THATCamp thoughts

Later this week I'm going to THATCamp Melbourne. What's THATCamp, you ask? THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp. It's an unconference devoted to exploring the ways in which the humanities and digital technology can work together. It is informal and collegial: attendees vote on the programme on the first morning. It's practical and hands-on: digital projects are often started during the camp, or tools written, or software installed. The first THATCamp was held at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Virginia in 2008; last year there were 17 held around the world, including one in Canberra. Melbourne's is being held at the University of Melbourne, where I work and near where I live, so it would be hard to justify not going!

But the truth is that I did have qualms, because I don't consider myself a digital historian. Sure, there's the blog. But that's about communication, not research; and research comes first. And apart from using digitised sources where possible, my research methods are quite traditional. I find sources, I read them, I compare them, I draw conclusions, and so on. I imagine Gibbon did much the same.

In some ways, this is surprising. In my day job I work in systems administration and IT support, so it's not like I don't know my way around computers. And before history, I studied astrophysics, which has long used digital technology as an integral part of its methods. Indeed, about the first thing you do when you start out learning how to do astrophysical research is to become familiar with the analysis software you'll be using. And my masters project was entirely computational: I wrote, tested and debugged code. (Written in Fortran 77, no less!) So I'm sure that, when I came to do my PhD, I could have handled a project which was much more digital and less traditional in its approach if I'd wanted to.

But that's the thing: I didn't want to. Why leave a career in IT for one in history (and I still hope that will happen) and do the same kind of thing, just for a different end? Fiddle around with Apache installs, write justifications for storage arrays, think about database structures. That's what I want to get away from. What I want to do is read old books, uncover forgotten ideas, meet interesting (albeit usually dead) people. (And tell the world about it, which is where blogging comes in.) I would guess that most historians have similar motivations. And that's the problem for digital history. The types of people who are attracted to doing history are not likely to be attracted to doing digital history. (I have similar reservations about Anthony Grafton's recent call for more collaboration between historians, in emulation of the sciences. We tend to play better alone.)

This is not because digital history has no value: it clearly has vast potential. But at the moment it still belongs to the hackers, those who enjoy creating visualisation tools and XML datasets. It won't realise its potential until every historian is a digital historian, and that won't happen until doing digital history is as natural and painless as... well, as natural and painless as doing traditional history is, anyway. The technology needs to adapt itself to the users, in other words, not the other way around. Well, in reality both will happen; but we aren't there yet.

That said, I'm still excited to be going to THATCamp, and to seeing all the cool ideas and smart people. And I do hope to get more involved in digital history myself, rather than maintaining my current watching brief. But you can understand why I haven't come up with a cool session idea of my own. Or perhaps you can't? Am I being too cautious, too reactionary, too -- dare I say it -- Luddite?

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8 thoughts on “THATCamp thoughts

  1. Pushing particular historical words through data analysis looks pretty digital to me, so that's where I'd start if I were you. But then I rekon digital is just a load of fingers. Hem.

    Whatever else happens I hope you come back inspired. I look forward to hearing about it all.

    My adventure next week is a quite different sort of analogue history. The RAAF Pilgrimage - should be interesting too!

  2. Oh, the irony. You don't think of yourself as a digital historian but you're going to THATCamp; I've built up a reputation as a digital historian but I'm writing a monograph. And I'm enjoying it too: I like creating something that's entirely my own and that no-one else could do. Collaboration can work well for creating digital resources and tools, but when it comes to ideas and analysis I agree that historians work better alone. I'm using a lot of digital techniques in my current work but mostly they're just labour saving devices that let me do fairly traditional stuff quicker. I still haven't made a radical breakthrough to new ways of seeing and doing that could only be digital.

    Maybe it's because I've never had a proper long-term IT job that I've got a frustrated urge to write code, design databases and fiddle with Apache servers. But then I also had an awful civil service data entry job which hasn't put me off entering historical data.

  3. Post author


    Yes, I think that is an obvious way in for me, particularly since I've done a bit of it before.

    What's the RAAF Pilgrimage about?


