28 Jan

LibertyEqualityorDeathWhat is digital history? It is an attempt to “hack history.” It is a movement to crack into the code of history and fundamentally change the way we understand it. It is a desire to tear down walls and create open access for historical materials, reducing the layers between the individual and history. It is a movement to share ideas. It is a desire to breakdown hierarchical relationships and diffuses power through among like-minded hackers.

What started out in the nineties as part of larger efforts by a few humanists and historians has grown, with conferences, journals, centers and graduate programs? The ethos of the movement non-hierarchical power creates friction in an institutional setting, such as higher education. In this effort to institutionalize, the participants, not to mention outsiders struggle to define the… discipline, field, method, genre.

To better understand this “hack,” historians tend to look at the values, ideas and systems impacted. Central to this are the questions asked both inside and outside the movement about is foundational character.
1. What is the relationship between digital history and digital humanities? What is the relationship between academic history and digital history?
2. What is the role of the “digital” is it for the creation or application of technology to questions?
3. What is the relationship between digital history change the nature of the questions asked by historians or change the way they are answered.
4. What is the role of traditional academic disciplines, interdisciplinary projects and scholarly communities to
5. By what criteria should digital history and digital humanities be evaluated?
Beyond these core questions, are the central values that influence the answers to these questions. Attempt to articulate these core values are central to many of the theoretical pieces assigned for the class and student responses. Reflecting on the revolutionary nature of the “hack,” in the words of the French Revolutionaries: liberte, egalite, fraternite. Digital History offers a freedom to explore new methods and questions with an increased access to evidence. The movement is founded on a value of equality with open access to information, hypertextuality and non-linear narratives. The “brotherhood” of digital history is one of its most defining aspects with non-hierarchal power relations, interdisciplinary, and new networks of scholars sharing information.

Understanding the foundational questions and values moves us a step closer to a definition. William Thomas, one of the pioneers of the field presents his ideas about the nature of the field as a “working definition.” The value of the more amorphous working definition is that it sets grounding for those engaged in a shared enterprise, such as this class or the Interchange article, but the fluidity it allows for refinement throughout the endeavor. I accept Jason Kelly’s definition of digital history as one that is useful in the context of our class, and also the current state of the field.
Digital Humanities is an interdisciplinary approach to humanities research which is focused on the creation and critical application of digital technologies to develop scholarly communities and further humanistic knowledge.
Digital History is a branch of the Digital Humanities which focuses on using and development digital tools to answer the questions posed by historians ; problematises historians’ assumptions and methodologies and helps to open up new questions problems and theories to historic analysis.
Historians know that Revolutions of all sorts struggle to bring their high ideals into practice. Interestingly, soon after the Revolution, the motto was sometime written as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”. During the bloody period that followed, “Brotherhood or death!” was a frequent cry heard in the streets. Digital Humanists and Historians struggle with how to implement their vision in the shifting world of the twenty-first century academy. While the halls of the academy are far from the blood soaked streets of Paris, issues of funding and tenure can spell life or death for careers. Descriptively, Kelly places Digital History as a branch of the Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities has far more widespread presence in the University environment. The “digital humanities” also has emerged as a preferred term based upon the recognition of the term by funders, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. Interestingly, Kelly sets digital history apart from “Academic History” but also in opposition to it, positing that digital history will problematize assumptions and methodologies as well as create new ones.
As we move forward into our investigation of the theory and practice of digital history, we will no doubt revisit our working definition and revise it based upon our new knowledge and assumptions. Indeed, this fluidity and non-linear narratives are among our core values and we would be remiss if we did not utilize this hard fought freedom.

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One Response to “”

  1. Tim Rainesalo January 28, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    Your approach to digital history as a revolution is apt and enlightening. I particularly like your continual emphasis on its fluid nature, both in terms of what it represents (as a field and to each of us individually) and how our evolving understanding of its practices forces us to adapt our own individual understanding over time. Given how rapidly we’ve seen technology and social networking media evolve over time, I think openness to change is a good approach.

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