Digital History at #OzHA2015? There was some

Screenshot of the home page of the website.

The Prosecution Project from Griffith University is examining the history of criminal trials in Australia between 1850 and 1960.

There are good reasons to attend conferences. I treat them as my CPD (professional parlance for Continuing Professional Development). At a productive conference I learn a great deal from being immersed in a learning environment for several days. The breaks are as productive as a session because they are good opportunities to chat with others in the field about their work and further discuss what we have learned. These blog posts I am writing are a further opportunity for me to think through new ideas and approaches as well as to pass the learning on.

The Global Digital Humanities Conference was a week before the Australian Historical Association Conference. As I said in previous posts, Australian historians Peter Read, Julia Torpey and Tim Sherratt featured at those conferences. It was a rare opportunity for Australian historians interested in Digital History to learn from leading digital humanities practitioners.

It is very difficult for one person to attend two conferences in one fortnight, so it was understandable that digital history was not a big focus at the Australian Historical Association Conference. There were no sessions titled ‘digital history’ or something similar that would convey that the papers were about the use of technology in history.

Yet digital history was there. My paper was about digital history as was Janette Pelosi’s paper about the State Records NSW digitisation project, ‘Sentenced Beyond the Seas‘ which she presented in the same session.

With low expectations I have searched through the 2015 conference abstracts for papers featuring the words, digital, data, website, internet, social media, Facebook, Twitter. To my surprise I found thirteen papers which could be regarded as digital history. This was more than I expected. Continue reading

International Researchers Value Work of Australian Libraries and Archives

Trove logoParticipants at the recent Global Digital Humanities conference will remember the prominent contributions of Australian historians, Tim Sherratt, Julia Torpey and Peter Read. But I also want to highlight the more low profile but no less important contribution of Australian cultural institutions in bringing Australian historical records to world attention.

Australian governments and other funding bodies have shown international leadership by funding significant digitisation programs that have are freely accessible to the people of the world. This contribution to the world’s bank of knowledge is inestimable. As I listened to the papers presented at the Global Digital Humanities Conference I was struck by just how significant digitised Australian historical sources are for researchers around the world.

The Trove website is the flagship of Australia’s digitisation programs. Led by the National Library of Australia, with significant contributions from Australia’s state libraries, it is truly a treasure trove of all sorts of digitised items, including its famed digitised newspapers as well as the catalogue records of hundreds of cultural institutions around Australia. It is a massive online resource.

We would expect Australian researchers to embrace this resource, as they do, but researchers from other countries are also using Trove’s resources in cutting edge work.  Every day we researchers presented papers which referred to Trove. Every day one of these papers was presented by researchers who worked for universities or cultural institutions outside Australia.

These papers, like all papers at the conference, demonstrate world class research in the field of digital humanities. As the conference proceeded it became clear that Trove has made an important contribution to leading international research. Continue reading

Australian Historian Captivates International Audience

The work of Australian historians, librarians and archivists is highly valued internationally. In my last post I highlighted the work of Australian historians Julia Torpey and Peter Read which featured in a plenary panel at the recent Global Digital Humanities Conference. But they were not the only Australian historians who featured.

Sherratt behind a podium

Tim Sherratt

On the last day of the conference we were treated to an insightful keynote address by Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital Heritage, Manager of Trove Australia and inventor of many innovative digital tools. Tim Sherratt is an historian who is blazing a trail for thoughtful and innovative use of technology in the research and presentation of history.

Sherratt captivated his audience from around the world with his talk, ‘Unremembering the forgotten’. Delving back into twentieth century Australian history, Sherratt questioned the nature of our access to government archives. He argued that  “access is a process of control rather than liberation”.

Sherratt is working to reveal the lives of people who are not remembered in our histories. In his keynote address he argued that the lives of these ‘forgotten’ people are often recorded in archival documents but these people have been ‘unremembered’. They are hidden from our view because of the way the catalogue search has been structured. Tim Sherratt demonstrated that when we take charge of our search for information by building our own digital tools we can retrieve the stories of the forgotten, but likewise the digital tools we use every day when searching websites can shut out the memories of the forgotten. Continue reading

Aboriginal Digital Knowledge Takes Centre Stage at International Conference

 

The couches came out at #dh2015 for the Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel. Photo by Bruce B Janz via Twitter.

The couches came out at #dh2015 for the Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel. Photo by Bruce B Janz via Twitter.

Ground breaking use of technology by Australian Aboriginal people was featured at the recent Global Digital Humanities Conference held at the University of Western Sydney. In a session that captivated the attention of academics from around the world the Indigenous Digital Knowledge plenary panel demonstrated that Aboriginal people are innovative in their embrace of technology.

