How do you do Digital History?

27 Jan

As predicted, Digital History is deceptively complicated to define. On the surface the term seems self-defining: a simple tautology of using digital technology to conduct historical investigations. However, delve deeper, and this elucidation becomes a bit murky. This definition is overly simplistic in its lack of methodology or theory, ideological agency that historian needs to conduct their research. Without these terms digital history becomes simply a tool to further current research practices. Instead I resonate with Daniel Cohen’s definition, who suggests that “digital history can be defined as the theory and practice of bringing technology to bear on the abundance [of historical material] we now confront.”[1] In grappling with this definition, however, I am left pondering what it means to ‘do’ digital history?

Today digital history little resembles that which it evolved from. The nature of computers and programs, and the invention of the internet over the last thirty years has drastically changed the landscape which historians conduct and disseminate their research. Examples abound, from the ease of accessing and analyzing sources due to digitization projects, to online databases that provide the ability to effortlessly search scholarly journals. Computer programs and mapping tool make it possible to understand and visualize research in different ways, creating new interpretations on old questions. The Internet has provided a space for sharing work and collaborating other scholars and increasingly wider audiences.[2] Digital history has evolved with each of these changes technologies, adapting and expanding with each invention. This makes the subject a slippery fish to easily surmise. William Thomas explains that one challenge for “producing digital history is the fluidity or impermanence of the medium… Its texts are fluid, its technologies shift, and its engagement with the wider historiography changes over time.”[3] This consistent state of flux means that doing digital history can have diverse and divergent meanings.

This begs the question, is there a difference between simply using digital history and doing digital history? A simple example of this might be the contrast between using a digital archive to simply find newspaper articles, and using a digital archive to take digitized newspaper articles and then use a program to analyze word patterns. Both are using digital history, but the former is using digital history as a tool to continue standard research practices. The latter works digital technology into the core of its research project. To me, the difference is best encapsulated by an analogy by Roy Rosenzwieg and Daniel Cohen, of imagining digital history to be an architect instead of a plumber.[4]  I think, to do digital history means to incorporate it into the architecture of the project, requiring innovation with technology as a way to re-image the past.[5]  This allows digital history to move beyond simply a tool, becoming integral to the work that historians do. As Amy Murrell Taylor explains, digital history should produce “something that can stand alongside a book, something that takes a different form, but nonetheless raises questions, offers analysis, and advances our historiographical knowledge of a given subject.” [6]

That being said, as I established above, digital history is consistently an evolving field. It is being shaped and remolded by new inventions and technologies, many times created within a collaboration of scholars from diverse fields. The differentiation between those who use digital history and produce digital history is ever-changing, and sometimes may rely on each other. Ultimately, as Web 3.0 appears on the horizon and projects increasingly require collaboration, these terms may become interchangeable.

Do you do digital history or simply use it?


[1]Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008).

[2] To see further discussion of the history of digital history, see “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” 2008; or William G. Thomas II, Computing and the Historical Imagination,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and  John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[4] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006).

[5] A further debate concerning digital history defined as a method, field, genre or medium can be found in “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” 2008.

[6] Ibid.

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3 Responses to “How do you do Digital History?”

  1. Elena R January 27, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    Hi Callie, I really like how you framed your post as doing vs. using digital history. I think that I was thinking along similar lines to you, but I was never quite able to boil it down to this statement, which is a very clear and concise way to put it. One of the benefits of digital technology is that it has such diverse functions that it serves various purposes, so I think that doing vs. using will grow more interchangeable as technology progresses. I think that since digital history is new, it’s something where you can see the divide much more clearly, but as a new generation of historians emerges who’s used to working with technology, digital work will just be another component of regular historical work.

    • apcurtin January 27, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

      I also like your framework, Callie, and Elena raises an interesting question/point — will the chasm between “doing” and “using” DH shrink and eventually disappear altogether as it matures? I suppose only time will tell. Either way, we are learning DH at an interesting time, when such divides and questions exist for us to ponder….

    • Callie January 28, 2013 at 3:19 am #

      Thanks for the comment Elena. I think I was coming to a similar conclusion the longer I pondered this subject. I guess, it them makes me as, if technology will be a regular part of historical work, then do we even need a genre of digital history?

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