Reflections on creating a Digital Scholarly Edition

The process of creating a Digital Scholarly Edition with a team of my fellow MA students began in September of 2014. In preparation for the project ahead, a series of lectures and workshops were delivered by An Foras Feasa at Maynooth University, many of which are discussed in an earlier post to this blog. In January of 2015 the project began in earnest when the practical work began on the source material.


The diary which was to become the subject of this Digital Scholarly Edition is that of Albert Woodman. A Dubliner who had worked as a clerk in the General Post Office, Woodman joined the British Army as part of the Royal Engineers ‘L’ Signal Company and left for France in 1915. In 1917 Woodman married Nellie May Valentine Preston while back in Dublin on leave, and in the coming months (January – November 1918) Woodman wrote in two diaries detailing his time at war, his observations on the conflict surrounding him, and also his thoughts of home and in particular his new wife.


On initial inspection the diary is quite a simple entity, a traditional diary consisting primarily of text in the form of handwritten daily entries and some newspaper clippings and other imagery inserted by Woodman. The most fundamental aspects were text and images, however breaking the diary down revealed a significant amount of work would need to be carried out in order to make this a Digital Scholarly Edition. The text would need to be carefully transcribed, edited and proofed; the diary pages were to be digitally scanned at the imaging laboratory in An Foras Feasa and then carefully re-mastered, cropped and edited for digital presentation. Yet still this was just the tip of the iceberg. Simply to present the diary as a digitised transcription or high quality image would be to ignore the value which can be brought to the object by the many digital tools and methods available in creating a Digital Scholarly Edition; as such a series of more technical and contextual approaches and methods were added to the project.


One such aspect of which I played a part was in expanding the value of the text as presented in a digital scholarly edition. The text was to be complimented by adding information in the form of annotation to particular sets of non-standard or notable terms; while named entities such as personal names, places and organisations were also to be assigned this added value. As such the text would have to be carefully examined to identify the terms and named entities to be annotated. This work was also further extended by research for the annotation, stylistic conventions and decision making on the extent of annotation. Questions arose in regards to what should be annotated as well as how much information should be added so as to contextualise the information without distracting the reader from the meaning of the primary source, which were the entries as written by Albert Woodman.

This aspect alone was a significant task, yet there were several other elements that were identified and explored for possible inclusion as being able to expand the value of the diary as a digital edition. Supplementary articles were sourced and written by team members, audio and video interviews with experts in related fields were taken, digital mapping technologies were examined for possible inclusion and related literature such as instruction manuals on World War I Signaller instruction and methods were sourced and examined.


While these ‘added value’ approaches were significant and utilised many aspects of the teams skills in the humanities such as careful reading, textual analysis, editing, proofing, research, contextualisation and styling, the technical aspects of building and styling the digital product were equally substantial. The decisions on the technical writing and construction of the digital project are what the digital scholarly edition is built on, and these methods are what would enable the content and shape the format and presentation of the edition.

With this in mind further departments within the project were identified that would contain the nuts and bolts of the final digital product. Methods and styles of schema, encoding, wireframes and design layouts were integral to handling both the core information and any ‘added value’ content the project team hoped to include.


In reflecting upon my experience of the process in creating a digital scholarly edition, the above topics may be described as a summary of aspects which were noted and addressed in the overall construction of this digital scholarly edition.

  • Understanding of the Source
  • Fundamental Content
  • Added Value Content
  • Technical Construction

Yet in entering the final stages of this project it is the importance of proper functionality in a project team and clear planning that is perhaps an even more striking lesson of note taken from the process. To illustrate this I would recommend recent blog posts by two of my colleagues in this project regarding the importance of teamwork and project planning relating to this project of which I am very much in agreement.

The creation of a digital scholarly edition was a new venture for the members of this project team and it was one in which each team member stepped into unfamiliar academic disciplines, furthermore the unfamiliar nature of the project posed regular questions within the team as to method. Yet the early identification of core goals, the assignment of responsibility without segregation, good communication and clear planning provided a structure which allowed progress and decisions to be made with team consultation on a regular basis.


The process of creating this digital scholarly edition has provided a valuable insight not just into practical humanities-based techniques and digital methodologies, but the processes of a functional team project. In reflecting on this process the four summarised points (Understanding of the Source, Fundamental Content, Added Value Content, Technical Construction) are vital to first assessing the challenge ahead. Yet it is also imperative that good teamwork and project planning exist so as to properly drive forward a (projected) successful project.


Dabek Meredith. “Creating a Digital Scholarly Edition: Lessons from The Woodman Diary Project.” A Digital Education, 19 April 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April 2015.

Groome, Noel. “Primary Source Images & Editing: A Case for Caution!.” Noel Groome Blog, 12 December 2014. Web. Accessed 20 April 2015

McGarry, Shane. “Perils of Project Planning.” Getting Out of the Book and Into the Digital, 19 April 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April 2015.

Digital Humanities & Historic Estate Records: Project Update


In a previous post to this blog a practical work module forming part of this students MA in Digital Humanities was introduced which seeks to integrate Digital Humanities methods with Historic Estate Records. This module is now entering its final stages which aim to incorporate what has been researched in the way of digital tools and methodologies with the data held in the Historic Estate Records.

In the process of undertaking this research a range of digital tools and methods along with several challenges have been encountered while seeking a strategy for bringing together the digital and historical record elements. In this follow up post, some of the digital tools and methods will be discussed, along with the challenges encountered in seeking to integrate the digital and historical data relating to this project.