    I still haven't made a radical breakthrough to new ways of seeing and doing that could only be digital.

    I know what you mean! But maybe that's the problem? We are so conditioned to expect a digital revolution that we don't notice the cumulative effects of all the small changes in our practices made possible by even basic digital methods?

    Maybe it's because I've never had a proper long-term IT job that I've got a frustrated urge to write code, design databases and fiddle with Apache servers. But then I also had an awful civil service data entry job which hasn't put me off entering historical data.

    Could be. I could see myself wanting to do those things more if I didn't have to do them as my day job. A bit like how I occasionally get the urge to crunch some numbers and put up a blog post with a graph on it, it's definitely a hangover from my physics days.

    And how is the monograph coming along?

  4. What's the RAAF Pilgrimage about?

    Good question! From the Temora Aviation Museum:

    "Beginning in Temora on Monday March 28th, sixty antique and historic ex-military and civilian aircraft will take part in an air pilgrimage from Temora to Point Cook, stopping in Tocumwal and Ballarat. The aircraft will arrive at Temora throughout the day on Monday with a gala dinner to be held in the Temora Aviation Museum display hangar that night for all event participants. Tuesday morning will see the aircraft commence their departures from Temora, headed for Tocumwal and the Temora Aviation Museum will be offering free admission to all visitors from 8.30am through to Midday to view this historic event take place.

    The Air Pilgrimage will be supported by Museum aircraft with the Spitfire Mk VIII, Hudson, Wirraway and Ryan all participating in the event along with many other antique and ex military type aircraft.
    RAAF Director of Regional Events, Air Commodore Rod Luke AM said Temora, Tocumwal and Ballarat played an important role in Air Force history as regional bases. "They have been chosen because of the significant history of these three bases as World War II aircraft training locations," he said. "It is good for us to stop every now and again and reflect on our history and the service the Air Force has provided."

    We want to encourage everyone to help celebrate this milestone by either visiting the Museum or the airfields at Tocumwal, Ballarat or Point Cook.

  5. Neil Datson

    Call me an old luddite, but 'digital history' is a concept that has me stretching the corners of my mind. I'm afraid it's just one of those things - like tennis and television soap operas - that I can't even imagine wanting to be interested in. Sure, I can use my fingers for counting off points, but that's about as far as I can digitalize.

    But I will comment on the issue of historians and collaboration. Ultimately, there are surely two parts to the discipline of history? One is research, the other opinion. Opinion without research is futile (or worse, note comments recently posted on another thread!); research without opinion is arid. When the time comes for opinion to be given collaboration will almost invariably fail.

  6. Brett: After posting I realised that your post-blogging experiments have helped me to see things differently in a way that depends very heavily on a blog. I usually go on about how computers can make research quicker, but the key to post-blogging seems to be slowing things down. By taking it day by day and trying to forget what we know about what happened next we get a bit closer to seeing what it might have looked like for people at the time.

    Book is going ok. Still lots to do but I should just about finish it by the end of August.

    Neil: I agree that opinion without research is possible and bad, but I'm not so sure we can have research without opinion. Before we can do any research we have to ask questions. Deciding which questions to ask or not ask involves having opinions about what is or isn't interesting or important.

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  8. Post author


    Well, I hope you're enjoying yourself!


    Well, it's conceivable for historians to have the same opinions about research (otherwise we'd always be talking past each other... oh, wait...) but in practice, yes, it would be difficult to reach a consensual outcome (as in a book or article). Looking through my bibliographic database, I can see only 2 history articles or chapters from the last decade with more than 1 author, which is vastly different to the pattern in science. Paradoxically it seems to be easier with books (even setting aside edited volumes) because each author can write up their own chunk and just collaborate in smoothing out the edges. (I would guess -- having never co-authored a book!)


    Glad to hear your book is coming along! How accessible to you think it will be to the non-specialist?

    Interesting point about the post-blogging. But it's something you could do with non-digital technology -- eg take one of those chronicle-type books and just read it one day per day. Or, of course, newspapers could run a 'WWII today' feature written up from the news on this day 70 years ago. It's definitely easier to do with a blog though!

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