Tag Archives: Digital History

Organizing Research

If you started your dissertation or book project again tomorrow, from the beginning, how would you organize your research?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Time and again, historians and other scholars come in to speak about their research, and offer some type of lament about the way they began organizing their research when they started their project x number of years ago.  Whether their research is in some form that is inefficient to access, or they had to spend hours converting crappyprogram files to lesscrappyprogram files, I have heard from a number of different scholars over the last few years about how they wouldn’t organize their research if they did it again, or mistakes they will avoid for their next project.

No matter how much I think about this problem, though, I still can’t seem to come to a solution that I really like. For about the past year or so, I’ve been using Evernote, and really enjoying it.  Aside from being the perfect program for studying for comps, it seems to work really well for seminar paper-sized research projects, where I can have to notebooks, one for primary and one for secondary sources, within a larger “notebook stack” for that research project.  I’m not sure, however, that this is the best way to organize my research for a project as large as a dissertation.  Since I’m only now beginning my dissertation research, I really want to organize things in a way that I’m not going to hate 2 years from now (or 6 months from now).

In trying to use Evernote for the preliminary dissertation research, I’m creating new notebooks for every archive I visit, and then separating each collection I view into a different note, but the notes have become somewhat unwieldy doing it that way.  I feel like I need stacks of notebook stacks, but that kind of seems like it’s getting ridiculous, and that perhaps there’s a better way. The other major problem with Evernote is the way it organizes photos, which I’ll probably end up having a lot of, due to limited archive time.

So how did you, or how would you, organize your research for a dissertation or book project if you were starting today? Any suggestions, digital tools, other blog posts about this subject, are very much welcome. I realize that to a certain extent, every project is different, and should be organized in a different way, based on the types of sources involved (for what it’s worth, I’ll be accessing a lot of legal records, will have a lot of document photographs, and will also probably have to do a good deal of transcription). But I think to a certain extent, all projects of this size probably across similar problems in terms of research organization.


Paper Machines

Last week, I attended a workshop offered by Jo Guldi on Paper Machines, Paper Machines as part of the Digital History Master Class here at Rice. Caleb McDaniel has a debriefing post on what we covered in the workshop, and some thoughts on how we can use paper machines, but I wanted to offer some longer thoughts here about how I think I can make paper machines useful for me.

First, I think Paper Machines could be really helpful for me in the project I’m working on right now for the American Historical Association annual meeting coming up in January. I’m presenting a paper on the panel Manipulating Freedom: Liberty, Enslavement, and the Quest for Power in the Southwestern Borderlands discussing Texas’s voluntary enslavement law of 1858.[1] I will be analyzing how Texas newspapers (and southern newspapers more generally) discussed instances of free blacks voluntarily enslaving themselves as a way of analyzing Texans’ views of black freedom and the growing sectional crisis of the 1850s. One of my initial observations has been that when these stories are discussed in the newspaper, they are very formulaic, and often feature what seem like stock characters. Using a database like America’s Historical Newspapers, I could download OCR-ed articles discussing voluntary enslavement in Texas newspapers, and assess this general observation more systematically using Paper Machines. I’d be interested to see what kind of word clouds and phrase-nets these articles produced, even if it only functioned as a way to visualize what I thought I was reading in these newspapers.

Secondly, I think Paper Machines would be helpful as well in developing a comparative project like my dissertation. Even if it I used it to analyze secondary sources and journal articles, I think Paper Machines could offer some direction on fruitful avenues of research when going into what seems like a pretty ambitious project. If I downloaded to my Zotero library all the articles I will be using for my dissertation on free people of color in Cartagena, Colombia and in Charleston, South Carolina, I could use Paper Machines to see if my focus is in the right place, or if there are potential areas of research that I hadn’t yet thought of exploring. For instance, I would expect terms like “Haiti” and “respectability” to be featured fairly prominently in any word clouds, but perhaps there are terms I wouldn’t expect as well. Further, since the concept of respectability will play such a central role in my argument, it would be really interesting to see what kind of terms and ideas are connected to respectability (using phrase nets and topic modeling) both when the articles on both regions are analyzed together, as well as when Cartagena and Charleston are analyzed separately. I would likely have to separate out articles in Spanish from the articles in English, although keeping them together could perhaps still work if I was careful about analyzing cognates/false cognates.

Jo Guldi emphasized to us that Paper Machines is in a “pre-Alpha” stage, so I look forward to exploring what Paper Machines can do as she and other programmers begin to cater it more closely to their research needs.

[1]I’ve written previously about my work on this law here (go back)

Is this thing on? Digital History, Programming, Python

*MICROPHONE FEEDBACK* Whoa, whoa, hot mic here! Sorry folks.

So, I haven’t written a blog post in 5 months. Here’s what happened in that time: I studied for, took, and passed my comprehensive exams; I submitted an article to a journal, got it back, made revisions, and resubmitted it; I went to Bogotá, Colombia for a two-week preliminary dissertation research trip; I applied for research fellowships from Fulbright-Hays, Fulbright, Social Science Research Council, and the Council on Library and Information Resources; I started revisions on a paper I’m presenting at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New Orleans in January. I’ve been a little busy.

I am also taking a Caleb McDaniel’s Digital History Master Class, and doing some of the lessons/tutorials over at The Programming Historian and that’s what I want to write about today.

Last week, Chad Black (@parezcoydigo) came to Rice and delivered a lecture about criminality and institutional profiling in colonial Quito, but also talked/worked with us about Python. Much of what we discussed in our workshop had to do with using digital tools like Python to solve problems. We seemed to come to a consensus (or at least I thought we came to a consensus, perhaps because this is what I was thinking) that you need to have specific problems that need solving in order for digital humanities to “work” for you, but at the same time, you need to have some kind of familiarity with digital tools in order to think of digital solutions when these problems come up.

With this in mind, I have started the Programming Historian tutorials. It seems like Python could be really helpful with a lot of text-based issues/problems that might come up while trying to research, organize that research, and write over the next few years while writing my dissertation (and over the course of my career). I’ve only gotten through the first two lessons, but so far the process reminds me of when I first learned HTML. I’m hoping that these tutorials will get me to a point where I have enough of a base to go rogue, and start looking up my own Python-based solutions as problems arise. I plan on periodically posting back here to give updates on how learning a new language is going, ask questions, etc.

I swear (to myself) it won’t be another five-month hiatus. I’ll be here every week.

Try the meatloaf. Tip your bartenders.