Why historians should learn how to code (at least a bit)

by Janine Noack

Historians spend hours and hours in front of computer screens and paper sources from other centuries trying to create a cohesive narrative. Mostly we use Microsoft Word to write down our ideas and the internet to browse for information. But our computers can offer us way more than that. We may not always be aware of the great amount of software aiming to help us research more effectively. When contemporary historians analyse the world we live in now, an immense amount of available data needs to be contextualised. That’s where coding becomes essential – not only for programmers but also for historians. Here are some reasons why you should take your first steps in coding right now.

Learn how to communicate with programmers

One of the ways historians can learn more about the digital environment is through programming. Programming is not for everyone and not a skill that can be learned in a month. Nevertheless, learning how to code is fun, as it helps us develop the ability to think outside of the box and to build logical connections. I wouldn’t ask everyone to become a programmer, but rather to foster computational thinking. Knowing basic coding helps us to better understand the programs available and in the end, to adapt them to our specific needs. The internet provides various tools like Codeacademy, with which you can learn basic coding in just hours. A few weeks later and you can build your first program.

To make this clear look at this analogy: Historians could read sources in a foreign language using a translator, but need to know the specifics of the relevant syntax to fully understand the content, right? It is the same logic for coding. If we understand the structure of the internet, the nature of the programs we use, the values behind a software and the various ways to verify the information on the internet, we could handle the provided resources more effectively.

Systemising literature and source material

Most historians work with a great amount of sources and secondary literature. Databases and spreadsheets can help you to organise the material. JSTOR, for example, and most libraries provide an interface to type in keywords or names of books. An intelligent system is then able to find the material we need in only a few seconds. The same already happens with many archival sources. This is great, isn’t it? We don’t need to travel to various faraway places to get the information we need.

To make this information accessible to everyone requires intelligent programs to systemise the data. Programmers develop these programs, but historians should think of the smartest way to systematise the information. This is a great example where historians and programmers could perfectly work together. If historians understood the algorithm that systematises the data, the information could be made available even faster. A good collection of sources saves us lots of time and money.

Here is another example. The data in databases is useless until we organise and conceptualise it for our individual projects. Are we as historians not trained to bring various bits of information into a coherent argument? So why should we shy away from digital solutions that help us doing that? Information can be easily organised in Excel, which is a very useful and easy software almost everyone has on their computer. Basic knowledge of coding and a bit of statistical understanding is crucial to use a database.

Historians should not attempt to create their own data systems, as programmers have developed the language R to evaluate data. While it takes some time to get used to it, knowing how to deal with statistics helps us to extract necessary information more effectively. Someone might suggest a method of cut-and-paste finding in databases. This is not the case. History is still about creating a well-argued narrative and we should read sources in a qualitative manner, but databases could help us find a starting point.

The same is true for Reference management software. So many historians spent hours and hours editing their footnotes. There is no need for it. Zotero, for example, helps to bring references into a logical order automatically. While time is needed to understand how the reference system works, the hours you lose in the beginning will pay off in the end.

Reaching out for a public audience

Various historians have started to publish their research on blogs. If you start your own blog or your employer (such as the History Faculty of a university) has a blog and needs someone to administer it, knowing some html-code is more than necessary. Using html makes posts more flexible in content and better looking to an audience.

There are many ways to connect digitally to other historians or the public for which a knowledge of programming is helpful. If you start using Twitter, it is important to analyse the different possibilities to network. Programmers have developed useful features to do so. Therefore, it might be easier for you to interpret the data if you know how the numbers are generated. These examples are only a small part of what is actually possible with the use of the web.

Leaving academia?

Some historians might not stay in academia, and instead use our abilities elsewhere. Historians do qualitative research, ask diverse questions and find interactions between variables to produce a narrative that is accessible to others. These skills are useful for enterprises. Being able to understand code and more importantly, to understand programs and the way programmers communicate, could enhance the opportunities to find an enjoyable and well-paid place to work.

With a good understanding of the digital world, we can make more effective use of resources provided. And before we start to criticise its nature, we should try it out first.

Useful links:

The article demonstrated only a few examples. Find out more by following the links:

Centre for History and New Media: http://chnm.gmu.edu/research-and-tools/

Digital History, A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web:  http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/

Conversation with Digital Historians: https://southernspaces.org/2012/conversation-digital-historians

Frustrated with programming? Here is some motivation: http://adamcrymble.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/how-to-solve-programming-problems-if.html


9 thoughts on “Why historians should learn how to code (at least a bit)

  1. I like how you opened by talking about optimizing all of the tools out there that could be useful in historian work. It’s true that historians should be able to utilize all helpful tools on computers so that their work is efficient. I also like how you talked about the benefits of learning code in historian work! I didn’t know that coding could apply so much in a historian’s work. I don’t know much about historian work, so this article really gave me a fresh perspective on making work efficient.

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