Coincidentally, I am spending this year's Day of Digital Humanities at Carnegie Mellon's inaugural DH Workshop for Graduate Students and Faculty. I thought I'd take this opportunity to round-up the ways that I use digital technologies on a regular basis to write my dissertation and network with other historians. I define DH as: the use of digital technologies to further research and debate on questions that help us understand what it means to be human. The following tools help me accomplish humanistic research and to then share my findings with other historians.
The scope of my project is only possible because of the capabilities of my database. In a single dissertation I examine three neighborhoods and three community institutions over 35 years, from the perspective of single individuals all the way up to a national organization. The amount and range of sources required to cover all of this space and time is overwhelming without a way to organize and search documents by topic, by year, by author, by archival collection, or by keyword. Even though assembling a database was a significant time commitment, I can now easily sort and find all of my documents as I write. Every time I move to a new topic I can pull up all of the documents that I tagged with related dates and keywords--for example, when I was writing about Jewish social group work yesterday I reviewed all of the documents I had previously tagged with "group work," "adjustment," and "Jewish social work." Without the database, I would be reading through pages of archival notes to identify relevant documents and then navigating through folders on my hard drive to find the corresponding PDF file. A digital database is more efficient and more effectively aids in historical discovery.
I don't think writing on a laptop qualifies as practicing digital humanities, but I do have a digital tool that allows me to do a better job at writing history--with Scrivener I can better structure my argument than I could with Microsoft Word (practically an analog tool at this point). While others have reviewed Scrivener far better than I ever could, it's been an invaluable tool for wrangling a large, multi-chapter writing project.
I recently began teaching myself how to do corpus analysis, a methodology used to analyze bodies of texts in order to understand how the usage of words changes over time--in frequency and in meaning. Until I finish learning how to use some of the more sophisticated tools, I've been playing around with Google N-gram viewer.
This line graph visually represents the frequency with which the phrase "Jewish social work" was used out of the total words published in each year between 1900 and the present. It helps me better understand when this professional subspecialty emerged (it confirmed what I saw in my sources) and in what years it was most popular. It provides a simple way to observe the rise and fall of a profession, in so far as written discussion correlates with the popularity or relevance of the occupation.
4. Digital Archives
The bulk of my sources come from physical, paper documents that I find in the archive. I have to go and find them, searching by hand through boxes and folders. I'm never quite sure what I'm going to find. It's hard, fun work, but it's a process that's limited by time and energy. Digital archives provide a precise, easy, and convenient way to supplement these documents. With keyword or author searches, I can access digitized documents related to my dissertation. It's not perfect--I still have to go through the results and pick out what's not relevant--but it expands my source base without having to leave the house. More sources means more diversity of perspectives, and that makes for better interpretations of past events. The digital archives I most often consult are the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, and Google Books.
I blog several days per week about my dissertation and about the experience of being a doctoral candidate. I value the opportunity to share my findings and offer advice about being a novice historian. It's a delightful break from work that is independent and isolating. It provides a forum for debate and collaboration, which contributes to a more thoughtful interpretation of past events.
I've used Twitter for many years, but recently I've committed to using it more regularly for professional purposes. It's the perfect venue to observe trending interests amongst historians, discover new publications, and ask and answer colleague's questions.
In the coming year, I aspire to master two more digital tools. As I mentioned before, I want to improve my corpus analysis skills. The second methodology I want to explore is historical mapping, so I can visually represent changes in the neighborhoods I study. I look forward to blogging about the process of learning these new techniques and digital humanities tools!