Jean Bauer [history, databases, photography]

From Vellum to Very Large Databases

Offered in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia for Spring 2010

Full Title: From Vellum to Very Large Databases: Historical Sources Past, Present, and Future

HIST 4501 (a major seminar in General History)

Instructor: Jean Bauer


To download the syllabus, click here.

Brief Description: This course will examine how information about the past has been (and is being) preserved. Historians rely on primary sources to inform and defend their arguments about the past, but digital technology is altering the form and the content of available records and, in the process, raising fundamental questions about the nature of historical analysis. Students will examine illuminated manuscripts, operate an early printing press, and geo-reference historical maps as they explore familiar and unfamiliar ways of recording information and reflect on how these formats affect the study of history.

Detailed Description: With the digital revolution in full swing, it is time for historians to re-examine how our primary and secondary sources are preserved and whether changes in preservation affect our subsequent analysis.

The students will delve into how documents in various media are designed, constructed, and used. For the first five weeks, weekly class readings (averaging 130 pages) will highlight the origins and early interpretations of five formats: handwritten manuscripts, early printed books, hypertext and digital humanities, databases and digital history, and geographic information systems (GIS).

This is a "hands on" course, and it will visit several locations at the University of Virginia, including:

Prior to submitting their paper topics, students will complete three smaller assignments designed to spur their research and to make them think analytically about the digital sources they use every day

In the sixth week, the course will move into full research and presentation mode with a class period spent at Alderman Library introducing students to the resources available for their chosen projects. Following Spring Break students will receive timely feedback on their research when they each present to the class an unusual document they have uncovered. Students will also present their full (but not final) drafts to the class.

The last class period will be spent reflecting on the changing nature of sources and what such changes mean for the future of the historical profession by talking about Alex Wright's new book Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages. Glut extends the themes of the class back to the invention of writing and discusses the many ways humans have grouped ever increasing amounts of information in the ongoing struggle to keep from being overwhelmed.

The final paper will be due on Tuesday, May 4.