Archive | January, 2013

Audience, Marketing, and the Digital World: Opportunities for better connections

31 Jan

vlogAsk anyone in the Public History program here at IUPUI what the single most important word in our discipline is and I bet that the majority of the responses will be “audience”. The nature of the term “public history” makes this central to our discipline. Public history is set apart from history by the distinction of who the history is aimed at. As a result, much of our work as public historians-in-training focuses on understanding who our audience is and how we can best convey our interpretation of the past to them. Recently I came across the Whitney Museum of American Art which challenged how I have been thinking of audience. This museum’s Vlog project follows the trends of the business world and forces public historians to reconceive our audience and how we can best connect with them.

My marketing minor in undergrad causes me to see Public History’s “audience” as the parallel to the business world’s “target market”. Businesses design every aspect of their product – design, packaging, price, and advertising campaign- with a very specific market in mind. Traditionally, businesses have focused on the widest possible market to capture the largest market share and gain the most business. But recently, marketers have come to acknowledge that if you try to appeal to the biggest audience, you end up leaving out a lot of sub-markets. In the last decade or so, marketing has experienced a shift in how they envision their target market, or audience. Now, companies divide society into much smaller segments and market to several of them or they pick one non-mainstream group to focus on. The Neilsen Group has a tool for business that will describe a zip-code using 66 unique segments. Digital tools are making it easier to connect with every potential audience/market, not just the largest ones.

What the Whitney Museum’s Vlog Project showed me was that museums are starting to follow this trend in the business world. As many of you may know, a vlog is a video blog. Instead of writing your thoughts about a specific topic online (like I am doing), you make a video about it. But the Vlog Project is unique because the videos don’t have any sound; they are specifically targeted toward Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Deaf museum educators sign explanations and talks on a variety of topics in contemporary art.[i] These vlogs don’t make me reconsider my concept of audience in public history just because they are reaching out to the hearing disabled community. Museums have long provided written explanations and tours for their exhibits. What makes these vlogs standout to me is the way that they specifically focus on giving this group a great experience, not just an experience. A recent blog entry on the use of vlogs in museums from The Center for the Future of Museums notes that, “Museums are highly visual experiences—and visitors already revel in documenting and sharing pictures via sites such as Flickr and Instagram”.[ii]  If we want someone to experience our museum, which is a visual exploration, why would we provide a written explanation? Museum visitors can read a book any day, but they came to the museum for a specifically visual experience that provides them with something that a written explanation cannot.

The Vlog Project really shows this museum’s desire to provide the best experience for this specific audience by involving them at every stage of the process. In their review of the vlogs, Museums and the Web notes that, “While there are a number of museums that have used video to capture gallery commentary in ASL, the Vlogs are unique in that they involve Deaf individuals in every stage of production, from scripting original commentary to directing and editing each video.”[iii] After “audience”, “shared authority” is one of the biggest buzzwords in public history. But this is a kind of shared authority that we don’t often consider. We get caught up in working with those most directly impacted by an exhibit (usually those being represented) and we forget that there are other people who should share in this experience. In its design, The Vlog Project acknowledges that the experience of a museum is about connection and in many ways human interaction and this can best be conveyed through a video.

I think it is time for Public Historians to rethink our notion of audience. Who is experiencing our interpretations that we are not acknowledging? Digital access to museums makes this an especially important question. Viewing an exhibit is an experience that provides a multi-sensory learning environment in a way that reading a book does not. How can we make this experience the fullest and most captivating for every aspect of our audience? The digital humanities focus on collaboration and connection can help us to reach out to unique sub-groups in ways that we never could have before. We need to think beyond the status quo and go above and beyond to provide a quality experience for all.

I welcome any thought on this. It might be that this project only questions how I have been thinking about audience and public history. Are you challenged by the Vlog Project?


[i] Whitney Museum of American Art, “The Vlog Project,” http://whitney.org/Education/Access/Vlogs (accessed January 31, 2013).

[ii]Center for the Future of Museums, “Micro Vlogging: Keeking Up with Social Media Trends,” http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2013/01/micro-vlogging-keeking-up-with-social.html  (accessed January 31, 2013).

[iii] Musuems and the Web 2012 “The Vlog Project,” http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012/best/audio_visual_podcast/the_vlog_project (accessed January 31, 2013).

