Archives have long been integral to the discipline of history, but what are the implications of the digital era for how scholars use and interpret these archives? What is the role of tools such as social network analysis and text mining in helping to confirm or gain new interpretations of evidence that has been around for years? How can historians and memory studies scholars learn from and adapt tools and methodologies from the social sciences or even hard sciences and what are the difficulties of doing so? More specifically, what kinds of things can we learn from close and distant reading and can such readings complement each other? In this research blog, I hope to explore some of these questions
My early efforts to tackle such questions came in my Masters work re-examining the centenary-era commemoration of the War of 1812 in Ontario. In reading through secondary works about the turn-of –the-century era of commemoration and the primary works by the mostly Anglo-Saxon elite of Ontario at the time, I came across a pattern that I wanted to investigate. In my undergraduate degree at Queen’s University, I had done some previous study on the era of the War of 1812 and the war itself. Re-reading some of these sources along with some new works, I noticed that many of the elite Anglo-Saxon women active in early stages of the feminist movement at the turn of the century were involved in multiple organizations, many historical, and were using history to their advantage.
I approached Dr. Shawn Graham in the department at Carleton University to see if there was a way to understand these women’s motives, and this discussion soon led to an exploration and adaption of social network analysis that took over the project. Dr. Graham became a co-supervisor along with Dr. John C. Walsh, who brought a wealth of knowledge to the historical side of the project. The result of this work is a paper that looks at how social network analysis can help memory studies. I explored the commemoration cycle using the executive lists of the organizations involved in the commemoration, incorporating elements of sociology into a historical methodology. My case study focuses on the Brock centenary as an idea and the role of the Brock monument at Brockville, Ontario in the cycle. Both the paper and data (analyzed with Gephi) can be seen on figshare. This preliminary exploration relies heavily on a distant reading of the archival sources, which in this case were annual reports and newsletters of the organizations along with meeting minutes and other relevant writings.
Here I plan to share some of my investigations into both distant and close distant reading, exploring not only methodological issues raised by such readings but also some of my more particular archival discoveries.
Reading the Archive by Peter W. Holdsworth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.