An attempt to define Digital History

22 Jan

If one had the capabilities to ask Herodotus what digital history was, I wonder what he would say. I ponder this because it seems to me that every historian is now immersed in a digital world and that alters one’s socialization and bias. Digital tools are omnipresent in daily life. Moreover, history, as a profession, has undergone many transformations especially within the last fifty years concerning sources, topic choice, and methodology. Historians live in this tech-obsessed culture; we have all come to rely upon technology every day. We use digital databases for primary and secondary sources, we write in word processors, many of us use social media to network, and we correspond through email. Professionally speaking, public historians are even more immersed in this digital culture because we have to communicate with a technological-savvy consumer base. In order to have a successful public history site, one needs to stay relevant and to appear on the radar (or perhaps newsfeed would be more fitting in this age). While all historians use technology, not all historians appreciate digital history, despite what Herodotus would have observed. Rather, digital history is a controversial new sub-field that refers to both a tool and a methodology.

Digital history is an important tool for twenty-first century historians as it provides a platform that exponentially eases historians’ burdens to uncover sources. Digitized newspapers with text searchable features reduce the copious number of hours one would sit in front of a microfilm machine. What took hours now takes seconds. Moreover, historians do not always have to travel to archives to access primary documents; many repositories are busy uploading sources online (or are willing to scan and email you a copy for a small fee).[1] The public historian uses digital history as a tool not only to conduct research, but also to disseminate it. Some museums completely live online, whereas others use the public relations tools online to try and build their audience. Public historians seem to embrace this tool more readily than traditional historians, although some are still hesitant about its implications.

Digital history as a methodology creates a more interactive interface with the general population. The linearity of monographs can be counterbalanced with an interactive digital feature. Historians are constantly trying to move beyond the depiction of history as linear and inert. Within the binding of a monograph, however, demonstrating historical complexities without losing comprehension is difficult, if not impossible. Using digital history provides the possibility for a non-linear discussion of simultaneous events. Links allow readers to jump from page to page rather than reading a book from cover to cover. Additionally, digital history allows for more collaboration. This collaboration can include input from professionals and novices. [2] The very nature of expecting a response to a project alters the way historians conceptualize their writing and their work. Methodologically speaking, digital history allows a far more complex history to be re-created and facilitates a dialogue surrounding those interpretations.

Everything about digital history is contentious among historians. The very definition, not to mention its usefulness, is theorized about for pages on end.[3] It seems historians are behind the times when it comes to embracing technology. Perhaps it is in our very nature to slowly accept change as we are constantly looking back. However, history married with technology will produce better scholarship and more applicability to the present. I must agree with Michael Frisch that the usefulness of the term digital history will be short lived.[4] The digital world in which we, as people and professionals, are reared will re-create our notions of history. I believe what is currently classified as digital history will become one with future historian’s conceptualization of the field. Blogging, mapping, and new forms of media promise to revolutionize the way we interpret history. While some historians may be resisting this change, I believe that eventually digital history will be embraced just as the printing press was centuries ago.

Do you think digital history is here to stay?


[1]  For a more in-depth discussion about the “promises” of digital history, see Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 1-17.

[2] Collaboration among professionals from different fields could revolutionize the interpretation of history. For a further discussion of the importance of specialized knowledge spanning multiple fields, see Bruno Latour, “The Proliferation of Hybrids” in The New Media and Technocultures Reader (New York: Routledge, 2011), 105-109.

[3] Further discussion debating the definition of digital history (and digital humanities) can be seen in: Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2012), 3-11; Lisa Spiro, “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining Values of the Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2012), 16-35; “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008), http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/index.html.

[4] “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” 2008.

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4 Responses to “An attempt to define Digital History”

  1. xtinexby January 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    Jenny,

    You point out a lot of great ways in which technology can help the historian. Do you think that digital history is enhancing the field of history by allowing us to do what we have traditionally done faster, on a great scale, and more directly? Or has digital history not just enhanced but truly revolutionized the field by changing the way we think about and do history?

    I know this is a fine line and maybe there isn’t a good answer because we are in the midst of the change. Just curious on your thoughts.

    • jkalvait January 24, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

      Excellent questions Christine. I think that right now a lot of historians are using digital history simply to benefit the work they are doing. They are using the tools digital history provides to speed up their work, access more sources, and so on. However, I think when digital history is fully embraced, it will revolutionize the field. Simply reflect on the process you went through writing this blog. I am going to assume that you, like me, felt the additional pressure of having this viewed by classmates, friends, and whoever stumbles across our blog. I know I went through more drafts, changed the way I sourced materials (keeping my “work” in the footnotes), tried to use more comparisons, and proofread a few more times to ensure the quality of my work. Knowing that someone besides Dr. Kelly would be reading my writing, added pressure. I think that is stage one of the impending change. That is not to say that publishing a book doesn’t have those pressures, but this is a different forum. The notion that you aren’t always writing for other historians, that “lay” people are interested in your work, will alter the way historians write. Frankly, most monographs on exciting topics are rather boring. I hope digital history will add a little spice. Moreover, the increased collaboration and connectedness with technology and humanities, which you mention in your blog post, will lead to new connections and new interpretations.

      What do you think? Do you think digital history will change history?

      And, thank you for your comment!

  2. apcurtin January 25, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    Jenny and Christine,

    I think that right now, the primary value of digital history is its ability to allow historians to compile research faster and recognize unique patterns that might not be as easily identifiable otherwise. As the field develops, I expect that it will have the potential to revolutionize the very discipline.

    Along another line, Jenny – I really liked this point that you made, that “the linearity of monographs can be counterbalanced with an interactive digital feature.” We talked a bit in our Intro to Public History class last semester about the disappearance of the linear argument and conventional ways of structuring historic narratives. We also talked about the dangers of embracing non-linear narratives exclusively (due to the fact that this might diminish the idea that there is an overarching historical narrative). I think the concept of striking a balance between conventional linear narratives and more web-like narratives fostered by digital media is one that we need to foster as this field develops. I think that used in concert, each can contribute to a better understanding of the past.

    • jkalvait January 26, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

      I agree completely with you Abby! Maintaining the grand narrative and the context for historical events is important. However, exploring the “webs” of history also adds depth to understanding. There is definitely a fine line to toe. Thank you for your comment!

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