History Engine: Putting public history values into the classroom

31 Jan

Finding examples of new and exciting digital history projects is not a terribly demanding task nowadays. However, finding a digital history project that forces me to reconceptualize public history was challenging, perhaps because my understanding of public history continues tohistory engine evolve and is constantly challenged in the courses that I take. Nonetheless, I eventually discovered History Engine, a project that incorporates public history values in an unconventional way, and made me ask what impact public history can make in a more traditional academic setting.[1]

In 2008 Andrew Torget (digital humanist and founding director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at University of Richmond) and Scott Nesbit (postdoctoral fellow at University of Virginia) created History Engine, a tool that allows students at participating universities to share their own research and writing with public audiences and peers from across the country. Taken at face value, History Engine is a typical tool for the academic dissemination of historical knowledge. It is not terribly different from any other database of research articles, except that it includes tags and rudimentary story mapping. However, what this tool does for the students who use it has the potential to revolutionize how we, as public historians, understand our work.

History Engine is rooted in the academy; however, upon closer examination, several public history values are at work in this digital tool. For one, History Engine fosters collaboration. As public historians, we recognize the value in multiple perspectives. History Engine allows students to read and rate the work of their peers, and while the rating system might be enhanced to allow for more specific commentary and sharing of opinions and arguments, the fact that collaboration is emphasized and encouraged is a great start. Second, History Engine makes history accessible to widespread audiences. Anyone with Internet access can read “episodes” of history that students in universities across the country produce. Further, it teaches students that history is not something locked away and out of their reach. It encourages them to access and actively engage with the past through archival research. Most importantly, History Engine pushes the bounds of history education in the classroom. I cannot pretend to be any sort of expert on curriculum standards or methods in teaching history; however, I know from experience that history education is in a sad state in many schools and universities across the country. I learned history from high school teachers who cared more about coaching baseball and softball than igniting a passion for the subject in their students. I also learned about archival and primary source research not in a university classroom, but by being thrust headlong into projects at internships. History Engine does what too many schools and even universities neglect to do –it brings students into direct contact with primary sources and public history professionals (namely archivists) who work with those sources. It also has the potential to instill in students an excitement for the past and a realization that studying history can be a far more intimate experience than just memorizing names and dates from a textbook.

So, History Engine employs public history values like collaboration and accessibility, but what is it about it that prompts me to reconceptualize my understanding of public history? It does not use advanced GIS technology or cutting edge virtual reality simulation, and yes, there are ways that it might be improved. However, History Engine makes me realize that digital tools rooted in public history core values can be used in classrooms of all levels across this country to bring new life to history education, and even instill in students an excitement for the past that might eventually lead them to a career in public history.

While History Engine evolved out of experimentation and consultation with professors of history, I see an opportunity here for public historians to enter conversations with educators about how to effectively connect students to history in the classroom.[2] The History Engine project is in the vein of what public historians do everyday in museums, nonprofits, historic sites, and numerous other settings –it is built on collaboration and conversation, and makes history accessible. Most of us are becoming public historians because we envision our careers lying outside of academia, but if our task is first and foremost to engage audiences and ignite a desire to learn about the past, then we might ask how some of the tools we use in public settings can translate to classroom settings. I think that there could be great promise in increasing collaboration between public historians and high school teachers/college professors. After all, in essence public historians are educators too.


[1] The Digital Scholarship Lab, “History Engine,” The University of Richmond, http://historyengine.richmond.edu/pages/home (accessed January 30, 2013).

[2]Perspectives on History, “History Engine: Creating a Writing Assignment for the Digital Age,” American Historical Association, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0905/0905for14.cfm (accessed January 30, 2013).

Public History: Never Finished, Never Perfect

31 Jan
Screenshot from "City of Memory"

Screenshot from “City of Memory”

Throughout my educational endeavors in public history, I have been struck by the wide range of mediums by which public historians convey their knowledge of the past to their audiences. The National Council on Public History describes public history as “history beyond the walls of the traditional classroom,” and such a description reminds us that educators who work “in the field” are vitally important in helping us understanding the ways in which history is made every day. Common avenues for public historians to educate the broader public about the past include museums, libraries, historic homes, musical performances, and film. The sorts of occupations public historians hold are equally diverse and include curators, historic preservationists, interpreters, cultural resource managers, and oral historians.[1]

As the entire field of history continues to experiment with the educational possibilities of the digital landscape, public historians have utilized the tools offered by the digital medium to preserve, interpret, and create new understandings of the past. Digital songs, videos, games, and interactive maps provide the public historian an arsenal of interpretive techniques to add to his collection. Such digital technologies have the potential to make the past impactful and immediate to participants, fostering a stronger sense of community and enhanced civic engagement.

