“Save my papyrus!”: Computer coding and big data in humanities
On January 28, I attended Professor Jane Winters’s lecture on “Big Data for the Arts and Humanities” at UCL to hear about her recent projects on archiving and making tools to use big data. What stuck out from her lecture was her remarks about historians and how they struggle to come to terms with “big data”, which is defined as a large volume of information resources. Historians, while used to handling different quantities of research data, are still navigating through the difficulties of working and collaborating on big data projects.
In the book The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, the authors present an extensive look into big data and what it might mean for the historian. Online archives, and those deemed ‘invisible’, the authors comment, “All of these means of doing history are also crucial for making sense of world events in present time, and they represent an emerging technology for modelling the background for a long-term future.” This statement is all well and good, but the chapter on ‘big data’ does not provide any answers on how historians should go about using big data. Digital tools can be useful for the historian because they allow for a “small and distant reading” and put “humanities questions in the forefront”, Winters argues. However, it needs to be pointed out that one of the essential problems that plagues historians, who may want to use digital means to produce their research, is the question of training.
The major changes necessary to get historians to work in a more digital landscape must start before university. The new UK education curriculum allows for schools to teach their students basic computer programming, which is now becoming a vital part of many different jobs. Even before deciding to study history at university, a lot of work needs to be done by the UK system to ensure that computer programming is integrated throughout GCSE and A-Levels for those not taking STEM subjects. Without this background already in place, it is much more difficult to realize the potential of coding when studying a more humanities-based topic.
In higher education, a significant attitude change must occur within the field of history before we can successfully utilize big data as a part of our research. Many academic historians shy away from collaboration, public outreach (although this is changing with younger generations), and sharing their gathered data. This attitude is unheard of in the sciences, where sharing research data and collaboration are necessary for successful publication. While I will not go extensively into public outreach, this is another key area that is improving now with social media, but something historians need to work further at.
As historians, we worry excessively about someone else stealing our research and our ideas, and sometimes forget the bigger picture. Big data projects require collaboration, as the amount of data is too large to be handled by a single person, making it even more important for us to change our views on collaboration. Without helping out on big data projects, such as those implemented and run by Professor Jane Winters, we may lose a lot of valuable data and information. Also, historians are useful in providing research questions and methods of analysis that other collaborators may not have thought of.
The issues outlined in this article are not easily solvable, and will require changes in attitudes and further training throughout schooling. The UK education system needs to accommodate computer programming beyond primary school, and discussions in higher education should focus on finding ways to further educate current historians on the importance of learning how to handle big data.