Digital (Urban) History

[In lieu of readings for the final class meeting of UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. Each student was to give a brief presentation on the digital humanities in their field.]

As a field built around places, urban history has always been cognizant of space. Beginning with Phil Ethington’s Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge digital urban history has used the digital medium’s visual power to explore space. As an early digital history project, Ethington modeled the digital medium’s visual power for spatial analysis. Building on his Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge, Ethington developed HyperCities, an analysis of space in cities around the globe. HyperCities compares space over time by laying historic maps on top of themselves in addition to present day maps. Likewise, The Welikia Project, which grew out of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project, explores the ecology of New York City before European encounter, again presenting the past over the present. Most recently, a number of crowd driven projects, like Historypin and WhatWasThere, allow users to upload pictures and place them onto Google Maps’ street view. These projects’ juxtaposition of past and present highlight space’s analytical importance.

Harnessing the digital humanities’ visual power, urban history has taken spatial analysis further. Standford’s Spatial History Project explores space in a variety of times and locations moving beyond the historical representation of places and towards understanding the social constructions of space. Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City examines pace in Gilded Age Lincoln, Nebraska with spatial narratives, fusing traditional text explanations with interactive visuals. What Middletown Read breaks from previous projects centered on visualizing space, using a database of library activity in Muncie, Indiana to explore the city’s inhabitants. Though What Middletown Read is developing a spatial aspect, the project reminds scholars urban history in the digital realm need not be only visual.

The future of urban history in the digital humanities will continue to lay narrative analysis on space, possibly with a move to 3-D modeling. Scholars will continue to attempt to understand how historical actors saw their surroundings both in a literal sense, like the emerging mobile applications that similarly overlay the past and the present, and in the figurative sense of space’s social conceptions, which various projects like the Spatial History Project, Gilded Age Plains City, and What Middletown Read attempt.

Most promising about urban history in the digital humanities, though, is the prevalence of smaller projects in the field. Phil Ethington constructed Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge by himself. Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City evolved from an article. Though Stanford’s Spatial History Project and HyperCities are massive undertakings, more manageable modules comprise the larger projects. Because spatial analysis’ importance to urban history and the digital medium’s visual power, digital urban history has encouraged scholars, even those working alone like Ethington, to produce digital scholarship. The model of smaller scale projects, either as part of a larger whole or individually, will encourage a broader acceptance of the digital humanities as more scholars are exposed to and participate in the digital humanities.

The App Project

For the Digital Humanities Seminar that I am taking, the instructor, William G. Thomas (who has blogged about the class), assigned us a project in which we, as a class, were to build an iPad/iPhone App during the first month of class. From the beginning the project was intimidating, exciting, and occasionally terrifying. Two Thursdays ago (September 29th), we presented our unfinished App. The fact that our App was unfinished really highlights the true beauty of this assignment: Failure was explicitly allowed and encouraged. I am not even sure if building an App in a month from scratch (no one had any experience building an App) was possible for our group. The focus of the assignment was on the process. If the Digital Humanities is about building, a seminar on the Digital Humanities, even a readings course, needs to incorporate building in order for the students to fully understand the Digital Humanities. Particularly given the diversity of students’ experience in working on Digital Humanities projects in our class, having the class engage in building ensures everyone has some experience as we delve into more theoretical aspects of the Digital Humanities.

The project also had many beneficial aspects to outside of the classroom. The one aspect that I think everyone in the class would mention is collaboration. The entire seminar class worked together on the project as one group. Working as a large group often made decisions tough, though we divided ourselves into three groups (Coding, Design, Content), which served to provide each student increased opportunity for hands on experience.

Another benefit of the project was that it challenged the class to think about the state of the humanities online. In designing an App we had to think about what humanities resources are “out there”, what should be, and what we want to be. Our final concept was to have an App that would function as a news reader for online humanities content. We found a huge amount of humanities content available free online and aggregating the information for interested users would be quite a valuable tool. Some students are looking to continue working the project and may release a final version (or at least a more detailed account of the project experience than my brief overview). Unfortunately, the project does not fit into my semester’s goals or schedule, so I will not be joining the brave few who have decided to push onwards.

