Bridging the Digital Divide: Digital History Proves a Promising Tool for the Traditionalist and the Techie

In an online discussion hosted by The Journal of American History entitled “The Promise of Digital History,” eight noted digital historians defined digital history and detailed how it had revamped the historical field as a whole.  The roundtable participants included: Daniel G. Cohen (George Mason University), Michael Frisch (University at Buffalo, State University of New York), William G. Thomas III (University of Nebraska), Steven Mintz (Columbia University), Patrick Gallagher (Gallagher & Associates), Kirsten Sword (Indiana University), Amy Murrell Taylor (State University of New York- Albany), and William J. Turkel (University of Western Ontario).  According to this distinguished group, even the most “traditional,” for lack of a better word, historians have already integrated aspects of digital history into their research, instruction, and publication repertoire whether they are aware of it or not.  As Kirsten Sword points out, “The new media are profoundly changing the ways most historians work, whether or not we are self-conscious about how we are becoming digital.”

Digital technologies have revolutionized the way historians create, supplement, and distribute historical research and scholarship and digital history represents the future of the discipline.  William J. Turkel explains that the use of digital sources “completely changes the landscape of information and transaction costs that historians have traditionally faced.”  Moreover, non-digital scholarship is not even a possibility anymore. “Say you consult physical sources in a library, archive, or museum, write your notes on three-by-five cards, and type drafts on a typewriter,” Turkel explains, “You still have to use networked computers to access finding aids. You have to prepare an electronic copy of your work so that it can be published in paper. Everything is at least partly digital. The idea that digital history can be marginalized depends on the perception that the Internet is somehow external to our real business. But seriously, how much research can we get done during a power outage?”

This dependency on technology has many old guard historians, who enjoyed the simplicity of the Dewey Decimal System and browsing library stacks, shaking their heads.  However, Daniel G. Cohen responds to skeptics who might argue that there is “no substitute for old-fashioned legwork” by pointing out, that while “almost every historian has probably benefited from browsing the stacks and bumping into helpful sources, books can only be arranged on a physical shelf in one way, resources are often distributed across multiple archives, and physical layout and distribution can hide interesting and relevant materials from even the most dedicated researcher.”  In the not too distant future, innovative, technologically advanced research tools could allow historians to browse “virtual shelves” and potentially “bump into” millions of possible virtual sources.  As Cohen explains, David Mimno’s “virtual shelves” “cluster[s] books differently depending on a particular researcher’s choices while also allowing for surprising and welcome finds. He creates these virtual shelves by scanning the full texts of books and applying document-classification algorithms to them. Search tools that look inside books rather than just at the spines or the subject headings are already available, such as Google Book Search. New online library catalogs are coming that move beyond the undifferentiated match lists of a pre-Google era, and I suspect historians will warmly welcome these interfaces.”  The combined experience of browsing customized shelves with access to an “infinite archive” (to borrow Turkel’s phrase) of digital sources sounds like a dream come true for even the most staunchly skeptical historian.

The younger generation is naturally more comfortable and confident with the digital experience.  In the age of interactive video games and social networking, “the virtual world has a very different meaning for a younger audience raised with technology as a given,” states Patrick Gallagher. “We [the older generation] grew into this reality; they were born into it. Our research shows that when people of an older generation interact with technology, they always harbor a bit of fear. A younger audience has no fear and in fact feels much more in control.”  William G. Thomas agrees with Gallagher yet cautions that, “just because students have grown up with a technology does not mean that they understand anything about it. Students are users, as a general rule, and not producers, but if our next generation of historians are going to have a voice in this medium, they will need to be producers. Yet as the first lifelong users of the Web, these students also have a perspective that we need to pay attention to. Many are savvy users who through experience with the medium have their own views on what constitutes an important or useful development.”