When thinking about digital projects that challenge our prior understandings of public history, I immediately think of the City of Memory project, created and curated by City Lore. Conceived in 2001 as a public exhibit at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC, City of Memory sought to create an enhanced level of interactivity by allowing visitors to write their own stories about their life experiences in New York City. Anything, anyone, anytime. Visitors would then pin their stories onto Styrofoam maps, giving readers a wide range of perspectives to experience in a spatial format. The project was so successful that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation awarded grants to City Lore, allowing for the creation of City of Memory in a digital format, what co-founder Steve Zietlin calls, “a virtual experiment in popular curation.”[2]

Zietlin and exhibit designer Jake Barton created their digital project around two central questions they believed their audiences would ask when visiting City of Memory: “Where are the best stories” and “Where is my story?” Realizing that the burgeoning era of Web 2.0 browsing was on the horizon, Zietlin and Barton aimed to incorporate “populist” values that are now commonly associated with this version of digital exploration, including interactivity, participation, and collaboration between web designers and site visitors.[3] They understood that an effective way to make City of Memory important to its audience was by creating stakeholders who had an active role in shaping the content of the website. When visiting City of Memory, one will notice blue and orange dots on the interactive map, and that there are almost as many blue (user submitted stories) as there are orange (stories submitted by City Lore). He or she will also notice two separate links where anyone can “add a story” to the website. Each entry includes videos, photos, and text that help the reader place the stories within the social, geographical, and thematic context of New York City’s history.

This interactive process should remind all public historians that a large part of our job is not only to make the past important, but to also make our audiences feel important. We do this by telling stories about the past while also listening to our audiences’ stories of the past. While working for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site with the National Park Service, I cannot say how many times an interpretive story from me about Grant, his family, or slavery would turn into an audience-created story about someone’s visit to the Vicksburg National Battlefield, a person’s descendant who fought in the Civil War, or a reflection on what was taught in a high school about slavery in the 1980s. I realize that we need to challenge our audiences to think beyond themselves when learning about the past. Furthermore, Zeitlin points out that there is an underlying tension between the ideals of inclusive participation from audience members and curatorial practices from web designers who must create an artful, engaging experience, just as public historians must do.[4] However, I firmly believe digital projects like City of Memory can teach us the importance of listening to our audiences and using their perspectives to strengthen our interpretations.

Public historians can also view City of Memory as an example of bridging the gulf between popular and academic culture. On the one hand, City Lore creates its own stories that often utilize the voices and perspectives of professional academics. Some these stories cover deep, complex topics such as immigration and slavery. On the other hand, user-submitted stories frequently reflect poignant, emotional stories of history and memory from personal perspectives. One of my favorites is “Under the Sink & Through the Wall” by Jedediah Baker. While trying to adjust and survive in a “new” apartment in New York City, Baker soon discovers a hole in the wall underneath his kitchen sink that is big enough for him to see into his neighbor’s apartment. Reading Baker’s short story had me thinking of ways in which public historians could use holes in walls to create interpretive stories about the challenges faced by people throughout history who moved to New York City. With high hopes for a brighter future, many of these people struggled to assimilate into their new surroundings and culture. Such interpretive possibilities demonstrate that public history is just as much about creating an ongoing dialogue about the problems of contemporary society as it is about creating a dialogue that explores the past. For many people, their interactions with public historians are the only instances in which they get a chance to learn about history or share a story about their life with someone who is interested in listening and learning. We should teach audiences about the past using the skills we learned in academia, but in a manner that allows us to relate our stories to a public composed of a wide range of perspectives and experiences.

Finally, I think City of Memory does an excellent job of demonstrating my earlier point about digital history being in a state of motion. New stories are being submitted to the site on a daily basis. Old stories are frequently replaced with new memories and experiences. Zietlin expands on this idea, explaining that “as an open-ended site, the work on City of Memory is never finished and never perfect.”[5] It is ever-changing and always up for recreation, reinterpretation, and experimentation. Public history functions in much the same way. The work of public history is never finished and we are constantly striving for a more perfect understanding of the past. An interaction with one audience is never the same with the next, and a level of experimentation always colors our interpretations. Yet that is what makes projects like City of Memory so exciting. Each interaction allows for the possibility of a new connection to be made with the past and, oftentimes, the public historian is learning about these connections with their audiences as they explore the past together.


[1] National Council on Public History. “What is Public History?” Accessed January 29, 2013. http://ncph.org/cms/what-is-public-history/.

[2] Steve Zeitlin, “Where Are the Best Stories? Where is My Story?: Participation and Curation in a New Media Age,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair et al. (Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 36.

