Blog Post #8: The Historian’s Macroscope

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This week, our History in the Digital Age graduate class read a book called Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. The authors Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart are all professors who specialize in the digital humanities. The book explains that while a microscope hones in on the very small, a macroscope is a tool for looking at very large data. While microhistories examine a single story or moment in history, a microhistory analyzes long term trends. For its embrace of the longue duree, the book reminds me of The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage. Graham, Milligan, and Weingart argue that historians must be able to study both the micro and the macro aspects of history. Throughout the book, the authors focus on the opportunities and the implications of being a historian in the “Era of Big Data”. The book is intended for anyone who wants to “turn the macroscope on their own research”.

The book is divided into three parts. Chapter One and Chapter Two make up the first section of the book. Chapter One familiarizes the reader with the historical context of the Big Data Era. Chapter Two focuses on defining “Digital Humanities” and providing an overview of key terms. The second section of the book includes Chapter Three and Chapter Four. Chapter Three discusses hands on tools that historians can use in their research. The chapters touch upon data mining, word clouds, and topic modeling. Chapter Four is quite hands on and walks the reader through topic modeling sources. Chapters Five, Six, and Seven make up the third part of the book. The final chapters emphasize network analysis and describes the ways to effectively use interactive visualizations. The structure of the book is effective because it first introduces the reader to the historiography and the historical context of digital humanities before then challenging the reader to use simple tools such as word clouds, and finally the book discusses ways to properly create more complex interactive visualizations.

I tried one of the recommended exercises in the book. I attempted to create a word cloud with Wordle. I pasted the title to every Bob Dylan song into the box to see which words were used most often. I attempted it several times, but I kept receiving an error code and being instructed to download a plug in. I tried to do that, but I could not get it to work for me. I ran out of time to try another exercise before this blog post was due, but I will definitely check out some others this week.

The book is well written and easy to comprehend. It is filled with footnotes, useful illustrations, and interactive visualizations. At times, the book is so well foot-noted, so informative, so interactive, and so accompanied by illustrations and visualizations that it almost gives one a feeling of information overload, but that is not exactly a weakness.

The Open Draft Version of the book includes the subtitle “An experiment in writing in public, one page at a time.” The subtitle reflects the authors’ desire to share their work with the larger digital history community. The book is for sale for $39, but the authors made it available to the public free of charge. The authors explain that they keep a version of The Historian’s Macroscope online for students who cannot afford to buy it. As a humble college student, I appreciate that the book is available for free. However, I would consider buying it because it is extremely informative and useful for historians like myself who want to delve into the digital humanities.

Furthermore, the authors ask those who can afford it to buy the book in order to prove to their editors that an “open business model” is worth publishing. The authors were aware that free online accessibility would possibly hurt book sales, but it was important to them to make it openly available to the public and to transparently share their work, mistakes and all. I support their efforts and hope that other historians consider supporting and replicating such open access educational endeavors.

The book is intended for undergraduate students who are just learning about big data, graduate students seeking a reliable handbook, researchers who wish to utilize digital tools to exam big data, or even a historical society with vast amounts of material to examine. One of the book’s strengths is that the authors keep the book’s jargon simple enough for lay people. They do not wish to exclude any readers. Indeed, as they explain, the book is meant for anyone who wants to “actively create and interrogate digital data”.

As the authors point out in their online companion essay, Diversity in Digital History, “In the Digital Age, no book, no project, is ever really finished.” Books such as The History Manifesto and The Historian’s Macroscope are now placed online for all to see. They are then reedited to reflect changing data, to correct errors and omissions, or to respond to feedback from peers or the public. For that reason, digital books and projects are living documents.

The authors decided to write the companion essay after receiving feedback that their publication overlooked “feminist values and diverse outlooks”. In the essay, the authors apologize for the omission and vow to include supplementary material in the future to address the book’s perceived shortcomings. Until then, the authors include links to allow readers to explore resources that highlight diversity in digital humanities. The authors conclude their essay by asserting that “more attention must be paid to diversity itself as a creative force for digital techniques.”

Source:
Graham, Shawn, Ian Milligan, Scott Weingart. The Historian’s Macroscope. Under contract with Imperial College Press. Open Draft Version, Autumn 2013, http://themacroscope.org

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