What are the strengths of programming for a historian? What are its limits

Digital history has become increasingly popular and many sources are now digitized which is a great advantage for historians, allowing them to access sources and archives without the need to leave their desk. it can also allow historians to view manuscripts and documents that are too fragile to be examined first hand because of their delicate condition, once they are scanned and digitized they are available for all to access. Subsequently it is obvious that there are many advantages to digital history,  however more and more historians are now designing their own computer programs to aid their research and to enable them to search for sources quicker and with better results. Consequently  if as a historian you can learn the basics of coding this can then  greatly enhance your  research techniques. Furthermore if we know what keywords are most likely to bring us the best results this can also enable our ability to find the most appropriate sources for our research if we know the variables  that a computer programme  uses when searching keywords, it can enable us to find sources easier. For instance  if we apply Boolean logic using variables we can customise the data we see, for example is we make two variables called ‘start date’ and ‘end date’, then using logic like “when greater or equals to start date AND less than or equal to end date” we will only see information which relates to the time we wanted to see .  So this helps when looking for data in a particular historical time.

Janine Noack states In her article ‘Why historians should learn how to code (at least a bit)’ Are we as historians not trained to bring various bits of information into a coherent argument?’ we already have the tools to know how to analyse, use sources and form an argument, wouldn’t it be easier for us to use the programs on a computer as an aid in helping us do that. Basically  what we need to a degree, is to learn how the computer thinks in order to get the best out of it.  There are many programs which offer tutorials to enable historians to learn the basics of code and many of this can be done in the comfort of your own home or workplace. In addition to this would it not be an ideal opportunity for software developers and historians to collaborate together.  Many other fields cross over into history and collaborations are common place between archaeology, social sciences and history, so why not with computers too.

Many historians already use computer programs such as Excel and Microsoft Access, databases are often an excellent way of extracting information but learning the basics of the coding required for databases would enable historians to not only quantify  their findings but also to extract more fine details from them.  Blogging amongst historians is becoming increasingly popular, however in able to maintain a blog site, a basic knowledge of the coding behind the text would be a great advantage and enable the historian to maintain their own site without the need for professional help.  Scott Nesbit a digital historian at the University of Richmond says ‘Sometimes we are wrestling with code and how to think about it’ so learning how to code our own custom-made programs is not going to be without difficulties.  it can be further said that a computer program is only going to be as good as the person who has coded it, this can take time and for more complicated coding a certain degree of skill so it does have limits. However lets us remember that  we are already using many programs to assist our work, such as automatic reference generator to help with the organization of footnotes, so in essence we already have a degree of skill when using computers, we just need to push ourselves a little more to be able to enhance what we can do with it.  Historians are used to pushing themselves from being   an undergraduate and learning our skills to dissertations, to master degrees and to PhDs.  So it is not something that is beyond our capability  to do when we are always striving to learn something else.

Janine Noack, ‘Why historians should learn how to code (at least a bit)’, Doing History in Public http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/


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