Digital Methods for Mid-Career Avoiders?

The ITHAKA S+R report “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” covers a lot of ground from a number of perspectives. For the most part, I think people who work in digital history and with libraries and archives will find little that is surprising here. As someone who comes to this conversation as a digital historian who builds tools, works collaboratively with libraries, museums, and archives, and who teaches digital methods for graduate students, I generally agreed with the recommendations.

The report characterizes history as a discipline in transition, and it is–both in human and institutional senses. Historians, graduate students, archivists, and librarians are each in their own way coping with the “problem of abundance” created by the digital turn. The recommendations are addressed to a range of stakeholders, but I find that the group that is most in need of a reorientation here are the academic historians themselves.


In my reading of the report, I was struck by the general reluctance of the historians in the sample to try new approaches and learn new skills. Digitizing sources in the archives is not really a new approach; it’s an upgrade from the photo copy machine.

The unwillingness of the interview subjects to invest the time in learning and using citation management tools was particularly disturbing, and yet totally unsurprising. Granted, this is a difficult transition to make in the midst of an ongoing project, but as historians launch new projects, these are exactly the tools that can help them organize and manage the materials that they digitize during their archives visits.

Gaining intellectual control over source materials is a central part of our work as historians. The scale and format of those source materials have changed over the past thirty years, and somewhat dramatically over the past dozen as archival digizitation projects have begun to hit a critical mass. As a result, practices are going to be forced to change or we will no longer be able to say that our work represents the best reading of the existing evidence.

Digital Skills

The report characterizes digital historians as a minority in the profession is certainly true. We are. And, we are primarily self-taught, but we are not self-taught in isolation. There is a community here on twitter and blogs–history done in public, if not public history. And, there are a range of ways that that community supports its members in learning new skills, building new tools, and producing new research.

Generally, these folks are at home with the sense of uncomfortableness and risk of learning new methods and approaches. This sometimes results in a feeling of being at sea while figuring out something completely new means accepting and embracing failure and frustration–you are no longer an expert; you are a novice.

I suspect that this kind of discomfort is simply to overwhelming for historians who are defined by being the expert in their field, being the most knowledgable, being the person who critiques the shortfalls of the work of others. As a result, we are seeing this community grow most rapidly amongst those willing to take the risks — those not under the tenure clock, and those not lulled into the complacency of the security that comes after.

But, the fact of the matter is that to be responsible guides to their students, mid-career historians desperately need opportunities for training in information managements and digital tools. The faculty who are teaching the current crop of PhD students are woefully unprepared to assist their students in surveying and analyzing the vast field of source material that they have access to at this point. Well-trained in the skills necessary to closely read and corroborate sources as they build answers to historical questions, these historians would benefit from knowing more about how text-mining, visualization, and geospatial tools offer ways to see new things a larger aggregate of sources.

Over the past seven to ten years the range of tools available for use in historical research that don’t require anyone to learn a programming language or to build anything from scratch has skyrocked–Voyant, ViewShare, WordPress, Omeka, Zotero, Paper Machines, etc. These “software as service” tools are a place to begin. So are periodic gatherings like THATCamps with workshop sessions.

But, really, we need something more concrete: a several week summer workshop for digital history novices who want to build a baseline of skills and learn how to learn new ones in a discipline-specific context. (The Digital Humanities Summer Institutes don’t fit the bill here; they’re just too advanced for this crowd.) Endorsement and promotion from the AHA and its Research Committee would go a long way toward making this kind of professional development viable.

Of course, first we need a field of participants who are willing to enter into a community of novices and risk takers who are willing to be uncomfortable as they learn new things and help one another.

Methods Across the Curriculum

Reaching this reluctant and unprepared middle of the profession is the only way that we can really answer the alarming sense of unpreparedness that report surfaces from the graduate students. We would do well to begin to take a “methods across the curriculum” approach to training graduate students, that includes both analogue and digital skills.

One semester of methods training frequently positions students to rehearse the history of the profession, and to identify the characteristics of a range of methodological approaches. This semester is usually eventually followed by a dissertation seminar that comes far too late in the game. The result is a growing number of students who languish at the ABD stage while they figure out how to do their work.

Readings courses that focus solely on mastering the existing range scholarship only begin to scratch the surface of preparing graduate students to contribute to that scholarship. Each and every topics course should to some degree offer additional methods work and guidance in forming research questions, locating and organizing materials, and applying analytical tools–analogue or digital.

But, this can only happen when the skills and knowledge about working in this digital environment is shared across the faculty.

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