Saturday, December 31, 2011

Crymble Awards: Digital History Best of 2011

It's the last day of the year and I thought it'd be fitting to write briefly about the research and projects published this calendar year that's had the most impact on my personal scholarly development. With all the talk of research impact these days, particularly in the UK, I think it's important to acknowledge that not all influential work gets cited. Much of it inspires our own research indirectly by introducing us to new techniques, ideas, or source materials. Here is my own list of my favourites for 2011 in no particular order. I've dubbed these awards the "Crymble Awards", so fee free to put that on your CVs. Unfortunately, that's the only prize. But as my grade 1 teacher always said, "everyone likes a warm fuzzy".

  • Tim Hitchcock and William J. Turkel, "The Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1913: data mining for evidence of court behaviour" (paper presented at the Digital History Seminar, the Institute for Historical Research. London, 16 May, 2011).

    This paper and its accompanying visualisations (see the pdf for the whole paper), takes traditional historical research questions down the path of large-scale analysis. Using the proceedings of the Old Bailey, Turkel and Hitchcock were able to step back from the content of the transcripts, and looked at the proceedings as data rather than something to be read. The result of the study was some interesting new insights into court room practices in the mid nineteenth century that challenged previous conclusions.

    These insights were only evident through a large-scale visualisation that plotted the lengths of each trial transcripts by year on a logarithmic scale. That may sound complicated, but it's really quite simple, and that's what makes it so great. Anyone looking at the graph is clearly drawn to the same conclusions as the researchers: something funny is going on in the mid nineteenth century. Unlike with so much historical research, the data told the researchers where the question was, rather than the researchers seeking an answer to a predefined question. This serendipitous approach is something for which I think the world is ready for more.

    Obviously as historians we cannot merely stop reading content when forming our conclusions about the past; however, I think this paper demonstrates that content isn't the only way of learning new things. Sometimes, as in this case, it's the word-length of the trial transcripts that points us towards new knowledge. And we shouldn't be afraid to get off the beaten path a little, and experiment with content in ways that it perhaps was never intended to be used by its original creators.

    On Twitter: @williamjturkel and @TimHitchcock

  • Tim Sherratt, "Discontents" blog.

    One of the few research blogs I still actually read. Sherratt has done extensive work combining Python with datamining as a way of extracting useful information from online sources. He lives and works in Australia and has done extensive work with the Trove newspaper database, which contains transcribed versions of historical Australian newspapers. Not only is the work unique, in that he's looking at sources in a way most scholars don't bother, he is very open with what he's doing and how he does it, making the blog an excellent learning tool for those looking to expand into the realm of digital history. This is of course the style of blogging that Bill Turkel championed on his now retired "Digital History Hacks".

    Sherratt's work has taught me more this year than just about anything else I've ready and I hope he continues to provide more into 2012.

    On Twitter: @wragge

  • Ben Schmidt, "Sapping Attention" blog.

    Like Sherratt, Ben Schmidt keeps a research blog that chronicles his own work and the challenges that he has to overcome. Schmidt is working on a PhD in history at Princeton and his work into linguistic analysis is both far beyond what I myself am capable of, as well as creative and intriguing to follow, even for a non-specialist like me. Schmidt also has a talent for extraordinarily beautiful visualisations which are both technically complicated, but semantically transparent, supplementing his text with an effective means of showing how the data supports the conclusions. Some great examples are in his posts, "Comparing Corpuses by Word Use" and "Predicting publication year and generational language shift".

    I sincerely wish more digital historians - myself included - would keep such open and inspirational research logs as Schmidt and Sherratt that celebrates not only the conclusions that are of interest to historians studying similar topics, but to all digital historians who are interested in learning new ways to interrogate and understand the past.

  • Sean Kheraj, "Nature's Past" podcast.

    Sean has been producing a monthly podcast for a few years now, which looks at environmental history in Canada. Though his research focus is significantly different than my own, I can't help being impressed by the quality of the work he puts into the project. He does all the writing, recording, and editing himself, and it comes out radio quality both in terms of the sound, and the organization of each episode. If nothing else, Kheraj has showed that if you're going to do something, do it well.

  • Jeremy Boggs, "the Praxis Program" Website Design

    I have to admit, this one I'm attributing to Boggs though his name does not appear officially as the web designer. It does, however, have all the elements of a Jeremy Boggs website. The fonts move beyond the traditional subset of web fonts, but never take away from the content by becoming too showy, or too difficult to read. The simple, complimentary colour palatte sets the mood, without being distracting, as do the graphics, which are minimalistic but essential to the design.

    I've yet to come across anyone in the academic web design community that can put together as elegant a site as Boggs, and the Praxis website is an excellent example of that. May there be many more examples next year.

Congratulations to all of our winners. And thanks for the great work. It's inspired me, even though none of your work had been peer reviewed.