Historians & Programming: how to make data work for you

In a field where reading every book on a subject is almost impossible, programming can help historians tackle the mountain of research before them. It is argued that historians are wary of the technological age.[1] Whilst that may be true for some historians, the Internet is becoming a valuable resource for academics. Whether it’s online archives, or programming, historians should not be wary of technology, but embrace it with open arms. The irony is historians have been programming since the 1970s.[2] Historical research may even be best suited for programming, enabling efficient research.[3] So should historian’s code, and how could it benefit them?

Personally, the idea of programming conjures up images of dramatic Hollywood movies of hackers and long lines of code. My first venture into coding didn’t exactly go well, but as always, learning a new skill takes time and a whole lot of patience. Thanks to the wonderful resource that is the Internet, learning how to programme can be both free and easy. Websites like the Programming Historian provide tutorials on how to venture into the world of ‘codes’, ‘interfaces’, and ‘data manipulation’.[4] This blog has discussed Optical Character Recognition in digitization projects, and coding can even help with OCR mistakes. All these methods ensure that the time historians spend researching is spent effectively.

When researching a topic, the biggest advantage and disadvantage facing historians is the sheer amount of books and articles available. Learning how to programme can make this process less daunting. Programming can change the way historians approach their projects. It can enable historians to utilise large amounts of work in a way they could not before.

Whilst a complete knowledge of all the ins and outs of programming is not required for historical research, some understanding of how programmes are built could enable historians to edit the software to work best for them. Programming can be left to the programmers, but using their software to its advantage is something historians can and should utilise. After all, building and expanding on the work of other professionals is certainly a skill historians know well. Programming can organize all the data you’ve collected and present it in an easy to understand way. Whether that’s creating a graph in Excel or creating historical maps, utilising data allows you to present your argument in a new way. Outside of making research easier, programming has other added benefits for historians. Whether it’s being able to add another skill to your CV or being able to edit the HTML code on your blog, programming opens up new doors.

So where do historians begin? Thankfully, as previously mentioned, there are resources available online aimed at making learning how to code less intimidating. Learning how to clean text created by the OCR scanners enables texts to be searched easily with keywords.[5] Topic modeling aims to understand the language used in a text and programming helps discover patterns in those words.[6] Learning how to take advantage of tools like Google Maps can be the foundation of creating your own digital maps.[7] Tutorials are available for these topics and many more on the Programming Historian site.

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Ultimately, programming will only help historians in organizing and understanding their research. In their book historians William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern make their argument as to why historians should enter the world of programming.

“If you don’t program your research process will always be at the mercy of those who do”.[8]

It seems as if there is no downside to venturing into the world of programming. Whether it’s making research easier, or presenting your work in new ways, programming can ensure that the data you create works for you.

[1] Julian J. DelGaudio, ‘Should Historians Become Programmers? Limitations and Possibilities of a Computer-Assisted Instruction in the United States History Survey’, The History Teacher, Vol. 33, (1999) pp67-78, at p67

[2] ‘Building the Historian’s Toolkit’, The Historian’s Macroscope: Big Digital History, http://www.themacroscope.org/?page_id=330; consulted 29 April 2015

[3] ‘Digital History: Concepts, Methods, Problems’, Stanford.Edu, http://stanford.edu/~jheppler/stanford.syllabus.hist205f.2014f.pdf; consulted 29 April 2015

[4] ‘Lesson Directory’, The Programming Historian, http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/; consulted 29 April 2015

[5] ‘Cleaning OCR’d text with Regular Expressions’, The Programming Historian, http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/cleaning-ocrd-text-with-regular-expressions; consulted 29 April 2015

[6] ‘What is Topic Modeling and For Whom is this Useful?’, The Programming Historian, http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/topic-modeling-and-mallet; consulted 29 April 2015

[7] ‘Google Maps’, The Programming Historian, http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/googlemaps-googleearth; consulted 29 April 2015

[8] ‘Building the Historian’s Toolkit’, The Historian’s Macroscope: Big Digital History, http://www.themacroscope.org/?page_id=330; consulted 29 April 2015

Historians & Programming: how to make data work for you

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