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:; 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:   

[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.


2 Responses to “Digital History: What’s in your 21st century toolbox?”

  1. MDKenny January 26, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    The interactivity you describe – between historians working in different areas, using different methods and materials; among scholars working in partnership across disciplinary boundaries; and between academics and other professionals and the various public and private audiences they serve – points to a negotiated authority being worked out over time.

    • apcurtin January 27, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

      Hi Matthew; good point. I didn’t talk about that explicitly in my post, but I do agree that the type of collaboration, conversation, and shared authority that DH demands is something that will take time to establish, and it will certainly be an experimental process.

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