Explaining Digital Tools and Methods in History Writing

According to Gibbs and Owens in “Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing” new digital methods of data collection, analysis, and display require a new “level of methodological transparency.” They advocate an open documentation and presentation of the process of working with data. This is not only to inform readers of how they reached their conclusions, but also to familiarize readers with the different ways one can use data for historical research and analysis. Gibbs and Owens state, “We need to teach each other how we are using and making sense of data.” And Gibbs and Owens use “data” in a much broader sense. To them, data is not synonymous with evidence. Digital historians and humanists work with data not only as a confirmatory exercise, but can also use digital tools and methods as a means of discovering and framing new research questions. The mere availability of certain data sets, and the tools for interpreting them, opens up exciting new options for historical inquiry.  Stephen Ramsay calls this the “hermeneutics of screwing around,”  which include using digital tools to formulate research questions and creative failures that steer your research or analysis in a particular direction.

Gibbs and Owens, however, call for an open and available documenting of the process of using and analyzing data, even these initial steps of discovery and creative failure.  I think this open documenting is important and useful. It not only allows your readers to understand how you collected, used, analyzed, and manipulated your data, but also serves as a ways for you to familiarize your audience (particularly your non-digital colleagues) with using these new tools and data sets.

But I cannot help but wonder what this transparency will look like.  Let us assume that someone is trying to publish a traditional monograph while being as transparent as Gibbs and Owens are suggesting in their piece. Will it be in the form of an exhaustive and detailed introduction? That might discourage readers from looking at the rest of your work. What about if it were included at the end of the monograph in the form of an Appendix (or appendices)? That might discourage readers from even reading the section. I know from personal experience that Appendices are often skimmed over, if not ignored entirely. What about blogging about the process of researching and writing your monograph? This would allow you to avoid the first two problems, but by separating it from the monograph you risk having your reader’s not be aware of or have access to your blog. It would have to be explicitly stated in the monograph, and, even then, you cannot guarantee your readers will check out your site. The most effective way of integrating this transparency into your text might be to present your monograph in a digital format, such as Gibbs and Owens’ chapter, layering your methodology and process through a series of visualizations, hyperlinks, and other pages. But even that has its drawbacks. In academia, where peer-review and publishing still play such a significant role in hiring and tenure decision, can someone other than a tenured professor risk presenting their entire work online? Even then, would they?

Now I do not have any “answers” to this issue, but I think it is useful for anyone considering doing digital work to think clearly about how you are going to represent your research and analysis in the most effective way. Maybe an exhaustive introduction of digital work could work out best. Maybe it is best decided on a per-project basis. Or maybe one might consider a combination of these strategies (i.e. a presenting both a digital and print format, or including a digital companion to a hard copy work). If you are trying for the kind of transparency that Gibbs and Owens are suggesting, these are issues you must confront.

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