SpecLab and Great Design

[In place of a reflection, this week for the Digital Humanities Seminar we were instructed to pick out three examples of great design after reading Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab]

What Middletown Read: A project I found a few month’s back, I really enjoy this project from a theoretical and practical stand point. From a design perspective, I find its simple design to be sneaky good. While its earth tones and simple search interface may seem plain, its plainness is its beauty. The project explores the “plainness” of everyday life, taking something many people do everyday, check out library books, to analyze a city. By reflecting the project’s examination of everyday life through a simple design (which I also find reminiscent of a library website), the design contributes to the project’s purpose without drawing attention to itself.

Historian’s Eye: Matthew Frye Jacobson’s project, that I’ll probably end up reviewing in a later blog post so I can play around with it more, relies heavily on its design to convey its argument and purpose, starting with its homepage image of “Better History” written on a wall. With minimal text, Jacobson communicates largely through picture galleries. An almost exclusive black and white color scheme also heavily influences the project’s feel.

WordSeer: A project I came across just yesterday, WordSeer is a text analysis tool built at Berkley. Using slave narratives as examples, the tool explores grammar in text. With another deceptively simple interface, WordSeer priviledges the text, but also colorfully highlights the text which the user wants to analyze. When juxtaposed with the essentially colorless background, the vibrantly highlight text jumps off the screen, emphasizing the place of that word in the seemingly plain text. I am tempted to call it a visual metaphor for the process of text analysis, but that might be getting carried away…

The Humanities, the Laboratory and “Culturomics”

[This post is the first of many reading reflections written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. I will be posting my reflections each week. Jason Heppler and William Thomas will also be blogging about the class. This week the readings were Reinventing Knowledge and “As We May Think.”]

Predicting the future is, unsurprisingly, difficult. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Vannevar Bush describes a future machine, the “memex,” which congregates, organizes, and dispenses information that bears remarkable similarities to the current technology. Writing over sixty years later, Ian McNeely looks backwards more so than forwards, though he seems comfortable projecting the laboratory’s dominance as the center of knowledge into the foreseeable future. Understanding this dominance is vital for humanists to remain socially relevant and avoid the fates of the library, monastery, university, republic of letter, and disciplines, all of which remain though with much less power over knowledge.

One of McNeely’s final thoughts, that academics in the laboratories are beginning to confront “humanities scholars on their own turf,” (273) provides the best example of why humanists must assert their position in the laboratory. McNeely’s suggestion also appears particularly accurate in the light of the “discovery” of “Culturomics .” A good example of the university-industrial complex that dominates many research universities, Harvard and MIT researchers teamed up with the Google Books project to examine an unprecedented amount of written works throughout history. While a useful tool, the, as McNeely puts it, “hubris that comes from transgressing disciplinary boundaries” (273) is painfully clear. Leading humanists from any number of the universities in the Boston area could have been included, but were not. If there had been more humanists, perhaps the academics who “founded” “Culturomics ” may have realized this type of research had already been happening for years.

Humanists, then, must fight for their relevancy within the laboratory system. “Culturomics ” clearly shows society can embrace humanistic endeavors. However, the humanities should not simply get lost in the university-industrial system the laboratory has created. Just as Bush made special note of the memex as a tool for humans, humanists should view the university-industrial system as a potential tool. Bush envisioned the memex as a means to drastically increase the speed of research. However, the user still had to make associations and connections among the resources provided. Similarly, groups like Google can provide amazing data sets and tools, but academics are needed to interpret the data and use it to create information. Humanists may not always be the most qualified to seize opportunities that develop from partnerships with companies like Google. However, there will be times when humanists are needed and they must be prepared.

The Importance of Versioning

A few months ago, I checked up on a digital history project to which I was introduced in my introductory digital history course, Richmond’s Voting America project. It is a great project and a wonderful teaching resource, but I was really interested to see that it had been updated. In addition to some cosmetic changes, since the last time I had visited the project had added the presidential data for 2008 and more analysis of their maps. I had originally explored the website to review it for part of the DH course I was taking. In the review (in December 2009) I noted that I was disappointed the project had not incorporated the 2008 data and it was not clear that the project was going to incorporate this data. My review, which suggested the Voting America project had become outdated after the 2008 election, was now outdated itself.

