Connecting the Past: Digital History and Linked Open Data at DHSI 2015

[Editor’s Note: the ACH awarded Steve Anderson a student travel bursary to attend this summer’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute, DHSI 2015. The award came with an invitation to reflect on the experience in our blog.]

This summer I spent three weeks at DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) completing the new Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities. Last year I attended DHSI 2014 and HILT 2014, and I was able to transfer-in these classes for credit toward the DH certificate which requires five weeks of study. All three weeks at DHSI 2015 were incredibly busy and also very rewarding — I met old friends and made new ones, all the while surrounded by innovative DH projects and new forms of digital curation and production. For my digital project in the DH certificate program I created a blog, The Life DHSI with Steve Anderson, where I included my essays, journals, and thoughts on DHSI and the digital humanities in general. The three classes I took this year were Digitization Fundamentals, RDF and Linked Open Data, and also Professionalizing the Early Career Digital Humanist. At a glance it might not seem like these three classes would build on each other. Yet, as the weeks progressed I found one of my ideas about teaching with historical primary sources beginning to take the shape of a grant proposal.

In Digitization Fundamentals we worked with HTML5, CSS, audio, and also video. Coming in to this class I had a pretty good handle on HTML5 and CSS, but my audio and video skills were somewhat lacking. I worked with digital audio files in the past, but I did not have a good understanding of audio frequency and sampling rates until our class discussions took place. I’ve been working on producing video essays for students as a companion to primary source texts. With the skills learned in this class I can add more depth to the video essays with a variety of historical sounds and moving images. For example, a video essay with a still image of a locomotive could also include audio of a train passing by, or a photograph or silent film of a busy urban street could include ambient sounds from people and cars.

I found the second class, RDF and Linked Open Data, to be the most difficult, however it was also the most rewarding, and this is where the kernel of the grant proposal began to germinate. Linked Open Data is simultaneously a very complicated and very simple idea — lots of information is added to the web every day, but most of it is isolated or separated from other materials. Adding machine-readable links with RDF (Resource Description Framework) between content can create a “web of data,” one that can be used to connect materials together (see Tim Berners-Lee on “Linked Data”). I’ve been creating HTML5 excerpts of primary source readings on my project website SGA Historical Materials, and these are often read in class by students using smartphones or tablets.

The .html documents I’ve created of primary source excerpts only contain text, and perhaps a link to Wikipedia or Google Books. With Linked Open Data I could extend these primary source readings so that machines can understand them as primary sources too, and that they’re from a certain historical period, and taking place at a specific geographical location. Extra code added to these simple .html documents could connect them more directly to libraries, archives, and museums, the very groups already working on turning their vast collections into Linked Open Data (see Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives, and Museums, also as #lodlam on Twitter).

The third class, on professionalization, was where the idea for writing the grant came together. In this class we worked on personal and professional identities online, and how to present ourselves in the best possible light for hiring and job search committees. In addition, we looked at grant funding agencies and how social and professional pathways must be navigated in order to produce a successful grant proposal. Building on the new forms of aural and visual media discussed in Week 1, and drawing on the concept of Linked Open Data in Week 2, I began to see how a project focusing on historical primary sources could take shape.

For a wonderful project using historical primary sources and Linked Open Data, see Linked Jazz:

By working with the #lodlam community, I could create a plan for locating digitized or born digital primary sources. These materials, whether traditional text or new media could be linked to archival information, and also linked to each other. Showing how certain historical documents are related to each other would help students see the many connections between seemingly disparate texts or materials. Also, linking these primary source excerpts back to pertinent artifacts in libraries, archives, and museums would help students understand how history is written, how documents are preserved, and how the public can interact with the past in meaningful ways.

It will take some time to put all of these ideas together as a grant proposal, perhaps as an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant. I’ll need to do some research on other similar projects and NEH grant winners, what skill-sets and digital tools and equipment are needed, and how to best present the idea. A working prototype is also necessary, and thankfully with the experience of DHSI all of these things are now possible.

For more information on Linked Open Data, and my project which is tentatively titled “Linked Open History,” see my blog post at The Life DHSI: Linked Open History: Using RDF and Linked Open Data to Connect Primary Source Materials

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