Doing Digital History 2016: A Recap

Social_Network_Analysis_Visualization.pngThe NEH Doing Digital History Institute took place at the George Mason University School of Law, over two weeks in July. The primary instructors, Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan conceptualized the Institute as a means to aide mid-career scholars to learn digital tools both to serve as “ambassadors” for DH, and also because digital tools can allow historians to ask new research questions of sources. [1] This Institute in part, answers calls made by William Cronon, Cameron Blevins, and others.[2] Even as the interest in Digital History grows, there still remains the challenge of accessing digital history training for those outside of elite research universities. There is also a need to expand the number of historians who are qualified to peer review digital projects and to assess them in tenure portfolios. [3]

Doing Digital History 2016 assumed little to no prior DH training of its participants,


About 200 Matrix jokes later, most of us got pretty good at working with visualization.

though participant background varied from novice to intermediate technology background. Participants met in class from 9-4, Monday through Friday,  from 10-22 July for a mixture of discussion, demos, and hands-on work. Topics ran from creating a digital professional presence, to thinking about content creation, geospatial analysis, and more advanced topics like using R-Language for language analysis. (You can find the full curriculum here.) Most of the 2-week institute was run by Sharon M. Leon and Sheila Brennan, with the assistance of four teaching assistants who are current GMU PhD students. GMU Assistant Professor of History Lincoln Mullen led the classes on data visualization and geospatial techniques. The Institute also benefited from guest instruction by Jeffrey McClurken (Mary Washington), Denise Meringolo (U. Maryland, Baltimore County), Michael O’Malley (GMU), and Jeri Wieringa (GMU).

Perhaps the most technical aspect of the workshop was the use of R-Language in data visualization. While tools like Gephi have made it easier for those without a progamming background to do network analysis, most of the free, open-access tools have some limitations. (While updates have improved its performance, Gephi still struggles with speed and specificity in handling larger visualizations.)  Much of the more advanced work involves the use of either R and Python to analyze datasets. Lincoln Mullen’s introduction to R-Language provided us with a sense of what it can do.[4]


My practice using R to analyze Lincoln Mullen’s dataset on Methodists.

Aside from learning new skills, perhaps one of the best things about the Institute was its camaraderie. It was intended to be network-building, but two weeks of intensive study really brought the group together. Several of us have discussed taking another course in R-Language, using Twitter (much like we did during #doingdh16) to discuss, trouble-shoot, and cheer each other on.

It is not yet clear whether GMU will offer another Institute, but I highly recommend applying if they do. Stay tuned…



[1] Sharon M. Leon, “Agile (Digital) Public History: Preparing a New Generation of Cultural Heritage Professionals,” 6 Floors (30 April 2012); and Sharon M. Leon and Sheila A. Brennan, “Scholars as Students: Introductory Digital History Training for Mid-Career Scholars,”  Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media (2015): 1-2.
[2] Ibid: 1-2; William Cronon, “The Public Practice of History for and in a Digital Age,” Perspectives on History (Jan. 2012); and Cameron Blevins, “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense,” in Debates in Digital Humanities 2016, Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
[3] The AHA, OAH, and other national professional organizations have begun creating guidelines.
[4] Also, none of us will do dates the “wrong way” again.


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