Digital Humanist Interview of Dr. Ian Milligan

Brittany Reichel

Digital Humanist Interview

Interviewee: Dr. Ian Milligan

On September 4th at 12:00pm Central Mountain Time

When I first started looking for a digital humanist to interview I thought twitter would be the best way to find one. I instead ended up posting a sub-reddit under ‘Digital Humanism’ calling out for any digital humanists in need of interviewing. There I found a flurry of people I could delve into. I chose Ian Milligan because of this website I found through reddit. The website, hosted on word press, is It is co-authored by Ian, Scott, and Shawn. What caught my attention immediately was the content of the website. It is called ‘The Historian’s Macroscope: Big Digital History’ and they “peel back the layers of a particular approach to big data using topic modeling and network analysis”. This is a fancy way of getting my attention because this topic is of particular interest to me as a history major that has quite literally grown up in the new digital medium that they discuss in more detail.

After a few technical difficulties i.e. my microphone not working for the interview, and neither Ian nor I realizing until the last minute that we are in different time zones, we got the ball rolling. Ian is an assistant professor of Digital, Canadian, and Youth History at Waterloo University in Canada. He did his PhD work at York University; where he first started finding his interests lie in digital methods and learned web archives. He told me about finishing his PhD early and that he decided to stick around at York for a while. After his PhD he decided, from a lack of not much to do after a doctorate, that he would teach himself to program. He ended up doing a postdoctoral for about three months long at Western University. Here he looked at sources, music lyrics, old websites and archived all this information.

More than anything he thought that his mathematical and language textual training helped him with his current position. He sighed heavily when telling me about all the coding he has had to do. Ian’s passion is focused towards his current work. I asked him what a typical day looked like for him and he responded ‘now or in the summer?’ with enthusiastic gusto. He told me all about his back and forth schedule. Right now he teaches two courses during school semesters. One is a senior seminar on Canadian Social Movements and the other is a Research History Methods course. In between his class work he tries to work on the book he is currently writing on the website mentioned above and earlier. During the summer he is doing full time research and writing for his book. He starts off reading lots of blogs and moves into web archives. In this book project he is working on with Shawn and Scott, he explained, “at this time historians don’t know how to analyze web archives. With 500,000 images from the web, how can we use computer science methods to learn about history? What do web archives mean for historians?”

After discussing his book I really wanted to ask him if he had any advice for someone interested in digital humanities. He told me that a basic understanding of everything from computers and algorithms, to a basic Google search is important. He also said it is important to know why some search engines are at the top of the list vs. the bottom. Along with that the basic skills of being able to write well, take criticism, give criticism, and maintain that spirit of inquiry among yourself is important as someone seeking this profession. As you might delve into those skills, it is also important to decide early on which side of the digital humanities you are passionate about. We talked about the academic side vs. the programming side. He says the reality of the market to many people who get PhD’s in this field know that programming is in high demand. But he also said it is like every other job. He recommended that if you have sincere interests in this field you want to find a mentor and a good grad program that you can follow. “Don’t work to hard but treat it like a job. Work every day, have a good research question that you think you need digital methods to answer.”

All in all I had a great time getting to know Ian. I think the book he and his fellow academics are writing is going to be very useful to us historians of the future. They are right when they say that historians don’t really have a way of analyzing web archives right now. There is an increasing amount of digital sources being produced every day and hardly any way or know how of cataloging them. Eventually an academic standard is going to need to be set in stone just like any other format of the professions like APA, MLA, etc. More than that, I think their book project will challenge our lens of inquiry. It’s telling us to look at the humanities through a larger lens and multiple lenses at the same time.