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Literacy in Digital Humanities

It is becoming clear to me that the tools used by the digital humanities are not only valuable for historical research but also necessary for historians to accurately interpret a growing set of secondary sources. Sources such as William G. Thomas, III, and Edward L. Ayers’ “The Differences Slavery Made: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” a digital article double-blind peer reviewed and published by the American Historical Review require some degree of digital literacy to accurately read and understand. This source is being required Graduate and undergraduate courses on the Civil War and students are being required to read, understand and interpret this source. In a discussion on the creation of this article, William G. Thomas, III, discussed that the digital format resulted in a confusion of the argument where the authors felt the format would allow agency to the reader. The original navigation was a schematic diagram of the “’multidimensional’,—multi-sequential, multithreaded, flexible, modular, component, high articulation, high definition, dynamic” technique the article possessed.


This diagram proved more confusing than useful and was abandoned in favor of a more linear text-based navigation.


Many of the 7 Scholars chosen to decide on the best navigation were unfamiliar with digital publications.

Another example I have been thinking about concerning the importance of digital literacy for Historians comes with the growing popularity of topic modeling which was the focus of the winter 2012 Journal of Digital Humanities. The articles in this journal explain that “topic modeling algorithms perform what is called probabilistic inference. Given a collection of texts, they reverse the imaginary generative process to answer the question ‘What is the likely hidden topical structure that generated my observed documents?’’”(David M. Blei. “Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities”) Lisa M. Rhody in “Topic Modeling and Figurative Language” discusses the assumptions of the Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) algorithm for topic modeling. Without some understanding of these algorithms, it is easy for a historian to misinterpret or give excessive value to the results of the topics produced.

Just as a basic literacy in statistics and graphs are required to understand and accurately interpret graphs in historical works, literacy in digital interpretation is becoming a requirement. These two examples demonstrate to me that as digital publications and publications using digital material become more common in academic writing, historians are being required to become fluent in digital humanities.

Multimedia In African History

My research interests are far from mainstream and easily accessible. Before reading our sources for this week, I was reading one of the blogs that I follow called Perspectives on Africa. One of the more recent posts was about a project “Anti-Apartheid in Exile: Alfred Hutchinson’s Road To Ghana”.

This interactive map includes a brief story, portions of an oral account of the journey as well as picture to help you follow the story while situating it geographically.

Another, both created by Vincent Hiribarren, is called ” What do the Names of African Countries Mean?” 

As I was interacting with the multimedia sources that were the readings for this week, I could not help but be less impressed with the Hutchinson Map as well as the Names of African Countries map in terms of their visual appeal. These are much smaller projects and are not nearly as visually stimulating as “Snow Fall” and “Pine Point”. After being somewhat disappointed that the digital history projects that are interesting to me are almost not worth mentioning in a digital history course, I began to question why. The Hutchinson Map is a historical project that has been researched and is presented in a medium that allows the use of oral history as well as geographic orientation of the story being told. The Names of African Countries project is not a story but the visual representation of this information makes the information more accessible and understandable. The historical value is clear to me, and yet the historical presentation and representation value cedes importance to the value of the appeal of some of these projects. I imagine that the funding given to these projects reflects the public interest that they receive. My critique of these kind of projects such as Snow Fall is that the focus rests primarily on the visual appeal and the ability to entertain rather than the historical significance. The influence of these sites have little, it seems to me, to do with the importance of the story being told as with the visual appeal that it has for its audience. 

History on the Head of a Pin

Richard White, in his article “What is Spatial History?” discusses the common lack of spatial analysis in historian’s explanations of change over time. While there is not always a lack of attention to space, the preferential analysis of chronology elicits criticism from geographers claiming that historians write history as if it occurred “on the head of a pin”. Of course he proceeds to show examples where that is not the case. I was struck by this criticism that I had not previously considered. Clearly, space is a very important consideration that must be made in historical research. I am considering some interesting spatial research questions concerning South Africa in the 1920s. First, natives who represented 90+% of the population where restricted to 13% of the land. I question the state of the land allocated to natives. Many historians have claimed that it was substandard land that was inaccessible to primary population and economic centers. Second, I am curious about population density maps and how they altered as South Africa transformed into an Apartheid state. Finally, I am curious about transportation between these spaces, similar to the research done by Stanford University’s project on the Roman Empire.

