Digital Books and the Future of Historical Studies in HE

10 05 2011

Like many historians, I found online books to be a great innovation. Google Books is the most famous digitizer of books, but for historians perhaps the most useful provider is the Internet Archive.The internet archive contains some wonderful gems, including several editions of Pehr Kalm’s journal of his travels in North America in the late 1740s. Kalm was a Finnish naturalist whose account of life in New France has been drawn upon by many of historians of early North America. One of the assignments in the pre-Confederation history class I taught in Canada involved reading the description of Montreal contained in the edition of the journal printed in London in 1770-1. This assigment gave students to read an actual primary source and is always quite popular.

Back in November, Digital Campus, the podcast of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, broadcast an interesting discussion of digital books. I just discovered this podcast now and find it fascinating. It gets me thinking about what sort of assignments I might be giving in a decade. You can hear the podcast by clicking here.

If you haven’t already explored the rich holdings of the Internet Archive, I recommend that you do so right away!

Appearance of the Internet Archive Main Page

Universities that are Centres of Excellence in Digital History

20 05 2010

I am currently involved in planning a digitization project that will see primary sources placed online. As part of my preparatory research, I have been looking at some of the leading institutions in the field of digital history in various countries. I wanted to find out which universities were leaders in this new approach to history and what they were doing. I’ve taken the liberty of posting some of my research notes online.

Keep in mind that my focus is what university departments have been doing in the field of digital history, so this blog post doesn’t really deal with the good work being done in the field by national archives, etc.

United States

In the US, the epicentre of digital history is the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. George Washington is located in a suburb of Washington DC and is thus conveniently located near the Library of Congress.  was established by the late Prof. Roy Rosenzweig in 1994 to research and use digital media and information technology in historical  research, education, digital tools and resources, digital preservation, and outreach. Rosensweig, who was born in 1950, was a social historian who went to graduate school during the heyday of quantitative history in the 1970s. At that time, the use of computers in history was pretty much limited to big mainframes used for crunching numbers such as the census of 1860. Rosensweig, who lived to 2007, played a major role in the transformation of historical computing into a mechanism for disseminating data.

Rosensweig based his early research on the labour movement and the history of Central Park on newspapers and other 19th century primary sources. He quickly grasped that the advent of the internet had created a new set of primary sources that ought to be preserved for future historians. The CHMN rose to prominence after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which took digital snapshots of the internet during the catastrophe.

Today, the CHNM provides important resources to different groups of users: elementary secondary school teachers; professors; public historians and museum people; and general history buffs. The resources is has created include online galleries of images, how-to-guides for ditigal humanities, and software useful for people who want to make historical websites.

CHNM is responsible for the development of two impressive open source software projects: Zotero and Omeka. Zotero is a Firefox extension that operates as reference management software. Omeka is a web publishing system that uses the Dublin Core metadata standard to build digital archives, and publish digital exhibits. Both projects are free, and reflect CHNM’s dedication to democratizing the practice of history.

Imaging the French Revolution is another experiment in digital scholarship. In a series of essays, seven scholars analyze forty-two images of crowds and crowd violence in the French Revolution. Offering the most relevant examples and comments from an on-line forum, those same scholars consider issues of interpretation, methodology, and the impact of digital media on scholarship.

CHNM has also developed some projects with an explicit focus on broad, public audiences. Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, a web-based exhibit funded developed in collaboration with the Gulag Museum in Perm, Russia, looks at the Soviet system of concentration camps.

CHMN is funded by a variety of government organizations and charities. It has roughly 30 staff members listed on its website, some of whom are academics.

The director of the CHMN is Dan Cohen, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at George Mason University. Click here to see him speak.

His research is on European and American intellectual history, the history of science (particularly mathematics), and the intersection of history and computing. He was the co-author of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and the author of Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

United Kingdom

The Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) is an academic department in the School of Arts and Humanities at King’s College, University of London. It appears to be the leading UK academic department in this field. King’s has been a pioneer in humanities computing since the 1970s.