Unlike so many conferences which non-indigenous people lead the discussion about indigenous issues, three of the four academics on this panel are Aboriginal people. As many Aboriginal people have observed, they are probably the most studied populations on earth, but it is the non-indigenous researchers who get credited in our society for their knowledge about Aboriginal people.  It was refreshing to hear from Aboriginal people who are experts in their fields of technology and the humanities tell a non-indigenous audience how it is for Aboriginal people. Continue reading

Reflecting on My work, Big Data and the History Manifesto

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the western front to my  grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather became yet another soldier killed in World War I.

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the front to my grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather was killed.

Everything about World War I was massive. It was industrial-scale warfare fought along frontlines that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, manned and supplied by millions of people. This too was a war which produced an unprecedented stream of words. It was not just the politicians and officers who sat down to pen their thoughts. Ordinary soldiers near the front and their families from around the world, recorded their experiences and comforted each other through diaries and letters.

In just one month in 1916, the Australian army post headquarters in London successfully sorted nearly three million letters but there were another four hundred thousand letters which could not be delivered as they were inadequately addressed (‘The Soldiers’ Mails’, The Age, 10/2/1917, p. 4). Australia’s five million people were prodigious writers during the war.

Any historian who seeks to understand World War I needs to come to grips with the enormity of it. I am studying just a tiny fraction of the archives produced by that war, yet I am grappling the problems and possibilities of dealing with a huge number of words. The other day I worked out that the collection of soldier diaries I’m working with contains over seven million words. To put it in more comprehensible terms, my corpus is currently the equivalent of over thirteen volumes of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This collection will grow as I add more diaries to my research corpus. I also have to read other primary sources such as court martials and Australian Imperial Force (AIF) unit diaries. Continue reading

The History Manifesto and Big Data

Book cover of The History Manifesto

The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

In my last post I reviewed the provocative book, The History Manifesto. Written by history academics Jo Guldi (Brown University) and David Armitage (Harvard), it is a call to historians to turn their work towards investigating long periods of history (the longue-durée) in order to address the big issues affecting humanity such as inequality and climate change. I set aside one chapter in that review for special attention. In this post I consider chapter four, ‘Big questions, big data’.

There are many ways that technology can be used by the historian The ‘Big Data’ chapter in The History Manifesto discusses the use of topic modelling tools to highlight the type of language most often used and the topics most widely discussed in the past. Guldi and Armitage also recognise the potential for digital tools to uncover the ‘invisible archives’ which include records that some person or institution in the past wanted to remain hidden. They give the example of The Declassification Engine, developed by a history professor and a professor in the field of statistics. This website explores the world of classified, redacted and declassified government documents and is a good demonstration of the potential of the use of technology in history.

“Digitally structured reading means giving more time to counterfactuals and suppressed voices, realigning the archive to the intentions of history from below”, they observe (p. 93).  This type of historical research has the potential to reveal serious injustices and even lead to steps being taken to rectify a historic wrong. It is exciting to see the potential of digital research techniques to reveal invisible or hidden archives. However, the authors do not draw attention to the fact that most of the world’s archives are not digitised. Historians always need to be mindful of this.

I’m researching the beliefs of Australian soldiers as expressed in their diaries during World War I. In his book, The Broken Years, Bill Gammage has already noted that Australian soldiers didn’t discuss their beliefs much in their diaries. Information technology has assisted me enormously to find the scant comments and their context. Digital tools are fundamental to my research methods but close reading of the work of other historians and primary sources is an indispensable first step in identifying the research questions and issues that the digital tools can then help me explore. I still have to spend hours reading old handwriting as most of the primary sources are still not in machine readable format. Continue reading

Canberra Research Week

Conference room showing back of crowd, Tim Sherratt at front with a projector screen and ceiling of lights above.

People, laptops and Manager of Trove, Tim Sherratt – the essential ingredients for a great THATCamp in Canberra. Photo by Geoff Hinchcliffe.

When I made the decision to write a book about Australian World War One history in the midst of our move to Singapore I knew I would have to come back to Australia on various research trips. While much of my research centres on digitised historical records, most historical records are not digitised and t is only recently that publishers have offered e-book versions of histories they publish. These physical records which are held in Australia provide the context and additional depth which provide richer meaning to the digitised diaries I am working with.

One day I flicked through my Twitter stream and was reminded of a digital humanities event to be held in Canberra at the end of October. Digital humanities is the emerging discipline which seeks to develop rigorous research in the humanities using technology. I stumbled upon it through twitter and blogs back in 2010. Through social media I started learning how to program in Python and how to analyse the language used in digitised historical texts. Continue reading