The "Wired" West: Digital History at the Western History Association Annual Conference

Andrew Torget and Brent Rogers, speaking on a WHA panel titled “Exploring and Visualizing the Mid-Nineteenth Century West Through Digital History,” each showcased their laudable efforts at using digital tools in historical research.

Torget, perhaps best known for his efforts on the Valley of the Shadow archive, spoke primarily about his latest work on slavery in Texas. As he addressed the specifics of his project he also spoke of the potential of digital history, even as he acknowledged its limitations. I especially appreciated his explanation of how data must be contextualized. As in the example of his current project, knowing when the numbers of slaves increased doesn’t answer the how or why–that’s where the work of the historian figures in, because as he said “digital data is agnostic as to causality.”  With this type of project his data sets are transparent to anyone who might want to challenge or build upon his work, which is quite different than a traditional history project where the work behind the project is generally hidden from anyone but the historian himself. Torget repeatedly emphasized that digital projects such as his foster greater collaboration among researchers.

Rogers’ presentation centered around the use of available digital tools: Wordle and TokenX. He applied these in a textual analysis of documents related to the Utah War.  His presentation offered a solid example of how a researcher with limited programing background can still use digital tools to enhance their research.  My own observation about Rogers’ work was that as he showed the outputs of his text mining, the visuals from Wordle were difficult for many audience members to understand–they wondered why some words were larger, or sideways, or in different colors?  For those of us who are used to seeing ‘word clouds’ this was self-evident, but for a different generation of historians this was mystifying.

In the Q&A portion of the session I asked the panelists what digital tools they thought every graduate student should know.  The initial response was fairly vague, Torget noting that you should learn that tools that are most relevant to your work (and my pained sigh…what if you’re on your own with this and you don’t yet know which ones are most relevant?).  But Torget and Rogers did suggest the following links to specific tools or to sites that host a variety of tools:

MIT-Simile project
Stanford’s Spatial History Project
Tools from GMU/CHNM
Google suite tools
ArcGIS (though offered with the caveat that it can be overwhelming and KMZ is much more easily learned)
Both SHANTI and UNL Tool Reviews were recommended as good places to learn more about digital tools

The session ended with a note of frustration about the way the academy continues to dismiss the efforts of digital humanists.  Torget lamented that such projects are always done ‘on the side’ and don’t count towards tenure and suggested that there should be larger conversations happening at the AHA to affirm the value of digital projects.

As an audience participant in this session I found it disheartening that it was not more widely attended, that the audience had very few women (none were on the panel itself), and that there were only two projects featured (as opposed to other panels which typically had 3 or 4 presenters).   In my experience, data or text mining projects are best presented in an informal environment where audience members  can ‘play’ with them and experience their varying levels of functionality–so I’d like to see next year’s WHA offering a ‘hands-on’ session to teach participants how to access and use existing projects.*  It would also be ideal for the WHA to offer a training session for members who are new to text or data mining tools, especially for those of us who are affiliated with departments that don’t have strong digital presence.

*Note: I found it ironic that a conference titled the “Wired West” had very few presentation rooms with projector setups and no free wireless offered to attendees.  Though I understand that this was due to the budgetary constraints of the hotel venue, perhaps such services can be negotiated into the contracts for future WHA conferences, so all participants have access to digital resources.

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