Inspiration

DIGITAL JOURNEYS: Helle’s case from the Digital Literacy course

New Paths, Old Sources: Cityscapes in the Danish Press, 1905-2005

Helle Strandgaard Jensen and Mikkel Thelle, both Associate Professors at Department of History and Classical Studies, Aarhus University, have studied the changing representation of cities in historical newspapers. By studying cityscapes in the Danish press, 1905-2005 they created a workflow which enables historians to do distant readings of newspapers. Participating in the Digital Literacy course has taught Helle more about the possibilities and limitations of digital methods.

Motivation

Helle’s motivation for participating in the Digital Literacy course was twofold. She had previously worked with digital literacy from a historical perspective, looking at how concepts of ‘media literacy’ had changed in the second half of the twentieth century and now wanted to explore the phenomenon in relation to her own discipline. Secondly, Helle and her colleague Mikkel Thelle wanted to provide fellow historians with an approach to digital methods they could adapt to their own subfield: 

“We wanted to show other historians some of the advantages of using digital methods. We wanted to prove how explorative approaches can complement the research methods we traditionally use in our field.”

In History, digital methods can be used for overcoming several challenges. One is to provide an explorative approach to large data sets. Using distant reading methods, researchers can explore connections in large amounts of data without committing to specific research questions from the beginning. These connections can generate new types of questions for later close reading:

“Historians have always worked with a lot of different types of data which can be combined in different ways. Historians have used statistics, big data and computers in their work since the 1950s. But to have an explorative approach is important. Being able to examine connections in a large set of data generates questions that can complement other types of data.”

About the project

New Paths, Old Sources: Cityscapes in the Danish Press, 1905-2005

Helle Strandgaard Jensen is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Cultural History. Her research focuses on two areas: Media history and historians’ use of digital and analogue archives. The Digital Literacy project is made in collaboration with her colleague Mikkel Thelle and aims to show other historians how digital methods can be used:

“The question was if we were able to produce a workflow that could be adopted by historians fairly easily, provide them with an understanding of what digital methods can do, and finally allow them to work with the research questions they are used to working with.”

Method

  • An IT supporter from the Digital Literacy course, Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan, developed a script that automatically aggregates the data Helle and Mikkel wanted to collect for their project. The script allowed the researchers to ask many kinds of questions about the representation of Danish cities in three big newspapers from 1905 to 2005. The results, in the form of changing cityscapes, can then be visualised on a heat map.

Data

  • Query results from SMURF which collects data from Mediestream, the media collections of the Royal Danish Library.

New personal competences

Experience with digital methods

Knowing the limits and possibilities of digital methods.

Working with large data sets

Better understanding of which research questions can be asked with a large set of data.

Communication and teaching

Communicating and teaching digital methods to students and colleagues.

Next steps

There is a growing interest in digital methods at the Department of History and Classical Studies. A BA course has been established in which students are introduced to basic digital approaches. Having participated in the Digital Literacy course has also been helpful in this regard:

“I’ve gained more confidence when I now go back and teach my students in digital methods. What entry level do we need to have, and how do we make the challenges smaller for novices?”

The workflow that Helle and Mikkel created in the Digital Literacy project will be incorporated in teaching and will also be used for asking other types of research questions.

With her colleague Adela Sobotkova, Helle is the leader of Center for Digital History (CEDHAR). In this role, she will continue to work with digital methods in research and teaching.

Behind the researcher

Helle Strandgaard Jensen is an Associate Professor of Scandinavian cultural history at the Department of History and Classical Studies, School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University. 

She is also co-director of Center for Digital History Aarhus (CEDHAR).

Her research interests include e.g. contemporary media history in Scandinavia, Western Europe and the US after 1945.

Behind the Digital Literacy course

The Digital Literacy project is a competence development project organised by the Digital Arts Initiative at Aarhus University. It is a unique opportunity for researchers to qualify themselves in the digital area – with their own research questions as a point of departure.

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