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HISTORIANS AND COMPUTERS

Copyright 2004, 2006, 2011 by Dr. Jim Jones
of West Chester University


Go to the syllabus or the essay on historical questions and facts.

What do historians do with facts?

  1. Collect data. Data comes from sources which include photos, maps, articles, books, public records, diaries and letters, web pages, interviews and your own personal observations. Using scanners, voice recorders, digital cameras and imaging software, web browsers and voice recognition software, historians collect source material, and convert it into files that can be manipulated by a computer.
  2. Organize data and convert it into facts. Saving data files where you can find them again is the first step. Going through a file and identifying historical facts is the next one. Having a historical question in mind will streamline this process.
  3. Retrieve facts that have been stored. A historical question is essential for this process.
  4. Compare and sort facts to find patterns. This step separates a historian from a file clerk.
  5. Create a clear, well-organized presentation of your historical argument and conclusion in a form that is appropriate for the intended audience.

Theoretically, if you had enough time and a lot of storage space, you could try to collect "every fact that has every occurred" or perhaps only "every fact that occurred near the same time and place as your subject." In order to collect facts efficiently, the historian begins by asking a historical question. As a historian collects facts, organizes them and begins to identify patterns, new questions arise. That suggests additional places to look for facts. It is possible for a historian to find an answer to a historical question, but it is much more likely that the historian will find partial answers and increasingly complex networks of facts that bear some relationship to the question. While it may be frustrating that there are no final answers to historical questions, the attempt to understand the complexities of history may provide insight and it will certainly expand your mind.

Why use a computer for history research?

The computer is a machine that can simulate other machines like a typewriter, a fax machine, a DVD player or even a flight simulator. It does this by managing lists of numbers (see sidebar, but don't read it unless you are interested).

Historians use computers to simulate machines that make it easier to do the tasks listed above. In particular, computers can automate collecting, storing, retrieving and comparing facts (tasks 1-4, above) and make it easier to convert facts into presentations (task 5). We will use computers to process facts from West Chester history and combine them with facts that have been collected by other historians, including previous members of HIS480.

Formatting notes for a computer

If you take the time during data entry to add some additional information to your data, you can make it easier to locate and sort data (tasks 2-3). To improve the "searchability" of our notes, add separators-- something that tells you when one piece of data ends and the next one begins.

You already have extensive experience with separators, because you use them to read and write. For instance, in this sentence, a space is used to end each word, a comma ends each phrase, and a period ends the sentence. If we did not use separators, that sentence would look like this:

Forinstanceinthissentenceaspace
isusedtoendeachwordacommaendseach
phraseandaperiodendsthesentence

In much the same way, this page uses blank lines to separate complete ideas. It also uses BOLD characters to identify subject headings, red characters to get your attention and italics to indicate foreign or other unusual words from regular words.

What is the advantage of a computer?

In the "old days" before there were computers, historians took notes from sources and copied them onto 3x5 file cards. By making hand copies of the cards and sorting them into piles by topic and chronology, a researcher could find related facts with which to answer historical questions. But copying cards and sorting them by hand was tedious, and researchers lived in the constant fear that fire, flood, insects or another disaster might destroy work before it was finished. (Here's some trivia: Many historians who wrote dissertations in the days before computers kept their note cards in the kitchen freezer. They believed that in the event of a fire, the freezer's insulation would protect paper.) A computer can make as many copies as you need in almost no time and at nearly no cost, and computer software can perform many kinds of analysis much faster than a human can.

How does a computer manage numbers?

A computer used lists of numbers to do two different things. A list of numbers can either contain data or it can contain a set of instructions on how to manipulate that data. For example, consider the following short list of numbers which contains text data that was encoded as A=1, B=2, C=3 and so on.

8-9-19-20-14-18-25

A second list of numbers contains commands :
  • 50 = go to the first number in the data list
  • 100 = look at the number
  • 200 = decode the number assuming A=1, B=2, etc.
  • 300 = stop if there are no more numbers left
  • 400 = go to the next number in the data list
  • 500 = go to instruction number 100

The command list "50-100-200-300-400-500" tells the computer to decode each number in the data list, check to see if the list is finished, and if not, then go on to the next number in the list.

Exercise: Into what does the list "8-9-19-20-14-18-25" translate?

The second part of HIS480 teaches how to do the same thing using a computer -- how to perform tasks 1-3 by entering data and storing it so that it is accessible. By using your computer to simulate a filing cabinet, your data will be available to a variety of programs that will enable you to find, retrieve, calculate, maniputlate, format and back-up. To be more specific, once you type your notes into a computer, you never have to retype them again. Instead, you can concentrate on analyizing, organizing and supplying transitions between ideas.


Return to the syllabus or the essay on historical questions and facts.