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

“If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”

“If therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”. The British Attorney-General for Kenya, Eric Griffith-Jones wrote in June 1957 to the Governor of Kenya. In the letter the Attorney-General shared how the policy over the use of physical violence on imprisoned Kenyans was being altered so that the beatings would be ‘legal’. (‘Sins of colonialists lay concealed for decades in secret archive‘, 18/4/2012).

In my last post I described how the quest for compensation by a small group of now-elderly victims started a process which led to the discovery of over one million historic documents that were illegally hidden from the inquiring eyes of the public. Some of these documents provide evidence of horrible crimes perpetrated by British personnel against colonial subjects in the dying days of the British Empire.

This raises many issues. The issue that I want to explore here is what we can learn about the construction of archives from this issue. This has then led me to wonder why horrendous crimes can be ignored for so long. Continue reading

Archives are Important… Very Important

We all rely on archives. The moment that we first drew breath in this world is registered in an archive. Our education records, driving records, legal records, marriage and death are all recorded in an archive somewhere. We go about our lives assuming that vital information about our lives is automatically and adequately stored by our governments. We assume that important records about the workings of government and businesses are held.  Our justice system depends on well-maintained archives and strong archival procedures.

Yet it doesn’t always work like that.

This particular story concerns the Mau Mau uprising in the British colony, Kenya during the 1950s.It is about a civil war, the messiest kind of war where right and wrong are obscured in viscious blood-letting that involves too many willing and unwilling participants. Very few people emerge from such wars without harbouring personal shame, bitter regrets and a sense of loss that lives with them for the rest of their lives. Continue reading

Citizen Curators Unlock the Past

Old photo of fashionable woman on a boat on Sydney Harbour.

A photo from 1930 held by the Australian National Maritime Museum, part of a presentation given by the Museum’s Nicole Cama.

Everyone has a drawer full of old photos. Each photo has its own importance. The photographer used precious film to take the photo and paid to have them developed. They were kept because they were an important store of memory. But the memory has disappeared into the past. We gaze at the photos today, reluctant to dispose of them yet for us many of these images are meaningless. The person who first stored the photographs often failed to record identifying details with them.

Our cultural institutions also have these drawers of photos – hundreds and thousands of them like the one above. They were regarded as an important record of a society in the past, but today many of these images are mysteries. No museum, library or archive could dream of discarding these photos, but without knowing the context of these photos they are reduced to meaningless bits of paper.

This is where the citizen curator steps in.  Working through social media on the internet, citizen curators apply their knowledge, diligence, enthusiasm and generosity to help cultural organisations identify people, locations and the overall context of photos in their collections.  We heard about this exciting work at a History Week event, ‘From Glass-plate to Cyber-space’ hosted by the Australian National Maritime Museum. Continue reading