Historical Research Methods and Digital History

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Historical Research Methods  started Monday. I have my virtual pencils sharpened, Moleskine in hand,  and course books on my shelves. There is a GREAT group of students in the class from a variety of backgrounds and from all over the world. We also have an excellent professor (Barbara Kaplan). [Note to self: buy her books...they look excellent.]

Moleskine

Moleskine available at Levengers.com

In addition to the required texts (see listing in earlier post here), the following are recommended. I owned all but Novick’s book so picked it up.

Fischer, David Hackett. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward the Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Perennial. 1970.

David Hackett Fischer

David Hackett Fischer

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

That Noble Dream

Storey, William Kelleher. Writing History: A Guide for Students. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

Writing History- A Guide for Students

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

On Digitization of History

I am impressed with the focus the class will have on research in the digital age. Much of the supplementary reading focuses on digging into digital sources. I peeked ahead and read “What is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects” by Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas which is posted in the Digital Commons of the University of Nebraska Lincoln accessible here. (1) Pivotal to their article is a working definition of what digital history is.

“Digital history might be understood broadly as an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems. On one level, digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collection efforts. On another level, digital history is a methodological approach framed by the hypertextual power of these technologies to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past. To do digital history, then, is to digitize the past certainly, but it is much more than that. It is to create a framework through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a major historical problem.” (2)

Seefeldt and Thomas saw differentiation between digitization projects and digital history scholarship. Superb examples of digitization projects according to the authors are the Library of Congress’ American Memory project and the National Archives. (3) Examples of digital history, on the other hand, “tended to arrange a more discrete collection of sources and materials around a historiographical question.” (4)  They site as examples  The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, and Race and Place: An African American Community in the Jim Crow South among others. These illustrate how creative use of digital resources can open “the question up for readers to investigate and form interpretive associations of their own.” (5)  Seefeldt and Thomas characterize sites like this as game changing in that they aren’t just an “analog” presentation of information one might copy from a book or other media but a presentation of “a suite of interpretive elements” that position viewers as active participants to a degree in solving the problem. (6)

The following sites were given as examples of digital history evolved to a new level.

Andrew Torget’s (University of North Texas) The Texas Slavery Project. Think of spatial mapping of demographic data related to slaveholders. Very cool.
Texas Slavery Project

Richard White (Standford University) Spatial History Project. Incredible project.


You might also find interesting my post “Discovering the Civil War Online” about the March 3rd, 2010 webcast during which Civil War historian Steven E. Woodworth and educational technology specialist Tom Daccord explored utilizing online databases to research Civil War topics.

(1) Seefeldt, Douglas and William G. Thomas. What is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects.” Perspectives on History 47 (May 2009): 40-43. Accessed online 13 June 2010 at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/historyfacpub/98/.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.

Historical Presentism

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John AdamsI am on the hunt for examples of Historical Presentism, the notion of reading the present into the past. David Hackett Fischer in his work, Historians’ Fallaciessays that “…the fallacy of presentism is a common failing in historical writing by men who have never been trained in the discipline of history.”Peter Charles Hoffer, when going back to publish his Harvard dissertation Liberty or Order, admits that after reading Fischer’s book he felt he was himself guilty of historical presentism. But, he said, “I am comforted that the same charge can be laid against Jefferson, John Adams (above), and all of the other revolutionaries studied.”2 I need to finish reading his book to find out why but what a fascinating assertion.

For my own enlightenment and education, I’d be interested to hear of other examples any of you may have of historical presentism.

By the way, in researching the authors I’m reading, I am always fascinated to find out what accomplished historians and scholars they are. I’ve added both professor Fischer and professor Hoffer to my “the historians” page here where you can read more about them.

Historians' Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought

Fischer1David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York, 1970), 137.

Hoffer2 Peter Charles Hoffer, Liberty or Order: Two Views of American History from the Revolutionary Crisis to the Early Works of George Bancroft and Wendell Phillips (New York, 1988), ii.

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