Open Digital History or “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing”

updogWhile computers have opened the world around us (in some good and some bad ways), the process of writing and disseminating history has remained largely closed to public view. How can historians leverage the internet and digital environment to write more publicly accessible history? In what ways can the historian’s process be enhanced and made more transparent through the use of digital tools?

This semester I’ve begun researching and writing my master’s of history thesis (for more on that go here), something I plan to finish by next spring. But while I’m writing it, I hope to experiment with some methods for answering the questions mentioned above. I owe much of my inspiration from reading about the work of others in pieces like “Open History Notebook” by W. Caleb McDaniel,  “Writing The Historian’s Macroscope in Public” by Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart, and “Curating in the Open: Martians, Old News, and the Value of Sharing as you go” by Trevor Owens.

Each of these authors discuss the benefits of sharing your data or your notes. It can bring greater transparency, publicity, engagement, help from others, and novel ideas. Beyond all that, historians should give the consumer of their historical production the ability to come to their own conclusions. As many who have practiced history know, there are biases to every argument and there are multiple ways to interpret evidence. McDaniel eloquently explains this impetus behind sharing historical data when he states in “Open History Notebook” that:

“providing our data will have less to do with a desire to make our experiments reproducible, and more to do with a belief that historical arguments are on a fundamental level irreproducible. Each one is the product of a particular person or group of people at a particular time and place.”

In the process of understanding the past and a greater comprehension of who we are as human beings, historians must acknowledge a multiplicity of understandings and help foster them through opening up their research process. Below I outline the methods I am taking to obtain this goal.

“I Have No Idea What I’m Doing”

But some of some of you may be saying “digital open history?! I have no idea how to do that stuff.” This is pretty much how I feel too. This “I have no idea what I’m doing” feeling is still with me even as I am doing what I set out to. The feeling is often a conceptual barrier to jumping in and learning along the way. Some of the authors mentioned above used methods too technically advanced or too resource (time or money) prohibitive for me and there are certainly many projects that are even more intimidating. I am trying to do what I can and not to let impostor syndrome get the best of me.

My goal is to use some free, ready-made tools and to create a workflow that burdens me as little as possible. This workflow is still in process and being tweaked, somethings haven’t even been implemented yet, but I hope it can benefit someone, somewhere, someday. Note: this may all be invalidated by RRCHNM’s exciting new image management tool Tropy, being built as I write.


Sharing has become much more efficient with the rise of social media. Trevor Owens in particular demonstrated that by sharing primary sources as you go on social media can get the public really excited about what you are doing (being exhibit, article, or book). Unfortunately rights restrictions can be an obstacle to sharing materials online (or paid databases that have terms of service that ban sharing, etc.).

However, since much of the material I am looking at was published pre-1923 and thus within the public domain, I am trying to share as much as possible. As you may notice on the side of this page, I am uploading some images to Flickr so they can be easily displayed on this blog. Flickr is a simple tool for uploading images while effectively managing tags, notes, and sharing sources. For those interested in my project, you can also follow along on my Flickr page through the McMillan Park Album or through the RSS Feed in any standard RSS reader. I will also periodically share photos on Twitter to gain more interest.


if picture from phone then upload to flickr

To make this process quicker and easier, I’ve been using a service called IFTTT (If This Then This). This app allows you to easily create or reuse “recipes” (neither the Emeril Laggase or Walter White type) which connect apps and perform functions in the background as actions in one app trigger actions in another. For work in the archives, I often use the digital camera on my phone to copy material for later viewing. With this recipe, that runs whenever a photo is saved to the gallery on my camera, I can automatically upload pictures to Flickr at the same time. This is good for most additional imaging apps, since most will create a folder in your gallery and cause the image to be uploaded.

In the cases of online collections I can skip this first step and download images/screenshots and upload them directly to Flickr. Then using another recipe I can save a copy to Google Drive to ensure further backup of the image without having to do any extra work. Also this will work in succession with the first recipe, as the photo is automatically uploaded to Flickr it will also then be saved to Google Drive.

Google Sheets + OpenRefine = Omeka

Ultimately at the end of all this sharing, I hope to have the basis to create a coherent Omeka site that can be more understandable to the public than my academic thesis will be (but who knows). For those that don’t know, Omeka is a platform for hosting online collections and building exhibits from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. My site is just a shell right now but and I think will be a good way of bringing my results to the public view.

omeka logo

In preparation for this ultimate goal, I am running another recipe concurrently with the others which creates a row in a Google spreadsheet each time an image is uploaded to Flickr, Each line includes the the basic metadata of the image such as title, tags, and link to image. The link is the most important part, as it is essential for uploading the images to Omeka via the CSV importer plug-in.

UPDATE: It turns out that the link sent to the Google spreadsheet is to the Flickr image page not the URL for the image file, which is required as a part of the CSV importer. I have yet to find a way to change this in bulk so I will have to get the links manually if I cannot find a solution.

Once I am done uploading images and the spreadsheet is complete, I can download it as a .CSV file and edit it in OpenRefine to meet the importer template guidelines. OpenRefine is a great free data clean-up tool that is fairly easy to learn the basics but has other more advanced and powerful options. Hopefully this complicated domino like process all works and my images will be transferred seamlessly into Omeka.

There you have it, my hacky attempt to do history openly and digitally. I hope this has sparked ideas in others (particularly in regards to automation). I’d love to hear comments and suggestions below about improvements or your own processes!

On a side note, I am also sharing my research notes in a public Google Doc, but it is mostly confusing drivel right now.