Oct 15

Digital Tools: Making Sense of Digital Archives

My post is written in dialogue with Peter Holdsworth’s latest post, which I read as being focused on the methodological questions around the increasing accessibility of data for the historian. I hope that some of us might wish also to discuss what specific practical tools allow us to deal with the avalanche of material that is now at our fingertips. Primary sources are increasingly accessible online (both as image and text files). Googlebooks, scholarly databases (e.g. Project Muse, Persée) or National Libraries (e.g. Bibliothèque Nationale de France) multiply the secondary literature now searchable by a few keystrokes. But how to make sense of the thousands of hits that Googlebooks offers us, even after we discount the many false positives? How do we keep track of so much information? How do we avoid reduplicating our effort when rechecking databases that keep expanding significantly every six months? How do we display this information to readers? While text (articles, books) remains the endpoint of scholarly production, are there other ways that we can present our evidence and allow our datasets to be used by others? Most importantly, however, for this proposed discussion, is what are the tools available now to historians, to pursue this kind of work.

My interest in these questions arise from my work establishing a scholarly edition of a twelfth-century chronicle which –despite relative obscurity– has nonetheless garnered limited but sustained interest for several centuries. While it is relatively straight forward to keep track of where and when scholars wrote about the chronicle using bibliographic software like Endnote (and establishing who cited who, by using a bit more brainpower), the task becomes much more difficult when trying to account for other factors. To judge whether a stupendously inaccurate seventeenth-century scholar actually saw a copy of the chronicle, necessitates plotting the locations over time of the fourteen now extant manuscripts as well as the nine centuries of movements by scholars themselves. What digital tools, I ask, allow scholars to keep track and arrange this sort of information (temporally, spatially)? And  what tools exist to make sense of the information, so that it has something relevant to say to historians? And after conclusions are reached, what tools can we used to display this web of information to an audience?

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