Digital Approaches to Historical Inquiries

As quintessentially present-day phenomena, digital data and tools provide many surprising opportunities for studying the human past. It would be difficult to find a line of historical inquiry that would not be open to a digital approach, be it through accessing and analysing digital data-sets, computer-driven modelling of “what-if” scenarios, or tools that allow us to explore and visualize the links between historical actors, events, and places. Digital media also allow us to communicate the results of our studies to peers and the public in exciting new ways: from sharing your thoughts on a text through the cloud, to interactive historytelling, and visualizations that play with historical perspectives. As you will see, digital history provides a space that can function both as a research laboratory and as a public playground.

But how do you know what tool fits which question? Can you still take a digital approach when data is not “big”, but fragmentary and sparse? How do we not lose touch with the historical context that frames our case-study, while looking through our digital macroscopes? How will you prevent other researchers thinking of your research as “advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic”? How can we share the histories that result from our work in a way that is both evocative and authentic? In lectures, labs, and group discussions, we will explore answers to these questions and, in the process, develop knowledge, tool proficiency, and a frame of mind that will allow you to digitally tackle and talk about a diversity of historical inquiries.

Course details

Course objectives

By the end of this course, you will be able to:

  • Understand how digital approaches can power a variety of historical inquiries and be able to communicate their potential and pitfalls to peers.
  • Link digital approaches with a historical perspective of (digital) culture and society.
  • Know where to find some of the inspiring media, projects, and thinkers in this field.
  • Plan and run an outward-facing digital historical project.
  • Have a working knowledge of a variety of tools from the kit of a digital historian.
  • Critically reflect on the use of historical data or the reflection of past actors, events, and places in digital forms.
  • Provide feedback on the ideas and projects of peers and incorporate peer feedback.
  • Share research results in a way that is accessible for a wider audience.

Course Load

Total course load 5 EC x 28 hours = 140 hours

  • Seminar and labs: 13 x 2 (26 hours)
  • Literature reading and commenting: (40 hours)
  • Assignments: (26 hours)
  • Project (40 hours)
  • Project presentation prep and peer feedback: (8 hours)

Grading (1-10; average of)

  • Attendance, Participation, and Pop-quizzes: 10 percent
  • Assignments: 30 percent
  • Project: 50 percent
  • Project presentation and peer feedback: 10 percent

Re-take (1-10; average of)

  • Attendance, Participation, and Pop-quizzes: 10 percent
  • Take-home test: 30 percent
  • Project: 50 percent
  • Oral exam on final project: 10 percent

The fine print (additional details)

Attendance is required. If you know you will need to miss a class, please indicate this at least two weeks prior. If you know beforehand you will have to miss three or more classes, you cannot take this course. If you miss a class due to sickness or other unforeseen circumstances, notify me without delay. For every class missed I will find you a suitable replacement assignment.

Class participation is part of your final grade. Participation is evaluated both on activity during class discussions and answers given to pop-quizzes at the end of lectures. Aside from participation being part of your grade, I really appreciate your input. If you think you have something to ask, please speak up: there are no stupid questions, but there are a lot of lost opportunities for information exchange and learning. This field is full of exciting new ideas and developments and it is impossible to be aware of them all. So, if you can share information on an idea, project, data-set, or tool that is of you value to you, please do!

After some of the classes you will be asked to fill out a small survey on the course. This is both so I can receive your feedback while the course is ongoing as well as to identify if you are experiencing any issues with specific parts of the course. Based on this, I may invite you for a meeting to discuss your feedback and progress.

Assignments are to be completed and handed in on Tuesday at 15:00 via the appropriate Slack channel before the start of the next class. The assignments are graded based on content and punctuality. They are listed in the course schedule below, but I will explain more about them during each week’s class. At the start of each class, I will ask two or three of you for a stand-up to talk about the previous week’s assignment and your submission.

Due to a temporal tangle of professional and personal factors, you will not be able to find me in my office on a regular basis. If you need to speak to me, you are warmly encouraged to make use of the open office hours (Mondays 11:00-13:00). Even so, I will not always be able to make these hours (which I will communicate beforehand). If you need my direct feedback during a week I cannot have open office hours or really need to speak to me outside open office hours, please email me for an appointment and I will do my best to set up a Skype meeting.

Plagiarism is a ‘mortal’ academic sin. If you have not done so already, please inform yourself on Leiden University’s views and regulations on plagiarism. This Leiden university library portal has several accessible web courses on how to quote and cite right and tips for bibliographic management. If you are still in doubt whether (parts of) any work for this course may constitute plagiarism, you need to signal and verify this with me before you hand it in for grading. Note that plagiarism, copyright and other information sharing or copying issues are often extra complex when dealing with digital sources. This is why this topic will also be returned to during the course.

