Writing about History in 2011
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


Last January I reported on the way technology is changing the craft of writing history. Just one year later, things have changed radically again. For example, I am talking this article into my computer hands-free. When I speak, the typed words appear on the screen. (Continued below)



Speech recognition software is not a new thing. Your new cell phone or car may already respond to verbal commands. Soon all computers will.  But getting a machine to accurately take complex dictation has been a long time coming. I purchased a popular software called Dragon Naturally Speaking because the program (including the headset) dropped in price to under $40.

dragon naturally speaking softwareIt took about 20 minutes to “train” the software to respond to my voice. It spells about 95% of the words correctly on the first pass. Repairing errors requires learning voice commands and the user must remember to tell the machine where to put the punctuation and when to start a new paragraph.  

Okay, I’m back to keyboard typing now. I don’t use the speech software often, but it has one incredible advantage for history research because I am constantly transcribing old newspapers. That is a tedious job and not even the best optical scanners can effectively turn an 18th century copy of the New Hampshire Gazette into digital text. So now I simply read the old newspaper aloud into a microphone, and my robot secretary does the rest.  

Writing in the cloud  

Keeping track of thousands of notes and computer files and photos for future articles and books is a daunting task. I’m usually working on five or six articles at the same time. It can take years to fully flesh out a single history column and the pieces can easily get lost. Last year I dappled with an online note taking system called Evernote.com. Today I couldn’t live without it.  

To the right of my desk there are over 200 manila folders with ideas, many sent in by Herald readers that I hope to develop into newspaper articles. When an article moves to the top of the list, I create a virtual folder in Evernote and upload everything related to the topic – pictures, Web pages, clippings, audio files, emails, quotes, random thoughts. The program holds and sorts any data in any medium. 

Because Evernote is “in the cloud” I can access my files from anywhere. Because it is also a database, I can sort and search every entry instantly. Evernote can even recognize words that are inside a picture – so it can “read” a road sign inside a photograph. Often the software spots connections that I have missed.   

Using this program I can now take notes, for example, on a computer at the Portsmouth Athenaeum or the public library, and access it from my office, or even from a cell phone. I keep a backup on my hard-drive, just in case, but Evernote has been so successful that the company recently announced it has received $20 million in investor funds. – and it’s free to online users. Yes, free, which fits my budget.   

As a book author and journalist my greatest fear is a computer crash just before a publishing deadline. It has happened and files have disappeared. Last year my technology guru set up a back-up system using a popular cloud Web site called Dropbox. As I am typing a new article, like this one, it is available instantly on a separate computer set up and running in another part of the house. If one machine crashes, I simply move to the other. If they both explode, the files are still saved and instantly available to me online. I sleep easier now.  

CONTINUE Hi-Tech History Writing 


J Dennis Robinson writing history in home office

The bottomless library  

We are fast approaching the point where every book about Portsmouth published before 1921 is now available free online. I find it easier these days to pull down a digital copy of Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth from Google Books than to walk across the room and pull the same paper book off my shelf.  The online version is searchable in seconds. I can clip sections from the book and email any passage to my Evernote filing system. This allows the historian to compare sources better and to fact-check faster. Purists who complain that the Internet is turning us all soft and lazy have no idea how hellishly dull and time-consuming this kind of digging used to be.  

Last year Google announced that, so far, it has scanned 15 million books. The company expects to have scanned all 129,864,880 known books by the end of this decade. With millions of old books, newspapers, and magazines being added to the Web each year, researchers like me are in heaven.  

Last month Google released its online e-book reader that makes it easier for us to actually see books that are in the public domain online for free. Viewers can see the actual pages, or swap to a digital version that allows us to expand the font size, search, and bookmark pages. You can even add a personal review or store the digital books in your own private online library. The new Google eBookstore now makes it possible to buy out-of-print books too. It is a controversial project that makes me nervous as an author and ecstatic as an historian.  

Google Scholar, another search engine, allows me to dig through historical research that might appear only in academic papers, professional articles, or college theses. But I can also use Google Blog or Google Realtime to see, for example, if anyone in the world is talking about Celia Thaxter at this very second. If I find an article in a foreign language, Google Translation can (sort of) turn it into English. Google Alert pings me with an email if someone on the planet is posting info online about my chosen topic. Google Map lets me track down and see locations I could never visit. In December Google and Harvard announced the completion of a four-year project that allows historians to track how specific words have evolved from 1800 to the present day. That may not excite you, but it’s going to be a killer tool for me. 


Editing on the fly  

I finished a new book last week and as any author can tell you, that’s when the fun stops – because that’s when the editing and the proofreading begin. I use a software called Zoomtext, popular among blind and low-vision readers. Zoomtext allows my computer to read my written work back to me. It sounds like the familiar Stephen Hawkins-robot voice. I’ve been using this system for years because my spelling stinks and my eyesight is terrible. It’s a great tech tool, but it forces me to sit for hours in front of the computer screen as I clean up my prose for the publisher.  

That was last year. Lately I’ve begun emailing my completed manuscripts to my Kindle e-reader. The new Kindle can hold 3,000 books and can go almost a month without recharging. Using the highly readable “electronic paper” screen, I can easily edit my own work on this portable device that has its own little keypad. I can also turn on the text-to-speech (TTS) function and the Kindle will read to me. With a pair of headphones, I can now edit and proof my own stuff while traveling or while sitting on Smuttynose Island without a computer or electrical outlet in sight. Using the cloud, an iPad and a Kindle, the historian can work from anywhere in 2011.  

The latest tech toy  

Historians often rely on interviews. When possible we like to get the facts from the horse’s mouth. My Google Voice account allows me to do an interview by cell phone and, with the subject’s permission, send a recording of the conversation directly to my email box. Google will even attempt to transcribe the spoken conversation into typed words. That technology is still evolving.  

But sometimes you’re stuck with nothing but a pen. No problem. I am now the proud owner of a Pulse™ “smartpen” from a company called Livescribe. It’s still in the box, but according to the brochure the pen holds up to 200 hours of audio recording. And that’s not all. Anything I write with the pen can be uploaded to my computer, and that includes drawings. The top of the pen has a microphone that records sound. The bottom of the pen has an infrared camera that captures everything the pen writes.  

James Bond eat your heart out. The new high tech historian has arrived. 


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online.