So you’re taking a class called “Digital History”…What does that mean?

24 Jan

It is hard to go a day without hearing or reading some news story about new technology or the way that technology is changing the way we do things as a society (A recent survey notes that even social media has become a trusted source). Given this ever more digitally-minded culture, almost every part of society—from businesses, to schools, to professionals, to the government— is exploring how what they do every day can be connected to and facilitated by digital technology. The history profession, and the discipline as a whole, is no exception to this trend. For the historian, who is used to focusing on the past, this change in thinking can be particularly arduous and many members of the profession are resistant. Nevertheless, most historians recognize both that a connection between the digital world and their job is both necessary to remain relevant and is valuable to make the historian’s work, in many ways, easier. Out of this recognition has come the ambiguous field of digital history and everyone seems to have a little bit different idea of what this means. For me, digital history is an emerging discipline that is closely related to digital humanities and is primarily concerned with using digital tools and technology to do and improve the work of historians.

            Recently, historians have begun to have the option of specializing in digital history. Instead of focusing on the history of a specific area or a specific time, these historians are primarily concerned with understanding the evolving world of technology and how the field of history can use and be shaped by it. This serves as evidence to me that digital history is more than just the use of technology by historians but it is rather, a discipline that can be studied and which methodology and theories can be applied too. The new nature of the field is evident in the fact that historians, like me, are attempting to define what exactly it means to be a digital historian. The interconnectivity of the internet makes it difficult to establish boundaries for a discipline that is so focused on the web. However, I believe that currently there is a movement in the world of academia to hire professors and offer classes on digital history and as this happens, the parameters of what digital history is are becoming clearer and clearer.

            For me, any definition of digital history must include an understanding that it is closely connected to digital humanities. Just as history has traditionally fallen under the category of the humanities, digital history is closely tied to the umbrella field of digital humanities. Digital humanities is also not simple to define[i]. Since this post is specifically focused on digital history I will not attempt to add my definition to the conversation here. What is necessary to acknowledge here is that digital historians are also digital humanists and the communities are closely connected. Digital humanists emphasize the importance of networking and community as part of their discipline. According to Mathew Kirschenbaum digital humanities is, “a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years.”[ii] As part of that general discipline, digital historians are closely intertwined with this community. The line between digital history, digital English, and other branches of the humanities is a thin one and at times those concerned with the digital component of the humanities can be more connected then digital historians are to traditional historians.

            The important distinction that gives digital historians their own separate field within the realm of digital humanities is that these scholars are primarily focused on digital tools for the sake of helping historians do what they have traditionally done. Historians are concerned with the evidences of the past to interpret and present their findings. Digital history studies how technology can help at every stage of that process. Technology can widen our access and comprehension of the evidences left from the past. It can also help us form and find new connections that change the way we interpret the past. And finally, and most visibly, it offers a plethora of new and exciting ways to present a historian’s interpretations. This is where many people stop their definition of digital history. But in the brief time I have been exploring this new field, I have come to realize and acknowledge that digital history is not simply using technology as a tool to be used by historians. This is one aspect of the field, but I believe that it is more important to acknowledge that digital history is also changing and evolving the ways that historians both think about and do history. In their introduction to Digital History, Roy Rosenzweig and David Cohen note, “…the possibility of manipulating historical data with electronic tools as a way of finding things that were not previously evident”.[iii] Using technology to interpret the past can break down the traditional methodologies of history and create new ones as well as change how historians view the past. This is the exciting and path breaking part of digital history that makes it so exciting, innovative, and central to our current discussions.

            I believe that digital history is here to stay. It is not simply a passing phase and the work done by digital historians will have a profound and lasting impact on the entire profession as well as the public who interact with history daily. This emerging discipline’s close relationship to digital humanities and effort to serve the field of history, will led to its growth and continued influence for years to come. That’s why I am taking a class about this diverse and complicated subject. To remain relevant and valuable in my future career, the ability to understand and utilize the tools of digital history will be essential.


[i] Lisa Spiro attributes this lack of definition to the inclusion of people “with different disciplines, methodological approaches, professional roles, and theoretical inclinations”. Lisa Spiro, “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 16.

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

[iii] Cohen and Rosenzweig, “Promises and Perils of Digital History” in Digital History, 1-17.

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7 Responses to “So you’re taking a class called “Digital History”…What does that mean?”