Course Communication

Since the Blackboard module will not be functional at the start of this course (due to the aforementioned temporal tangle), I’ve substituted a number of its functionalities through other online tools (which may be even better and more fun than using Blackboard, but that’s our little secret). Please not that the use of these tools is encouraged but not mandatory: if you have any personal or technical issue that prevents you from using them, please talk to me and we’ll work something out.

For all online (course) communication, please follow the good old principles of netiquette.

Slack: First of all, I’d like you to sign up to the Leiden University Centre for Digital Humanities Slack workspace at lucdh.slack.com. Slack is a team collaboration platform that is used by many organizations, particularly in IT. You can use your university or a private e-mail address to sign up, but please enter your real and full name as a username, so there won’t be any confusion between your IRL and online personas. After I have given you access to Slack, please familiarize yourself with it. This should take about 15 mins. Please note that our workspace is a professional communication channel. Please note that all channels with # in front of them are accessible to all members of the LUCDH workspace (this includes university staff and PhD students).

We will use Slack to share ideas and upload assignments. Furthermore, for your final project you and two of your fellow students will ask from and give feedback to each other in a private Slack channel. I will set up these channels for you.

A note about Slack: we are using Slack on a free plan, this means only the last 10k messages are saved and we have a 5GB total file storage. This seems like a lot, but if you really hit it off with your fellow students and start messaging each other 500 times a day or share 4k home videos, space will run out and Slack will start forgetting the earlier messages. In short, use this workspace as a workspace. Furthermore, don’t rely on Slack as an archiving tool: you are responsible for curating your own copies of assignments, the final project, and other critical course materials.

Hypothes.is: aside from being a very clever URL, Hypothes.is is an annotation tool or in the words of the developers it is: “a conversation layer over the entire web that works everywhere, without needing implementation by any underlying site.” In other words, this tool offers you the possibility to comment, highlight, and annotate text on the web. What’s more: you can do this privately, in public, or in closed groups. I have created a closed group for this course.

Please sign up for hypothes.is and follow these steps. Next, become a member of the hypothes.is group for this course by simply following this link. Now, when you read and process the required literature online, you can use the hypothes.is plugin to share your thoughts about the text for everybody to read and comment on. Or if you read things that are not on the reading list that you think are of interest for the course, simply annotate them on the group level and they will appear on the feed. Actually using hypothes.is is not obligatory, but it is a good way to show to me you have read and engaged with the required course reading. It also functions as an easy reading list: I have annotated all the required literature so you can easily find it in the group feed. You can even annotate this syllabus! In fact, if you have questions about the course, that is a good way to ask them.

Final Project

The participants in this course come from a variety of fields and you all have your own interests, strengths, and opportunities for learning. This is why I would like to give you the opportunity to focus on something that is of value in your current academic and (upcoming) professional careers. This is why a large part of the work, responsibility, and fun in this course resides in undertaking your own digital history project.

Here are some guidelines:

  • As the title of the course says: start with an inquiry. Every inquiry starts with a specific question. Then find a digital approach that helps you in answering this question.
  • This course takes a broad view of history, so don’t worry about sticking to specific time periods, source materials, or region. Note that while the subject matter and its context is important, the aim of this project is to learn to apply a digital tool to a historical topic.
  • You will need to already be or rapidly be able to become at home in the topic you choose. It is therefore best to choose a topic that has your interest.
  • Make sure the scope of the topic is suitable for the time allocated for this project: 40 hours, or in other words, a full work week, or in other words, actually a really short period of time. Rome wasn’t built in a week, and neither were major digital works like Google N-Grams. The Old Bailey Online, or Stanford’s Orbis.
  • This project needs to incorporate at least one digital tool, but not all aspect of your project need to be done digitally or through digital automation.
  • Pick the right tool for the job and make sure you can explain your selection. Also make sure the tool is right for your current level of technical knowledge. Allocate time to learn how to use it. Don’t wait to get familiar with a tool that you will need to undertake the project, even if it will be covered later in the course.

The result of this project is not a written paper. Its main deliverable is a piece of media that allows you to disseminate the findings of your project. This outreach can take many digital forms: a publicly accessible data-set, a Twine story, an infographic, an annotated map, a blog, a video, et cetera. As a general guideline, it should be something you could share on social media. Accompanying this result is a  max.1500-word report that outlines the starting inquiry and how it is embedded in the field of digital history, your tool choice, the workflow you followed, and results of the project.

