HOW TO: The Programming Historian

Main Link:


Originally founded in 2008 by historians William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern, the Programming Historian is an open-source, peer-reviewed academic website that has thorough tutorials on a wide range of digital tools and techniques that historians can use to make their research and teaching more interactive and immersive. With their 88 published lessons, users can learn how to code with the Python programming language, brush up on their Omeka skills or even learn how to edit audio with Audacity.

The Programming Historian is available in four languages: English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. There are also separate project teams for each language to facilitate and edit submissions, who seek to foster “a diverse and inclusive community of editors, writers, and readers.”

How to Use

After pulling up the website on your browser, you may pick the language you want to learn in. Sadly, I only know one of the languages offered, so I picked the English version (the first option).  

You can then choose to go to the lessons homepage, provide feedback, write your own lesson, or learn about the Programming Historian’s team. For this practicum, we will focus on the “Learn” function.

After clicking, you should be redirected to “The Lesson Index,” which is organized by “typical phases of the research process, as well as general topics,” like ‘APIS,’ ‘PYTHON,’ and ‘MAPPING.’ However, if you cannot find the exact lesson you are looking for, you can always use the search engine.

To practice, I searched one of our favorite tools, “Omeka,’ in The Lesson Index and five tutorials appeared. There are many great lessons that range in level of difficulty and skill, including “Installing Omeka” and “Creating an Omeka Exhibit.”

For those doing some last-minute cramming on your final projects, I definitely recommend the Programming Historian to learn how to use your platforms if there are lessons available. For example, the “Installing Omeka” lesson, gives you step by step instructions on how to sign up for an Omeka account, install your server and database, and more.  

Additionally, the “Creating an Omeka Exhibit” lesson teaches you the basics on how to map your digital exhibit, as well as add different types of content onto your webpage.

If you want to go hardcore and learn how to code, the two main programming languages they have lessons on are Python and R. Like Omeka, the Programming Historian offers basic and advanced tutorials on each. See below for some examples:

Overall, I think the Programming Historian is an amazing and accessible resource for historians and educators. The Programming Historian’s team truly accomplished their goal of creating a “collaborative, productive, and sustainable” environment for “scholars to learn from one another.”

Other Ways to get Involved

If you are interested in contributing to the website, you can write your own lesson. Unlike traditional historical journals, the editors at Programming Historian do not simply accept or reject tutorials. Instead, they work with the submitter to craft the clearest and most useful lesson as possible.

To learn more about their submission process, click here.

If you are fluent in more than one of their publication languages, you can also help them translate some of their lessons from one language to another.

Lastly, you can always provide feedback or report problems. Click here to contact them.

I hope this practicum helped you learn more about the Programming Historian! Please let me know if you have any questions, and I will do my best to answer them for you. Have a good week and best of luck with finals!

— Rachael Davis

8 Replies to “HOW TO: The Programming Historian”

  1. Hi Rachael! Thanks for this great introduction to the Programming Historian. This website seems so cool and I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before! Like why are people not talking about it?! I really appreciate how the developers/contributors emphasize community and accessibility. I was going to ask if anyone could make a post, but you answered it 🙂 I think it’s really neat that the editors work with you to create the best guide. Do you know how they get their funding? I think it’s really great the editors are so involved and probably can be because they get paid? Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi, Emma! I also agree.. I wish I knew about this site sooner! It’s such a great resource; I am obsessed with it and will be using when I break down and finally want to learn how to code. For the funding, they have A LOT of institutional partners, like Princeton University, University of Sussex Library and Technische Universitat Darmsadt. Other institutions give support for project-specific funding, and there are also individual supporters through their Patreon or PayPal. To read more about it, click here.

  2. Great review Rachael! The Programming Historian was key to my project here – I wouldn’t have figured out topic modeling without it. And as someone who’s taken a few programming classes before, their tutorials are well written and really accessible compared to a lot of other resources.

    That said, a lot of their tutorials are only useful if you already have some idea of what you need/what you want to do. It would be nice if there was more of an overview of what certain tech is for, why you might use R vs. Python, that sort of thing.

    Were there any tutorials that you saw that stood out to you as especially interesting/cool?

    1. Thank you, Jess! I am glad you found this website helpful for your project. I can’t wait to see it during class on Wednesday!

      To me, the tutorial that really stood out to me was their Google Maps/ Google Earth lesson. I feel like it’s a skill that everyone is expected to know, but is never actually taught. I really enjoyed learning how to create my own maps. I will probably end up using it for my project or honestly, just typical vacation and road trip planning!

  3. Hi Rachael! This is a great walkthrough of the Programming Historian! Learning about programs and other resources such as this just generally makes me think of how much is out there in terms of digital history. Before this class, I had no idea about half of the stuff that we discussed in class, despite doing multiple digital history projects before as an undergrad. This seems like a great resource for anyone working within digital history.

  4. Rachael – This is such a thorough walk through. This source is invaluable, and you do a wonderful job showing how it is invaluable. I would be interested to see what topic is most prevalent. Is there a type of digital history how-to that you found more often than others? And does the most explained topic reflect the trends in digital history?

    I’ll definitely be bookmarking this site – especially as I continue to pursue digital history. Thanks for the great review!

  5. Hi Rachael! This website and your summary is insightful and something I will keep in mind when planning any future digital projects. I think it’s great to have access to this credible source for learning how to use digital tools. I think it’s also cool that there is a priority to teach people rather than just rejecting their lesson.

  6. Hello Rachael, your summary of this website was so thorough. I really liked that you pointed out that the site’s editors would work with content uploaders to improve their tutorials. Personally, I know if I tried to upload a tutorial and it was rejected without reason, I wouldn’t attempt to upload again. Working with those who make tutorials definitely promotes a sense of community and a vested interest in using all resources available to teach historians programming. I know a lot of other programming classes are not free, plus it can be intimidating for someone who has little background in this type of work. However, I think because this is specifically teaching other historians it is more friendly for our field.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *