A Decade of Programming Historians

‘The Voyage of Life: Youth’, by Thomas Cole, 1842.

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Ten years ago, the Programming Historian was born at the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) [PDF]. In 2008, William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern introduced the project to the world by writing a series of tutorials aimed at everyday working historians looking to build their technical skills. A decade on, and the project has attracted more than 1.3-million visitors, has included a team of 24 different scholars in 6 countries. Contributions have come from 63 authors and 97 different peer reviewers who have published 102 tutorials in 2 languages. Each of those tutorials is about the length of a journal article, making the project a substantial piece of collective writing. Our editors have delivered workshops and conference papers on 3 continents. The project has also tackled important social issues in the digital humanities, including gender bias, online bullying, and internationalisation. And it all started here.

The project was originally inspired by a gap in the pedagogical market. Turkel had noted the enthusiasm for Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (2005), which was inspiring a new generation of historians interested in the Internet. While Digital History had been an excellent resource for those seeking to put the past online, Turkel worried that there ‘seems to be far fewer resources for historians who want to create tools for doing historical research’. He established a blog, Digital History Hacks (2005-2008), which soon after began to incorporate tutorials for the technically inclined historian, including a few articles that he called ‘Easy Pieces in Python’, a popular programming language. Two years later in 2008, the ‘Easy Pieces’ series had evolved into the co-written Programming Historian, focusing heavily on Python and was published open access by NiCHE’s ‘Digital Infrastructure’ project. The skills Turkel and MacEachern offered were of the moment, seeking to provide historians with new ways of dealing with the huge digitized archives that appeared in the late 90s and early 2000s. The Programming Historian provided the missing puzzle piece for many scholars looking for ways to build technical skills. It inspired me, the NiCHE webmaster at the time, to learn Python, and for many years thereafter I returned to the tutorials to refresh my skills.

The project was popular, but had not yet reached its potential. The digital era had changed the types of problems many historians were having with their sources – particularly digital or digitized sources. Yet the traditional scholarly environment did not provide a venue for those conversations. If packaged correctly, the Programming Historian could be that venue. Having recently worked through the lessons in 2011, and enthusiastic about the project’s potential, I pitched an idea to Turkel and MacEachern: why not open up the Programming Historian to contributors, running it as a scholarly journal of methodology for digital historians? They agreed and with generous support from NiCHE, I was tasked with implementing the idea. Turkel used his extensive network to recruit a talented team who shared our enthusiasm, and a year later at the Digital Humanities 2012 conference in Hamburg, Germany, we announced we were open for business.

Some of our earliest contributors were environmental historians. Jim Clifford, Daniel Macfarlane, and Josh MacFadyen produced a series of digital mapping lessons in 2013, which formed the cornerstone of our Geospatial Historian series. Since then, we’ve branched in new directions, including tutorials as divergent as augmented reality, and data mining. The project has since moved off of NiCHE’s servers, and both Turkel and MacEachern have amicably left the editorial board as they moved onto other things. After our initial support from NiCHE, the project has operated entirely without a budget, built on the good will of editors, authors, and reviewers, and challenging the claims that scholarly publishing needs to be expensive. The passion of our team members over the years have helped them to build upon Turkel and MacEachern’s original idea, bringing a thriving resource to the historical community that has lowered the barrier to entry for thousands of people seeking to build new skills or publish their research methods.

We have big plans for what might be next, but we thought we would take the occasion of our tenth anniversary to reflect on where we came from. Turkel too seems to have had a glint of nostalgia. A few days ago, he checked in on us, and we’re glad he was pleased with what he found. The project continues to grow in exciting new directions. We’re even on the lookout for a new French language team to help us move bravely forth into our second decade. So as we celebrate how far we’ve come as a project, let me say thank you to NiCHE and to William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern for giving us our start. Thank you for trusting us with your idea. We hope you’re as proud of what it’s become as we are.

Adam Crymble was the NiCHE Webmaster from 2008 to 2013. He is now an Editor of the Programming Historian, and a Senior Lecturer of Digital History at the University of Hertfordshire.


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