Summer Project: Start a Digital History Toolbox

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.

Zotero6. 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.

29 thoughts on “Summer Project: Start a Digital History Toolbox

  1. I use Wikipedia and do admit it!! Lol. This is a really good piece. I am in a small institution stuck in 1972, with little digital history stuff and no real incentives to expand into the area. So any digital stuff I do I do myself and find stuff out myself. This can be frustrating but also rewarding – I know I stand a decent chance of getting a job, within and outside of academia, with these skills and can use them to enhance my profile. Having been on Twitter for less than a month, I got a request to do the podcast I did on the website Environmental History Resources, which wouldn’t have happened had I not been on Twitter. It is also really great to communicate with environmental historians across the world as there are no others at my institution, not even my tutor. I do have to update my blog (am away researching at the moment), and this can be a challenge, especially as I’m in the early days (relatively) of my PhD, but at least I’ve crossed the first hurdle by setting one up.
    I don’t know much about GIS so that’s something I could do and expand on in coming months and years. Good piece.

    • If you are interested in GIS Mark I would recommend work by Ann K. Knowles who is at Middlebury College. You can read about here here: She came to UMaine last semester and I had the pleasure to meet with her and hear her speak. Her publications are listed at her faculty page but you might be especially interested in: Knowles, Anne Kelly ed. 2008. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship. Digital supplement edited by Amy Hillier. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.

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  5. I agree with Mark — thanks Katherine for your article. I am about to start my doctoral dissertation, and I am going to try Zotero to see if it is a good fit. If there are other bibliographic programs I should look at, and compare with Zotero, please point me in the right direction. This also may be a ridiculous question, Katherine, but, I’m going to ask: when I start writing my diss in Word, is it best to create a separate document for each chapter, and if so, how do you get the page numbers to follow? I do need to contact my librarians at school and ask them to guide me, but, feedback from other recent PhDs is most welcome!

    Also — my husband just introduced me to Endnote, which is absolutely fabulous and easy to use for non-techies like me. It’s a program that captures notes or anything online, which is then always at your fingertips via laptop or phone. I also just learned how to make maps using Jing, which was also incredibly easy and good for my work in cultural heritage.

    • Thanks for your comment Laura. I used to use Endnote…I think I bought Endnote X. A member of my committee recommended it to me. I liked it at first but I had a hard time formatting entries for my primary source documents. It might just be me, but I feel like Endnote serves me well when i am working with APA formatting and not very well when working in Chicago. It could be that the I think and therefore cite differently in one vs. the other. I find Zotero to be a better fit for me. I like that it is free and that it lives right in your browser so if you are on a different computer you can bring up your Zotero. Endnote has to be installed on the machine. I would say try Endnote out, see how it fits…that is what I did.

      Good question about the chapters in a diss and one that I also asked as I started out. Personally I kept my chapters as separate docs. I found it easier to deal with chapters in separate files. Also, the second best day in dissertation land is the day you take all those separate files, paste them together into one document and realize that you have a 250 page “thing.” Honestly it will bring you to the brink of joyful tears :)

      I’m not sure I understand your question about page numbers…I think you are asking how to start a document, say, Chapter 3 on page 56? Go to the Insert menu, then page number, then format page number…you can either “continue from previous section (which is the default) or choose “start at.” There is a little box there and you can add whatever number you like.

      I have never used Jing but I will check it out. Happy dissertating :)

  6. Oh, yes, I also use Wikipedia but also used this past week Wikipedia Commons to gather some images for a publication.

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  13. I just couldn’t get with Zotero and didn’t find that it was all that user friendly. So, I used Microsoft One Note, which I found very user friendly and excellent for working on my last book. Only problem, it isn’t available on Mac, which I have since moved to. Growly is a free download for Mac that works like One Note, except the folders show on the screen in the reverse, which is a little irritating. Any other suggestions?

    • Thanks for your comment Karen. I haven’t used One Note…actually I thought it was only for taking notes (which I do in Google Docs)I didn’t realize that there was a bibliographic component to it. When you say the folders are in reverse do you mean reverse chronological order? or access order?

      have you used Endnote? There is also RefWorks which I have not used.

