Re-Defining the Intellectual Enterprise of History

24 Jan

Digital-HistoryWhile reading this exchange over the general nature of digital history–its potentialities, its shortcomings, and its evolution on the internet and in the world of academia–I was particularly struck by Professor Amy M. Taylor’s use of the terms “medium” and “intellectual enterprise” in describing digital history. In using these terms I believe Taylor allows for us to get perhaps a few centimeters closer to answering the ever-elusive question of what, exactly, is digital history?

Before giving my intentionally broad definition of what I think digital history is for us today in January 2013, I want to explore Taylor’s terms a bit further. We should first look at “intellectual enterprise.” When we analyze the purposes of history and, by extension, the humanities, we must see them as enterprises. Merriam-Webster has four different definitions for “enterprise,” but the first one suits the study of humanities perfectly in that “enterprise” refers to “a project or undertaking that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky.” We need all of the intellect we can muster in order to make sense of this chaotic enterprise of ours in history-making. We try to understand past cultures and the people who shaped the constructs of those cultures, working to make the past more understandable to us today and in many cases holding past leaders and institutions accountable for their actions.

In the aforementioned exchange, Kristen Sword remarked that there was an ongoing debate at her academic institution over whether or not digital history could be considered a “method” or “field,” i.e. an area or division of professional study. Taylor responded with concern, remarking that “I am uncomfortable with the insularity it implies,” suggesting that perhaps those terms were too limiting, restrictive, and academic. She suggested using the words “genre” or “medium” in describing digital history, and I personally love the term “medium.” The medium, again as defined by Merriam-Webster, term 2b1, is “a means of conveying something as a channel or system of communication, information, and entertainment.” Seen in this light, we can begin to understand digital history as one medium in which to engage in the intellectual enterprise of studying history. As Jason Kelly points out, the “Digital Turn” is creating professional and social changes in the field of history. Digital history, according to Kelly, is challenging the very methodologies, techniques, and definitions of authority and expertise that have dominated the field since it was first professionalized in the late 19th Century. These challenges have left us wondering how best to address and educate the broader public about history in an effective manner.

The digital history medium, in sum, is altering the status quo of the historical profession, in some ways quite radically. Yet I would refrain from saying that digital history is replacing the status quo. Traditional methods of communicating historical information–books, scholarly journals, peer review, classroom discussions with a real, live professor–will remain a vital part of the history profession for years to come. Such tools, we are reminded by Kelly, are also forms of media. Regarding books, he correctly states that “books are a technology for moving and exchanging information.” Therefore, I would like to refer to digital history as a medium in order to emphasize the fact that there are many mediums in which knowledge of the past can be conveyed, and that digital history is one of several avenues historians can utilize in their own intellectual enterprises.

I am now ready to provide a definition for what I think digital history is as of January 2013. Digital history is a medium that utilizes digital technology to create a richer intellectual enterprise regarding the study of history.   

There are many different ways in which digital history holds the potential to create an enhanced dialogue about the past, but I would like to focus on four that I find particularly exciting.

1. Transparency: The digital format has made history more “open,” allowing for anyone interested in history to not only study an online history project, but to observe the process of creating such a project, which in turn gives non-historians the chance to see how professional historians pursue their craft. The transparency of our own digital history class at IUPUI is liberating in the sense that all of us have the chance to share and communicate about our educational endeavors to a much larger audience than if we kept our experiences strictly in the classroom. Many other professors and classrooms across the country have embraced William Turkel’s belief (again in the earlier exchange) in creating a digital “institution” centered around the values of open access, open source (allowing anyone to manipulate content a la Wikipedia), and open content projects. Turkel expands on these ideas:

My syllabus is freely available online and makes use entirely of open-access sources. I give away code and instructions on my blog and web sites, and I make commitments to openness in the grants that I write.

