The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. –Mark Twain
These words from Mark Twain plagued me the last few days as I ventured into the realm of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to create a simple webpage. Working with markup language, I realized quickly that the right word and the “almost right word” will produce quite different results. This is frustrating, but it illuminates an interesting relationship between the written word and the digital world. As historians are confronted with digital technologies they will be happy to know that their knowledge of language can help rather then hinder them in their work.
Historians are, more or less, comfortable with the written word. Writing as creative expression requires a command over the form and function of language to effectively communicate a thought. You not only have to know which words are best suited for your message, but which format works best for its presentation. A medieval historian must possess a linguistic knowledge of Latin and Greek and have a firm hold on the language of Catholic theology, monastic liturgy, and Germanic jurisprudence, if his writing is going to successfully re-create that period for his audience. In addition, he must choose whether he wants to communicate these languages through an academic essay, a short (or long) monograph, an historical fiction, a blog post, or a haiku.
Whatever form we select, it is important to remember that words represent and impact reality. The specific arrangement of words make possible worlds in which the author intends to bring his readers. Punctuation directs the flow of language at the command of the author. Consider the comic below, and the difference one comma makes. Commanding a pause in the flow of the sentence, the cartoonist indicates, saves lives. This command over the written word translates into a valuable skill in the digital world.
Historians are perhaps less comfortable with digital technologies. This might be because creation in virtual reality requires knowledge of programming or markup languages. Entering specific commands to manipulate data (textual, visual or audio) is a seemingly more difficult challenge than indenting a paragraph or entering a comma into a sentence. However, if the historian understands the comma as a command that structures his narrative by directing the flow of text, he might be led to see the benefits of programming commands which perform a similar function.
Since my experience in this area is limited to a tutorial of HTML over the course of the last week, I will offer THREE lessons I learned while creating my own webpage.
First: All languages, whether Latin or Markup, require a degree of internal logic.
By the end of my tutorial, I visualized the logic of HTML as one of those Matryoshka dolls from Russia. You know those wooden dolls that appear as one whole, but when you open it up, you find a number of smaller dolls inside? The HTML document is the overarching whole, indicated by tags at the start (<html>) and at the end (</html>) of the page. As you move to the center of the doll, new boundaries are created: The visible information is bound by <body> and </body>, and paragraphs are bound by <p> and </p>, etc. Although it was confusing to write text and remember these commands, I did see some method in what initially appeared to be madness.
Second: Creation, online or offline, requires structure.
Tags in HTML offer necessary structures in which to create. When I forgot the end tag to my listed items, it was as if I forgot to dam off the flow of text properly and I watched as it flooded out into the next section. However, once the structure of the webpage became evident, I began to find more freedom to create within it. For example, between the tags <h1> and </h1> I played around with styles, fonts, sizes, colour for headings. When we write an academic essay, we similarly thrive on structure. Page length, number of materials or guiding questions offer a framework for creativity. When that structure is gone, our creativity seems to flow out in every direction, usually wasted.
Third: Greater command of language = Greater creative process and product.
Once the framework was set up, I played around with the text, inserted images and links, changed colours, and manipulated fonts. As another student recently remarked, there is a feeling of pride in being able to make a computer do what you want it to. Separating my data neatly, and inserting breaks made felt as rewarding as Moses parting the Red Sea. At least that is what my ego felt. However, it remains frustrating to have a vision for your webpage that you are incapable of bringing to life. As with most things, goals of becoming better or more creative in digital design, will only be realized through a greater knowledge of programming language, and more hours of practice.
As the field of digital humanities grows, there is a debate concerning the necessity of training “digital humanists” programming and markup languages. After this brief tutorial, one question continually resurfaced: How creative do historians want to be? We already enjoy commanding and directing language in our written work. Why not extend this creativity by learning a new language to manipulate digital work? Maybe we do need HTML as a second language for graduate students in the Digital Humanities?