[3] Ibid, 35. For a helpful description and visual chart that expands on the concept of Web 2.0, see Jason M. Kelly, “An Ecology for Digital Scholarship,” accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.historyworkingpapers.org/?page_id=324; Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software, Last modified October 2009, accessed January 30, 2013. http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html

[4] Zeitlin, “Where Are the Best Stories?,” 35.

[5] ibid, 39.

Museums and Gaming

30 Jan

As I searched for a website or a GIS project that challenged the way I thought about public history, I came across a lot of websites that did very similar things. Most museum websites gave an overview of their exhibits and touted upcoming events. Some websites featured blogs and others offered a searchable database of their collections. As I was having no luck revolutionizing my thoughts about public history, I decided to look at institutions from other countries. During this quest, I came across the McCord Museum in Montreal. Like many museums, its mission is to interpret local history. What was different about this website was the gaming options it offered. There were a wide variety of role-playing games, matching games, and quizzes. This was not something I had come across before. I soon realized these games are quite common in Canada and the UK, and this form of interaction promises a new level of engagement with the past.

We have all encountered games set in the past. I grew up during the Oregon Trail craze. I agonized over whether to caulk and float the wagon or ford the river numerous times, but I have never thought about video games as being a legitimate way to teach history. However, many museums in Canada and the UK have begun creating games based on their collections and exhibits. In the article “Towards a Theory of Good History through Gaming,” published in the Canadian Historical Review, a number of professionals debated the usefulness of historical games. This article noted that a lot of professionals have dismissed mass produced games because they are inaccurate. However, the authors urge the field “to take this new form of historical engagement seriously and seize the opportunity to participate in its development.”[1]  Canada has been leading the way in game studies and even started an association in 2006 to further research the possibilities of linking gaming and history. [2]

We talk about GIS and various forms of mapping to recreate a landscape or cityscape, but with video games a virtual reality could be created from a micro-history. Immersive museum experiences would no longer be limited to living history sites. This could be wildly successful or terribly dangerous for the field. For example, the McCord Museum markets their history online section as the “keys to history.”  Seemingly, with gaming, museums are ceding some of their authority and allowing users to feel as if they are driving their exploration of the past. A role-playing game could certainly offer an excellent educational experience, but an astronomical amount of research would be needed to accurately portray a historical scene. However, even a well-researched 3-D representation can create issues with interpretation and perception. I think it is completely awkward, and ahistorical, to be “walking” down a digital street in Quebec during the 1890s and encountering freaky cartoon people.[3] Nevertheless, I saw a lot of value in the matching games the McCord Museum offers. Those games put each object into context and actually gave the user a better experience with material culture than visitors would have gotten in the museum. In order to be successful, users have to read little blurbs about each object and think of how they connect with another person/artifact. I hope that other institutions soon offer similar games based on their collections.

Professionals are just starting to standardize this new world of gaming and evaluate its effectiveness.[4] The games museums create cannot just be fun. These games must focus on education and fit an institution’s mission. Although there are issues with using certain game formats to teach history, I think experiments with gaming and history should continue. I am sure there is a large segment of the population that is better served through this medium. A well-developed game could exponentially expand the reach of a museum and bring in a new audience. Therefore, I anxiously await the results from the ongoing evaluations, and I stand ready to re-analyze my thoughts on virtual representations of the past.


[1] Kevin Kee, Shawn Graham, Pat Dunae, and John Lutz, “Towards a Theory of Good History through Gaming,” The Canadian Historical Review 90 no. 2 (June 2009): 305, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/can/summary/v090/90.2.kee.html.

[2] Ibid., 306.

[3] Perhaps, this is my knee-jerk reaction. I have only spent a few days with the idea of linking history and video games. At the current time, I see more perils than promises in virtual realities of the past. Nevertheless, it appears this game is well-researched and the creators should be applauded for experimenting with this medium.

[4] Kee, et al., “Towards a Theory of Good History through Gaming,” 324-326; Danny Birchall, Martha Henson, Alexandra Burch, Daniel Evans, and Kate Haley Goldman, “Leveling Up: Towards Best Practice in Evaluating Museum Games,” Museums and the Web 2012, http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012/papers/levelling_up_towards_best_practice_in_evaluati (accessed January 29, 2013).

Final Project

30 Jan

I was really struck my our discussion Monday by Matthew and Callie’s points about the importance of picking projects with value and that appeal to the public.  It is critical to think of partners and end-users from the beginning of the project.

In terms of our final project, my mind is swirling with ideas. I am interested in others ideas.