  1. ngoodlin January 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    Hi Christine,

    Your comment about “a movement in the world of academia” is interesting. It reminds me of our discussion in class of (I think) Lisa Spiro’s article, where the topic of Yale joining into the digital humanities community came up. As I recall, there was worry in the article that academic institutions would, in fact, step into the arena and set concrete parameters about what was or wasn’t part of the digital humanities, thus making it an insular field. Do you think that is what’s happening in the digital history world now? Do you think that we need to set specific parameters down in order to set up an effective pedagogy for digital history?

    Given the concerns of the community about this type of thing, I think it’s interesting to see how their perspective might differ from ours as we struggle to get enough of a handle on what digital history is to learn about it.

    • xtinexby January 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      Noah-

      I think Yale was in the Sevvenson article and my impression was that it was the type of academic institution that Yale is that made its joining the digital humanities community threatening to some people.

      It is a good question about whether digital historians have the same fears of parameters and insulation as digital humanists. In my limited experience, it seems to me that this is one area where digital historians differ from digital humanists. I think that most historians, whether academic or focused on digital history, would celebrate the inclusion of a top-tired academic institution in their community and of the establishing of parameters. I am not sure why I get this impression. Perhaps it may have to do with the differences between the worlds of English and History?

      This is something I will continue to consider this semester. I have been viewing digital history as almost identical to digital humanities but with a narrower focus. It could be that there are more important differences.

      • MDKenny January 27, 2013 at 12:34 am #

        One of the outcomes of the establishment of (capital D, capital H) Digital Humanities in the context of academia is that these definitional distinctions will likely be made at individual institutions in ways that reflect specific institutional structures and fiscal concerns. This is an area where Svensson’s concerns about Yale (or other similarly influential institutions) having a disproportionate impact on the field as a whole may be well-founded. The danger that other universities would be pushed into conforming with standards and definitions Yale chooses to adopt would thereby reproduce and exacerbate already-existing inequalities in the academic landscape.

        I hope that the (little d, little h) digital humanists who have been hard at work establishing new partnerships across institutional and disciplinary boundaries remain committed to the same cooperative model they employ in their academic work when it comes time to make these kinds of institutional decisions. I guess I have a hard time pulling Digital History out from under the parent category of Digital Humanities because it feels like a retreat to exclusive territory – as if we’ve gone out to raid a bunch of other disciplines, bringing back the shiny bits to our holdfast where we can back to work on a new and improved brand of History (now Digitally-fortified!).

        My take on the Yale issue is that there’s really no way to say: We digital humanists are not an exclusive, elitist club, therefore you can’t join. As Christine pointed out, institutions like Yale (or Stanford: http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/index.php) brings a lot of really great assets to the field. But just because you’re the star player doesn’t mean you get to skip practice, or forget about the fundamentals, or fail to observe principles of fair play.

  2. Rrmosca January 24, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    This is so interesting Christine. I love your comparison of digital history to digital humanities. History is often difficult to separate from the field of humanities, so it makes sense that they would overlap in the digital world as well. Your blog entry here is a great introduction to this topic.

    • xtinexby January 25, 2013 at 1:04 am #

      Thanks Roxanne!
      I feel like digital history and digital humanities are tantalizing concepts that were thrown around the margins of our undergraduate courses but we never really talked about them in depth. It’s a hard topic to define and I already find myself changing my mind from what I wrote! But that is part of the reason I am in this class – to have an evolving understanding of what Digital History is and what it means to me.

      Although super long and a few years old, this article (http://goo.gl/rSW6j) is really interesting and raises many of the issues that are part of digital history (what is digital history, should we support open access, how does digital history connect to museums and interactive exhibits). I am regretting writing my blog post before doing my reading for this week…but I am sure that my understanding will only continue to change.

  3. Libby Trudeau January 25, 2013 at 1:35 am #

    Christine,
    I think these are fascinating concepts to be thinking about. In the field of history there always seems a tension between understanding the past while absorbing the future: the best historians are the ones that can do both. Technology can be such a useful and important tool in historical analysis and is itself an important historical phenomena to be studied in its own right. The reality is as you say, it is affecting our society on many levels and all disciplines need to continue to consider carefully what it’s implications are for their fields.

    • xtinexby January 25, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

      Libby-

      I agree! I think that one of the biggest obstacles to overcome for most of us is moving beyond simply using the technology, to actually thinking and understanding what we are doing when we use it. Everyone thinks that technology is neutral but there are many assumptions written into the programs we use that we never think about and impact how we think and work.

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