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Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia


This is a guide for Department of History graduate students who want to complete a DH assignment in a course that has not been designated as a DH elective (see Elective Option B under DH Certificate Requirements). It can also be useful for students contemplating a independent study, although no MOU is required in that case.

Note: certificate program students must submit an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with approval from their professor and the Program’s Administrative Director, Rennie Mapp. If you choose to follow this guide, the optimum time for submitting an MoU is during Stage 2 of your research process.

*Checklist of steps:

  • Identify a dataset
  • Select a research methodology
  • Submit your MoU at this stage
  • Choose your tool, and learn how to use it
  • Execute your project
  • Present your project (for DH Certificate participants)

*Although this guide is presented as a list, please note that these steps aren’t strictly linear: for example, you may already have a tool or methodology in mind before finding a dataset—so feel free to change the steps below to suit your research process.

1. Locate a dataset (or datasets).

From the papers of George Washington to archives of late nineteenth-century maps, there is online data available in every research area within the discipline. Your first step, then, is locating data that interests you. (Alternatively, you may have already have unique dataset of your own, or your instructor may provide a dataset.)

Remember that data comes in all forms. It can be textual (books, ephemera, letters, manuscripts, newspapers, periodicals, and transcripts), visual (artworks, blueprints, illustrations, maps, photographs, or films), or auditory (music, recordings, and speeches).

If this is your first DH project, you might want to stick to one dataset or type, although there are some rich possibilities when you mix and match. For example, if you are investigating the national response to the Civil Rights Movement, you could gather datasets of American news articles and personal letters between key political figures, and compare the public and private conversations about the Movement. Once you have located your dataset(s), in most cases you should save it in a widely-accepted format (e.g. .csv, .txt, or .xml).

2. Select your research methodology.

Your data type will largely determine your methodology. For example, if you are using map data, then visualization is a strong option. If you are analyzing linguistic changes over a period of time, however, then computational textual analysis is more fitting (although you may decide to visualize your results later on to highlight linguistic trends more clearly). Use the following diagram as a guide to decide what approach you want to take with your data:


For certificate program students, this stage is a good time to approach your professor and Dr. Rennie Mapp for advice, and to submit an MoU about the type of DH project that you want to complete.

3. Choose your tool, and learn how to use it.

Your next step is choosing a tool for your investigation, and then learning how to use it. Some tools that have been especially useful for past Historians are:

  • VisualEyes: a platform that allows researchers to weave together different data types to create dynamic visualizations.

  • MapScholar: a platform that allows researchers to create visual atlases.

For more, you can consult our list of Tools and Resources. (This is under construction.)

After choosing your tool, familiarize yourself with its features, and check that the tool supports the data types that you have chosen. Many digital tools often provide informative documentation or tutorials to help you through this stage, although you can also consult the DH Calendar to see if anyone is hosting a workshop on the tool that you have selected.

4. Execute your project

After learning how to use your tool, you can execute the project. Upload your data onto the platform, and begin your analysis. (You might find that you already started executing your project when you were learning how to use the tool that you chose.)

5. Present your project (for DH Certificate participants)

In your MOU, you and your professor will have reached an agreement on how to submit your digital project to satisfy the course requirements, whether as a direct link to your online project, through a research paper about your results or some other format—so please ensure that you have fulfilled your professor’s expectations.


Examples of recent history projects:

  • Tibetan Identity. This interactive visualization explores changes in Tibetan Identity using contemporary Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso’s artwork as a guide to the geopolitical, religious, and cultural aspects of Tibet, from traditional times to the modern Tibetan diaspora.

  • The Valley of the Shadow. This is a well-known digital project that details life in two American communities, one Northern and Southern, from the time of John Brown's Raid through the era of Reconstruction. In this digital archive you may explore thousands of original letters and diaries, newspapers and speeches, census and church records, left by men and women in Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Giving voice to hundreds of individual people, the Valley Project tells forgotten stories of life during the era of the Civil War.

  • Heart of the Continent: Mapping Encounters in Early Canada. This visualization recreates spaces of exploration, encounter, and colonization in early Canada. It visualizes the product of these geographic conversations--texts, maps, routes, and place names--in high res and with special attention to locating human activities in time and space.