FOR HISTORY AND COMPUTING
In 1972, W.S. MacNutt sent to the Canada Council a letter of recommendation for a doctoral candidate. Though the letter was a strong one, MacNutt made clear that he had little truck or trade with the student's intention to use computer data bases. "I cannot see why [he] cannot conduct his investigation without the employment of what I consider to be a fad that is wasteful of time and financially expensive. I think that this is a general view among older historians." Fortunately for the historical community, MacNutt was wrong. In the decades since MacNutt criticized historians's use of computing technologies, many Canadian social historians have used the World Wide Web to access archival resources or make teaching packages available to their students. Others have used e-mail and listservers to keep in touch with their colleagues and publish articles in electronic journals. Many quantitative historians have transformed routinely-generated historical documents such as the manuscript census, parish registers or military personnel files, into databases and used computer software such as SPSS, ACCESS and mapping programs to analyze these data. Rather than a waste of time, computer technology offers historians prodigious rewards.
Nevertheless, MacNutt's concerns that computer technology could prove overly time-consuming and expensive are valid ones. Conscious of both the opportunities and dangers posed by computers, the Canadian Committee on History and Computing (CCHC) was founded in 1989 to help Canada's historians meet these challenges.
Since its inception, the committee has organized sessions on history and computing at every CHA meeting. The committee launched a newsletter in 1992 to circulate among its members news of upcoming conferences and information about the Internet, the creation of historical databases, and the use of software for data analysis. In 1995 and 1996, the CCHC also helped to launch and manage H-CANADA, the H-Net electronic discussion list on Canadian history. To learn more about the use of computers by historians across Canada, the CCHC conducted a survey in 1989 which queried history departments about computer usage, software and hardware used, and computer-assisted teaching methods. It also asked them how many honours undergraduates and graduate students were using computers and had access to equipment and software. The CCHC has also taken initiatives to create guidelines for historians interested in quantitative methodologies. It devised rules for the citation of historical data, rules which were adopted by the CHA, and in 1993 co-sponsored a conference at Guelph University to discuss problems relating to the use of manuscript census data for historical research. Papers arising from this conference appeared in a special issue of Histoire Sociale/Social History in 1998.
In recent years, the CCHC has benefited from the development of e-mail and the World Wide Web. These technological changes have facilitated communication among CCHC members and the organization of our work and delegation of tasks. In part through the ease of communication offered by the Internet, CCHC members have nurtured contacts with the international community of quantitative historians. In August, 1995, the CCHC hosted the annual conference of the International Association of History and Computing in Montreal, and produced a special issue of Computers and the Humanities featuring papers presented at that meeting. Every year, CCHC members attend the Social Science History Association conferences in the United States. Sustaining international ties has allowed the CCHC members to learn of computing technologies, standards and methods used in other nations. It has also helped them begin to learn how to combine Canadian historical data with that from other nations in order to conduct comparative quantitative history. Through CHA meetings, special conferences, newsletters articles, H-Canada and surveys, the CCHC has devoted considerable effort in the past eight years to explore alternative methods of data collection and analysis, and to circulate information about the creation of historical data and the use of the computer in teaching history.
Last modified: 2005-01-28