My Take on Digital Humanities

While the concept is still fairly new to me, I think that one of the most important aspects of the Digital Humanities is using technology to better understand the past. Whether it be 3D modelling, digitizing records, or mapping, digital humanities offers historians the opportunity to turn seemingly irrelevant data into something more meaningful and accessible to a wider audience. Furthermore, as digital humanities is a wide-ranging field, I find it brings historians into contact with individuals outside of our discipline, ranging from archaeologists and architects to the general public, allowing us to share ideas and contribute a better understanding to our past.

While it wasn’t until fairly recently that I acknowledged its importance, digital humanities has become a central part of my research. As my main research subject is German prisoners of war in Canada and the majority of these records are in Ottawa, accessing them became a crucial part of my research. When LAC still offered inter-library loans, I was able to digitize most of their microfilm holdings relating to PoWs in Manitoba, allowing me to complete most of my research from Winnipeg. In January 2012, a colleague and myself traveled to Ottawa to access records still in the original formats. After digitizing some 14,000 pages, we definitely recognized how technology has changed our discipline and the massive cost of photocopying we avoided!

Database

Excerpt of PoW Database

As I am interested in how individuals experienced internment, the next step for me was to create a database of the 440 PoWs interned in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. With this, I am now able to determine how long a PoW was at Riding Mountain, their role/occupation/trade, rough date of their capture, etc. and, in some cases, I was able to find reports dealing with escape attempts and political allegiances. Posting some of this research online (at www.prisonersinmb.blogspot.ca), I have been extremely fortunate enough to have made contact with former PoWs and their families. My database allows me to quickly search for document pertaining to these individuals, allowing family members to retrace the steps of their relatives.

More recently, technology has allowed me to fill in gaps in the historical record, specifically pertaining to the locations of some of the small PoW labour projects that were scattered across the country. Two weeks ago, I attempted to locate the site of PoW labour project near Mafeking, Manitoba, a small community six hours northwest of Winnipeg. With a general idea of the camp’s location location, I used Google’s satellite imagery to identify what appeared to be seven clearings around the lake that could potentially have been the site of the camp. Following some considerable bushwhacking, I discovered that one of my possible locations was in fact the site of the PoW camp.

Mafeking Locations

Possible Locations. Source: Google Earth

While that sums up some of my experience with combining technology and history, I’m eager to expand my horizons and see what it takes to become a Digital Historian!

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About michaelohagan

PhD Candidate at Western University - Studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

2 responses to “My Take on Digital Humanities”

  1. lizmiron says :

    I agree that the digital humanities will help us as historians have a better understanding and better access to the past. I find it very interesting your take on how this has affected your own research about German PoWs. It’s easy to see how different (and most likely more difficult), your research would have been without the digitization of records or the ability to create large databases that allow quick access to information. In this aspect it will be exciting to see how much more historical research can be done in the future using new technologies.

  2. jessmknapp says :

    Wow. This is excellent. Prior to our first class I didn’t really understand what technological opportunities there were for historical research besides the basic search and use of databases. Michael, this is an excellent explanation of what is available and how it can further our research in shorter amounts of time. Not to mention the money saved in travel and photocopying! I agree Liz, I am also excited to see what else we will learn within the digital humanities.

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