As we begin to think about the implications of space on change over time, a couple points that white points out beg some discussion. Absolute space, the measurement of distance in terms of miles or meters, I would argue is less important to historians than relational space, which interprets space in terms of cost, time or other changing factors. I think of extreme examples. South African natives during Apartheid may live merely a few miles from family or work and yet because of regulations and danger, these locations are inaccessible. While these factors are challenging to represent visually in absolute space, the ORBIS Project, The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World represents some of the possibilities of representing these factors. Cost analysis, both time and money, play a major factor in the connections made in this interactive map. Ironically to me, what does not play a major role in this spatial network is implications of time, specifically the change over time of these routes. In the nearly 500 years of the Roman Empire, transportation must have undergone some technological changes which alter route, cost and time, all of which are not represented as far as I could tell. It is as if the historians working on this project traded history on the head of a pin for history frozen in time.

Thoughts on the effect of distance reading on research

I have been working on researching the collaboration of Black organizations in South Africa during the 1920’s. It is during these years that Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement was gaining momentum in Africa, specifically South Africa and Liberia, The South African Communist Party was founded, The Industrial and Commercial workers Union (ICU) a sister organization to the IWW was founded, The African National Congress was founded and gaining momentum in South Africa, as well as religious rebellions. While this topic has not attracted a great deal of attention from historians interested in South Africa, there is a wealth of sources, many easily accessible following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The challenge has been sorting through all the useful sources. For example, I have more than 50 speeches, articles and documents from these organizations specifically from the 20s with many more that I am aware of. There is also an abundance of newspapers published by or circulated by these groups at this time. My project has been to understand the social and political climate  of the native community in South Africa during this interim period between South African Independence from Britain and the establishment of Apartheid.

Digital history has begun to open to me new ways of reading the many sources that I have been struggling with as well as new questions to ask concerning these sources. This week I have been tracking down these many sources by sifting through online archives and picking out nearly all sources from the 1920s in South Africa. The majority of these sources have been on, and Many of these I had seen before and yet passed by because I simply could not read it all. While searching this week I was not concerned about my ability to read each source and choosing only a selections that seemed specifically interesting to me, but was thinking that instead that by using text analysis to “read” these sources I would actually get a more complete representation of these organizations. While we have discussed concerns about Digital History methods further distancing us from history, making it a less personal practice of statistics, graphs and text analysis rather than telling a story, but this week i was realizing that these tools will allow me to do further research and tell a more complete story.

Adding Documents for Marxists Internet Archive

For my first real venture into Digital History I chose a relatively simple and practical endeavor. I am digitizing a 10 page discussion titled “What is Black Consciousness?” between Steve Biko, a South African Revolutionary during apartheid, and a white South African court during Biko’s trial. This is a piece of a larger work of Biko’s writing, speeches, and other primary source material smuggled out of South Africa after his death due to a head wound suffered while in police custody in 1977. While Biko died before the end of Apartheid, he was instrumental in the revolutionary movement as well as his death was a major turning point in international attention to the Apartheid oppression. I will include a sample of this document. “We come from a background which is essentially peasant and worker, we do not have any form of daily contact with a highly technological society, we are foreigners in that field. When you have got to write an essay as a black child under for instance JMB the topics that are given there tally very well with white experience, but you as a black student writing the same essay have got to grapple with something which is foreign to you — not only foreign but superior in a sense; because of the ability of the white culture to solve so many problems in the sphere of medicine, various spheres, you tend to look at it as a superior culture than yours, you tend to despise the worker culture, and this inculcates in the black man a sense of self-hatred which I think is an important determining factor in his dealings with himself and his life.” (BIko, 1976) or Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) has been an invaluable resource for me in researching international  revolutionary movements. The Marxists Internet Archive is an all-volunteer, non-profit public library, started more than 20 years ago in 1990. MIA abides by seven fundamental tenets found in their charter.  They promise to always be 100% Free; to always be a non-profit organization; to always be based on democratic decision making; to always have full disclosure; to always remain politically independent; Their priority is to provide archival information and to present content in a way that is easy to access and understand. For more information:

I have signed up as a volunteer with MIA and will be working on three or more digitizing projects in the next six months. This is very interesting and helpful to me as I will be working with these type of sources on a regular basis. I have  used this site extensively as it is often the only location where I can access a primary source that was originally written in a language I cannot read, or can only be physically found in one or two libraries internationally. This site is often the first place that a source has been digitized or translated.

I must acknowledge that this site has its own limitations. First, it contains only a sampling of all sources that could be published and is what Digital Humanities call an Intentional Archive. Second, MIA is compiled by volunteers who make mistakes, unlike Wikipedia, this is a collection of primary sources and the mistakes are more in the way of grammatical errors and translation mistakes. A few of the very valuable aspects of this archive is that it is compiled by people in many countries in the world, speaking many different languages. This makes it accessible not only to Western historians with limited language abilities but also internationally in more than 45 different languages. One of my biggest concerns about digital history is access. If history is being digitized and perhaps more accessible to western countries, is it also becoming less accessible to people reading non-western languages? MIA is one of the few Digital Archives that has made such a focus on diverse language accessibility.