’s blog on how digital history have the potential to democratize historical research, open source tools like Zotero, Tropy, and Open Refine are also democratizing research methods and data organization.

Visualizing, Organizing, and Telling History Online

As I embark on later phases of my Instrumental Women Project, I have been thinking about how my database of living makers, and timeline of women in the industry could be shared online. I have been inspired by the interface and interactivity of several DH projects, including the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and Old Bailey Online. These projects allow the user to sort and search through data in a very user-friendly way. As I move forward, I want to figure out how best represent my work, and I think I will be returning to these sites to find inspiration.

Digitalization and the Big Picture

Just this week, in Professor O’Malley’s course on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, I was introduced to the idea of Transnational History. As Lara Putnam writes that the shift in historian associations (i.e. geographic history as a specific course of study) is happening simultaneously with the rise of the digital age. She says that “source digitization has transformed historians’ practice in ways that facilitate border-crossing research in particular.”2. Simply, the increased digital access to sources and materials from various repositories, coupled with our increased awareness of globalization and the influence thereof is potentially making studies like “American History” obsolete. Even more basic, we all study world history—American history, like any other, is influenced by various other global influences. Before the digital age, a geographical boundry made pragmatic sense, since “the real-world geography of textual sources used to define our work. Information in physical form…tends to cluster in administrative centers near where it was produced”2. She warns, however, that “Meanwhile, we are going to have to work actively so those systematically less present in printed sources do not fall out of view. Size up the absence. Who wasn’t publishing papers or pamphlets, or wasn’t reading them, or was far from the people who did? Rural people, illiterate people, people who stayed put: all stand in the shadows that digitized sources cast.”2.

Jonathan Blaney and Judith Siefring address the strange bias that exists toward the printed word when citing sources. Without even thinking about it, I too have succombed to finding the page number of an online article so that I can use the hard-copy citation. Why? Maybe because it looks cleaner, with fewer blue hyperlinks. Blaney and Siefring posit that “change of practice at individual scholarly level reflects and promotes change at a wider cultural level. As more and more established academics are open about their use of online resources, the belief that digital content is less scholarly should lessen, and citation should improve…Digital citation is important because it is a reflection of how digital resources are valued.”3


I’ll be brief. This week I learned some seriously cool tools for research, with some great contextual literature to allow me to think critically abou the responsibility I have with the data I collection.

Alas, I am tired. See y’all next week.

  1. Christof Schoch, “Big? Smart? Clean? Messy? Data in the Humanities,” Journal of Digital Humanities 2, no 3 (2013). []
  2. Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast” in American Historical Review 121, no 2 (April 2016): 377-402. [] [] []
  3. Jonathan Blaney and Judith Siefring “A Culture of non-citation: Assessing the digital impact of British History Online and the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no 1 (2017). []
Musings on Digital History

What is Digital History?

Clio Wired: Module 1

“The class focused on US history since the Civil War, but at every opportunity Mr. Hill guided them to the present, linking what had happened a hundred years ago to their current lives.  They’d set off down one road at the beginning of class and it always led back to their doorsteps.”1

Before grad school reading took over my life, I was almost finished reading The Nickel Boys, kind of a literary last supper before I would be reading books that others have chosen for me (good choices, just not mine!). As I was reading, the quote above really resonated with me, and with how I have tried to make history relevant to the present in both grad school and in my work in museums.  So how can we (historians) not only make the past present, but make it something that others care about? Digital history, to me, is a critical component of sharing history in the 21st century.

So what is digital history (or DH as those in the know call it)?

In 2009, historians Douglas Seefeldt & William G. Thomas write that:

“Digital history might be understood as an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems.  [It is both an] open arena of scholarly productions and communication [and] a methodological approach.”2

They argue that to participate in the realm of digital history is not only digitizing the past, but creating a “framework through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a major historical problem.”2 The last part of this quote gets to the crux of how digital history can be useful.  In a way, digital history initiatives are curated history narratives, and can be a place not only to read history, but to experience and visualize primary sources, maps, photos, art, objects, and first person accounts of a moment in the past. DH allows users to escape to the past through the aural experiences of hearing music, natural sound recordings, and voices from the period in which they describe.  Digital history can allow for a multi-sensory self-guided experience for the user, allowing for, as the authors point out, the question to be opened up for “readers to investigate and form interpretive associations of their own.”2 History is multifaceted, and different people have different perspectives and preferences, thus, allowing for a more dynamic, user-led sense of history makes history even more meaningful for the user. Digital history can also make history accessible in ways that books and physical museums cannot.  From a person’s home, they can be transported into history, and in some circumstances, those who have vision, hearing, and physical limitations can be immersed in history in a way that was not possible before the digital age.