So developing, and not only using the new technological tools reactively, is the key.  Amy Murrell Taylor reasons that historians will need to make a huge conceptual shift in how they think about history in order to produce meaningful digital experiences.  Traditionally, historians have explained, presented, and professed their interpretations to an audience and/or reader.  Digital historians, on the other hand, hope to participate, engage, and interact with their “user.” Increasingly collaborative, ever-evolving works or projects that hope to engage rather than instruct have replaced the linear, narrative monograph. “A student who is friendly to digital technology can be quite uncomfortable with thinking about history in new ways. This discomfort may also have to do with being asked to rethink the position of the historian—in ceding some control to the user to define the experience, what control does the historian/creator retain?”  In effect, historians must discard the notion of guiding their audience through a narrative and, instead, create a space that is “participatory” and “interactive” where the “user” of the technology controls his/her own experience.  It would almost appear that the monograph has been replaced with the technological equivalent of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book (or, in this case, site).

Public historians may feel most comfortable cultivating this “dual allegiance,” as Taylor calls it, between traditional and digital history.  This is likely due to the fact that public historians, who often work in museums as curators, preservationists, and archivists, understand the value of creating an experience and an atmosphere that reaches the widest possible audience and attempts to create a multi-sensory encounter (whereas, traditional history only appeals to the sense of sight to stimulate the imagination).  Public historians are also more familiar with the “open” format of digital history, which, as Thomas points out, “shares some qualities with the museum exhibit—its constituent parts are arranged, text is often minimal or “chunked,” visitors can walk through the space, visitors have some choice over where to go and what to see. In this sense the experience is participatory and spatial.”

Not surprisingly, and in contrast, academic historians are typically the most resistant to supplementing their work digitally and surrendering control of their work and are leaving digital history to the next generation.  “Many tenured and tenure-track academic historians assume that digital history will somehow be taken care of by the next generation, which is, of course, practically cyborg,” Turkel jokes, “Unfortunately, this isn’t true.”  Although most historians are now at least “partly digital,” many do not extend their knowledge of digital history beyond the use of computerized source finding aids.  But this may soon change, as historians of the “pre-cyborg” generation era recognize the one of the obvious benefits of digital history– the potential for worldwide proliferation of information.  Publishing works online rather than waiting for publication in an academic journal leads to an exponential increase in readership and enhanced name recognition.  It is also important for historians to remember that digital history is not threatening to replace traditional history; instead, it aims to supplement rather than supplant the monograph and other traditional forms.  In fact, the pairing of traditional historical work with a complementary digital work can, as Taylor writes, allow the historian “to do it all.”  This model, she continues, is excellent “given that I am still quite attached to the monograph, that is appealing—but more significantly, it allows the historian to exploit the strengths of each medium and produce history that is deeper and richer than if presented in only one form.”

– Tracie Peterson

Image credit: www.kevinspear.com

3 Replies to “Bridging the Digital Divide: Digital History Proves a Promising Tool for the Traditionalist and the Techie”

  1. >Digital technologies have revolutionized the way historians create, >supplement, and distribute historical research and scholarship and >digital history represents the future of the discipline.

    I would be more cautious with thesis about the next revolutions and with such categorical predictions. Think at least about problems with preservation of digital resources and with opposition of "old" academic historians against the openness (copyrights vs open access) and collaboration (wiki format – as Rosenzweig writes in "Can History be Open Source?").

  2. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the blog!

    I also appreciate your words of caution. You brought it to my attention that my own post (unintentionally) reflects the highly optimistic attitudes of the roundtable participants. I read and enjoyed your article <a href="http://(http://digitalhistoryblog.org/)” target=”_blank”>(http://digitalhistoryblog.org/) very much and wholeheartedly agree with your statement that, "Text mining software can analyze a large amount of data, but it can’t write a story." I am mostly optimistic about technological "aids" for the historian, especially research tools and increased contact and collaboration with colleagues. I, too, am concerned about the impact digital history may have on the discipline- the technology should not diminish the human element and "openness" should not amount to copyright infringement.

    Unfortunately, I do agree with Michael Frisch that digital history "will end up meaning too much or too little and pretty soon will be so inescapable." I think that historians are going to be expected to incorporate digital tools into the repertoire much like the quantitative method was absorbed after its heyday in the '70s and '80s. I agree that the implications are much greater than with cliometrics but after digital practices have been absorbed into the field, I think the hype and early enthusiasm will all come to naught.

    Thank you again for your response and your insight!

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