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Military history in the digital age

Abby Mullen, a doctoral student in Northeastern’s history department, studies early American republic and Atlantic history, primarily focusing on early 19th-century naval history. But from working as a graduate fellow in the university’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, she’s seen for herself the transformative opportunity that digital tools present her and other military historians to bring their research into the 21st century.

The NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks is a center for digital humanities and computational social science that supports faculty and student research projects and trains students in digital humanities and computer science skills. Mullen’s doctoral dissertation will focus on analyzing the U.S. Navy’s diplomatic and military roles in the Mediterranean from 1800 to 1815; digital tools, she said, can be a game-changer for research like hers by helping to create digital maps and visualizations of military movement or to analyze massive chunks of data that it might traditionally take historians months or years to pore through.

“Let’s say you’re studying battle tactics,” Mullen offered, for example. “Through digital mapping, you can demonstrate military moment in an interesting and dynamic way. It’s tough to show that time and space in a book. In this way, digital mapping tools can be revolutionary for military history research.”

And military history is ripe for utilizing these tools, explained Mullen. As she put it, “Military history is very data driven, and the military keeps a lot of records.”

Earlier this month, Northeastern hosted a two-day workshop to introduce military historians to two digital methods—social network analysis and digital mapping—that can help them advance their own work and forge new collaborations with colleagues. Mullen and Heather Streets-Salter, associate professor and chair of Northeastern’s history department, organized the workshop, which resulted from a partnership between the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities, and the Society for Military History.

The NEH funded the workshop, which is part of its Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War initiative to promote understanding of the military experience and to support veterans.

The workshop included talks from researchers who are already using social network analysis and digital mapping, as well as hands-on instructional sessions for attendees to become more familiar with these digital tools themselves. Many attendees even left with rudimentary digital maps and network diagrams incorporating data from their own work.

On the first day, three professors in a roundtable explained how they were introduced to digital history. Jeff McClurken, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington, got his start in digital history on the Valley of the Shadow project, which details life in two American communities during the Civil War—one in the North, one in the South. He spent 18 months entering in census data between his undergraduate and graduate studies.

Jean Bauer, associate director of Princeton University’s Center for Digital Humanities, talked about her time developing the Early American Foreign Service Database. She also noted that digital humanities projects not only advance researchers’ work, but can also provide student volunteers with valuable learning opportunities in a blossoming field.

“One of the great things about digital humanities is that if you can get a project running on your campus, you will need students to do lots of things, but it also means they will be exposed to wonderful experiments, theories, and methods,” she said.

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