2. Interactivity/Communication: In their publication Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig tell us about the possibilites of an enhanced online dialogue:

Digital media also differ from many other older media in their interactivity – a product of the web being, unlike broadcast television, a two-way medium, in which every point of consumption can also be a point of production. This interactivity enables multiple forms of historical dialogue–among professionals, between professionals and nonprofessionals, between teachers and students, among students, among people reminiscing about the past–that were possible before but which are not only simpler but potentially richer and more intensive in the digital medium.

The transparency of digital history allows for observation, but such observations have the potential to be turned into constructive dialogue between a wide range of groups. I agree with Patrik Svensson, who views such digital areas as “trading zones and meeting places” for the sharing of information. Furthermore, programs such as wikis, blogs, and social networking sites give anyone, regardless of intellect, interest, or experience the chance to create their own forums for dialogue and exploration.

3. Motion: Digital resources differ from printed resources in that much of its content never achieves a state of completion. Turkel reminds us that “digital history makes use of sources in digital form,” which allows for content to be perpetually created, manipulated, edited, added, subtracted, annotated, altered, and refined with simple data programming changes and the click of a mouse by a professional, student, or lay person. Note that I choose the word “motion,” because not all changes to digital content are necessarily good ones, thus a word like “evolution” would be inappropriate. However, sources in digital format are constantly being changed, so it would be safe to conclude that such content is in “motion.”

4. Collaboration: The digital landscape has made all of our worlds smaller. We now have the ability to easily communicate and share information with people on different continents from the comforts of our couches. Such communication creates a more inclusive dialogue that welcomes a broader range of experiences, perspectives, and questions to the table. Furthermore, many digital projects that utilize maps, charts, audio, video, and other forms of media are often done as collaborative projects. Historians still have days where they work in isolation at a library or archives, digging through old, smelly manuscripts and artifacts, but the very nature of digital history projects focus on group dynamics and the points I have mentioned here: Transparency, Interactivity, Communication, Motion, and Collaboration.

Digital history is an exciting medium that is rapidly changing the ways in which historians approach their field of study. My definition of what digital history is will undoubtedly change, but that’s what’s supposed to happen. Digital history is about constant growth and change, forcing us to work that much harder in our intellectual enterprises, and I eagerly anticipate the challenges that await me in my future endeavors in the digital landscape.


8 Responses to “Re-Defining the Intellectual Enterprise of History”

  1. Nick Sacco January 24, 2013 at 2:06 am #

    Reblogged this on Exploring the Past.

    • jkalvait January 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      I liked how you broke down other scholars’ definitions, defined their key words, and wrote yours with parts of their definitions. Excellent example of sharing your authority.

      I also am intrigued by your discussion of motion. I do agree that digital history appears more fluid; however, I think that in order sustain the field, all projects must have an end point (even if they never reach a “state of completion” which is a lofty goal for any work). The Valley of the Shadow project ended, but like a published book, you can still access the knowledge collected there. I think that this feeling of constant motion comes from your first category of transparency. As anyone can view our website and blog while we are taking this course, it will be constantly in motion until May. After that, perhaps there will be a few more posts, but largely it will be finished and become essentially motionless. I think you are definitely on to something and thousands of words could be written on this topic alone.

      Excellent, thought-provoking blog post!

  2. Nick Sacco January 24, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    Jenny, thank you so much for the comment and compliments. I agree that some digital projects reach an endpoint, and Ed Ayers’s Valley of the Shadow project is an excellent example of something that is in a state of completeness. Yet the ability to quickly make changes to a digital project is unique to that of printed sources and I’m not sure we necessarily need to have a defined end point for every digital project completed. There needs to be a point when its creators feel confident in publishing their content, but that content can still be manipulated even after they reach the point in which their content is put online. This space will most likely be motionless by May, but it could ostensibly be used again after our “endpoint” has been reached at the end of the semester if it was so desired. Likewise, Dr. Ayers could come back to the Valley of the Shadow project today and change some of the grammatical or informational content on his site and it would still be “Valley of the Shadow.” That possibility will always exist. Yet if he wanted to change something in his book “Valley of the Shadow,” he would be unable to do so unless he was willing to re-publish the book, thus creating “Valley of the Shadow 2nd EDITION.” It would no longer be “Valley of the Shadow,” but something different. I know the difference between mediums is subtle, but I think it’s noteworthy. Hopefully this makes sense!

