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Digging into a Slice of Digital History

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This is a guest post by Ellen O’Donnell, Technical Writer, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, who recently spent a year on detail in OSI.

When shepherd Christopher Day made a routine check of his boss’s flock, he noticed that a sheep was missing.

Dan Cohen, credit: University Relations, George Mason University
Dan Cohen, credit: University Relations, George Mason University

Word got around town. An alert policeman spotted a suspicious party “walking in a very odd posture,” carrying something that bent him “almost double.” Indeed, he turned out to be packing “some Mutton and the Hind Quarter of a pretty large Sheep and its Neck and Breast … not kill’d in the manner in which Butchers kill their Meat.”

It didn’t help his case that he had discarded the (branded) sheepskin in the road and hidden other parts in his clothes closet. Nicholas Thompson went to trial, was found guilty, and paid a hefty fine.

Although his crime was in 1741, Thompson’s case lives on, as do almost 200,000 others tried in the central court of London. Thanks to The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, historians, linguists, criminologists, and others can read about daily life in London from 1674 to 1913 in a full-text, digitized, searchable, and indexed resource.

Dan Cohen, Ph.D., highlighted the Old Bailey and other projects in “The Future of Digital History,” a talk at the National Library of Medicine, in Bethesda, Maryland, on November 11, 2011. Cohen is director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and an associate professor of art history and history, both at George Mason University.

Digital history, says the Rosenzweig Center’s Web site, is “an approach to examining and representing the past that takes advantage of new communication technologies such as computers and the Web. It draws on essential features of the digital realm, such as databases, hypertextualization, and networks, to create and share historical knowledge.”

Cohen acclaimed the sheer volume of material available 20 years after the start of the Web–“an abundant record of history,” from millions of full-text books to countless digital copies of documents, objects of art, films, and… menus.

Menu, Sergeants' Mess, Lemnos 1915, by thompsoe, on Flickr
Menu, Sergeants' Mess, Lemnos 1915, by thompsoe, on Flickr

Menus? Yes—the New York Public Library, for example, has the Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, of about 26,000 digitized menus nationwide from 1851 to 1930. Historians of food and consumption devour such material. Others may just enjoy perusing the often-elaborate designs, dishes, and rituals, such as singing songs between courses. The project was crowdsourced, Cohen said, with many members of the public contributing.

Cohen has coined a term, “mega-meta-collections,” to describe “collections of collections.” Global Gateway and Chronicling America are two examples from Library of Congress. Europeana is chugging toward 5 million digitized records of world cultural heritage, all contributed by European member states. A project with some similarities being discussed in the U.S. is the Digital Public Library of America.

Open Context is a website for the electronic publication of primary field research from archaeology and related disciplines. Cohen  noted the site “is community based; uses open standards to share and move [cultural heritage] content around the Web; aims at data portability; and involves the synthesis of metadata from many collections, in addition to the digitized objects.”

“Not only can you access this kind of content at 3:00 a.m. in your pajamas,” he continued, “but it also opens other incredible possibilities. It’s transforming the research process.”

Scholars aren’t tied any longer to manually searching materials one siloed archive at a time. They can, for example, go into data online, design new interfaces, and curate and set up new collections. Often working in teams, they can apply computational tools such as software, algorithms, and scatter plotting to large data sets, helping to identify historical patterns, trends, and anomalies. One project using the Old Bailey data, for example, identified the favored method of poisoning in the 19th century (coffee, for its bitter taste).

Someday, Cohen said, historians might use these kinds of tools to study, using the Twitter Archive of the Library of Congress, who was tweeting about a specific news event most, when, where, and in what language. A challenge that the field is discussing is how to integrate new techniques and literature with traditional ways of knowing based on close reading.

Not all future uses of collections can be anticipated, and that, to Cohen, is exciting. “Hopefully,” he said, “unexpected uses will involve the general public in some form, as public libraries always do, and in ways we don’t even know about yet. This is what I see as the future of digital history.”

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