The Programming Historian

The Programming Historian is a website which publishes “novice-friendly, peer-reviewed tutorials” designed to help teach historians “digital tools, techniques, and workflows.” It is aimed at helping historians who identify as “technologically illiterate” to become programming historians. If you’re a historian and you want to know how to set up an Omeka site, or edit an oral history using Audacity, then The Programming Historian is a place to learn how and where to get started.

Over half of the lessons have been translated into Spanish. If you speak French, you’re out of luck at the moment.

Clicking on the English-language portal presents us with three options: we can Learn, we can Teach, or we can Contribute. Learn takes us to the lessons and Contribute provides links to pages with information for those interested in writing a lesson or becoming one of the reviewers. Teach has little beyond a link to provide feedback on ways to make the lessons better suited to being used as teaching tools. We’re going to Learn today.

Clicking on learn brings up all the lessons that you can access. There are 78 lessons available in English, which is quite a few to browse through.

The Programming Historian provides a few ways to organize the lessons to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. At the top, you can click on buttons to display all the tutorials that are tagged with one of five categories: Acquire, Transform, Analyze, Present, and Sustain. 30 lessons fall under the category of Transform, making that the largest of the five categories.

The next way to sort the lessons is by more specific criteria: for example, you can click to see all the lessons tagged with “Web Scraping” (only 6) or lessons that have to do with the  programming language Python (19 lessons – second only to “Data Management”).

Finally, you can sort the lessons by their publication date or by their difficulty. Lessons are given a difficulty – Low, Medium, or High. These difficulty lessons appear to be assigned based on the difficulty of the subject matter covered by the lesson, not the difficulty of using the lessons to learn the programming tool.

Here’s half of the lessons tagged with “Digital Publishing”

Let’s click on the lesson “Up and Running with Omeka.net”. This is a lesson designed to help historians set up their own content on Omeka.net.

The lesson is all text and images – no video or audio. The lesson reads like a longer version of one of our digital tool reviews, featuring walkthroughs of how to use the digital tool. When I say “longer,” I do mean significantly longer – here is the table of contents for the Omeka.net lesson:

And here is what the content of the lesson looks like:

The lessons all seem well-written and informative. However, they are not infallible: several lessons have notifications that reviewers have caught inaccurate information. Rectifying these errors is dependent on the website administrators contacting the authors and then having the authors correct the mistakes in their lessons.

Overall The Programming Historian seems to be a very helpful resource for any historian looking to expand their technical skills.

Digital Tool Review: Wordle

Wordle is a simple program (from the user side – I don’t know enough about coding to judge whether a lot is going on under the hood) which creates word clouds. Word clouds, for the unfamiliar, are a way of visualizing which words are used or found most frequently in a given text. Word clouds have become very fashionable in all sorts of presentations, because they allow a presenter to illustrate the key or central themes of a piece of text in a very easy-to-understand visual format. A word cloud is both a means and an end. A presenter might cite a statistic which is difficult for a listener to comprehend. Showing a word cloud dominated by a word presents the same information in a more visually striking way.

Here’s an example. This is the Course Description for History and New Media course:

To use Wordle, I downloaded the Mac app from the website. The web browser version will do the same thing as the downloadable app, but it relies on a piece of Java which many browsers no longer support. The app also requires Java but the software it needs is still supported and can be downloaded as an update from Java for free. I copied the text of the course description and then pasted into the text box which appears when the app is launched and hit “Go.” This generated the word cloud. Words which are used more often will be larger, so whatever words are the biggest are the ones used the most. Here’s that same text in word cloud form:

Wordle has several benefits for presenters: it is free, and usable on both web browsers or as a downloaded application. It does the computing and graphic design needed to produce a word cloud; a presenter who doesn’t have the time or resources to create a word cloud themselves can simply copy-and-paste text and then choose from a variety of styles and fonts. Using the simple drop-down menus, the creator of the world cloud can opt to remove common words in a number of languages. This ensures that the word clouds aren’t dominated by words without serious historical meaning, like “the.” You can also alter the graphic design of the word cloud in a number of ways: you can adjust how many words are included in the word cloud and how the words are arranged.

For an example of how Wordle might be used in a presentation, I decided to input the text of two related documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States (amendments not included). This could be used by a scholar of early American history to illustrate the similarities and differences between the two documents.

Here is the word cloud that Wordle generated from the Declaration of Independence:

And here is the one generated from the Constitution:

A presenter could point to words which appeared in both word clouds, such as “States,” as well as illustrate the differences between the two documents. By altering the number of words included in the word cloud, presenters can make these contrasts even more obvious. Having these two images in a presentation would enhance its educational power, especially for visual learners.