What’s Next for the Programming Historian

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When Alan MacEachern and I started working on the first edition of The Programming Historian in late 2007, our goal was to create an online resource that could be used by historians and other humanists to teach themselves a little bit of programming. Many introductory texts and websites approach programming languages in a systematic (if dull) way, starting with basics such as data types and gradually introducing various language constructs. This is fine if you already know how to program. Most beginners, however, are more concerned with addressing a practical need than they are with learning technical details that don’t seem to be immediately relevant. We wanted to approach programming as a means of expression. Plenty of time to begin learning grammar after you’ve had a few conversations, as it were.

Neither of us expected PH to become nearly as popular as it did. We’re still young (OK, technically we’re middle aged) but we’ll have to work pretty hard to ever gain as many readers for anything else we write. While gratifying, the success of the first edition raised new problems. Some people wanted to pitch in. Some wanted help with particular problems. Some wanted to translate the material into other natural languages or other programming languages. In the meantime, websites changed, operating systems changed, software libraries changed, programming languages changed. Change is good! But dealing with change is difficult if one or two people try to do everything by themselves. Fortunately, there is a better way.

For a couple of years now, Adam Crymble has been working with us on creating a new edition of The Programming Historian that will be open to user contributions. There will be a number of ways for people to get involved: as writers, programmers, editors, technical reviewers, testers, website hackers, graphic designers, discussants, translators, and so on. All contributions will be peer-reviewed, and everyone who participates will get credit for his or her work. One of our aims with the first edition was to maintain a narrative thread that led the user through a series of useful projects. The new edition is organized in terms of short lessons that build on knowledge acquired in previous ones. Informally, you might think of this as “choose your own adventure.” Technically the new site will be structured like a directed acyclic graph, with tools that make it easy to keep track of what you’ve learned so far and provide you with a number of choices going forward. All source code will be under version control, making it easy to maintain and fork.

Over the next few months we will be inviting beta contributors to help us design and develop the website, write and program new lessons, do editing and peer reviewing, and generally turn the goodness up to 11. There will be new lessons that lead into subjects like visualization, geospatial data, image search, integration with external tools, and the use of APIs. We will also be working with new institutional partners and exploring the connections to be made with other, similar projects. If you would like to get involved, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me and let me know. We will do a public launch when everything is working smoothly and we are ready to accept general contributions, hopefully sometime in 2012.

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William J. Turkel

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