Spaces for Critically Questioning and Analyzing Digital History

Megan Keaton, a student enrolled in this semester’s ENG 5998 reading group, uses this week’s suggested readings to discuss the ways in which the tools we use affect what we can see and the knowledge we can make. 

In preparation for Professor Hanley’s visit, Dr. Graban introduces us to “The (un)Certainty of Digital History and Social Network,” writing that “while databases often serve as tools for gathering and curating data, they can also serve as spaces for critically questioning and analyzing the motives that guide our conceptions of what it means to do digital history with any certainty.” We can see this theme running throughout the suggested readings; each scholar pushes us to recognize that the tools we use (a) shape what we can(not) discover and (b) can help us acknowledge and make explicit our assumptions.

Ansley T. Erickson points directly to uncertainty in “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Note Cards”: “much of our work happens while our research questions are still in formation. Uncertainty is, therefore, a core attribute of our research process.” This uncertainty is beneficial when we allow ourselves to search for, identify, and entertain connections we had not originally intended to find. This potential for unintended connections is at least partially dependent on “the challenge of information management…[because] where, when, and how…we organize and interact with information from our sources can affect what we discover in them.” Because print databases – such as Erickson’s note cards – are not easily searchable, reorganizing them to newly identified categories may seem too cumbersome, stopping researchers from exploring possibilities that they are not sure will be fruitful. Digital databases, on the other hand, allow us to search by term, which enables the researcher to quickly re-categorize information under newly found connections. Erickson recommends that we utilize digital databases as they

offer a kind of flexibility that can allow us to create and re-create categories as we work with notes, to adjust as we know more about our sources, about how they relate to one another and how they relate to the silences we are finding. That flexibility means that we can evaluate particular ways of categorizing what we know and then adapt if we realize that these categories are not satisfactory. In doing so, we are made more aware of the work of categorization and are reminded to take stock of how our ways of organizing help and what they leave out.

In addition to helping us see outside the categories with which we begin our research, Erickson argues, thinking about the mechanics of our databases and our categorization systems can help us reflect on our “implicit categories or habits of thought that might shape our analysis,” our assumptions about which historical stories should be prioritized.

Similarly, in “Social Networks and Archival Context Project: A Case Study of Emerging Cyberinfrastructure,” Tom J. Lynch shows how print finding aids and Encoded Archival Content – Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) affect the kinds of connections we can make among parts, persons, and places in archives. He defines a finding aid as “a printed document of all the records left in an archive with a common creator or source. A finding aid contains a description of the creator, functions performed by the creator, and the records generated by the creator through the performance of those functions.” Lynch explains, “Reading finding aids and collecting names found therein is a method for building up a list of leads to new sources.” However, the print finding aid is “inflexible and inefficient when dealing with complex, interrelated records” because “[a]rchival records are often of mixed provenance or the records of the same provenance can be dispersed over numerous archives”; this issue is being solved by the EAC-CPF, which

enabl[es] the separation of creator description from record description. Maintaining a unique, centralized creator record not only reduced redundancy and duplication of effort, but also provides an efficient means of linking creators to the functions and activities carried out by them to the dispersed records they created or to which they are related, and to other related creators.

The different archival and categorization tools, then, allow different links – different connections, different sources – in ways similar to Erickson’s note cards and database. As new digital tools enable less redundancy in collecting and sorting data and save researchers time, we can entertain more connections more easily.

Lynch “defin[es] a set of variables to consider when approaching the design of a new tool”: (1) collaborations between humanists and non-humanists, including “librarians, archivists, programmers, and computer scientists;” (2) a balanced scope of audience and goals; and (3) a balance between traditional and new infrastructures/methodologies so that “new technologies…push the boundaries of scholarly activities, yet remain accessible and meet real needs.” We can utilize these variables as a heuristic – analyzing (a) our relationships with other scholars, (b) our intended audiences, (c) which goals we deem beneficial, (d) which methodologies and infrastructures we find value, and (e) the ways in which (a)-(d) affect the knowledge we can and do produce – to gain a better understanding of the tools we create and the assumptions that guide our research of and with these tools. The variables within the heuristic are also interconnected, as one variable can shine light on another. For instance, Lynch writes that “collaboration itself is a challenge that requires careful resolution of methodological differences and regular communication about each collaborators’ perspective.” In other words, our collaboration with other fields and other scholars can push us to consider the effectiveness of our methodologies.

Finally, Claire Lemercier, in “Formal Network Methods in History: Why and How?,” speaks to connections (or ties, as she puts it) we can identify among nodes in a network. “The interest of formal network methods in history is…not limited to inter-individual ties. Networks of firms, towns or regions can also be considers.” Lemercier points to ties between places, individuals, and organizations. As we look to different ties within different circumferences (from individual to organizations) of networks, we can see different “patterns.” Because each circumference shows us different things, toggling between different circumferences, we can determine whether patterns are due to a particular cause, to multiple causes, or to “pure chance.” Without this toggle, we are able to see less, perhaps assuming causes that are not there.

She also points us to the metaphors we use in relations to our tools. She suggests that historians tend to use the metaphor of a map when analyzing networks. Fleckenstein et. al acknowledge that “the metaphors by which researchers orient themselves to the object of study affect the research methods they choose and the nature of the knowledge they create” (389). The map metaphor, Lemercier suggests, implies that we can map all of the relationships within a particular network. However, she writes,

Social network analysis does not allow [us] to “draw a map” of an individual’s network or of all the relationships inside a community, to describe the network of this person or the social structure of this group…It is in fact possible to “draw maps” of networks, but only if we remember that the map is not the territory: it concentrates on some precisely defined phenomenon, momentarily forgetting everything else.

She encourages us, then, to use our metaphors as well as the methodology of social network analysis to reflect on our “boundary specification” choices – “whom do we observe? which ties? when?” – and how these choices “constrain” the questions we can ask and answer. These metaphors link to our implicit theories and, Lemercier argues, “[w]ell-conducted qualitative research often helps to make them more explicit, as the researcher has to define which factors she takes into account, how she defines them, which are the dependent and independent variables, etc.”

A final note: During our last meeting, Dr. Fyfe stated that digital replication/reproduction is an addition to, rather than a replacement of, non-digital spaces. Erickson emphasizes the same about the tools we use. “Digital note taking may add to but does not of necessity replace varied encounters between researcher and sources” (emphasis mine). This suggests that we need to be critical of the tools we use, considering which tools we can use as additions rather than replacements and what we may gain or lose by looking at tools as additions.

Works Cited

Erickson, Ansley T. “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Note Cards.” Writing History in the Digital Age. Eds Kirsten Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty. University of Michigan, 2013.

­Fleckenstein, Kristie, et al. “The Importance of Harmony: An Ecological Metaphor for Writing Research.” College Composition and Communication 60 (2008): 388-419.

Lemercier, Claire. “Formal Network Methods in History: Why and How?.” iSocial Networks, Political Institutions, and Rural Societies. Ed. Georg Fertig. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011.

Lynch,Tom J. “Social Networks and Archival Context Project: A Case Study of Emerging Cybrainfrastructure.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8.3 (2014).


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