Chapter ID: CBB944568735

Historians and Their Data (2015)


This paper discusses the differences in the way historians and programmers tend to think about data, showing how these differences create difficulties for digital historians. The paper explores examples from a large digital infrastructure project, including 1) building a linked data infrastructure, 2) structuring historical information, and 3) standardizing date forms. The paper proposes that the main difference between these two modes of thinking rests on the acceptance or rejection of deterministic and reductionistic expressions. Where coders require precise and rigid expressions that eliminate ambiguity, historians work in realms where precision is often impossible and ambiguity flourishes. Historical context, in particular, is extremely difficult to incorporate into the mechanistic and algorithmic infrastructure of the current digital environment. Context is not impossible to deal with, however. The article indicates that the two realms of thinking are not incommensurable but, instead, that they simply require significant work by both coders and historians in order to produce good digital history infrastructure.

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Authors & Contributors
Sepkoski, David Christopher
Leonelli, Sabina
Hulme, Mike
Tallis, Raymond
Tempini, Niccolò
Weldon, Stephen P.
History of Psychology
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Social Studies of Science
Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science
Science, Technology and Human Values
Journal of the History of Biology
University of Chicago Press
Acumen Publishers
Cambridge University Press
University of Nebraska Press
Data collection; methods
Digital humanities
Technoscience; science and technology studies
Big data
Time Periods
21st century
20th century
20th century, late
19th century
Great Britain

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