1. African American Historys– There are a cluster of AA history resources around the campus, as well as a community that is gone.  A project partnering with Walker theater  Atticus Museum  Bethel AME Church and Campus Diversity Resources would have a natural set of audiences and help address history that has been  obliterated by the University and hospital developments. It would be great to feature the project as part of the national trust conference in October that will be using some of these venues. We could roll this into the NPS Trails to Freedom Project we are working on and get longer use out the project.

2. Civil War & Memories– Nick, Tim and I are all working on Civil War era projects– but from different perspectives. There are a lot of resources in downtown on this topic. What if people could choose an avatar/perspective to go on the tour on. There are natural partners with Bethel AME, Soldiers & Sailors and other resources.

3. Neighborhoods– several neighborhoods(Irvington, Lockerbie, Franklin, Fountain Square) already have tours. We could work with one to add new levels to tours. Landmarks also has tours that we could reimagine.

4. Canal/ Trails– can we add a new layer?

5. Downtown Abby meets Harrison House– upstairs /downstairs in the neighborhood– from pov of residents

6. cemetary– use ap to Crownm Hill bring to life cemetery

7. Pubs– with drink recommendations, but also culture of prohibition and jazz?

8. Labor history– Dr. Scarpino has a map of labor history sites mapped that are little know and would be an interesting theme.

 

I guess I am most excited about 1-3 but I am excited to work on the project. What is everyone else thinking?

28 Jan

LibertyEqualityorDeathWhat is digital history? It is an attempt to “hack history.” It is a movement to crack into the code of history and fundamentally change the way we understand it. It is a desire to tear down walls and create open access for historical materials, reducing the layers between the individual and history. It is a movement to share ideas. It is a desire to breakdown hierarchical relationships and diffuses power through among like-minded hackers.

What started out in the nineties as part of larger efforts by a few humanists and historians has grown, with conferences, journals, centers and graduate programs? The ethos of the movement non-hierarchical power creates friction in an institutional setting, such as higher education. In this effort to institutionalize, the participants, not to mention outsiders struggle to define the… discipline, field, method, genre.

To better understand this “hack,” historians tend to look at the values, ideas and systems impacted. Central to this are the questions asked both inside and outside the movement about is foundational character.
1. What is the relationship between digital history and digital humanities? What is the relationship between academic history and digital history?
2. What is the role of the “digital” is it for the creation or application of technology to questions?
3. What is the relationship between digital history change the nature of the questions asked by historians or change the way they are answered.
4. What is the role of traditional academic disciplines, interdisciplinary projects and scholarly communities to
5. By what criteria should digital history and digital humanities be evaluated?
Beyond these core questions, are the central values that influence the answers to these questions. Attempt to articulate these core values are central to many of the theoretical pieces assigned for the class and student responses. Reflecting on the revolutionary nature of the “hack,” in the words of the French Revolutionaries: liberte, egalite, fraternite. Digital History offers a freedom to explore new methods and questions with an increased access to evidence. The movement is founded on a value of equality with open access to information, hypertextuality and non-linear narratives. The “brotherhood” of digital history is one of its most defining aspects with non-hierarchal power relations, interdisciplinary, and new networks of scholars sharing information.

Understanding the foundational questions and values moves us a step closer to a definition. William Thomas, one of the pioneers of the field presents his ideas about the nature of the field as a “working definition.” The value of the more amorphous working definition is that it sets grounding for those engaged in a shared enterprise, such as this class or the Interchange article, but the fluidity it allows for refinement throughout the endeavor. I accept Jason Kelly’s definition of digital history as one that is useful in the context of our class, and also the current state of the field.
Digital Humanities is an interdisciplinary approach to humanities research which is focused on the creation and critical application of digital technologies to develop scholarly communities and further humanistic knowledge.
Digital History is a branch of the Digital Humanities which focuses on using and development digital tools to answer the questions posed by historians ; problematises historians’ assumptions and methodologies and helps to open up new questions problems and theories to historic analysis.
Historians know that Revolutions of all sorts struggle to bring their high ideals into practice. Interestingly, soon after the Revolution, the motto was sometime written as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”. During the bloody period that followed, “Brotherhood or death!” was a frequent cry heard in the streets. Digital Humanists and Historians struggle with how to implement their vision in the shifting world of the twenty-first century academy. While the halls of the academy are far from the blood soaked streets of Paris, issues of funding and tenure can spell life or death for careers. Descriptively, Kelly places Digital History as a branch of the Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities has far more widespread presence in the University environment. The “digital humanities” also has emerged as a preferred term based upon the recognition of the term by funders, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. Interestingly, Kelly sets digital history apart from “Academic History” but also in opposition to it, positing that digital history will problematize assumptions and methodologies as well as create new ones.
As we move forward into our investigation of the theory and practice of digital history, we will no doubt revisit our working definition and revise it based upon our new knowledge and assumptions. Indeed, this fluidity and non-linear narratives are among our core values and we would be remiss if we did not utilize this hard fought freedom.

