Unless you live under a rock you know there are an overwhelming number of apps, blogs, gadgets, tools, sites, links and media out there to meet your digital history needs. Depending on your own research interests and teaching requirements you may be partial to certain tools and unfamiliar with others. I come across tools frequently that sound great and then I promptly forget all about them as my attention is drawn someplace else. If you are studying, teaching or researching in a small department or one that is still squarely planted in 1972 the world of digital history might feel very far away indeed.
As you get started keep in mind that digital tools are just that…tools. Some are powerful and will allow you to tap into sources you never even dreamed existed in ways you couldn’t have imagined a week ago. Tools that work for me might not work for you and tools that simplify one project complicate another. You have to use your historical training and know-how when thinking about and assessing tools (digital or otherwise) much like you do evidence and argument. You shouldn’t simply adopt technology because you can or worse yet, because you think you should. Members of this group are easy to spot and not in a good way.
As July approaches you might be thinking about fall classes or a new research project. Maybe you have a little time over the summer to think about ways to augment your work digitally. So where to start? Maybe you don’t even know what digital history is or you have a sense but don’t think of yourself as a digital historian. You are not the only one. Rob recently pondered this same issue in Am I a Digital historian? Maybe you saw job postings looking for digital historians or digital humanists (these postings seem to be multiplying) and wondered what the heck that was all about. Well, you too can add “digital historian” to your long list of analog accomplishments.
The following list of 6 tools is in no particular order. These tools are easy to use and can be incorporated into your research/teaching/service in multiple ways. There are scores of tools available and this list is really targeted towards beginners. I’m not going to include things like ArcGIS on this list (but I would encourage you to branch out and explore this technology) instead I want to provide some suggestions to help you get started with digital tools that don’t require hours of training. I’ll assume you know how to search online, have a bunch of friends on Facebook, looked up all your high school friends on LinkedIn, know a little bit about Twitter and check H-Net fairly regularly. I’ll also assume that you use Wikipedia regularly (you just don’t admit to it). If this describes you pretty well then you probably already are a digital historian and if you are like me you became a historian in a digital world.
1. If you have some free time over the summer I recommend reading a bit about digital history; its origins, current projects, future directions etc. There are many good sources online but I suggest a look at: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web by Daniel J. Cohen (you can read Dan’s blog here and you should follow him on Twitter @dancohen) and the late Roy R. Rosenzweig. It is a good place to start and will give you lots of ideas about things you can do as you integrate more digital tools.
2. Assign your students a digital history textbook. You can use this text a number of ways…use it in a survey and supplement with monographs or articles, use in an upper level class as a resource for students who need to brush up on basic chronology. The textbook has a multitude of resources, primary and secondary, handouts, media, video, timeline and reference materials. The site is undergoing a face-lift at the moment and the new interface looks fantastic. Oh, and did I mention its free!
3. Join Twitter if you have not already done so and if you have stop following Justin Bieber and start following digital historians. You might be skeptical about Twitter but I can assure you that you will find others with your interests. If you are in a small department or an adjunct with no access to conference funding etc. take advantage of the opportunity to learn from international scholars you wouldn’t normally get to interact with on Twitter. If you can’t attend a conference follow the conference at the appropriate hash tag on Twitter. It won’t be a substitute for attending in person but you will be able to follow some of the conversation and can access posted links, images and videos.
One problem with Twitter is trying to figure out who to follow…there are just so many people. Start with one or two people you admire or a few people that have a job like what you want to do or maybe a few faculty members who teach in your sub-discipline. If you have no idea where to start follow @dancohen. He is Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media at George Mason. He tweets often and provides lots of great information. You will also find a list on Dan’s profile that you can subscribe to. There are well over 600 subscribers to this list so it is a fairly comprehensive directory of scholars interested in digital humanities. You can peruse this list to find other people to follow.
4. Make a word cloud using Wordle. This is a really simple way to visualize text…another way to think about writing. Take a piece of your own writing and past it into Wordle. Try a section from your dissertation (maybe a piece that pisses you off regularly). Now submit and see what you get. Wordle will create a cloud of words from the text you entered, the bigger the word appears in the cloud the more times it appeared in your text. You might be surprised by what words you use most frequently but you might be even more surprised by what words either don’t appear in the cloud or are very small. This kind of exercise is very basic but using this simple tool can start you thinking about visualizing text in a way you may not have considered. You can print out your Wordle or save it. The Wordle I have included here was created using the text of the U.S. Constitution. It isn’t that surprising how large “President” is…that word is in the Constitution many times. Take a look at some of the small words (those that are mentioned less frequently) you might be surprised that “Citizens” is very small.
Additionally, you might try an exercise with your students. Have them look at a Wordle and discuss what they see (or don’t see). Depending on how you integrate the Wordle in a lesson it could be very instructive. You might also consider having students paste their writing into Wordle and reflect on what they see and don’t see. Again, very basic tool but it will get you and your students thinking visually.
5. Regardless of what you teach, research or think about you can probably augment your work with Google Earth. You don’t need to be a GIS master to use this tool. Start small. Use Google Earth in class to show your students where things are (or were). Many students (and adults) have no idea where things are on a globe. Using maps in class is great but the distance and placement of towns and even countries is often obscured by the borders of your ppt slide. Use Google Earth instead…glide from wherever you are to Vietnam. Focus in on the highlands or the coast. Encourage your students to think about distance, connection, place and most of all change over time. There are a number of really well done Google Earth projects and you could integrate some of them into your teaching. To see the possibilities check out the following overlay created by Google and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in a collaborative effort to spread awareness about genocide in Darfur here. This overlay allows you to click on pictures, see where the refugee camps are, watch videos etc. It is a powerful visual. You will need to have Google Earth on your computer to get the overlay working.
6. Start using Zotero and tell all your friends/ colleagues/students about it. Zotero is free bibliographic software. You can very easily organize your citations, keep notes, attach images and files etc. and you can share with others. This is key if you are working on a collaborative project or if you want to send someone your bibliography. It is very easy to use and I just can’t image how you organize and manage the bibliographic info for a large project without something like Zotero. I don’t suggest moving to Zotero mid project/class in the event you don’t like it. Also, start with a small project. Zotero isn’t a separate program or piece of software so it fits into your browser and you bring it up whenever you want from any machine you are using. One of the best time saving features is that Zotero senses and recognizes content so you can add it to your library with one click. You don’t have to type out all the information. Because you can sort, filter, edit and rearrange in Zotero it will get you thinking a bit differently about storing information.
There are many more tools out there that a novice can adopt and use effectively in teaching, research and preservation. Those listed above are easy to use and will set you on your way to filling up that teaching toolbox.
Do you have a favorite digital tool that is particularly useful for doing history?
July 5, 2012 – addition
I wanted to add a great link: Getting Started in the Digital Humanities by Lisa Spiro. The author offers practical ways that you can build your network of digital humanists and get in on the conversation. Some great tips for beginners and veterans.