TITLE: Programming for All: The Programming Historian AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 06, 2011 7:10 PM DESC: ----- BODY:
Knowing how to program is crucial for doing advanced research with digital sources.
This is the opening line of William Turkel's how-to for digital researchers in the humanities, A Workflow for Digital Research Using Off-the-Shelf Tools. This manual helps such researchers "Go Digital", which is, he says, the future in disciplines such as history. Turkel captures one of the key changes in mindset that faces humanities scholars as they make the move to the digital world:
In traditional scholarship, scarcity was the problem: travel to archives was expensive, access to elite libraries was gated, resources were difficult to find, and so on. In digital scholarship, abundance is the problem. What is worth your attention or your trust?
Turkel suggests that programs -- and programming -- are the only way to master the data. Once you do master the data, you can be an even more productive researcher than you were in the paper-only world. I haven't read any of Turkel's code yet, but his how-to shows a level of sophistication as a developer. I especially like that his first step for the newly-digital is:
Start with a backup and versioning strategy.
There are far too many CS grads who need to learn the version control habit, and a certain CS professor has been bitten badly by a lack of back-up strategy. Turkel wisely makes this Job #1 for digital researchers. The how-to manual does not currently have a chapter on programming itself, he does talk about using RSS feeds to do work for you and about and about measuring and refactoring constantly -- though at this point he is talking about one's workflow, not one's programs. Still, it's a start. As soon as I have some time, I'm going to dig into Turkel's The Programming Historian, "an open-access introduction to programming in Python, aimed at working historians". I think there is a nice market for many books like this. This how-to pointed me toward a couple of tools I might add to my own workflow. One is Feed43, a web-based tool to create RSS feeds for any web page (an issue I've discussed here before). On first glance, Feed43 looks a little complex for beginners, but it may be worth learning. The manual also reminded me of Mendeley an on-line reference manager. I've been looking for a new tool to manage bibliographies, so I'll give it another look. But the real win here is a path for historians into the digital world and then into programming -- because it makes historians more powerful at what they do. Superhuman strength for everyone! -----