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Exploring digital history with NLA’s Tim Sherratt

New ways with words
Digital historians have also been able to benefit from the labours of others within the digital humanities community. Literary scholars, in particular, have for many years been finding new ways to analyse texts. As more historical sources become available in digital form we can use these tools to dive deep into the language and meanings of the past.

If you don’t know what I mean, just give Voyant a try. It’s a free online web service. Feed it a URL or upload a document. Voyant will pull your text apart, then reassemble it in ways that allow you to look for features or patterns, examine word frequencies and contexts, and extract the names of people and places.

It’s playtime
One of the reasons tools like Voyant are valuable is because they enable us to look inside large text collections. Confronted with gigabytes of historical data, how do we grasp what’s actually in there? How do we form a mental map to guide our research?

One way is to poke, prod, and play. We shouldn’t be afraid to muck around with tools like QueryPic or Voyant just to see what happens. In the digital world play is a valid research technique. It moves us beyond our expectations and points us in new directions.

The Future of the Past is an interface I built around 10,000 newspaper articles that include the phrase “the future”. You’re presented with a random selection of words extracted from the articles on the basis of their statistical weighting. By clicking on words you drill your way down until you arrive at a year. From there you can explore the content of the articles themselves. The word combinations it displays are evocative and serendipitous, full of strangeness and familiarity.

Tim Sherratt's tool, Future of the Past, displays a random selection of words from articles in which 'the future' is mentioned.
Tim Sherratt’s tool, Future of the Past, displays a random selection of words from articles in which ‘the future’ is mentioned.

Getting started
Digital history is exciting and empowering — it’s all about giving you the tools and technologies you need to grapple with the digital remnants of the past. But there’s no instruction book. All of us are learning by doing. So follow some links, download some software, have fun, get confused, ask questions, and share.

Useful links:

This article first appeared in issue 12 (Sep-Oct 2012) of Inside History, available digitally on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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