Searching for answers: digitized texts and the historical discipline

Department of History and the Faculty of Information present a one – day symposium: “Searching for answers: digitized texts and the historical discipline”

Date: Friday March 4, 2011
Place: University of Toronto St. George Campus, Sidney Smith Hall, Room 2098.
Cost: FREE
RSVP: Space is limited – please RSVP to Dr. Edmund Rogers at

Abstract: A one-day symposium for faculty and graduate students in the Department of History and the Faculty of Information, to facilitate an exchange of experience and ideas about digitized historical texts. Digitization has opened up vast new possibilities in historical research. An ever-increasing number and variety of printed historical sources, previously available only in libraries and archives, are now enjoying a new existence in digitized form (websites such as Google Books and However, the historian’s use of digitized texts is also accompanied by an assortment of methodological considerations and complications.


“Searching for answers: digitized texts and the historical discipline”


Date: 4 March 2011

Venue: Conference Room 2098, Sidney Smith Hall, St. George’s Campus.

9:30                        Coffee / tea / breakfast snacks

10:00                        Introduction

10:30Panel 1: Paving the way to the Digital Revolution in the Humanities

Caitlin Tillman (Head, Collection Development, U of T Libraries)

Sara McDowell (Reference and Collection Development Librarian, University of Toronto Libraries)

“Digital text collections in History at the University of Toronto Libraries”

Jonathan Bengtson

(Director of Library and Archives & Fellow, USMC & Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies)

            “The University of Toronto Libraries’ mass digitization initiatives”

Salvy Trojman

(Director, Digital Archive Program Canada, Gale | Cengage Learning)

“Primary sources and digital publishing in History: Gale | Cengage Learning”

                        Tina Brown (Account Executive, ProQuest)

                                    “Primary source and digital publishing in History: ProQuest”           


1:00Panel 2: Facilitating research, enabling access

Jonathan Bengtson

“The Humanities Knowledge Kiosk research project: a new paradigm for scholarship”

Ryan Nayler (Master’s student, Information)

“L.O.C. Historic Newspaper Archives: a model for enhancing accessibility”

Sheyfali Saujani (PhD candidate, History)

“Reading blind: digitization and disability”


2:15Panel 3: Making use of digitized texts

Prof. Twyla Gibson

(Assistant Professor of Culture & Technology, Faculty of Information)

“Digital texts and the study of Classical Antiquity: separating historical facts from literary fiction in Plato’s Dialogues

Nick McGee (Graduate student, History)

“Searching for symbols: discourse analysis and the language of representation in digitized texts”

Dr. Edmund Rogers (Postdoctoral fellow, History)

“Beyond The Times: digitized newspapers and modern British history”



3:30Roundtable discussion (30-45 minutes)


Panel and paper summaries

Panel 1: Paving the way to the Digital Revolution in the Humanities

Digital texts have the potential to radically transform the study and transmission of history. Efforts over the last few years to both locally digitize and to purchase digital collections are laying the groundwork for a revolution in the way the humanities are studied. Representatives from the University of Toronto Libraries and commercial publishers will discuss the factors involved in the past and current development of digital text collections of interest to Historians.


Panel 2: Facilitating research, enabling access

“The Humanities Knowledge Kiosk research project: a new paradigm for scholarship”

Jonathan Bengtson

This presentation will summarize the evolution and expansion of the partnership between libraries and research institutes within the University of Toronto and the Pittsburgh-based firm of Crivella West, to visualize and exploit the research potential of large numbers of digital texts.

Crivella West has developed advanced proprietary software (“Humanities Knowledge Kiosk” to analyze digitized text with sophisticated accuracy and complexity within a closed research environment.  Originally developed for use in the area of class action litigation, the software was first used for advanced humanities scholarship by the National Institute for Newman Studies (NINS), also based in Pittsburgh, in partnership with the John M. Kelly Library in the University of Toronto, to analyze the digitized complete works of John Henry Newman.

A subsequent phase of the project is now well underway to support and promote scholarship on the writings of the philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) and Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), one of the most widely read and quoted writers on spirituality of the twentieth century. A critical aspect of this phase is to integrate archival materials as well as to negotiate with copyright holders in order to incorporate rights restricted materials. In so doing, the impact that the project will have over time on advanced humanities scholarship will be vastly broadened; allowing scholars unprecedented means of analyzing textual material across a wide spectrum of academic subjects.


