Roundtable Talk Data to Me: A Conversation with Historians about Using Large-Scale Digital Data in Research and Teaching

AHA Session 137
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Armitage Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Steven Ruggles, University of Minnesota
Leah Platt Boustan, University of California, Los Angeles
Joseph P. Ferrie, Northwestern University
Johanna Leinonen, University of Turku
Evan Roberts, University of Minnesota
Jeffery G. Strickland, Montclair State University
The Future Is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History

Session Abstract

Advances in computing technology and web-delivery systems have enabled historians to access large-scale, digital databases on American and international populations over very large periods of time.  Over the last twenty years, archival holdings of both quantitative and qualitative sources have been digitized and made available on-line.  Despite the richness of these resources for the study of change over time, few historians made use of these powerful research tools.   One reason for the reluctance is that the raw data files produced by the U.S. Census Bureau and others were difficult to use in a time series in their original form.    Historians and others at the University of Minnesota decided to tackle this problem and launched a series of initiatives to make large-scale historical datasets user-friendly and to deliver the data and documentation free of charge over the Internet. 

Today, the Minnesota Population Center is the world’s leading developer of harmonized historical and international census data.  More than 30,000 researchers worldwide have registered to use extracts from MPC-produced datasets.   On-line tabulators are available for those unfamiliar with statistical software or who would simply like to generate a statistical table without downloading data.  The MPC database with the longest time series is the IPUMS—the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series—which contains individual-level samples of population census data of the United States from 1850 to 2010.  International historical data are available in the NAPP database, which has complete-count nineteenth-century census data for six counties in the North Atlantic.

Participants at this roundtable have all used IPUMS or NAPP data in their research; some of them have also used these data in the classroom.  They have different research interests, different research needs for large-scale databases, and employ different methods for analyzing quantitative evidence.  Each of them will share their experiences using IPUMS, NAPP and other large datasets.  Following the discussion, there will be a short demonstration of how to access the IPUMS-USA on-line tabulator to produce statistical tables with a click of a mouse—and no knowledge of statistics.

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