A Historian’s Experience in Software Development

By Ana M. Silva, PhD Candidate, Department of History

Ana M. Silva

Can a History PhD provide the skills for a career in software development? Two months ago, when I started working at the MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University, I didn’t have a clear answer to that question. I had no previous training in computer science and, frankly, after five years in a PhD program in Latin American History, I thought that it was a little late to venture outside of my field to learn something completely new. The Mellon Public Humanities fellowship allowed me to explore not only software development in the humanities, but also Digital Humanities more broadly.

At MATRIX, I worked on MBira, an open source platform for building, managing, and sustaining location-based cultural heritage experiences. It is an authoring tool that allows scholars, cultural and heritage institutions, museums, and individuals with little or no technical background to create digital heritage experiences and empowers communities by encouraging collaboration and conversation among users.

So what can a historian contribute to a software development team, you might ask? Was I there to research the origins and cultural impact of the others’ work? To formulate a structural critique of the gendered dynamics of the workplace?  Actually, my role at MATRIX boiled down to a set of relatively routine tasks that nevertheless brought me well outside of my comfort zone:

  • Learning how MBira works, testing it, and reporting any bugs I found to the team of programmers.
  • Writing documentation for the software, explaining other scholars, museum and cultural institution professionals how to use MBira.
  • Designing and developing an exemplar project built with MBira.

In order to complete the first two tasks, I had to familiarize myself with the everyday aspects of the software development process, including version control, bug fixing, and technical writing. Fortunately, the learning curve wasn’t quite as steep as I had predicted, largely thanks to a vast online world of tutorials and collaborative resources available for people in all skill levels. Furthermore, I had continual support from the MATRIX site supervisor and my other coworkers.

The exemplar project, on the other hand, allowed me to bring my own research and scholarly training in history and museum studies to the design and development of a website about the cultural heritage of colonial Cartagena de Indias. The website explores the role of slavery in the construction of some of the city’s historic monuments, and it is based on the archival research I have done for my dissertation.

As a Mellon Public Humanities fellow at MATRIX, I gained firsthand knowledge of the broad spectrum of activities that fall within the umbrella term “Digital Humanities,” from writing blogs to publishing online and programming, always in service of scholarly questions. On the surface, then, yes- the experience helped me to develop new technical skills. But the deeper I got into the larger world of digital humanities, I became increasingly aware of how these skills are best applied in the service of scholarship itself. While creating content for a digital platform, for instance, I learned to synthesize large amounts of information in order to produce concise yet rigorous writing for non-academic audiences, and to think creatively about ways to communicate my research to broader publics. In turn, this exercise helped me to reframe some of my research questions and to find connections that I had previously overlooked.

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