    • MDKenny January 27, 2013 at 12:59 am #

      I take your point about The Valley of the Shadow being complete, given that it is no longer live. And your distinction between the book and the site is apt, but I guess I think of the ‘finished’ site as The Valley of the Shadow 1.0 rather than as a final product. I don’t mean that by adding a new essay or some commentary, or by making the kinds of editorial changes you mentioned you’ll all of the sudden have a version 2.0, but what if you archived the current site, then copied it and built scaffolding around it that could hold the weight of those local and family historians, public historians and school teachers, students and hobbyists who wanted to share, chart, comment, interpret, upload, visualize, arrange, map, transcribe, tag and customize? What about the game designer who wants to turn those floor plans from the menu page into navigable virtual rooms? What about the artist who wants to record a song sung from the point of view of a Civil War diarist and attach a link to the document in case somebody’s interested? I think that’s the scary thing about sharing authority: when the author, an admittedly visionary academic, says something is done, doesn’t that kind of close the gates on the masses of people – or at least me – saying there’s still something else to be done with this archive. With a book, no one other than you and your publisher is going to dispute your right to say when your book is finished. In the digital domain, it seems less clear. see: (which does have the blessing of the original cartoonist btw!)

      • Nick Sacco January 27, 2013 at 5:52 am #

        Your points are well taken. I readily admit that my argument in that regard is a bit shaky, and I never considered the idea of archiving, scaffolding, or creating navigable virtual rooms from a website. From a technical standpoint I don’t even know at this point how such processes would even be done. It’s something I need to learn more about.

  3. apcurtin January 25, 2013 at 11:31 pm #

    Nick, I found your post to be quite thought-provoking. Two things in particular stuck out to me. First, your definition of DH as a “medium” reminded me of the Marshall McLuhan reading for this coming Monday. He emphasized the idea of “medium over message,” meaning that the medium through which an idea or story is communicated is crucial to its understanding. This is just another reminder for us public historians that HOW we communicate the past is often just as important as WHAT STORIES we choose to tell, especially when it comes to incorporating digital technology.

    Second, I agree with what you said about how DH will probably never simply replace the monograph and other more traditional forms of historical communication. Jenny made an interesting point in her post when she said that, “The linearity of monographs can be counterbalanced with an interactive digital feature.” I think that this dovetails nicely with what you are communicating in your post. Perhaps we will find value in pairing the digital with the traditional, and realize that we can communicate with different audiences by pairing the new and the old – using digital technologies to compliment and add interactivity to the linear arguments that we find in monographs.

    • Nick Sacco January 26, 2013 at 12:14 am #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and expertise, Abby. For me, this educational endeavor in digital history has brought McLuhan’s theories that much closer to reality. As many of our classmates have mentioned, the fact that digital history often takes a non-linear format fundamentally changes the ways in which we perceive information about the past. I couldn’t agree more with your emphasis on the importance of understanding amongst public historians that how we communicate about the past is just as important as picking the right stories.

      To use Dr. Ayers again, his “Valley of the Shadow” project includes his digital content and a published book. Likewise, one of my biggest influences in the blogosphere is Kevin Levin at, who essentially blogged his entire research process for his now published book on the Battle of the Crater. The transparency and interactivity offered through the blogging medium allowed for anyone to follow Levin’s successes, failures, and changes and provide input on the project as well. He told me that the openness of his project has boosted his book sales, and I think that’s very noteworthy for those of us who still believe there’s a lot of validity to the “traditional” methods of conveying historic information. Thanks again for commenting.


  1. Public History: Never Finished, Never Perfect « Digital History - January 31, 2013

    […] 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 […]

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