“L.O.C. Historic Newspaper Archives: a model for enhancing accessibility”

Ryan Nayler

Information-based institutions evaluate how they can best increase the usage of their historical and archived materials. Historical materials are often under-used because they are not indexed in a thorough manner. However, even materials which are searchable through library catalogues or other interfaces are not accessed because researchers are looking for a specific term or reference within a document, and traditional search interfaces do not have the capability to extract such references. The Library of Congress’s Historical Newspaper Archives digital search interface enables full-text searching, with the aid of text recognition software to convert scanned newspaper images to text documents. This is a remarkable tool, which could serve as a model for digitization programs focused on making digitized historical documents accessible.


“Reading blind: digitization and disability”

Sheyfali Saujani

As a partially-blind scholar I am completely dependant on digital texts to perform my work as a researcher.  I reflect on my experience with the tools that provide access to these sources, which is comparatively recent, although some have been available for decades.  I consider how the stigma associated with disability, along with administrative and technological hurdles that have to be faced in order to access adaptive tools and accessibility services, represent the first barrier that students with disabilities have to overcome even before they can think about approaching the print content they want to work with.  Improvements in recent years have made this process easier but challenges remain.

I consider how the body of digitized content available in accessible formats has influenced my research agenda, and how my experience of digital - virtual content - compares with my experience of the materiality of historic texts as printed and bound objects.  I ask how disability functions in an academic environment that is increasingly transnational and interdisciplinary


Panel 3: Making use of digitized texts

“Digital Texts and the Future of Antiquity: Separating History from Fiction in Plato’s Dialogues”

Prof. Twyla Gibson

The purpose of my presentation is to describe a set of new software tools and some of their applications to problems in using ancient Greek philosophical texts as sources of historical information. Plato’s Dialogues serve as a case study to show some of the ways in which recent developments in information technology can open up new perspectives for the study of source materials in ancient philosophy. I argue that the use of new technologies will make significant contributions to historical and philosophical scholarship in the years ahead, by making it possible to pursue old questions in new ways and by raising new questions that cannot be easily addressed using traditional means of investigation.


“Searching for symbols: discourse analysis and the language of representation in digitized texts”

Nick McGee

The recent effusion of digitized books and newspapers provides a wealth of opportunities for researchers to utilize scores of texts that would otherwise be inaccessible. Furthermore, the employment of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to make these resources searchable permits historians to efficiently mine these documents for certain types of language. My intention is to discuss my own experiences working on two projects using digitized texts to perform “discourse analysis” in the tradition of some postcolonial scholarship. In a shorter project I was able to search years worth of early editions of The African Standard, the first newspaper published in colonial East Africa. Under the ownership of an Indian entrepreneur (1901-1905) the paper occasionally provided a mouthpiece for the many Indians in the colony, whose opinions on their own role in the Imperial enterprise I was able to tease out using calculated searches for specific language of representation. Similarly, in an earlier thesis project I was able to consult dozens of British monographs of ethnological knowledge production concerning the Chinese empire and people, leading up to and during the First Opium War (1839-42). Here as well directed searches of digitized texts centered on representative language, and provided fruitful results.  My aim is to share the methodological strategies which have proven to be particularly effective for this type of scholarship using digitized texts.


“Beyond The Times: digitized newspapers and modern British history”

Dr. Edmund Rogers

Historians of modern Britain have often relied upon a limited range of metropolitan newspapers as their main “go-to” sources for reporting of events, the attitude of “the British press”, and insights into “British” public opinion. A small number of national, usually London-based publications, particularly The Times, have traditionally been the only ones widely available or comprehensively indexed. Whilst it has long been acknowledged that this has at times resulted in geographic or ideological biases, making effective use of a wider range of newspapers from across the United Kingdom has entailed its own problems. The highly time- and labour-intensive nature of extensive research using a large number of national, regional, and local newspapers has understandably discouraged their greater and more creative use. However, the digitization of a wide range of British and Irish newspapers now facilitates innovative research using a form of primary source critical to modern British history. The British Library’s Nineteenth Century Newspapers collection, for instance, now facilitates newspaper research that can reflect the historiographical trend towards appreciation for the multiple societies and geographic identities within the United Kingdom. To illustrate the manner in which digitized newspaper collections can challenge existing historiography shaped by traditional newspaper research, my paper focuses on my forthcoming article on the bicentenary of the Glorious Revolution. It was my conjecture that the existing historiography on the bicentenary (1888-9) sharply underestimated the extent and nature of enthusiasm for the Revolution in late Victorian society, and that one of the reasons for this underestimation was an over-reliance on a limited number of metropolitan newspapers and periodicals. Digitized newspapers greatly helped me in revising our understanding of the Revolution’s meaning in the late nineteenth century.

Event details
Friday, 4 March, 2011 (All day)