History in a Digital World

28 Jan

By Tim Rainesalo

Defining digital history is a tricky business. Is the concept of using digital resources to explore historical topics and questions significant enough to warrant it being singled out as its own historical field? After all, almost every academic profession now depends on computers in some way and social networking technologies pioneered on sites like Twitter and Facebook become a more prominent part of our daily lives every year. This level of technological immersion is both a blessing and a curse in that it makes it easy to focus on the technology we use instead of the way in which we use it. Given that many of us consider online databases like JSTOR and even some blogs to be educational resources that are as viable as any traditional print media, it is understandable that we might at first be unable to see the forest from the trees. While exploring the theoretical base of digital history is vital, much of this article will be devoted to my interpretation of digital history as a virtual playground.

Understanding digital history must begin with an understanding of Digital Humanities, the broader field that birthed it. Very simply put, digital humanists study how digital technology changes our analysis, understanding, distribution and collection of information related to the humanities and how to best use these digital resources to push our thoughts in new and interesting ways. [2] Still, the question remains; what makes digital history unique? William G. Thomas III offers four key concepts that push digital history beyond a simple sub-genre under the digital humanities umbrella: the capacity for play, manipulation, participation and investigation by the reader. His characterization of the field as “an open arena of scholarly production and communication” where advances offered by the Internet and other software help to develop and spread new ideas comes closer to the virtual playground I imagine.[1] This spread also increases collaboration in constructing innovative interpretations of the past. This reciprocal relationship extends beyond collaborations between different historians to include the general public in the historical discussion–oftentimes on a global scale.

Although theoretically sound, this explanation still did not ‘click’ for me. After all, digital history is as much about the process of creating digital resources as it is the finished product–in fact, its manipulable nature means revisions and improvements can go on almost indefinitely. One of the most enlightening descriptions of this integral component of digital history also comes from Thomas III who, in a roundtable discussion on digital history with several of his peers for the Journal of American History, equates the field to gaming:

“The best analogy may be gaming—users have control over where their characters will go and what they will see and do, but the creator/author controls the parameters of that experience. And history in the digital, it seems to me, is an experience for users—a process, an active, spatial, virtual-reality encounter with the past.” [3]

While clearly far from perfect, this analogy reinforces the need to approach digital history in 21st century terms of collaborative interactivity. At its core, digital history is a continually evolving and collaborative creative process interested in providing new, interactive ways for audiences to explore history on their own terms in an environment whose basic parameters are set by a diverse team of historians and programmers. Creating an archival database is similar to creating, maintaining and upgrading a massive online multiplayer game. It also highlights the four previously mentioned aspects unique to history in the digital realm. Much like an MMO, digital history is built on reciprocal relationships between digital historians designing the resource (i.e. the game world) and between the designers and the community of users. Like any good gaming studio, success lies in assembling a team of uniquely skilled but complimentary professionals—archivists, preservationists, librarians, programmers and website designers, etc.—who come together to create something unique.

Like a good sandbox game, digital history presents its arguments and ideas in a distinctly nonlinear fashion, allowing visitors to playfully engage history on his/her own terms. Each player can manipulate his own experience, choosing to follow a single narrative or take on several ‘side quests’ to see how far these historical off-shoots carry him. Although largely scorned as a resource by traditional ivory-tower academics, Wikipedia provides the perfect example of the possibilities for developing new webs of connective meaning in a digital age. When scrolling through the entry regarding George Washington, for instance, the viewer is free to click on a hotlink to the page dedicated to Martha Washington, and thus potentially learn more about the man through a study of his wife. This, in turn, may lead to an interest in the former President’s home and the way in which this information (seen in digital format) is presented in a live interpretation of the home. Like side-quests that help flesh out the central ‘world,’ these branching stories have the potential to alter his perception of the overall world and enrich his experiences by forming connective webs of inquiry that can extend beyond the digital realm to encompass the real world.

This level of interactivity and potential for playful exploration may appear limitless on the surface, but as Thomas points out, the original ‘development team’ of digital historians are ultimately in control of shaping the world the audience explores. However, the choice of how a resource develops does not rest only with the creators. For, just as an MMO is nothing without its player community, a database or online archive is useless unless the invested community can and does participate in the world’s development by positing new additions to help make their experience smoother and more enlightening. Are pathways to information still too arduous? Digital historians can listen to the suggestions and requests of their ‘player base’ to create a new layout, interface or webs of connection to make navigation and exploration easier. Instead of a new weapon or community-generated item, users may offer up additional resources, like a previously untapped collection of letters that broaden and enrich the community’s experience.

