Pause, Reflect and Share – September 2013

History week banners

History Week banners along Macqurie Street in Sydney.

The last month has been about doing what I do, but differently.  For the first time I have participated in the annual NSW History Week, participated in a panel discussion at a symposium and used programming to aid my historical research.

History Week had many great events both for historians and for the general public.  I attended six events in four days.  Over the last month I have written about some of these events such as the discussion held at the Australian National Maritime Museum about sharing historic photos online and the History Walk in North Sydney.  There are two other History Week events that I want to briefly share with you here, the History and Media Symposium and the NSW Premier’s History Awards. I will finish with a quick introduction to the uses of programming in historical research.

History and Media Symposium

A great team: the organisers of the Symposium, Michelle Arrow, Tanya Evans and Clare Wright.

A great team: the organisers of the Symposium, Michelle Arrow, Tanya Evans and Clare Wright.

The History and Media Symposium was one of the highlights of History Week for me. Over two days historians and media professionals discussed the representation of history on television and film, radio, print media and social media.

The event attracted producers and presenters from organisations such as ABC radio and television, SBS, Screen Australia and independent documentary producers with years of experience. I was very impressed by the media professionals who attended. I had expected that they would attend for the sessions they were presenting and then disappear, but many stayed for the entire two days.  They demonstrated a real commitment to bringing history to the public in all forms of media.

The historians who attended were all interested in sharing history with the public. There was a unity of purpose throughout the symposium which I found invigorating. Everyone was committed to sharing quality presentations about history in innovative ways.

I participated in a social media panel chaired by Sunanda Creagh, news editor for The Conversation. The other panelists were Katrina Gulliver, creator of the influential #twitterstorians hashtag and lecturer at University of NSW, University of Sydney PhD student, Dave Earl, and Lisa Murray who heads the City of Sydney history unit.  It was encouraging to hear that several historians in the audience had changed their minds about participating in social media as a result of the panel and are now considering getting involved. I wonder if any of these people have actually taken the plunge?

As a result of this Symposium historians felt encouraged to think about how they could present history differently to the public. I am pondering the possibilities of  sharing history through audio and video.

The symposium was organised by historians who have considerable experience working with the media, Dr Clare Wright, Dr Tanya Evans and Dr Michelle Arrow.  It was a great contribution to the development of public history in Australia and we hope that another History and Media Symposium will be organised in the future.

I helped the organisers develop a blog for the Symposium. Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media.  This is a good permanent record of the proceedings. I encourage you to read these posts to get a fuller understanding of the discussions that took place.

IMAG0514 Awards SignCNSW Premier’s History Awards

I have been following the announcements of the winners of various literary awards through Twitter but I have never attended a literary award ceremony myself.  The NSW Premier’s History Awards are important awards for history in Australia. They were presented during History Week so I decided to attend.  I like the fact that these awards recognise the different forms and sub-genres of history. The winners were well-deserved:

  • Multimedia History Prize: Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, First Footprints: Super Nomads (episode 1). I loved this series and intend to purchase it on DVD.
  • Young People’s History Prize: Jackie French, Pennies for Hitler.
  • NSW Community and Regional History Prize: Patti Miller, The Mind of a Thief.
  • General History Prize: Saliha Belmessous, Assimilation and Empire: Uniformity in the French and British Colonies, 1541-1954.
  • Therese Ryan and Clare Wright

    Enjoying the NSW Premier’s History Awards: Therese Ryan, grand-daughter of Kit Butler whose biography won the Australian History Prize together with Clare Wright presenter of shortlisted documentary, Utopia Girls.

    Australian History Prize: Janet Butler, Kitty’s War: The Remarkable Wartime Experiences of Kit McNaughton. This announcement was the highlight of the evening for me. It is not often that a war history combines quality writing, deep research and insightful analysis. It was even better that such a book has achieved the recognition that it deserves. Read my review of this book here.

The NSW Premier’s History Awards were held in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW. It was beautifully lit with good live music, drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I enjoyed the evening but thought the eighty-five dollars charged was rather expensive. I would think that more people would attend if the price of tickets was lowered.