As the first post relating to this practical module discussed, one of the primary goals of the project was the integration of data from an identified collection of Historic Estate Records (The Borrowes Collection) into a geo-referenced digital environment. For the supervising institution, Maynooth University Library, a selection of 17th, 18th and 19th century leases that included some hand drawn maps were of particular interest. In these maps the potential for digitally geo-referencing landholdings within the Historic Estate was considered; and the goal of identifying the land areas in a modern digital map using information from the leases became a focal point for the project.

In order to proceed with developing a strategy for the geo-referencing of these records, three phases of research began. The first phase involved analysis of any existing digital projects which were similar to the project at hand by which potential approaches could be identified. The second phase involved researching the tools and methodologies for the process of geo-referencing historical maps, records or data in a digital environment. The third and final phase would involve closer examination of the historical records in order to identify, compile and organise the historical and geographical data which could be integrated within the digital project.


The first phase began by looking at similar projects which had geo-referenced historical data. Perhaps the most significant of those analysed was the Landed Estates Database, a digital project hosted by the Moore Institute at NUI Galway. This project is perhaps the most comprehensive digital resource relating to information on Historic Estate Records in Ireland, although its scope is limited to Connacht and Munster. In regards to geo-referencing, the Landed Estates Database project has identified the buildings associated with these estates as its focus. As such the project has identified and geo-referenced these buildings using location markers in a Google Map window, and in some instances included recent images of the buildings. This project does not use geo-referencing to identify the extent of the estates landholdings, but identifies those buildings historically significant to the running of the estates. The project adds to the historical understanding of these buildings and the landed estate by linking their historical function with their current state by including the more recent pictures in which many are in full or partial ruin, or performing very different functions in modern Ireland.

The examination of projects such as the Landed Estates Database allowed an understanding of what could be achieved by identifying a focus and set of data for geo-referencing and presenting it in a digital environment.


The next phase involved researching the tools and methods for digitally manipulating, integrating and presenting the maps and data of the Borrowes Collection in a digital environment. With this in mind research began to identify tools and methods which would fulfil three important requirements.

  1. A method for aligning and overlaying a historical map with a modern digital mapping system.
  2. A method by which data beyond the historical map could be integrated in the digital version.
  3. A method by which further manipulation or customisation of the map could be implemented if deemed necessary for the final presentation of the digital resource.

To date several tools and methods have been identified which are capable of performing the above requirements, QGIS and MapWarper for integrating historical and digital mapping, GeoJSON for the integration of further data and Mapbox for further customisation of the digital map.


The first two phases opened up the potential for what could be achieved by identifying a focus for the project and implementing a professional digital presentation of historical data using the appropriate tools and methods. The third and final phase involved the identification and compilation of data within the Borrowes Collection in order to facilitate this goal.

In the case of this project the nature of Historic Estate Records posed a significant challenge in that these materials can be very fragmented. The data and number of maps in the leases that allowed the landholdings to be adequately identified on a modern map has proved challenging. There is also the absence of an overall estate map or records such as rent books for the entire estate. As such this particular collection of records may not yield a sufficient data set to facilitate the complete geo-referencing of this particular landed estate; yet through this challenge the project has entailed a greater degree of research into further methods of understanding and identifying historical lease maps and land areas that a more complete collection of records would necessitate. This project has therefore made extensive use of digitally presented, historical mapping projects such as The Down Survey of Ireland and Griffiths Valuation in order to identify the lands referred to and illustrated in the records relating to this project.


As this Digital Humanities project enters its final stages it remains on course to integrate digital tools and methods with historical data in order to present a strategy for enhancing Historic Estate Records. An interesting note however is the value which existing Digital Humanities projects such the Landed Estates Database, The Down Survey of Ireland and Griffiths Valuation have served in facilitating the understanding of the analogue source material in research for this Digital Humanities project, perhaps a sign in itself to the value of Digital Humanities projects.


Groome, Noel. “Digital Humanities & Historic Estate Records.” Noel Groome Blog, 20 March 2015. Web. Accessed 09 April 2015

Prunty, Jacinta. Maps and map-making in local history (Dublin, 2004)

The Down Survey of Ireland. Web. Accessed 10 April 2015

Griffiths Valuation. Web. Accessed 10 April 2015

Landed Estates Database. Web. Accessed 09 April 2015

A digital scholarly edition: Digital mapping


In this blogs previous article, posted on the 20th March, a single semester module was discussed which incorporated practical Digital Humanities research under the supervision of an academic institution; yet which was essentially an individual project allowing this student to take full ownership of the projects development and workload. In contrast to that module, Digital Scholarly Editing is a module of two parts, running over two semesters, developing into a group-work project aiming to produce a finished product in the form of a digital scholarly edition.


The first semester of this module examined many technical aspects which could be incorporated into the production of a digital scholarly edition.

Methods and tools relating to the encoding of a DSE such as XML, XSLT, HTML, CSS, metadata and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), were examined along with platforms used to host the same, such as Omeka and WordPress.

Practical workshops relating to the technical methods and theory behind the digitisation and presentation of primary source documents were held at An Forsa Feasa in Maynooth, and the National Archives of Ireland. The workshops demonstrated the use and benefits of advanced digital imaging equipment and accessible software tools such as Photoshop and GIMP, elements of which are discussed further in an earlier post on this site.

We were also introduced to the primary source document that would become the subject of our second semester group project and the object around which many of the above technical aspects examined could be put into practice.