This approach also outlines the limitations and difficulties still facing digital history. Most prominent among them is the issue of shared authority and how to maintain a professional level of historical authenticity when the reciprocal nature of digital communication means ceding a certain level of control to a non-professional online community? Although the quality control of the average Wikipedia article is now much more satisfactory than it was even a few years ago, mistakes and misrepresentations still occur. And even though digital communication with invested audiences offers speedier and more numerous responses, these problems are nothing to sniff at. While audiences appreciate this interactive, reciprocal approach to historical exploration, digital history continues to face resistance over understandably divisive issues like quality control, accessibility to sources and shared authority. Given all this, we must ask what the future holds? Will it become a more integral part of the way we do history? Personally, I believe greater acceptance and incorporation if its techniques are just a matter of time. After all, with so many other fields already relying on digital distribution and interaction to help collect data and spread news of new findings, history must embrace this new age of digital communication or risk being left behind. Confronting the problems we’ve briefly touched on will not be easy, but I believe it can and will be done.

[1] “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 452–491.

[2] Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 3-11.

[3] William G. Thomas III, “Interchange”.

How do you do Digital History?

27 Jan

As predicted, Digital History is deceptively complicated to define. On the surface the term seems self-defining: a simple tautology of using digital technology to conduct historical investigations. However, delve deeper, and this elucidation becomes a bit murky. This definition is overly simplistic in its lack of methodology or theory, ideological agency that historian needs to conduct their research. Without these terms digital history becomes simply a tool to further current research practices. Instead I resonate with Daniel Cohen’s definition, who suggests that “digital history can be defined as the theory and practice of bringing technology to bear on the abundance [of historical material] we now confront.”[1] In grappling with this definition, however, I am left pondering what it means to ‘do’ digital history?

Today digital history little resembles that which it evolved from. The nature of computers and programs, and the invention of the internet over the last thirty years has drastically changed the landscape which historians conduct and disseminate their research. Examples abound, from the ease of accessing and analyzing sources due to digitization projects, to online databases that provide the ability to effortlessly search scholarly journals. Computer programs and mapping tool make it possible to understand and visualize research in different ways, creating new interpretations on old questions. The Internet has provided a space for sharing work and collaborating other scholars and increasingly wider audiences.[2] Digital history has evolved with each of these changes technologies, adapting and expanding with each invention. This makes the subject a slippery fish to easily surmise. William Thomas explains that one challenge for “producing digital history is the fluidity or impermanence of the medium… Its texts are fluid, its technologies shift, and its engagement with the wider historiography changes over time.”[3] This consistent state of flux means that doing digital history can have diverse and divergent meanings.

This begs the question, is there a difference between simply using digital history and doing digital history? A simple example of this might be the contrast between using a digital archive to simply find newspaper articles, and using a digital archive to take digitized newspaper articles and then use a program to analyze word patterns. Both are using digital history, but the former is using digital history as a tool to continue standard research practices. The latter works digital technology into the core of its research project. To me, the difference is best encapsulated by an analogy by Roy Rosenzwieg and Daniel Cohen, of imagining digital history to be an architect instead of a plumber.[4]  I think, to do digital history means to incorporate it into the architecture of the project, requiring innovation with technology as a way to re-image the past.[5]  This allows digital history to move beyond simply a tool, becoming integral to the work that historians do. As Amy Murrell Taylor explains, digital history should produce “something that can stand alongside a book, something that takes a different form, but nonetheless raises questions, offers analysis, and advances our historiographical knowledge of a given subject.” [6]

That being said, as I established above, digital history is consistently an evolving field. It is being shaped and remolded by new inventions and technologies, many times created within a collaboration of scholars from diverse fields. The differentiation between those who use digital history and produce digital history is ever-changing, and sometimes may rely on each other. Ultimately, as Web 3.0 appears on the horizon and projects increasingly require collaboration, these terms may become interchangeable.

Do you do digital history or simply use it?


[1]Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008).

[2] To see further discussion of the history of digital history, see “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” 2008; or William G. Thomas II, Computing and the Historical Imagination,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and  John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[4] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006).

[5] A further debate concerning digital history defined as a method, field, genre or medium can be found in “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” 2008.

[6] Ibid.