The School of Humanities at King’s was rated in the top 3 UK institutions for research excellence in the last four Research Assessment Exercises, the UK government system for ranking research quality and output.
Digital Humanities has been a strategic priority for King’s for more than a decade, and CCH has received specific mention in the past three strategic plans of the College, identifying this activity as one of its distinctive strengths. In the current Plan, a core strategic commitment is made to ‘Creating Culture’, and the College’s strength in the digital humanities is seen as central to this commitment.

CCH initiated the world’s first PhD programme in Digital Humanities and is responsible for two Masters programmes in the subject: the MA in Digital Humanities and the MA in Digital Culture and Technology. The latter programme, which involves the Schools of Arts and Humanities, Social Science and Public Policy, Physical Sciences and Engineering, and Law, is the most inter-disciplinary programme in the College. From September 2009 CCH will be offering, jointly with the Centre for e-Research, a new MA in Digital Asset Management.

A list of CCH projects is available here. The projects include the Desmond Tutu Digital Archive . Most the CCH projects appear to be designed to appeal to academics rather than the general public, schoolteachers, etc. This makes the CCH very different than the CHNM in the United States, which funds many projects that are connected to the school curriculum.

Moreover, while the CHNM projects mostly deal with relatively recent periods of history (after the invention of photography), the CCH projects tend to be focused on the more distant past. A fairly representative CCH project is the Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism project. “The aim of the Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism project is to gather evidence for the use of Greek Bible translations by Jews in the Middle Ages, and to make these texts available to scholars as a corpus, together with the information necessary for an appreciation of their historical background, meaning and exegetical implications.”

I think that it is fair to say that the Byzantine Judaism website will generate fewer hits per week than the one about the Gulag. It is still a worthwhile scholarly resource, but the CCH clearly serves a different mandate than the CHNM.

The CCH has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; The Arts and Humanities Research Council; The British Academy; The Heritage Lottery Fund; The Leverhulme Trust.

There are roughly 30 members of “core staff” listed on the website.


Canada has no single centre for excellence in this field. However, there are several universities worth mentioning.

Concordia University, Montreal

Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling serves as a point of convergence for collaborative digital historical research, teaching, and publishing among faculty and students at Concordia, as well as members of local, national and international communities. The Concordia Oral History Research Laboratory (COHRL), integrates digital media and oral history to open up new nonlinear ways to access, analyse and communicate life stories.You can listen to the podcasts created by the oral historians here.

The Concordia Digital History Lab uses new media to share the task of historical research and interpretation with online audiences worldwide— researchers, students, and the general public.  The Digital History Lab has so far out the following resources online: the S.A. Rochlin Collection of South African Political and Trade Union Organizations Database and the Guantanamobile Project, which tries to inform and collect public opinion about the U.S. detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Lab also got money from  the SSHRC Image, Text, Sound and Technology fund to create plugins to enhance Zotero, the new open source research tool produced at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in the United States that I mentioned above. Zotero helps historians to write their footnotes by automatically grabbing bibliographic information from online library catalogues. It’s a great technology. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well with many Canadian websites because the current version can’t handle French that well. The SSHRC grant will pay computer programmers to tweak the software so that it works with   Quebec online databases and archival collections.

Brock University

Kevin Kee is the Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing. He is located in the history department at Brock University. He also runs that Centre for Digital Humanities there. His projects are listed here. Check out these YouTube clips. They are obviously designed for undergrad recruitment, but they give a sense of what Kee is doing.

University of Western Ontario

The history department at Western is home to a cluster of digital historians. Prof. Bill Turkel is  Project Director, Digital Infrastructure for the SSHRC Strategic Knowledge Cluster for NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. He teaches course in Digital History, Interactive Exhibit Design, and Science, Technology, and Global History. UWO’s Alan MacEachern is the Director of NiCHE.