This object around which this project is constructed is the World War I diary of Albert Woodman, an Irish soldier from Dublin stationed in Dunkirk in 1918 with the Royal Engineers.

In the process of making a digital scholarly edition from this diary, which at the time of writing is still a work in progress, the class group with responsibility for this project have been able to utilise many of the technical aspects studied in semester one. Encoding of the diary has taken place using XML methods and editors, while guidelines set out in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) have been used across the board in text markup, annotations and named entities.

In making a digital scholarly edition of a fragile ninety seven year old paper diary, careful imaging has also played a big part, with the pages of the diary being digitised to a high standard at the Imaging Lab in An Foras Feasa. Responsible manipulation of the images such as cropping or realignment using imaging software also took place when required, so as to present them as well as possible without altering their simplicity in the digital format.

Yet in this diary Albert Woodman also included a great number of other material including personal photographs, drawings, newspaper articles, clippings and a significant number of maps, cut out of contemporary newspapers or other periodicals documenting news relating to the War around him. These materials were also digitised at An Foras Feasa, however as the diary was being put together the idea of using the maps in a more interactive way began to be discussed which led to the arrangement of a further workshop on the technical aspects of digital mapping by Martin Charlton of the National Centre for Geo-computation, also based at Maynooth University.


In approaching Martin Charlton the group had hoped that more context could be added to the black and white maps taken from newspaper clippings by potentially overlaying them onto a modern digital map, allowing users of the digital scholarly edition to view the small and localised Woodman maps in the larger context of how they relate to Europe today and as a whole.

In the workshop led by Martin Charlton we were first given a brief introduction to geographical co-ordinates and the issues regarding the presentation of the earth, a spherical object, onto a flat surface, a process which is known as projection. It was explained that several of these projections exist which may produce differing outcomes. The most appropriate for the Woodman diary maps was identified as the ‘Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area projection’, which is a projection onto a flat surface (a plane) which touches the earth at 52N 10E.

The software used to proceed with the mapping was introduced as QGIS, an open source geographic information system (GIS) and it was vital to identify the projection method that had been chosen in QGIS, which is EPSG:3035.


Having chosen a map by which to follow on from the workshop, my next step was to crop the image (below) as required. As this was a sample, focused on the map but not wishing to lose any of the clipping, I limited this to removing the outer diary page using GIMP software.


Having cropped accordingly, ground control points needed to be identified within the map. These are points visible on the map which can be identified by Easting and Northing co-ordinates that relate to the same point on a modern map, in this instance Google Maps.

Crop 090-June13-W

In the case of this sample four towns which form a solid block structure that may adjust the Woodman map to sit at an appropriate angle on Google maps were identified as Chantilly, Villers Cotterets, Meaux and Chateau Thierry. The Easting & Northing co-ordinates relating to these towns, or ground control points, were then found and noted for use in QGIS.

Proceeding to QGIS a series actions allow the user to upload the map, choose the ground control points and assign these geo co-ordinates to the points on the map. Further running of this information through QGIS adjusts the map from a front on view to its actual geographic position based on the projection and co-ordinates used. Once this is complete it is then possible to bring into the QGIS workspace, which is now displaying the map in its correct geographic position, a second map such as Google Maps to sit in the same position in the workspace.

The final action allows the user to overlay the Woodman map over Google Maps and fade the Woodman map. When all is complete the result is the ability to see that the Woodman map now sits exactly overlaid on a modern Google map image, with the fade function allowing the user to see that the towns from the Woodman map sit precisely as they should over the Google map.

Image 090 geo-ref

The above image shows the Woodman map clipping cropped to show just the map and the notes from the article. Using QGIS it was realigned slightly to its accurate geographical position, was overlaid on Google maps, and the chosen ground control points of the four towns mentioned above match exactly from the Woodman map to the Google map.

What this tool shows is how technical work on these analogue documents can allow a greater context to a simple paper map clipping, utilising digital tools and methods to place a historic document in a modern setting and allowing greater reference. The digital scholarly edition of the Woodman diary will utilise many technical aspects studied within this module and digital mapping has been identified also as another potential addition, as work on the diary as a digital scholarly edition continues.

Digital Humanities & Historic Estate Records

The second semester of the MA in Digital Humanities at Maynooth University includes a practical work module in which the student is assigned to work with an institution or project seeking to utilise Digital Humanities in order to develop or enhance some element of its work.

The Project

The project to which I was assigned involved working with the Special Collections & Archives Department at Maynooth University Library (MU Library) and is titled ‘Strategies for enhancing historic estate records’. Working with historic estate records at the National Archives of Ireland is something I was involved in as part of my undergraduate degree and as such this project was of particular interest.

MU Library are in possession of a number of estate papers collections containing documents with historic geographical information, and so are keen to know what Digital Humanities can offer to the enhancement of this material.

The aim of this project is to use one of the Irish landed estate papers collections held by MU Library as a case study, whereby analysis of this collection and its integration with digital tools and methodologies may result in a white paper on potential strategies for the enhancement of historic estate records.

The Material

The estate records being used as the case study for this project are the Borrowes Collection, and relate to the estate of the Borrowes family who held land primarily in the parish of Gilltown, County Kildare.

The collection contains 44 items dated variously between 1720 and 1848 such as leases, mortgages, tenancies, marriage settlements and are accompanied in some cases by manuscript maps.

Initial Observations and Methodology

While there are several objectives for this project my initial approach was to identify the fundamental aspects of what the project sought to achieve, and to then complete the remaining objectives by expanding upon these primary goals.

