Introduction: History and Digital Technologies

Max Kemman
University of Luxembourg
September 20, 2016

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Doing Digital History: Introduction to Tools and Technology


  • Introduction: History and Digital Technology
    • Challenges
    • Technology as support
    • New practices
  • About the course
    • Prerequirements & Goals
    • Tasks & Grading
    • Overview
  • Next time

Your lecturer

Information Science
PhD Candidate with Andreas Fickers
Dutch or English

Introduction: History and Digital Technology

What is this 'Digital History' you speak of?

Let's ask some experts

In this course: doing historical research using digital sources and tools

Digital sources: Digitized archives & digital-born material



How to preserve digital sources?

  • Changes in hardware & software
  • Cost of preservation
  • But we can leave those issues to others

Complete preservation

A complete historical record

What would be "everything"?

Does "everything" have to be preserved?

Complete preservation

To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract.

The challenge, likewise, for digital archives is their inability to forget —or rather, their inability to forget creatively.

Anderson, S. F. (2011). Technologies of history: Visual media and the eccentricity of the past. UPNE.

Information Overload

Even when we don't have everything, we get a lot

What do you do with a million books?

Crane, G. (2006). What do you do with a million books? D-Lib Magazine, 12(3).

Or, what do you do with 31 million tweets?

Maybe printing isn't the solution...

Information Overload

The injunction of traditional historians to look at “everything” cannot survive in a digital era in which “everything” has survived

Rosenzweig (2003)

So, we consider alternative approaches to the historical record

Technology as support

Unlike humans, computers can process a million books very fast

No hermeneutic interpretation, but potential uses for:

  • Exploration
  • Presentation


How can we discover the interesting bits?

For the microhistories/atomic history: which ones are of interest? And why?

For the macrohistories/astrophysical history: how to gain overview? How to summarize?


How can we present history in an interesting way using digital tools?

Such as "Snow Fall" in journalism?

"Snow Fall" of the NSA story

Are there methods beyond the narrative to tell a story?

Can we invite readers to interact with the story and sources and be engaged with our arguments?


In this course we will experiment with information visualisation for history

Answer different questions about a body of text







(Un)fortunately, such visualisations are not created automagically

For this, we need new practices:

  • Making the information machine-readable
  • Experimenting with different views
  • Presenting arguments in a digital format
  • Finally, we achieve this by collaborating


We need to do all of this without falling for different biases:

  • Confirmation bias
  • Digital bias
  • Algorithmic bias

This brings us to our current course...

About the course

Prerequirements & Goals

No prerequirements :)

Students will learn how to use and critically examine digital tools for historical research.

  • Try tool during lecture
  • Use Google when you get stuck
  • But: don't be scared if it doesn't do what you expected it to do
  • You can always e-mail me: let me know what you have tried

Limitations of the course

Horizons in current practices of Digital History

  • Textual emphasis
  • Heuristic emphasis
  • End-user perspective, so no programming (but some coding)

Tasks & Grading


  • Reading literature
  • Keeping track of new terminology
  • Assignments
  • Group project


  • Weekly assignments (40%)
  • Final group project (60%)


Week 1-5: Theory of Technologies

  1. Introduction: History and Digital Technology
  2. Writing for the Web
  3. Digital Libraries & Archives
  4. Big Data
  5. Distant Reading


Week 6-13: Practice of Tools

  1. What: Investigating what a corpus is about
  2. What: Recognising entities in a corpus
  3. When: Investigating temporal events in a corpus
  4. When: Creating an exposition
  5. Where: Investigating locations in a corpus
  6. Where: Creating your own map
  7. Who: Investigating people in a corpus
  8. Who: Networks of people


  1. Final class discussion on Tools & Technologies


All slides can be found on Moodle after the lecture
All literature can be found on Moodle

For next time

27 September

Writing for the Web

Reading: (see Moodle)

  • Nawrotzki, K., & Dougherty, J. (2013). Introduction. In K. Nawrotzki & J. Dougherty (Eds.), Writing History in the Digital Age (Online., pp. 1–20). University of Michigan Press.
  • Dorn, S. (2013). Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past? In K. Nawrotzki & J. Dougherty (Eds.), Writing History in the Digital Age (Online., pp. 21–34). University of Michigan Press.