This blog caught my attention recently. I think its content is a worthy point of reference in discussing some of the issues of the Digital Humanities that I’ve been discussing in my Digital History class. In this brief little excursion of a historical study, the author investigates a digitally annotated corpus of London trial records from the 1600s to the 1800s. He looks particularly at words that are closely associated with first names, concluding that most of the words used in context with first names that are not in dictionaries are likely last names. Referencing studies that have shown that justice in England during this time period was frequently informal, he concludes that a lot of the new last names in these records can be thought of as recent migrants into the London area. He then traces the appearance of these last names in the records in terms of wars, attempting to show effects of the dynamics of war and peace on migration.
To be sure, I found this blog entry lacking in certain respects. Considering the number of words he thought could be last names was astronomical (55,000), it was unclear how he went about identifying names that were “new” and how he could be sure that they were appearing for the first time. It seems reasonable to conclude, given what I know about the Digital Humanities, that he did not look over them word by word. Because he did not explicate his methods here, it made his theoretical foundations (for example, the assumption that most of the names belonged to recent immigrants) considerably shakier. Yet still, I think this was a thought provoking examination that is legitimate. As I have argued in class, Digital Humanities projects, just like historical narratives, should be approached critically. The people who read them should not accept them as mere fact; the point is to weigh the truthfulness of the claim and stimulate thought about society. And this blog does so just fine, in my opinion.
This brings to mind a reading by Gibbs and Owens, The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing, that my class covered earlier in the semester. The blog entry, to me, seems like a good medium, much more so than the monograph, to explain digital methodologies in historical inquiry, due to its form as a short but substantial digestible chunk of information, as opposed to an exasperating long winded text full of facts, interpretation and methodology.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the blog entry seems well suited to displaying and discussing Digital Humanities research for this very reason (though certainly historical blog entries need not be limited to research in the Digital Humanities). It seemed to me also, that the scope of this project was rather limited compared to that of a traditional monograph. Yet in spite of this, as I have argued, I found it to be thought provoking and therefore worthy of publication. In another reading from earlier in the semester, the historian Robert Darnton discusses some of the issues surrounding digital publication and consideration for tenure. Perhaps, I hope, by thinking of historical blog entries in terms of the breadth of their focus and how much this actually diminishes the value of the study behind them, maybe historians can tackle some of the issues surrounding the legitimacy of digital publication.