I believe that computers and digital access have democratized research.  Travelling to museums, archives, and special collections in libraries was once only available to those who have the means and funds to do so.  While there are still MANY collections which are not available online, digitization projects have created better access to collections online. Furthermore, digital humanities projects at their core, have the possibility for more elasticity, thus, as new scholarship identifies new ways of thinking and shares new knowledge, the internet allow for a more fluid ability to share history without the permanence of the published book.

The challenge, though, as Ian Milligan points out in his book History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research, is that we now face a massive amount of historical materials and data, especially materials that were born on the web, when in the period before the internet, scarcity was the norm, and was frustrating! Milligan states:

“Our collective cultural heritage, the legacy that we leave behind for the generations to come, faces a serious problem in the digital age. We used to, as a rule, forget. Now we have the power of recall and retrieval at a scale that will decisively change how our society remembers. For historians, professionals who interpret and bring shape to narratives of the past, this is a dramatic shift. The digital age brings with it great power: the prospect of a more democratic history and of more voices included in the historical record, a realization of the social historian’s dream. Yet it also brings significant challenges: what does it mean to write histories with born-digital sources – from websites written in the mid-1990s to tweets posted today? How can we be ready, from a technical perspective as well as from a social or ethical one, to use the web as a historical source – as an archive? Historians with the training and resources are about to have far more primary sources, and the ability to process them, at their fingertips. What will this all mean for our understanding of the past? How can these sources be used responsibly? Finally, if historians cannot rise to the moment, what does this mean for the future of our profession?”3

His statement has a Spiderman-like aura: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Milligan, and others, remind us that there are serious ethical considerations at stake when we consider the vastness of the online historical record.3 He posits, and I tend to agree, that we will need to forge partnerships with organizations like the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to make sure we have a second set of eyes looking at our work, and thinking solely of the ethics of our research methods and findings. But if these things are considered, the potential to transform the field. Milligan ends by saying that It’s uncharted territory and will be messy, but “Ultimately, it will be worth it. Web archives offer the prospect of incorporating more voices and more people. A more inclusive history is around the corner. We need to be ready.”4

In this moment, as we are living in isolation as COVID-19 ravages our communities and our sense of normalcy. We are depending on the internet for education, medical appointments, and work, among other things.  Imagine if DH projects aimed at children for self-guided learning existed and were more available?  Self-guided instruction would allow for a more flexible, less “one size fits all approach.”  We know that the traditional lecture approach is not working well for K-12, but today’s youth are very computer adept.  The potential for new ways of teaching and learning history for children could transform the online classroom into one which meets the needs of children’s attention spans, the workload of teachers, and the overall enjoyment and memory of a class or topic.

I think the very real challenge for historians, which I experienced this week, is to not lose one’s cool over technical difficulties. I was tempted, more than once, to throw my computer at the wall as I was migrating my domain name to WordPress. I took a cue from Seinfeld, had a moment of “serenity now,” and got back to work. Once I was able to launch the new website, which is way less clunky than my old one, I started getting in the groove. I added plug-ins, updated my CV, and now am able to take a sigh of relief. I think for many historians, the tech feels impossible, but we need to rally, and get on board. DH is the future, whether we are ready or not.

As I embark on my Ph.D, I am thrilled that DH is such a big part of the curriculum at GMU. This week, I also launched my initiative Instrumental Women on Twitter and Instagram, with the mission of amplifying the global histories of womxn instrument makers . It is my hope to use the tools I learn in this class to help me bring these stories alive. Looking forward to what comes next!

  1. Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, (New York: Anchor Books, 2019), 30. []
  2. Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, “What is Digital History,” May 2009 [] [] []
  3. Ian Milligan, History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 3. [] []
  4. Ibid, 245. []