The primary goals of my research were thus summarised into three main points:

  • Identify best practice in making material available
  • Integration of material into a geo-referenced digital environment
  • Digitally expose the historical content of these resources

As such the project began by researching these three points. The initial task was to identify existing best practice by other institutions relating to the digital presentation of historic estate records. This would be followed by close up analysis of the Borrowes Collection in MU Library so as to identify and verify the information contained which should, and could, be represented in a digital environment. Finally I aimed to research digital tools and methods which could be used to integrate the material into a geo-referenced digital environment and digitally expose any other historical content within the collection.

Research to date

The project is currently at its midway point, and following along the lines of methodology identified in this blog it has been progressing well. Yet while some research has been positive, uncovering tools and methods for the enhancement of the collection, there are an equal number of challenges being met along the way.

The research into best practice has uncovered that ‘existing best practice’ perhaps does not apply due to the current scarcity of digital work on historic estate records. Yet digital projects relating to the same theme, notably the Landed Estates Database, maintained by the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, has revealed interesting methods and approaches to the digitisation of information relating to historic landed estates. These approaches may or may not be applicable to what MU Library hope to incorporate in digitising their own collections, but are useful references as to how other institutions have sought to digitally enhance information relating to landed estates.

The close analysis of the Borrowes collection revealed an issue which is prevalent to many landed estate collections in that they can be fragmented or incomplete, leading to significant gaps in data. However enough data was identified in this instance relating to a particular time period so that digital representations of parts of the estate in that said period are currently being examined.


The project so far has encountered positives and challenges as outlined above, and the digital tools, which will be discussed in a future blog, have been accessible and adaptable so far in compiling a digital toolbox for enhancing historic estate records.

A significant challenge is the fragmented nature of the historic estate records which can span significant time periods, 128 years in the case of the Borrowes Collection, yet identifying more complete collections, or indeed more complete periods within collections may be key. If these are identifiable and digitally presented using an appropriate strategy which this project seeks to propose, they may become the accessible resources of digitally exposed valuable historical content which is the aim of this project and MU Library.

References & Further Reading:

Andrews, John Harwood. History in the ordnance map: an introduction for Irish readers (Kerry, Montgomeryshire, 1993)

Dooley, Terence. The big houses and landed estates of Ireland: a research guide (Dublin, 2007)

Landed Estates Database. Web. Accessed 19 March 2015

National Archives of Ireland. Web. Accessed 19 March 2015.

Prunty, Jacinta. Maps and map-making in local history (Dublin, 2004)

Special Collections & Archives Department. Maynooth University Library. Web. Accessed 19 March 2015.

Primary Source Images & Editing: A Case for Caution!

As I approach the end of my first semester as a Masters student in Digital Humanities, it is possible to reflect on many technologies, tools and resources, which can form a significant part of the Digital Humanist’s toolkit. Many of these are later 20th century developments in computing and coding such as XML, CSS, TEI and Dublin Core which assist in the coding, structuring and presenting of Digital Scholarly Editions. Yet it was perhaps my experience of the modern digital methods of handling an older technology which reminded me of the importance and responsibility of Digital Humanists for presenting source material in a digital format which is true to the original.

In October of this year a tour of the imaging laboratory of An Foras Feasa in Maynooth University was given, where a demonstration was given on the use of high-end digital imaging equipment. Great care and importance was placed on creating a digital image that would represent as close as possible the original document, its content and presentation. This was followed on by a workshop held by Karolina Badzmierowska of the Letters 1916 project on the use of technologies such as Photoshop and Gimp, which included the photography and post processing of letters selected for inclusion in the Letters 1916 project. Again this workshop demonstrated the importance placed on creating a high quality, authentic digital images of fragile source materials.

Alongside these demonstrations there was also a lecture held in the National Archives of Ireland wherein archivists described the amazing conservation and preservation work which could be carried out on damaged materials; bringing back to life primary sources for use in humanities research which may have been lost through age, damage or neglect of the materials.

The work of those responsible Digital Humanists at An Forsa Feasa and Letters 1916 demonstrated the ability and commitment to producing authentic digital images to enhance access, and preservation to fragile sources, while those in the National Archives demonstrated what modern techniques can do in restoring materials. It is with this in mind that I was reminded of an instance, contrary to this best practice, whereby a now historic photograph pertaining to the Easter Rising of 1916 was originally edited, an action which altered the accuracy of the image, event and source material.

On Saturday the 29th of April 1916, the Eater Rising was coming to an end. The rebel leaders, having retreated from the GPO to a terrace of houses on nearby Moore Street had decided to surrender. By that afternoon, Padraig Pearse would meet General Lowe to present his sword in an unconditional surrender that brought the Easter Rising to an end. This significant moment in Irish history was captured, or perhaps staged, by a photographer at the time and appeared in what has been described as ‘Britain’s oldest tabloid’ The Daily Sketch.


In the photograph can be seen Padraig Pearse, standing alone wearing what appears to be a long coat, surrendering to General Lowe and Lowes’s son, who served under him at the time. It might suggest looking at this photo that Pearse walked forward alone to meet and surrender to the British Army, it may suggest that the Rising was a male dominated affair. Yet subsequent versions of this photograph have shown that it was in fact altered before publication and that Pearse was not alone when he met General Lowe to surrender.


The un-altered photograph which later emerged, clearly shows that the first published image was altered to produce an all-round tidier image, one centred on what the publisher may have perceived as the central figures in the narrative.

