Digital humanities notes

For me, the digital humanities are about making not just humanities knowledge, but also humanities practice, accessible to a broader audience.  This means building spaces where amateur historians and enthusiasts can access others’ primary sources (historic documents, images, audio, video, and more), upload and distribute their own sources, share their own experiences in text or multimedia forms, collaborate on larger projects, and—perhaps most importantly—be provided with prompts to think critically about the past, present, and future.  In the process, participants—including Boise State students—also become increasingly technologically savvy and begin to think of themselves as creators and contributors, rather than merely consumers of, digital culture.


Idaho offers special challenges to the digital humanist, and particularly the digital historian:

1. Poor preparation in grades 9-12 in the basic skills required for digital humanities work.  Although the Idaho state social studies standards for grades 9-12 call for students to “develop and interpret different kinds of maps, globes, graphs, charts, databases and models,” students frequently arrive in my Boise State classroom without these skills.  It’s my job, then, to teach them basic skills in research, interpretation, and writing. This remediation takes a good deal of time and effort that could be better spent getting students to learn how to use technology to access data and sources, process and analyze those sources, share their findings in accessible multimedia formats, and consider how their discoveries might be applied to current public policy debates.

2. Too few people fluent in programming languages and software design principles.  Sven Berg reported in the Idaho Statesman in January 2013 that Idaho has a dearth of software developers. Berg’s article emphasized how this lack of training stifles economic development in Boise, but it also makes it challenging for faculty to find programmers with whom to partner on innovative projects.  Funding the Boise State Arts and Humanities Institute will allow the university to attract programmers from outside the area as well as encourage the training of new programmers through, for example, student internships on faculty projects.


1. Reinvigorating Idahoans’ engagement with their history and, in the process, provoking them to think critically and creatively about where the state has been, where it is now, and where it’s going.  One of the projects I’m currently developing, Stories of Idaho, is tackling issues and moments within Idaho’s history that are outside the typical narrative of the state’s history (trappers, pioneers, and miners).  Stories of Idaho is a digital platform that will emphasize diversity of perspective to provide a more holistic view of the history and culture of the people of Idaho. Stories of Idaho will draw upon archival sources, museum collections, oral histories, interviews, historic films, and project-specific documentary videos. The project’s core content will be authored by historians and graduate students in history, but other content can be added and remixed by Stories of Idaho users.

The content will be searchable, but also browseable by topic. Themes might include, but are not limited to, the histories in Idaho of the Church of Latter-Day Saints; the Chinese experience in Boise; major infrastructure projects such as dams and bridges; the wolf and its management; the arts of Idaho’s native peoples; Idaho as a refugee resettlement site; mining and resource extraction; Japanese American internment in Idaho; the ways the railroads influenced Idaho’s development, particularly in Pocatello; and the Old Idaho State Penitentiary.  The first module, being launched this spring, is on the state’s history of wolf management, and, in addition to historic sources, it will feature interviews with a broad range of stakeholders.

2. Moving Boise State’s humanities graduates beyond low-paying careers in nonprofits, education, and publishing.  Faculty research and practice in the digital humanities spill over into the classroom. In my own Digital History course in fall 2012, I saw students’ imaginations about their future prospects broaden considerably when I introduced them to diverse digital humanities projects and practitioners. Berg quotes Bob Lokken, the founder and CEO of White Cloud Analytics: “I need an educated workforce. That starts up in the pipeline. That’s not like a six-week training program. . .Yeah, we can talk about the tax policies or investment incentives that would encourage startups and encourage collaboration. I think those things are probably important, but they all pale in comparison and they’re quite frankly fruitless if we don’t have a steady pipeline of highly educated, highly skilled employees entering the workforce. It all goes for naught.”

3. Technology transfer. As Berg writes in the Statesman article, Boise’s entrepreneurial community tends to look to Boise State for leadership. The tools faculty develop for digital humanities practice likely will have a good deal of utility in other sectors of the Idaho economy.

Local digital history projects

These projects go beyond “traditional” digital history exhibits of images and text, using technology to engage people with history in thoughtful ways.

Boise Wiki: a collaborative project to describe Boise past and present.  Anyone can contribute.

A sample final student project for my fall 2012 Digital History course (link takes you to the project’s main page; video links below): Students created this multimedia tour of the Morris Hill cemetery.  The tour features biographical information on approximately 20 prominent Idahoans; some biographical sketches include oral histories.

Additional noteworthy projects

These are examples of the kind of exciting work that faculty and students can accomplish with sufficient funding and technological infrastructure.

Stanford’s Spatial History Project uses multimedia to highlight patterns and relationships that analog scholarship may have difficulty uncovering or visualizing.

Visualizing Emancipation showcases “patterns in the collapse of southern slavery, mapping the interactions between federal policies, armies in the field, and the actions of enslaved men and women on countless farms and city blocks. It encourages scholars, students, and the public to examine the wartime end of slavery in place, allowing a rigorously geographic perspective on emancipation in the United States.”

The Digital Dialectic project at the University of New Mexico is “developing software and related curricula to allow for the in-depth examination and analysis of visual humanities content within both immersive digital dome and web-based environments. The project will useas a model Mundos de Mestizaje, a contemporary fresco that highlights Hispanic history and cultural dialog.”

Researchers from the University of Arkansas and Northwestern State University, Louisiana are using high-resolution aerial images, including thermal imaging, to better understand archaeological sites.

The New York Public Library offers the Map Warper, which digitally aligns “historical maps from the NYPL’s collections to match today’s precise maps.”

A variety of useful and innovative tools developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, including a collections management database and exhibition platform, a citation management tool, and a tool that aggregates the best scholarship online and encourages open-access research and writing.

A combination of deep research into primary sources (especially maps and artwork) and technological savvy created a visual representation of Washington, D.C. circa 1814.

[Boise Wiki talk slides]