Bloggers on The Bigger Picture often describe how, in the course of their work, they come across intriguing archival objects and artifacts that trigger new insights into history. “Hands on” encounters with compelling evidence from the past are thrilling and can be provocative. But so can different sorts of encounters, including those that are driven by data, rather than objects.
A recent article in Science News magazine, published late in July, presents an interesting example of that. In “Crime’s Digital Past,” writer Bruce Bower describes an instance of how researchers are turning to digitized databases in order to gain new perspectives on the past that might not be easily achieved by traditional means. Specifically, Bower reports on how historians, philosophers, and computer scientists who have been using software programs to search through the records of nearly 200,000 trials that took place at the Old Bailey courthouse in London between 1674 and 1913 have been able to track changes in the length of trials, the rapid rise of plea bargaining, and changing views of what marriage means.
From a legal perspective, that research is of interest on this side of the Atlantic because procedures at that British court heavily influenced the development of criminal law in Colonial America. From an archival perspective, this story is of interest, too. It points to the growth of a practice that has, over the past decade, come to be known as the “digital humanities,” where researchers focus on computations mined from archival data, rather than individual historical or cultural artifacts. In June, for example, some of Old Bailey researchers presented their findings to an interdisciplinary meeting of researchers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in Washington, DC, which is also partnering with institutions around the world on a project called Digging into Data.
The relatively new and growing field of the digital humanities is not, as it turns out, without its detractors. Some scholars, including those who spend years in archives employing more traditional research techniques, have their doubts. But as an article last November in the New York Times noted, “a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical ‘ism’ and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.”
Brett Bobley, director of the NEH’s office of digital humanities, has pointed out that “digital humanities” may be a broad term, one that can include activities as diverse as online preservations, digital mapping, and data mining that enable access to and analysis of unprecedented amounts of data can reveal patterns and trends. But what’s incontrovertible is that the discipline’s proponents are frequently surprised by what they find, particularly when they working along and in collaboration with others. As Daniel W. Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln put it, “people will use this data in ways we can’t even imagine yet, and I think that is one of the most exciting developments in the humanities.”