Announcing a live-writing project: the Historian’s Macroscope, an approach to big digital history

Robert Hook’s Microscope

I’ve just signed a book contract today with Imperial College Press; it’s winging its way to London as I type. I’m writing the book with the fantastically talented Ian Milligan and Scott Weingart. (Indeed, I sometimes feel the weakest link – goodbye!).

It seems strangely appropriate, given the twitter/blog furor over the AHA’s statement recommendation to graduate students that they embargo their dissertations online, for fear of harming their eventual monograph-from-dissertation chances. We were approached by ICP to write this book largely on the strength of our blog posts, social media presence, and key articles, many of which come from our respective dissertations. The book will be targeted at senior/advanced undergrads for the most part, as a way of unpeeling the tacit knowledge around the practice of digital history. In essence, we can’t all be part of, or initiate, fantastic multi-investigator projects like ChartEx or Old Bailey Online; in which case, what can the individual achieve in the realm of fairly-big data? Our book will show you.

One could reasonably ask, ‘why a book? why not a website? why not just continue adding to things like the Programming Historian?’.  We wanted to write more than tutorials (although we owe an enormous debt to the Programming Historian team whose example and project continues to inspire us). We wanted to make the case for why as much as explore the how, and we wanted reach a broader audience than the digital technosavy. In our teaching, we’ve all experienced the pushback from students who are exposed to digital tools & media all the time; a book-length treatment normalizes these kinds of approaches so that students (and lay-people) can say, ‘oh, right, yes, these are the kinds of things that historians do’ – and then they’ll seek out Programming Historian, Stack Overflow, and myriad other sites to develop their nascent skills.  Another attraction of doing a book is that we recognize that editors add value to the finished product. Indeed, our commissioning editor sent our first attempt at a proposal out to five single-blind reviewers! This project is all the stronger for it, and I wish to thank those reviewers for their generous reviews.

One thing that we insisted upon from the start was that we were going to live-write the book, openly, via a comment-press installation. I submitted a piece to the Writing History in the Digital Age project a few years ago. That project exposed the entire process of writing an edited volume. The number and quality of responses was fantastic, and we knew we wanted to try for that here. We argued in our proposal that this process would make the book stronger, save us from ourselves, and build a potential readership long before the book ever hit store shelves. We were astonished and pleased that ICP thought it was a great idea! They had no hesitation at all – thank you Alice! We’ve had long discussions about the relationship of the online materials to the eventual finished book, and wording to that effect is in the final contract. Does that mean that the final type-set manuscript will appear on the commentpress online? No, but nor will the book’s materials be embargoed.  None of us, including the Press, have tried this scale of things before. No doubt there will be hiccups along the way, but there’s a lot of goodwill built up and I trust that we will be able to work out any issues that may (will) arise.

We’re going to write this book over the course of one academic year. In all truthfulness, I’m a bit nervous about this, but the rationale is that digital tools and approaches can change rapidly. We want to be as up-to-date as possible, but we also have to be aware in our writing not to date ourselves either. That’s where all of you come in. As we put bits and parts up on The Historian’s Macroscope – Big Digital History, please do read and offer comments. Consider this an open invitation. We’d love to hear from undergraduate students. Some of these pieces I’m going to road test on my ‘HIST2809 Historian’s Craft’ students this autumn and winter. Ian, Scott, and I will be reflecting on the writing process itself (and my student’s experiences) on the blog portion of the live-writing website.

I’m excited, but nervous as hell, about doing this. Nervous, because this is a tall order. Excited, because it seems to me that the real transformative power of the digital humanities is not in the technology, but in a mindset that peels back the layers, to reveal the process underneath, that says it’s ok to tinker with the ways things have been done before.

Won’t you join us?



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