Digital Historical Sources as Data: Opportunities and Challenges

AHA Session 22
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Jason A. Heppler, Stanford University

Session Abstract

Working computationally with historical sources such as texts, images, moving images, and sound helps historians extend the scope and depth of their analyses, communicate their insights in novel ways, create more accessible collections, and build platforms to explore them. In order to work in this space, historians must understand their historical sources as data. First, this requirement is driven by the need to understand what affordances historical sources possess in a digital environment. From this understanding proceeds the ability to chart a path of exploration. Second, as computational work increases and data is generated and modified to support a historical argument, standards of research process and material documentation are required in order to ensure the integrity of the work. These are significant challenges yet surmounting them is worth the opportunities they afford for augmenting historical research. During this session panelists will explore opportunities for exploring historical sources computationally and extend their discussion to consider how research practices like data curation support the integrity of this work.

Challenges lie in creating digital objects and datasets that retain these complexities. Issues such as copyright, proprietary datasets, privacy, fear of being “scooped”, heterogeneous or dissimilar datasets, coding ability, and computational resources can all stand as barriers to working with sources as data. However, by working through these challenges, opportunities to ask research questions in promising new ways arise. The first half of this session will elaborate on ways that working with digital historical sources as data have enabled projects that facilitate research, discovery, and reuse of digitized historical materials. The second half will discuss ways in which historians can refine, document, organize and store their data to preserve integrity and context of the sources and the resulting research. Taken together, this panel presents the process for historians to responsibly, effectively, and transparently conduct research that takes advantage of digitized historical sources.

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