The first image is very clean showing very clean lines in the path, buildings to the left, and three central figures. Yet the second image, although grainy by todays standards, still shows a more realistic image of a path with items on the ground behind General Lowe, depth to the buildings on the left, and most significantly a second pair of feet below Pearse’s coat.


The obscured figure standing next to Pearse was not one of the rebel leaders of 1916 but was someone highly involved with the independence movement before, during and after the Rising. She was identified as a 32 year-old Dubliner named Elizabeth O’Farrell, who plays a significant role in events surrounding the surrender, not just of Pearse, but all the rebel leaders. It was O’Farrell who left the house on Moore Street waving a white flag to approach the British garrison with talk of surrender. It was O’Farrell who escorted Pearse back to meet Lowe, and it was O’Farrell who was sent to the remaining rebel outposts to inform them to lay down their arms.

Furthermore while her presence is pivotal due to her involvement in facilitating the surrender, with her presence she may also represent not just the many rank and file men, who are acknowledged as having took up arms, but the significant and less celebrated role women played in the revolutionary movement in this period (Mac Curtain 46-7). Yet without the emergence of the original photograph, her role in this event and her status as a representative of the many unknown participants of the Rising at the time of surrender may not be acknowledged.

Further examination of this photograph, revealed in episode four of an RTÉ documentary series titled Réabhlóid, shows even further evidence that our visual perception of the surrender may be inaccurate. In the earlier images it may be understandable to suggest Pearse is wearing a ‘long coat’, however this triangle shape is in fact the outline from Elizabeth O’Farrells coat in the background.


The intention however, of The Daily Sketch in altering this photo, may not have been to purposely omit Elizabeth O’Farrell, the volunteers, or womens participation from the events of Easter 1916. In the documentary Réabhlóid it is explained that a technology known as photo-montage was used to ‘tidy-up’ photographs at this time. This involved placing a sheet of paper around what was deemed important in the image and re-drawing a clean version of the background. Yet in altering this image and not recognising the importance which seemingly small details may have to later research and perceptions of an event, The Daily Sketch, using technologies to alter an original document, may very nearly have lost evidence of an important figure in the history of the 1916 surrender.

In the modern technologies and laboratories of Digital Humanists and Archives we possess great digital and scientific resources to document, preserve, restore and present physical source material. Fragile or inaccessible material can be digitally documented for easier research, damaged or altered material can be restored or read by new science and technology. This is work which is vital and performed to the highest standard by An Foras Feasa, Letters 1916 and the National Archives. Yet in the example shown regarding Elizabeth O’Farrell’s omission from a source document by those using, what were modern technologies, we must always be aware how editing in any form has the potential to cut away an invaluable part of history.


BBC News Online. ‘Britain’s oldest tabloid closes’. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Dictionary of Irish Biography: Elizabeth O’Farrell. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Letters of 1916: Creating History. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Mac Curtain, Margaret. ‘Women, The Vote and Revolution’, in Margaret Mac Curtain, & Donncha Ó’Corráin (eds.), Women in Irish Society: The historical dimension, (Dublin, 1978).

Réabhlóid Episode 4: Elizabeth O’Farrell. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

The National Archives of Ireland: Conservation and Preservation. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Quantitative History: An Annotated Bibliography

Humanities Computing and later the Digital Humanities may be linked back to 1949 and what might now be referred to as a quantitative data, or quantitative history project. The origin was a project of Father Roberto Busa who in collaboration with IBM sought to ‘make an index verborum of all the words in the works of St Thomas Aquinas and related authors, totalling some 11 million words of medieval Latin’(Hockey).

In the field of history, quantitative data has since taken on many forms such as online census returns, parliamentary papers, digitised archives of manuscripts, primary sources and information databases based on prosopography, ships logs and various other compilations of historic data.

In the following annotated bibliography ten entries relating to quantitative history will be presented which upon examination may illustrate the benefits, challenges, perceptions, visions, debates, and processes evident in regards to the development and use of digital quantitative history.

Bradley, John, and Harold Short. Texts into Databases: The Evolving Field of New-style Prosopography. Literary and Linguistic Computing. (2005) 20 (Suppl): 3-24. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

In this article John Bradley and Harold Short of King’s College London, discuss three projects which sought to compile and digitise vast amounts of historical materials into online prosopography databases. The article goes into detail in regards to these vast projects, one of which, The Prosopography of the Byzantine World, sought ‘to record in a computerized relational database all surviving information about every individual mentioned in Byzantine sources during the period from 641 to 1261, and every individual mentioned in non-Byzantine sources during the same period who is ‘‘relevant’’ (on a generous interpretation) to Byzantine affairs’. The article provides a valuable insight on the thoughts and processes of those involved in creating a vast quantitative history database, and importantly includes discussion on the development of the end user experience.

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History is, as per the title, a broad guide to gathering, preserving, and presenting history online. While not going into great depth regarding the technical aspects of creating digital history, it provides an easy access point for traditional historians into the theory behind going digital as an historian. In regards to quantitative history, the chapter titled Exploring the History Web: Archival Websites explores the history, development, forms and funding of large online history archives. This chapter, as per much of the book, does not over-reach in discussing the theory or technicalities of quantitative history projects but is valuable in providing a basic understanding of the development and forms of quantitative history.

