Engineers and architects have CAD, cartographers have GIS, linguists have corpus analyzers, and statistically-oriented disciplines have SASS and STATA. The importance of these tools lies in their ability to automate basic tasks once done by hand, allowing practitioners to focus on the creative analysis that humans do best.
That no equivalent tool exists for historians (and my desire that it did) was the inspiration for a project tentatively called HistoryMaker. It’s goal is to develop a tool for organizing, analysing, reusing, and sharing the mundane historical data used by scholars and narrative-based professionals. The focus is on the most basic historical “facts”: data about people, places, groups (from institutions to unstructured movements), and events.
Most notetaking tools available to humanities scholars are either completely unstructured or organized around the cited works from which the information was gleaned. HistoryMaker would put the data itself front and center. It would allow researchers to link people and events together over time in ways that facilitate new ways to explore, retrieve, filter, and otherwise organize these data. Particular focus will be placed on making this tool usable for those without special technical knowledge. It will be tuned to the way that historians work rather than a technologist.
If this appears to be a straightforward project, just underneath the surface lies all manner of complexity. Some challenges relate to the nature of historical evidence and how best to digitally store and encode it. This includes uncertainty, ambiguous data, and contradictory evidence.
Other issues relate to the nature of the seemingly-straightforward historical “facts” themselves. This includes social constructs and identities that can be claimed by a person or imposed upon that person by others. Yet another set of issues relates to the ways in which the profession functions: tensions especially between a desire for openness and inclusion and the valuation of specialized knowledge and expertise.
All these seemingly theoretical issues have direct repercussions on the application design. I will blog about these topics as I continue to wrestle with them throughout the development process. Read my HistoryMaker-related blog posts for more information or let me know if you are interested in getting involved.