For this aspect of the course, you will be graded on project design and results relative to your level of skill in digital history, the argumentation for choice of tool(s), implementation of outreach strategy, and realistic and punctual project implementation (planning).

Whatever topic you want to tackle and however you divide your time or work in a way that suits you best, planning is a key aspect in successfully executing a project. This is why I will ask you to make a project plan and update this as your work progresses. Your project plan will be contingent on your topic and current knowledge, but a sample project plan for a Twine project (in the ‘far future’ of calendar week 8) may look like this:

If you want something a bit more advanced than a Google Sheets table, I personally use Trello as project management tool and have heard good things about Asana (see also these Lifehacker and Capterra articles).

This “outreach project” setup may be different from other courses you have taken so far and you may find yourself somewhat lost in deciding what topic to tackle, what tools to choose, what form of outreach to aim for, or at any point in the process. When this happens, contact me and we can work something out together. Even if you already know what to do and how to do it, it is always good to embed your project in a supporting professional network. This is why during the project you will get feedback from as well as be asked to provide feedback on the projects of two of your peers via Slack. Together with your final presentation, this feedback process will form a separate part of your course grade.

Hard deadlines:

  • Your draft planning is due on Wednesday February 21, 2018
  • The draft project concept document is due on Wednesday March 21, 2018.
  • Your project presentation (and therefore a presentable version of your outreach product) is due on Wednesday May 9, 2018.
  • The final project is due Wednesday June 14, 2018.


Course Schedule:

You can view the schedule in Google Calendar here.

Block III

  1. Introduction: Embedding digital approaches in history and digital history in society
  1. Digital Historytelling
    • prep/reading:
      • Adam Hammond 2017. The Two Things You Need to Know to Make a Twine Game.
      • Jeremiah McCall 2018. Path of Honors: Towards a Model for Interactive History Texts with Twine.
      • Play: Path of Honors
      • If you use your own laptop, make sure you can run Twine 2.2.
      • For fun and inspiration (non-mandatory):
        • Cook Inlet Tribal Council, 2017. Storytelling for the Next Generation. In The Interactive Past, p. 21-31. Sidestone Press: Leiden.
        • Watch: Never Alone Trailer on Youtube or play it (it’s really good)!
        • Wispfire, 2017. Herald: How Wispfire Used Fiction to Create History. In The Interactive Past, p. 73-82. Sidestone Press: Leiden.
        • Watch: Herald on Youtube or play it (it’s also really good)!
      • stand-up: Talk about your Google Ngram tool overview.
      • lecture: democratizing historical knowledge; the role of the expert in multi-vocal digital spaces; digital media and new ways of historytelling.
        • PDF of the lecture given in the 2nd Class.
      • practical: Using Twine for interactive historytelling. You can start the tutorial I made right here.
      • at home: Create a Twine history (due on 26 February).
  1. Representing the Past through Digital Media
    • prep/reading:
    • lecture: The impact of digital media on history; case-study: Sid Meier’s Civilization VI’s History and Heritage
    • practical: Continue creating your Twine history.
    • assignment: Finish your Twine history, share the file in Slack or upload it to philome.la and share the link in Slack before Monday 26 February at 15:00. Play two Twine games from other students and write a max. 150 word review for them before 27 February 23:59.
  2. Handling Historical Data 1
    • prep/reading: to be announced soon
    • stand-up: Let’s Play your Twine histories
    • lecture: what makes historical data special?; accessing historical data; data formats; storing data.
    • practical: collecting, cleaning and storing data with Python.
    • at home: continue the practical if not yet finished.
  3. Handling Historical Data 2
    • prep/reading: to be announced soon
    • lecture: The FAIR principle; linked data; meta-data; Open Source and Open Access; how, when, and where to share data.
    • practical: parsing and analysing data with Python
    • assignment: retrieve values from data-set
  4. Historical InfoViz
    • prep/reading: to be announced soon
    • lecture: What makes or breaks good infoviz?; Showing time; Showing Place; linking events and process; fact and visual rhetorics; Case-study: Historical infographics from Knowledge is Beautiful (McCandles 2014)
    • practical: Design infographic based on the data-set
    • assignment: Finish your infographic


Break: Don’t forget to hand-in your draft project concept-doc!

Deadline: Wednesday 21 March


Block IV (reading/prep, lecture topics, and practical will be announced soon)

  1. Historical Network Analysis 1
  2. Historical Network Analysis 2
  3. Agent-Based-Modelling 1
  4. Agent-Based-Modelling 2
  5. TBD (based on course contingency planning and class interest).
  6. Project presentations 1
  7. Project presentations 2