The American Historical Review (AHR) broke new ground in April 2017 by presenting in its AHR Forum a series of articles based on what has become known as the digital humanities.[1]The forum, entitled “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” offers a glimpse into an exciting development for those seeking a career in historical writing and teaching. New computational tools are reshaping the landscape of research.

The series showcased the use of large sets of digitized 18th century documents to create maps revealing relationships buried within. The result revealed the patterns and characteristics of English architectural students on Italian Grand Tours as they soaked up ideas that would remake England.

This forum opens the path for those interested in re-exploring historical topics and periods with fresh eyes.

Informal Style. It’s worth noting the difference in the relatively informal language used by Prof. Dan Edelstein and his colleagues in “Historical Research in the Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping of the Republic of Letters.” Terms, like hefty, hodgepodge, patchwork, fuzzy, blurry, appeared in this article. As discussed in the “Wilson Center Challenge” post, this article is consistent with an emerging standard that supports use of a less formal style, rather than systems language, when discussing the use of computational tools.

The quartet of articles, “Mapping the Republic of Letters: Introduction,” “Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project,” “British Travelers in Eighteenth-Century Italy: The Grand Tour and the Profession of Architecture,” and “Reading the Grand Tour at a Distance: Archives and Datasets in Digital History,” offer a snapshot of a set of challenges and opportunities.

Computational tools offer a second look at every period and every historical model. As reflected in the modest claims of the Stanford group, a sense of humor and humility in the face of uncertainty are in order. The Stanford group asked some basic questions:

(1) When did the English architect / Grand Tourists travel?

(2) How old were they?

(3) Where did they go to school?

(4) Did they stay around Rome?

(5) Who paid for it?

(6) What societies and academies did they join?

(7) Where did they go to work when they got back?[2]

These articles expose both the limitations of computational tools and their promise. Today’s mappings look like “signals intelligence”, rather than traditional narrative chronology. The maps show, for example, a letter was sent, but not its content. So, instead of

snapshots of the past, [you get] rather fuzzy, blurry pictures. The reveal the general     shape of things, orders of magnitude, and large-scale trends; they also draw our attention to microhistories that we might otherwise have missed. [3]

Mapping helps, but is not a magic bullet.

Mapping and other computational tools don’t replace traditional historical judgment.  They help identify emerging patterns to a trained eye. Mapping offers the prospect of a more textured history.    Computational texturing follows the tradition of histories told through the acts of background figures, as in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)[v] and Michael Woods’ use of the village of Kibworth to tell The Story of England (2010)[vi].

Can “complexity theory” help explain historical events? Yes, it can, and in ways that only continued efforts to use computational tools will reveal.

 

[1] –, “AHR Forum: Mapping the Republic of Letters,” American Historical Review, Oxford Univ. Press, Cary, NC, April, 2017, at page 399; Edelstein, Dan, Prof., et al, “AHR Forum: Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping of the Republic of Letters Project,” American Historical Review, Oxford Univ. Press, Cary, NC, April, 2017, at pages 400 – 424; Cesarani, Giovanna, Prof., et al, “AHR Forum: British Travelers in Eighteenth-Century Italy: The Grand Tour and the Profession of Architecture, American Historical Review, Oxford Univ. Press, Cary, NC, April, 2017, at pages 425 – 450; Kelly, Jason M., Prof., “AHR Forum: Reading the Grand Tour at a Distance: Archives and Datasets in Digital History,” American Historical Review, Oxford Univ. Press, Cary, NC, April, 2017, at pages 451 to 463.

[2] Ceserani, Giovanna, Prof., “British Travelers in Eighteenth-Century Italy: The Grand Tour and the Profession of Architecture,” AHR, April 2017, at pages 427, 436-437,441-447.

[3] Edelstein, Dan, Prof., et al, “AHR Forum: Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping of the Republic of Letters Project,” American Historical Review, Oxford Univ. Press, Cary, NC, April, 2017, at pages 400 – 424, pages 408-9