Programming

Over the last few weeks I have been working on the diaries of WWI soldiers held by the State Library of NSW and transcribed by volunteers. I am very grateful to the library for allowing me to access around two hundred of these diaries.  Because the transcripts are in machine readable format (html files) there are two ways to read them, close reading and distant reading.  Close reading is the traditional way historians read primary sources. They read each word in the document, thinking deeply about what is said, interrogating the writing, taking care to listen carefully to the words chosen and noting what is not said as well as what is said.

I believe that close reading is a technique which will always be an important part of the historian’s toolkit.  However, mass digitisation of historical sources opens up other ways of analysing sources. One of these is to design a tool to allow a computer to read the documents and do some initial analysis of them. I have written a program to analyse the WWI soldier diaries and tell me where passages with particular keywords that I am interested in are located. It produces a list of these keywords, together with the few words that precede and follow the keyword. I read the list that it produces and where a result interests me, I refer to the original text and read the entire passage that relates to that word.

Effectively this is no different to a researcher consulting the index of a book for particular words they are interested in and then reading the page on which the word is located.  However, I have more control over my index and am not restricted by what the indexer of a book regards as important words. There are some words that I regard as important but are rarely used. If I read all the diaries cover to cover it is likely that the human in me would miss these words, the program doesn’t.

I’m still in the midst of this research and exploring what benefits text analysis techniques give historians. My mantra is ‘so what? There are all sorts of fancy things that a historian can do with computers, but the technique must assist the historian to produce rigorous and insightful history.  Computer analysis has to serve history, not the other way around.

Distant reading by machine and text analysis is all part of an emerging discipline called ‘digital humanities’. I’ve learned about it almost entirely through blogs, twitter, websites and unconferences called THATCamps. I love the way that people work in digital humanities. It is a wonderfully supportive and collaborative community that embraces social media as an effective way to share learning. If you are interested to know more about how I have used computers in humanities research you can read my digital humanities blog, Stumbling Through the Future.

~~~~~~~~~~

Over the last month I have explored different ways to present and research history. I was aware of some forms of presenting history such as on television and radio but I had never thought about having a go at these myself. I still cannot see myself on a television screen or on radio but the events this month have made me think of new media and in particular e-books.  Currently most e-books are a carbon copy of the print book, very few publishers and authors have fully explored this form. The ability to embed videos and audio files distinguishes e-books from print books. The hyperlink is a powerful technology, facilitating access to sources outside the e-book, access to footnotes etc. I think that history is particularly suited to being presented in e-book form. I’m still pondering this.

I have shared just a taste of what I have been doing over the last month. The posts I have written during September discuss other events I have attended and also highlight the diverse ways historians present history to the public.

  • 1/9/2013: Search for WWI Soldier Diaries Held by State Library NSW, Stumbling Through the Past. Has the State Library of NSW transcribed a WWI diary written by one of your ancestors or someone else you are researching? Take a quick look at the list of diaries on my blog and click on the links to access the transcribed diaries from the State Library of NSW website.
  • 6/9/2013: Utopia Girls: Historians and the Media, Stumbling Through the Past. Historians don’t just write books, they also present history in documentaries.
  • 7/9/2013: Sausages and Australian Elections, Stumbling Through the Past. Celebrating the third anniversary of my blog with a light-hearted look at Australian elections.
  • 15/9/2013: The Walking and Talking Historian, blog of the Professional Historians’ Association. The public appreciate the walking tour conducted by historian for the City of North Sydney Council, Dr Ian Hoskins.
  • 16/9/2013: Awards for Histories, Biographies and Memoirs – Roundup #8 2013, Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. This gives an overview and links to reviews of the histories, biographies and memoirs written by women writers which won prizes at the NSW Premier’s History Awards and the Queensland Literary Awards this year.
  • 16/9/2013: Historians Walk the Talk, Stumbling Through the Past. Historians don’t just write books, they share history through walking tours.
  • 30/9/2013: Citizen Curators Unlock the Past, Stumbling Through the Past. How people on social media are helping cultural institutions identify photos.
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