The Historian’s Macroscope: An Approach to Big Data in History and Archaeology

(working title). Proposal solicited by and submitted to Imperial College Press; contract signed in July 2013.

Open peer-review & live-writing version will be hosted at

With Ian Milligan (Waterloo) and Scott Weingart (Indiana).

“The Digital Humanities have flourished at a moment when digital big data is becoming easily available. Yet, there is a gap in the scholarly literature on the ways these data can be explored to construct cultural heritage knowledge, for both research and in our teaching and learning. We are on the cusp of needing to grasp big data approaches to do our work, whether it’s understanding the underlying algorithms at work in our search engines, or needing to design and use our own tools to process comparatively large amounts of information. This book will fill that gap, and in its live-writing approach, will set the direction for the conversation into the future.

We call this book The Historian’s Macroscope to suggest both a tool and a perspective. We are not implying that this is the way historians will ‘do’ history when it comes to big data; rather, it is but one piece of the toolkit, one more way of dealing with ‘big’ amounts of data that historians are now having to grapple with. What is more, a ‘macroscope’, a tool for looking at the very big, deliberately suggests a scientist’s workbench, where the invetigator moves between different tools for exploring different scales, keeping notes in a lab notebook. Similarly, an approach to big data for the historian (we argue) needs to be a public approach, with the historian keeping an open notebook so that others may explore the same paths through the information, while possibly reaching very different conclusions. This is a generative approach: big data for the humanities is not only about justifying a story about the past, but generating new stories, new perspectives, given our new vantage points and tools.”

Blind peer reviewers of the proposal wrote:

“The authors are very well-known in respected in the area, both through their active engagement with digital humanities projects and their high visibility on social media. They are excellent people to take forward such a proposal.

This is a subject of exceptional current interest. The potential for innovative linking, visualisation and presentation of data is receiving a great deal of attention both from academic researchers in a variety of disciplines and more widely (e.g. from Cabinet Office). However, few academics have a good understanding of the procedures and issues in exploring data in this way. This book will provide an authoritative introduction and will encourage researchers to try methods for themselves. The book is without doubt certainly currently of exceptional interest. The only problem is that this is a fast developing field, so the book needs to be produced quickly to remain current. I like very much the idea of using commentpress in developing and writing the book – this will help in maintaining currency.”


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