Read more about the latest volume in the IHR Research Guide series.

Doing Digital History: a beginner’s guide to working with text as data, is written by former IHR staff members, who all played a central role in maintaining the IHR’s digital resources, and in training historians and other humanities researchers in digital approaches to their areas of study.

It’s easier than ever to acquire lots of digital material. Now that library and archive restrictions are easing, many are making a dash to the reading rooms to photograph as much as they can. During lockdown many more discovered digital resources that they didn’t know existed until necessity led to their discovery.

It’s not so easy, though, to work with such material in bulk. Some of the techniques can be off-putting to newcomers, and searches for online advice or tutorials often suggest that you should really start by magically knowing one or more programming languages.

Doing Digital History doesn’t use programming. Instead it aims to show just how much can be done without it, using free tools and a little bit of practice.

The book takes the reader through that practice. Using hundreds of different files of transcriptions from the 1878 Post Office Directory for London (we have made the files available to download, so readers can work through the exercises), the book shows that it’s possible to answer questions like ‘what is the ratio of men to women in these listings?’ or ‘what is the most common profession in this text?’ We hope that having gained a bit of familiarity with these techniques, readers will see how they can be applied to their own research.

Although focused on text, as the subtitle makes clear, the book also gives advice on choosing a research project, maintaining a digital project over its life-cycle, looking after your precious data (spoiler alert: you should be using version control) and visualising your findings.

Jonathan Blaney

About the authors:

  • Jonathan Blaney was Head of Digital Projects at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London until 2021;
  • Sarah Milligan is an independent scholar based in Victoria, Canada;
  • Marty Steer is Technical Lead, Digital Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London;
  • Jane Winters is Professor of Digital Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

The IHR Research Guides series is a set of paperback guides to particular areas of or approaches to history. They are primarily aimed at postgraduates, or final-year undergraduates, but many other readers should find them useful too.