27 Jan

Musings on History

On the surface, digital history seems to be just what its name suggests – history done digitally.  However, the full extent of what that entails is much more complex. In the following considerations on what digital history is, I will start with a basic definition before increasingly looking deeper into how the “digital” part of digital history acts not only as a new medium, but offers a new approach to how history is done.

Before going beyond the surface of the name “digital history,” I think it’s worth considering the individual meanings of “digital” and “history” since both of them come together in digital history. Though Merriam Webster lists multiple definitions of digital, “of, relating to, or being data in the form of especially binary digits,” seems to be digital at its most basic. Another definition easier to work with is something “characterized by electronic and especially computerized technology.”  Computerized…

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Digital History: What’s in your 21st century toolbox?

25 Jan

What is digital history? This question lies at the core of our coursework this semester. After two weeks of class discussion and readings on the development of the field of digital humanities, I am only just beginning to form a basic understanding of the essence of digital history. At the most fundamental level, digital history is a methodology –a valuable addition to the twenty-first century historian’s toolbox. Digital history gets a bit more complicated when we acknowledge that it is still in the process of being understood and its meaning articulated across history communities. Nevertheless, it can be argued that digital history as a methodology necessarily involves the embrace of the public-historical concept of shared authority, as well as interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration in the mission to create narratives about the past.

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s essay, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments,” does not specifically address the question of what is digital history; however, several of the points he makes can translate from the broad field of digital humanities to the sub-field of digital history. “Digital humanities,” he writes, “is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies.”[1] One can easily substitute “digital history” for “digital humanities” in Kirschenbaum’s statement. Digital history is, in its most basic sense, a methodology because it prescribes a specific set of procedures and techniques for researching the past and presenting research to audiences. Like other methodological approaches that came before it (e.g. social history and cultural history to name a couple of the most general and recognized), digital history has the potential to change the way we research and understand the past.

As Kirschenbaum points out, the be all and end all of digital history is not its employment of twentieth and twenty-first-century technologies such as the Internet. It necessarily encompasses the use of such tools, but it also allows us to look at the past in new, more visual, and more interactive ways. For instance, most people probably recognize the digitization of archival collections and their availability online as a form of digital history. While I agree with this characterization, I think that the field of digital history is quickly becoming about more than just looking at high-resolution scans of historic documents on a computer screen. Digital history really comes into its fullest potential as a method when it becomes possible for users to interact with and contribute to the information being presented, as well as when institutions use digital technology to create new tools (Zotero and GIS mapping, for instance), which enable historical research and analysis.[2]

High levels of interactivity draw audiences to digital history resources and enhance the user-creator interaction that is a crucial part of digital history methodology. When we acknowledge audiences as valuable members of historical conversations, we must also realize that in order to build sustainable relationships with them, historians like us need to recognize their authority and expertise. As Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig point out, the internet and other digital technologies present an “ideal medium” for engaging audiences and sharing authority. While sharing authority does bring new challenges, it has the potential to create new pathways for collaboration and diverse perspectives on the past.[3]

The creation of digital technologies that allow for high levels of interactivity requires a large amount of interdisciplinary cooperation and collaboration. Over the past several decades, historians have begun collaborating more and more with scholars in the related disciplines in the social sciences, specifically sociologists and anthropologists. As we have discussed in class, this tradition of cooperation must continue, as it is necessary to the sustainability of the field of digital humanities. Historians must turn to experts in the fields of computer coding and technology development to assist in the creation of new research tools and models of historical data. Further, these experts are needed to help historians understand the technologies that they employ.

As public historians we stand in a unique position –on one hand we are still being trained to recognize the monograph as the most trustworthy source of historical information and to model our own work on the methods of historians who trained in the pre-digital age. On the other hand, we recognize the changes rapidly taking place in our discipline and are made aware of the need to keep up with the latest developments in order to stay relevant and best serve our public audiences. This tug-of-war is no doubt a challenge, but it is one worth facing. We must recognize digital history as the newest discipline-changing methodology, which requires a willingness to share authority and collaborate with those outside of the discipline, and even outside of academia.


[1] Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 4.

[2] See “Military History,” in “Digital Image Collections,” where Indiana Historical Society (IHS) presents 50,000 images from its collection, accessible online. Users can create lists of favorite documents, but interactivity is fairly limited: http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm4/browse.php?CISOROOT=/ww2; In comparison, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum also features selections from its collections in its online database, Arago. It allows users to build their own personal collections, make notes on objects, and share them with friends via email. It also features very basic online exhibits. This is more interactive than IHS’s digital endeavor, but it still has a good deal of unrealized potential in terms of engaging users: http://arago.si.edu/.   

[3] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 7-8.