Graham, Shawn, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart. The Historian’s Macroscope: Big Digital History – Working Title. Under contract with Imperial College Press, Open Draft Version. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

These three authors are in the interesting process of compiling a book in public view by which an online draft version is readily available to view and comment upon. The purpose of their study is Exploring Big Data through a Historian’s Macroscope. While this work is not yet fully complete, the draft online version contains interesting pieces in regards to the use, benefits and perils of ‘Big Data’ from both the authors and readers of the draft whose comments are available to view online. Chapters are available which discuss The Joys of Abundance and The Limits of Big Data, along with chapters on the practical computational methods in Building the Historian’s Toolkit. This draft version already has a great deal of theoretical and practical information on quantitative digital data and the completed work would seem to have the potential to become a great resource to historians who wish to understand and participate with the tools and resources of quantitative digital data in relation to their field.

Hitchcock, Tim. “Academic History Writing and the Headache of Big Data.” Historyonics. 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

In this blog-post Tim Hitchcock grapples with the relationship between academic history writing and quantitative digital history resources. Hitchcock details his involvement in the creation of many websites consisting of big data relating to the field of history. The blog post describes how such sites are, for Hitchcock, ‘fragments of a single coherent research agenda and project’, which seek to create the writing of a new form of history, ‘history from below’. In constructing these projects Hitchcock considers their potential value in providing access to sources for a larger audience and a new breed of historian. Yet the blog also discusses the problem of how as these sites methodologies began to develop they become ‘reasonably technically challenging’. Hitchcock describes how potentially big data tools and resources may in fact create historians from a ‘top down, technocratic elite’, and may result in writing history which is neither humanistic nor very humane. Hitchcock does not dismiss digital tools for quantitative history, but provides an interesting argument for a re-assessment of how we might construct and use these tools in the future.

Piersma, Hinke, and Kees Ribbens. “Digital Historical Research: Context, Concepts and the Need for Reflection.” BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 128.4 (2013): 78–102. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

At the beginning of this article the authors point out that the prospect of close collaboration between humanities and computer science was described between 2009 and 2012 as a ‘promising cross-fertilisation’, a ‘great leap forward’, and a ‘revolutionary movement’ in Dutch academic circles. In the course of this article Piersma and Ribbens set out to analyse how these hopes have materialised in reality by examining the results of this ‘promising cross-fertilisation’. After analysing two quantitative history projects, the authors suggest that there is a struggle between the traditional and digital approaches, yet meanwhile quantitative and digital processes have furthered other fields which the humanities compete with in producing results and seeking funding. The article concludes by suggesting a re-emphasis on understanding and willing collaboration between both fields towards what is still perhaps a collaboration in progress.

Prescott, Andrew. “The Deceptions of Data.” Digital Riffs: Extemporisations, Excursions and Explorations in the Digital Humanities. 13 Jan. 2013. Web.  22 Nov. 2014.

In discussing “The Deceptions of Data” Andrew Prescott is keen to highlight the dangers which the reproduction and reliance of data in a new format can have in representing history. In regards to quantitative historical data, Prescott highlights large databases constructed out of ‘hundreds of log books’ which were used to create a digital map of British trade routes from 1750 to 1800. However in closer analysis Prescott shows that this large database was not sufficient to create this ‘complete’ digital map as it did not contain shipping information from large parts of Britain during that period. Prescott suggests that some amongst his peers consider themselves ‘no longer curators or scholars but makers and consumers of data’ and in great haste to convince the traditional humanist of the ‘cool’ digital formats. Prescott would seem to remind digital advocates to maintain their scholarly critical thinking in the face of a confidence in quantitative data that may distort the creation of reliable quantitative digital history.

Reed, Ashley. “Managing an Established Digital Humanities Project: Principles and Practices from the Twentieth Year of the William Blake Archive.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8.1 (2014). Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

The William Blake Archive may be described as an artistic archive before an historical archive yet this article is interesting in regards to quantitative digital history as it discusses the processes and challenges of a quantitative humanities archive which experiences continued growth and expansion of the data within its project. Much like the challenges faced by many historical archives which may regularly uncover new sources and must decide how and if they should be presented, this article on the William Blake Archive discusses these very questions in relation to the maintenance and growth of a quantitative humanities archive.

Zaagsma, Gerben. “On Digital History”. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, vol. 128, no. 4 (2013), pp 3-29. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

In this article it is from pages 23-27, which encompass chapters headed Historical Practice 2.0, that Zaagsma addresses issues regarding the use of quantitative history. The author looks firstly at digitisation and the archive, discussing the progression and forms of digital archive that come to create ‘big data’. Secondly in digital historical analysis Zaagsma acknowledges the fears of traditionalist humanists towards the use of computational methods in a humanist field, and also that quantitative data analysis, ‘is far from objective or neutral’, as suggested by Rieder and Röhle. However while acknowledging these issues, Zaagsma’s own argument would suggest the need for a greater integration of the ‘historian’s interpretive and hermeneutic work’, in engagement with quantitative historical data and analysis, adding ‘the challenge is to apply our critical faculties to digital resources’.

“Interchange: The Promise of Digital History”. Journal of American History, vol. 95, no. 2 (Sept. 2008). Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

This article is an edited version of an online discussion which took place over several months in 2008. While the discussion was broad in that the topic was the promise of digital history as a whole, it is interesting to read the thoughts of these prominent contributors to the field of digital humanities and digital history, and how quantitative history was perceived in this broad discussion. Michael Frisch comments that quantitative history ‘has won, and many historians routinely and effectively deal with quantitative data when they want to or need to in a fluid and responsive inquiry-driven way’. Dan Cohen later adding that the full potential of digital history will be realised by ensuring ‘that digital history is not simply an echo of quantitative history’. Through such comments regarding quantitative history in the broader discussion this is an interesting article in understanding the academic perception of quantitative history.

