What do Downton Abbey and The Houston Daily Post have in common? Well, the popular show and the Texas newspaper have both been studied using digital analysis to assess their historical contexts.
Next question, what is digital analysis? Digital analysis is a method that uses “distant reading” which requires the use of computers to read massive quantities of text.
Well, the digital humanities and technology are advancing historian’s ability to research, learn, and write at a shocking rate. In “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston” and “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World from Houston,” Bevins’ research allowed him to measure and map how late nineteenth-century newspapers created an interpretation of the world for their readers. By printing some places more than others, papers such as the Houston Daily Post continually re-shaped space for nineteenth-century Americans (Bevins). Additionally, in “Making Downton More Traditional,” Schmidt uses Downton Abbey scripts to check every single line in the show for historical accuracy. He concluded that the “language in Downton is about 50-50; half is more common in 1995, half more common in 1917” (Schmidt).
However, distant reading CANNOT replace the historian’s craft. It has the capability of diminishing the close reading of historical texts and generating interpretations. Historians must not lose the foundation in which their profession is based on: physical texts and archives. As Bevins’ argues, the two must be used together. In both studies, digital methodology played an “indispensable role” in crafting new questions and uncovering hidden patterns. These patterns are intricately documented in the graphs that each study created to depict their researched data. These graphs were able to depict data that would have taken a human brain an unimaginable amount of time and energy to concoct. Yet, technology was able to do it instantaneously. Therefore, “electronic sources and digital tools” offer fundamentally new ways for humanities scholars to practice their craft. As Bevins’ ensures in his research, digital analysis and traditional craft must be woven together to present a more in-depth understanding of the content. Thus, this experimentation of mixing and collaborating with different fields allows the opportunities and insights of research to grow larger.
Additionally, both projects used digital analysis to analyze “imagined” constructs. Bevins’s project deconstructs the purposeful making of an “imagined geography” through the printing of newspapers; and Schmidt debunks the “imagined language” used on Downton Abbey which was set in the early twentieth century. Both projects utilized diverse fields, such as computer programming and coding, in order to procure the most modern, and well researched data possible.
Thus, Bevins’ and Schmidt’s research project begs the question of “what can technology not do?” Where is there to go from here? And will the traditional historian’s craft ever disappear in its entirety?