21 Jan


Defining the phrase “digital history” is a more difficult task than it first appears.  As Lisa Spiro notes, “values statements can…confine [the field], reflecting a static understanding of the organization or the particular biases of a powerful clique.”[1]  To take that idea one step further, and adopt a post-modernist stance, it could be argued that any definition that I could produce would be shaped by the institutions that I have worked in and learned from, and therefore inherently limited.  In an attempt to combat that bias, and to capture the full possibility of the field of digital history, then, I believe it is necessary to keep any definition of the field loose and open-ended.

When first considering the parameters of a definition of digital history, it is tempting to simply leave it as a tautology: digital history is the practice of applying modern, digital technology to classic historical…

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7 Responses to “”

  1. angelabpotter January 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    I am glad to see that someone else found this question deceptively simple.

    I am interested in your discussion of shared authority. I too was intrigued by Cohen & Rosenzweig use of the concept of a “two-way medium” of consumption and production and the similarity of it to Frish’s models of shared authority in public history.
    I was surprised that you did not relate this to issues related to collaboration, interdisciplinary and authority. Is “digital History” uncharacteristic by shared authority or diffused authority (non-hierarchical authority)? Is it “shared,” perhaps, by agreeing on key definitions or through scholarly networks? When historians interact in this “open arena” are they sharing authority or each establishing themselves as an author (diffused authority)? You argued that these arenas “fundamentally altered” historical practice– but I did not see your answer.

    I query this because I am struggling with this in my own blog post and wondered how you worked it out in your mind?

    • ngoodlin January 24, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

      Hey Angela,
      You’re right, shared authority is definitely inextricably linked with the ideas of collaboration and interdisciplinarity; I tried to work that idea in, but maybe it wasn’t clear. I don’t believe that digital history is uncharacteristic simply because it utilizes shared authority or diffused authority; rather, I think it is a question of scope. These terms existed before the digital revolution, but, similarly to the question of collaboration, were more circumstantial in nature, rather than spontaneous or frequent. I believe digital history has made possible a much more truly open medium of exchange between historical scholars and members of the public. This is one example of how historical practice has been “fundamentally altered”—scholars are writing to an audience now, and, more than that, are asking for assistance on their projects from the non-academic community. In my mind, that makes the practice of history much more “shared” than it ever was before. Academics and non-academics are sharing their knowledge and their resources in common forums through digital technologies. Whether it is shared authority or diffused authority, I think depends on the circumstances; I think examples of both could be found.

      • MDKenny January 24, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

        I agree with Noah that “digital history has made possible a much more truly open medium of exchange between historical scholars and members of the public,” but I think it’s still an open question as to whether the discipline of history will fundamentally change how it does history and how it engages with potential partners interested in the production of knowledge about the past.

  2. xtinexby January 24, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Noah – I like that you focused on what digital history has changed about the field of history. Like you said, collaboration, methodology, and shared authority were all part of the field of history prior to digital history. This makes me wonder, how much is digital history a sub-field of history then? If digital history changes what all historians do, does it make it a new sub-field, or is it a movement that is changing all of the field of history? I think this is part of what makes defining digital history hard.

  3. ngoodlin January 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    Christine and Matthew—

    I think you’ve both locked on to a similar point—to what extent has digital history affected the field of history as a whole? I kept my definition conservative, labeling digital history as a sub-field of history, because I agree with Matthew that we can’t predict what will happen to the overall field of history. When I said that collaboration, methodology, and shared authority had been “fundamentally altered and enhanced,” I intended that to mean that new definitions and new practices had been created by the digital revolution, not that they had been universally embraced. It’s possible that these techniques are the wave of the future for history, but that kind of paradigmatic change hasn’t fully occurred. It could be argued that virtually everyone uses some aspects of it, like email or search engines, but those small changes haven’t dismantled the old ways of doing things.

    • Nick Sacco January 25, 2013 at 3:40 am #

      I think Noah is right on the mark with this comment. Thank you for the insightful post and subsequent clarifications. This question of the proper “label” for digital history, i.e. is it a sub-field or its own field, is something I tried to hit upon in my own blog post. I also took what could be considered a “conservative” view in that I consider digital history a “medium” that is helping us change the ways in which we study and educate the broader public about history, and that it is one of several different mediums that historians must utilize in the future. At this point I too agree with Noah and Matthew in that we can’t predict what will happen to overall field of history or if digital history will completely overtake the field.

      I think we must remember that while digital history is changing the field–in some ways quite radically–this is not the first time such changes have occurred. The developments of public history, museum studies, and American studies over the past 30-50 years, just to name a few, have also greatly changed the entire field. They are appropriately considered “sub-fields” that are helping us to understand the entire field of history. Until we learn more about the “digital turn” we should consider keeping digital history in a similar position, at least for the time being.


  1. Visualizing Change | Digital History - March 1, 2013

    […] can ask, and the product. Our first blog assignment was to define digital history. This led to a discussion by many of my peers as to whether digital history would change our field. Projects that involve […]

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