London Lives 1690 to 1800 ~ Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

As an interesting addition to this bibliography, the London Lives website, which is an excellent example of a digital quantitative history project, provides a great deal of information, not just on how quantitative history can be presented as a valuable resource for historians but also how one is developed and constructed. One section in particular, titled About this Project, provides a wealth of information about a digital quantitative history project’s rationale, funding and technical methods, along with hyperlinks to connected sister sites and to web pages for individuals, sources and bodies involved deeper in the construction of a quantitative history resource.

Cited in Introduction

Hockey, Susan. “The History of Humanities Computing.” A Companion to Digital Humanities. Ed. Susan Schreibman et al. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Letters Of 1916: The forgotten sources

old letter

The course of Irish history has, like nations all across the world, experienced events which can be identified as pivotal moments for that nation’s story and identity. These events are in many cases well documented by monks, scribes, diplomats and government officials in the retinue of the pivotal figures in society who wish to record their personal or official establishment version of the event for posterity. These official records of history, whilst extremely valuable, should therefore always be read with the potential for bias at the fore, the well-known phrase ‘history is written by the victor’, springs to mind in these instances.

In time professional historians became more prevalent but even their histories are susceptible to bias, influence and motive which can be challenged by their peers. How would Ireland’s perception in popular history as an ‘Island of saints and scholars’ read if the Scottish saint-stealer Thomas Dempster’s version of history had not been challenged and rebuked by the Irish historian James Ware in the 1600s (Empey).

What can be lacking in the official records which are recorded from the top down, and even many well respected histories of momentous events, is the personal story of the common man, the everyday lives which carried on whilst all around them great periods and events of historic change were taking place. Whenever we consider a great event in history, it must be remembered that the majority of people carried on their daily routines whether or not they were directly involved in the event. The official histories which document and discuss diplomatic actions, government policies, troop movements, lockouts, and pivotal historic figures comprise the bulk of many histories and chapter headings, yet the common man was arguably more affected by historic events than many of those who were highly involved.

What the Letters 1916 Project aims to do is to rectify that anomaly of the forgotten people, who in most cases were not significant figures of the period but fought, died, survived or simply lived through the period around the Easter Rising of 1916. It is the aim, according to Susan Schreibman of the Letters of 1916 Project, ‘to “unforget” those who have been forgotten by bringing their stories into a public discourse.‘ (Schreibman).

At the time of writing this blog, over 1600 letters have been collected by Letters 1916 which are separated into sixteen categories. While this may seem at first glance an overly broad number of categories, it is in the category titles themselves that the scope and value of the project to examining the many facets of life during this eventful period becomes apparent. Not only are the expected, but necessary and equally valuable, topics available such as Politics, World War I, Easter Rising and The Irish Question, but categorised also are letters on Art and Literature, Children, Country Life and Love Letters.

The Letters of 1916 home page states that ‘Through these letters we are bringing to life the written words, the last words, the unspoken words, and the forgotten words’, and it would seem it is also bringing the everyday words. What many of the letters bring to life is not only opinions and matters directly involving the Rising and its main protagonist, of which there are many, but how people lived their lives before and after, and that in some instances the Rising may have had very little effect on daily life.

One such example of how life carried on is demonstrated in the correspondence between Susan Fitzgerald of Stradbally in Queens County (now County Laois) and Michael Gorman who was attending Albert College in Glasnevin, Dublin at the time of the Rising. The letters, which dated throughout 1916, are essentially quite unremarkable letters from a seemingly young girl to her suitor. Yet they show the innocent life that a young girl from what would seem a prosperous middle class Irish family lived, and how her language, lifestyle and interests were in fact very much akin to the popular perception of this class during the period, evident in drama such as ‘Downton Abbey’. In a letter dated 23rd of May 1916, the first since the Rising occurred just a month earlier, and just eleven days after the last execution of rebel leaders, there is no evidence of caution or concern for Susan’s suitor in Dublin, her own position or her family, for whom life including trips to the recently ravaged city of Dublin continue. She begins:

My dearest Mickie

I have been threatening to write to you all last week and I made several attempts on yesterday but didnt succeed.  Mother & Fannie went to Dublin for the day. I was asked to keep an eye on the kids so I had a very busy time trying to keep them out of mischief. (Fitzgerald, 23 May 1916)

The letter continues in this light-hearted vein whereby discussion includes exams, photography, weather, holidays, friends, hobbies and clothes, but no mention of this recent event which is considered a pivotal event in Irish history. It is not that I would suggest that this is a nonchalant middle class girl and her family unconcerned by the recent turbulent national event however. What this letter can in fact portray is that life in the aftermath of the Rising for many continued as it had before, life then as now continues for many as normal throughout great periods of upheaval. In the midst of the official histories which chronicle the high level political aspects of the time, letters such as that by Susan Fitzgerald can show that life went on, Dublin was still vibrant, people continued to conduct business and pleasure even within Dublin City in the immediate aftermath of 1916.


Empey, Mark. ‘‘Value-free’ history?: the scholarly network of Sir James Ware’ in History Ireland. vol. XX, issue 2, (March/April 2012). Web. Accessed 14 November 2014.

Fitzgerald, Susan. Letter from Susan Fitzgerald to Michael Gorman. 23 May 1916. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014.

Letters of 1916: Creating History. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014.