  14. I love the idea of a “toolbox” for digital history. I have been using so many digital history resources with my students – Blogger, Digital History, Biography of America, the American Presidency Project, The Flow of History,, just to list a few. Have students go on Wikipedia and type in 1942 or 1487…what a great resource! Less and less I find myself having to photocopy pages out a book, though I still need to once in a while. I never thought I’d ever be interested in having a Twitter account — who cares what I had for breakfast? But actually I have found it’s great for quickly posting links on my blogs to interesting articles and info I come across on the internet. I also have found some very interesting and like-minded people and organizations on Twitter. (Who is this “justin beiber” you speak of? Some anthropologist, no doubt). I have actually been using eTurabian ( to keep track of my bibliographies. I should give Zotero a whirl — I heard about it and set up an account last summer I think, but I’ve never done anything with it.

    The other piece of the toolbox for me is hardware. I want to get a higher megapixel digital camera (I am currently using a beat-up Canon PowerShot A630 8.0 mp) before I photograph a set of 18th -19th century handwritten Justice of the Peace records I want to work on — a higher resolution / higher density megapixel image will make it easier to zoom in on those hard-to-decipher passages and blotchy patches. I’d like to photograph these records this summer while I have the free time during the day, and then go through them on the weekends next winter/spring Not being “chained” to the hours of an archive or town hall to do research is just another of the blessings of digital history.

    When I think back on my research “toolbox” way back when I first started researching my MA thesis in 2003 — a notebook, a pen, a pencil, note cards…I still have that notebook somewhere. Now my toolbox is a laptop, a digital camera, a firewire cable, a 500GB external hardrives and 16GB flash drive, Google docs. So much has changed in just a few short years in just how we “do” history now.

  15. Thanks for your comment Mark. I have not used eTurabian but have heard others mention it. In the event you suddenly needed to convert everything from Turabian to APA, or something like that, is it possible with eTurabian?

    Glad you mentioned digital cameras. I wonder how many others out there in history land use a digital camera? I know Stillwater Historian Rob has used a dig. camera to photograph sources in the past. I own a dig. camera but for me it is practically an obsolete device at this point. I use my smartphone to take pics or video of docs when I research. i have a myTouch and I find that the pics I take with my phone (with or without flash) are better than what my digital camera can do. Granted, my digital camera is just a little point and shoot Cannon. Once I take images I can either use a wire to transfer to my laptop (which I never do) or I can email them to myself (which I often do) or I can just upload them to Flickr or Instagram or something like that. I stopped using a digital camera because I tend to over-photograph…I figure hell, I’ll just take pics of everything and go back later and I never do. I am not a fan of archives and usually want to get the hell out as soon as possible so I copy/gather/photograph everything I can. I am curious what system you (or anyone else) developed to name or organize your digital images?

    • That is an interesting question about eTurabian Katherine. I have never had or needed to convert citations, but I suspect if it does it would probably only convert to them into MLA since it is the only other option it has for creating a citation. Zotero might be more flexible in that regard. Still, it has been handy to have a place online where all my sources/citations are located.

      As far as organizing images, what I do is create folders (and sub-folders) on my laptop for each set of documents I am recording, take the pictures (no flash) and download the images immediately and then quickly check them to make sure they are legible. Otherwise I end up with a huge set of pictures that I have to go through later, and if some are not usable because I was not holding the camera steady enough, then I am going back again. Windows Photo Gallery allows you to rename (and also tag photos) on the fly, which is handy.

      For some sources that I might reference often I have gone back later and used Photo Gallery to rename the images for page numbers — so lets say I want to look at RI Laws 1719 and find a particular page referenced somewhere else, I can locate that fairly quickly. It is boring and time-consuming to put in page numbers for a set of photographs of a 200+ page source, but if it is something you are going to use frequently in your research its definitely worth putting the time into organizing it upfront.

      The digital camera I have been using ( is just a nothing special point and shoot Canon too, I got it five or six years ago to take pictures of our kid’s birthday parties, softball games &c. I did not envision ever using it to do research when I bought it, but it actually has worked really well for that. I would like (someday) to build a platform for it (or its replacement) with an appropriate built-in light source to avoid taking blurry pictures and prevent shadows. 8 megapixels is definitely enough resolution to take pretty decent pictures of historical sources; you can zoom in and read tiny handwriting in the margins or at the bottom of the page, or work out things that have been erased and written over, most of the time. 10 megapixels I think would be excellent.

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