Doing Digital History 2016


When researching collections of historical documents, multiple perspectives can be taken to the events described. What is written about the events, where and when did they take place, and who were the people involved? For a small number of documents, these questions can be answered by reading carefully. However, now that entire archives are available online, this is no longer the case. To research such vast collections, digital technology can be of aid.

This course will introduce students to a variety of web-based tools that can help historians discuss questions related to what, when, where, and who. Students will learn how to use such tools, and how to critically reflect on their possibilities and limitations. Since the output of many of these tools are in visual form online, students will moreover learn how to integrate such visualisations in reports in digital form.

Acquired competences

Students will learn how to use digital tools to discuss questions about collections of digitised historical documents related to what the text is about, when and where described events took place, and who the actors in the events are. Students will learn how to present the results of these tools in a format suitable for online reading. Finally, students will reflect critically on the possibilities and limitations of such a digital practice.

Corpus: A Republic of Emails

For this course we have used the Hillary Clinton email archive as published on Wikileaks. Students will work in groups of 2 or 3 for weekly assignments, and groups of 3 or 4 for the final assignment. To replicate this corpus for other courses see our GitHub A-Republic-of-Emails. For blogposts concerning our experiments see:

  1. Introducing: A Republic of Emails
  2. A Republic of Emails: What are the contents?
  3. When (forthcoming)
  4. Who (forthcoming)
  5. Conclusions (forthcoming)


Week 1 – 20/09 – Introduction: History and Digital Technology

Week 2 – 27/09 – Writing for the Web

Week 3 – 04/10 – Digital Libraries & Archives

Week 4 – 11/10 – Big Data

Week 5 – 18/10 – Distant Reading

  • Literature
    • Aiden, E. L., & Michel, J.-B. (2013). The sound of silence. In Uncharted. Penguin.
    • Moretti, F. (2009). Style, Inc. Reflections on Seven Thousand Titles (British Novels, 1740-1850). Critical Inquiry, 36(1), 134-158.
  • Slides
  • Tools
  • Assignment (1 week)
    • Experiment with the tool to find something of interest in the Google Books corpus

Week 6 – 25/10 – What? Investigating what a corpus is about

  • Literature
    • Braake, S. ter, & Fokkens, A. (2015). How to Make it in History. Working Towards a Methodology of Canon Research with Digital Methods. InBiographical Data in a Digital World 2015 (pp. 85–93).
  • Slides
  • Tools
  • Assignment (2 weeks)
    • Use the tool to analyse 2000 emails from Hillary Clinton. What are the emails about and how does this develop over time.

01/11 – No class
Week 7 – 08/11 – When

Week 8 – 15/11 – When – Quantitative history

Week 9 – 22/11 – Where

Guest lecture by Kate Jones

Week 10 – 29/11 – Where – Investigating the Spatial Entities in a Corpus

  • Literature
    • Gregory, I. (2010). Exploiting Time and Space: A Challenge for GIS in the Digital Humanities. In D. J. Bodenhamer, J. Corrigan, & T. M. Harris (Eds.), The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (ebook., pp. 58-75). Indiana University Press.
    • (Bodenhamer, D. J. (2010). The Potential of Spatial Humanities. In D. J. Bodenhamer, J. Corrigan, & T. M. Harris (Eds.), The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (ebook., pp. 14-30). Indiana University Press.)
  • Slides
  • Tools
  • Assignment
    • Make a selection from the Hillary Clinton corpus from the sample of 1000 or 10k emails, create a map of what locations are talked about, and describe how these locations are talked about

Week 11 – 06/12 – Who – Investigating the social entities in a corpus

Week 12 – 13/12 – Who

Week 13 – 20/12 – Wrap-up

Final assignment

Analyse the 30k emails from the Hillary Clinton corpus using the tools taught in the course to discuss the four W-questions What, When, Where, and Who. Example questions include but are not limited to:

  1. What?
    • What are the emails about?
    • How does this change over time?
  2. Where?
    • Where are the locations mentioned in the emails?
    • What does this say about the (inter)national perspective of the writer(s)?
  1. When?
    • When were the emails sent?
    • How do the letters change over time?
  2. Who?
    • Who are the emails sent from & to?
    • Who are the people mentioned in the emails, and how do they relate to the writer & reader?
    • What does this say about the social perspective of the writer?