Schreibman, Sausan. “Public invited to co-create 1916 letters project.” Irish Times. The Irish Times 4 August 2014. Web. Accessed 14 November 2014.

Thoughts on the Digitisation of resources for Historians


In September 2011 I entered Maynooth University as a first year history student. In my mind I envisaged that the three years which lay ahead of me would involve many hours trawling through volumes of dusty old books in darkened archives at the far reaches of the beautiful and historic Russell Library. The stereotype of a history lecturer who was as old and dusty as the history and books being studied was firmly in my mind, albeit slightly exaggerated for my own romantic purposes, and seeing history as the study of the past I expected, and hoped, it would be conducted primarily by examining and using the tools of the past. The study of history through stacks of old books and manuscripts was an experience I was looking forward to embracing, allowing those in other fields to pursue their studies using laptops, e-books and other tools of the expanding Digital Age. Yet within weeks of my first lectures one particular assignment would quickly turn my thoughts towards the advantages of digital resources in history. That October I was set an assignment to review an online digital resource, a website called The Valley of the shadow: Two communities in the American civil war.

The Valley of the shadow was an idea conceived in 1991 and although meant for publication as a book, it developed as a digital resource before going live in 1993, an early example of a digital history resource. It resembles in presentation a traditional archive with depositories of contemporary letters, diaries, images and newspapers from two communities on opposite sides during the American Civil War. It does not however remain silent, as would a traditional archive, as it does contain what Cohen and Rosenzweig call ‘implicit interpretation of the materials’, so while the site resembles an archive it may be better described as an edited collection. However it still functions as a valuable collection of source material which allows the user to study independently primary sources as part of their own research.

In constructing the site this way the project allowed the user to enter an archive that looked familiar in the traditional sense, but the site had several of Cohen and Rosenzweig  seven qualities of new digital media such as capacity, containing ‘tens of thousands of newspaper articles, 1,400 letters and diaries, full census records from 1860, 45 Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps, and more than 700 photographs and images’ (Cohen and Rosenzweig), which would have required vast volumes in printed form. The digital format provided global accessibility for an audience who otherwise may not have had access to these historical documents, and it also provided flexibility and options for content such as the ability to add sound and video files. For this student it opened up the possibilities which digitisation can provide for much wider access and utilisation of primary source materials.

In the following years of my undergraduate degree a lot of time followed my pre-conceived method of studying history, whereby many hours were spent in Ireland’s National Archives in Dublin. Opening boxes containing 17th century land grants with the seal of King Charles II provided a great thrill to a budding historian, yet it also made me consider the condition and availability of these resources. While these documents were well maintained, many came with archivist notes attached which rightly highlighted the care needed to be taken with such old, valuable and irreplaceable resources. It also reminded me that while my topic and these documents may have been of interest to many historians, they were only accessible by attending the National Archives personally, and so access came at great expense to those based outside of Dublin and indeed Ireland. I began to consider what resources lay scattered in various archives I myself was unable to access, and furthermore if I was able to access these archives would my physical handling of these resources contribute unwittingly to their deterioration for future historians?

With these concerns in mind digital resources such as the The Valley of the shadow seemed to answer a great need. This digital format allowed global access to these documents, while the ability to study a digital version allowed the original documents to lie in a more constant state of preservation. The Valley of the shadow therefore stood as an early example of what Roy Rosenzweig set out to accomplish with the establishment of the Digital Public Library of America: “To use digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”

Yet in the digital format, by which the user can quickly search archives and collections by using keywords to access targeted information, might the digital historian be in danger of missing a greater narrative? Might information be missed or misrepresented in the digitization process, but still be contained without interpretation within those dusty old archives? Might digitization result in a field of study overly reliant on resources which Cohen and Rosenzweig pointed out can contain ‘implicit interpretation’? In The Human Presence in Digital Artefacts, Alan Galey opens with a passage from a letter by Erasmus to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

‘The reader wanders at leisure over smiling fields; he plays and runs and never stumbles; and he never gives a thought to the time and tedium it has cost me to battle with the thorns and briars, while I was clearing the land for his benefit. He does not reckon […] how great the discomforts that secured his comfort, how much tedium was the price of his finding nothing tedious.’

While Erasmus writes of the lack of appreciation for the extent of his work, his research and his editing, the passage also reveals his work had removed what he considered tedious material. This passage shows that as Erasmus sought to produce a work to benefit the reader, ‘thorns and briars’ were removed and thus his work was an interpretation of a greater body of information. This is a long standing process of information management which Ann Blair identifies as the four S’s: storing, sorting, selecting and summarizing.

In conclusion, while digitization can allow for a great body of original sources to be made accessible and contribute to further study and preservation, it still involves a process of information management as described by Blair. Therefore while it may be argued that the digital resource can certainly be a valuable component to historical study, it must be noted that implicit interpretation may be present and that the ‘thorns and briars’ of the compiler may in fact be vitally important to another student of the information. The process of constructing and using digital editions, archives and collections therefore entails a great deal of consideration and responsibility.

Works Cited

Blair, Ann M., Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Yale, 2010)

Cohen, Daniel J, “The Digital Public Library of America, Me, and You.” Dan Cohen Blog, 05 March 2013.  Web. accessed 23 October 2014.

Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.  Web. accessed 22 October 2014.

Galey, Alan, The Human Presence in Digital Artefacts. Erasmus, letter to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. Web. accessed 23 October 2014.

 The Valley of the shadow: Two communities in the American civil war. Web. accessed 22 October 2014.