In the grand scheme of things, my review is not very important. However, it does demonstrate that digital history and the digital humanities must begin to establish standards for publishing, especially versioning. Why should a journal bother to review a digital project, if the review will simply be moot in a year or two? On the other hand, why should digital publishing be beholden to the conventions of print publishing?

Returning to Voting America, the promise/perils of digital publishing are clear. As a project that can add new data every two or four years it has the potential to become a truly great and lasting work of scholarship. At the same time, the temptation to purge analysis that might have been subsequently proved wrong or simply outdated, such as speculation on an upcoming election, is greater than ever.

While the ability to update scholarship to with new data and theories without reprinting the entire work is an important aspect of digital work, scholars must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Mistakes and misinterpretations are what build historiography and subsequent generations of scholars and students ought to have access to these building blocks of the field. Additionally, using and citing digital projects becomes difficult if analysis or other text utilized can simply disappear without any record.

The formalization of publishing of digital work will certainly help maintain versions of digital scholarship, as digital work will be presumably frozen at one stage of the projects development. However, scholars cannot sit back and wait for someone else to establish standards of publishing. Even after digital standards of publishing are more or less established, it would be a shame if scholars waited until publication to share their work. Instead, scholars should take control of preserving their work and provide users with some sort of access to prior versions. By providing access to older versions of text, visualizations, or other narrative and analysis, academics can ensure their digital work stays a useful part of scholarship while still developing, tweaking, and building their project.

The Corrupt Network

Last week, I turned in my project for my digital history seminar. What I hope is evident from my design, I used this course to play with an idea of investigating “Facebook friends” in the past. “Facebook friends” is a modern term that can describe relationships ranging from life long friendships and one time acquaintances. Though Facebook and the term “Facebook friends” are modern things, social networks are nothing new. Examining social networks of the past provides context for events, like the political scandal on which my thesis is based.

My digital project is meant to visualize some of the relationships, which I have been writing about for my thesis so that I can better see the relationships. I have found textual descriptions of these social connections to be very long winded and often difficult to read, but visual descriptions can quickly and often more accurately present social relationships.

Though perhaps not as developed as much as I would have liked, the opportunity to expand my research remains. This digital project, just like any print project resulting from a research seminar needs additional work before becoming publishable.

Virtual Middletown

Also very interesting from Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies, a project attempting to create a virtual Muncie in the 1920s:

Robert and Helen Lynd’s seminal investigation into the social conditions in Muncie, Indiana, during the 1920s not only marked the community as the nation’s Middletown, it also generated a substantial body of source material documenting social experiences in it. Simply put, Middletown research has made Muncie the best documented city of its size and thus the ideal setting for the digital re-creation of ground-level American social history.

What Middletown Read

The What Middletown Read Project (I’d love to see them add a spatial dimension):

“What Middletown Read” is a database and search engine built upon the circulation records of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library from November 6, 1891 through December 3, 1902. It documents every book that every library patron borrowed during that period, with the exception of one gap from May 28, 1892 to November 5, 1894. For more details, follow the links below.

Defining DH

I am participating in the Day of Digital Humanities 2011 they asked applicants to define the digital humanities. I have first listed my definition of DH and then I have re-posted Dan Cohen’s definition and short reflection.


At its core, the Digital Humanities is the use of digital tools to gather, organize, analyze, and present scholarly research in the humanities. Humanists seek to understand the world and cultures in which people live and have lived through a variety of disciplines including literature, English and other modern languages, philosophy, art, art history, and history. While many of the questions humanists seek to answer have not changed, new technology, like text mining, dynamic visualizations, and spatial analysis, provide humanists ways to ask new questions and view old questions differently.

Dan Cohen:

Defining Digital Humanities, Briefly

I’m participating in the Day of Digital Humanities this year, and the organizers have asked all participants to briefly define “digital humanities.” It’s a helpful exercise, and for those new to the field, it might be useful to give the many responses a quick scan. I wrote this one-sentence answer out fairly hastily, but think it’s not so bad:

Broadly construed, digital humanities is the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities, from the creation of scholarly resources, to research on those resources, to the communication of results to colleagues and students.

The best answer to “How do you define digital humanities?” came from Lou Burnard: “With extreme reluctance.”



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