An Introduction to “Digital History”

When you try researching history on the web, what is your first step?  Personally, I start out by typing a few words into Google and seeing what pops up.  It’s very basic and may not always lead to the best sources, but it’s somewhere to start.

Modern digital media has provided us with the means to store a large amount of information in small spaces, share the information with individuals across the globe who can also take part in the development of a project, create projects that integrate multiple forms of digital media, and it has allowed us to search for connections within scores of information quickly.  All of these advantages have provided the general public with the opportunity to expand their education and easily access information which may have once been restricted for viewing by only the most elite scholars.  In other words, fourth grade students studying the American Revolution can now build webpages that pull information from institutes such as the Smithsonian with only a few clicks of their mice.

Though researching and sharing history may have been made easier through the expansion of digital media, our society must now also deal with the downfalls of such technological leaps.  We can rarely guarantee the quality of the information we are viewing on the web, making it difficult to gather correct information and avoid the opinions of individuals.  In addition, the vast leaps in the storage and sharing of information which many organizations have spent the last 20 years creating are slowing because we have yet to find the means by which we can preserve our digital present.

Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s text Digital History strives to educate the general populace on the advances and blockades being experienced in the digital media.  They intended to create a book which would teach more people how to create and participate in digital history, perhaps in an effort to draw more attention to the practice and further its creation.  Overall I felt that the introduction and the first chapter of the book were informative and descriptive introductions to digital history.  Were you at all confused by their information?  I was unable to completely understand the importance of some minute details related to the development of digital history.  However, I believe the readings did give me a solid foundation to begin studying this environment.  What did you find most interesting?

4 Replies to “An Introduction to “Digital History””

  1. Some of the points I found most important/interesting in these two chapters of Digital History were very basic, yet striking. Specifically, Cohen and Rosenzweig’s points about capacity in the Introduction and archival websites in Chapter 1 resonated with some of the research I have been doing throughout the past year.

    In regards to their concept of “capacity”, I felt the authors did not take the implications of capacity far enough… though they discuss the potential for preserving every word, every statement, everything created, and later discuss how the lack of a system is actually leading to the opposite effect, I feel as though the potential use of technology, the Internet, and storage in hard drives and such has greater implications for what we as historians even consider history.

    The very fact that near every word can be stored, saved, and practically instantly accessible to an immense audience online opens the door for new types of sources to become historical evidence and archives. Chat room transcripts, emails, Instagram, etc. can all be preserved and used as sources. But what I felt these chapters lacked a little was challenging what that meant to the field of history as a whole and how it could challenge previous historiography.

    Historians have seen such changes in what counts as a source before. With the rise of social and women’s history came Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives in which Ulrich uses house ledgers and descriptions of household items bought or passed on to reconstruct the lives of women in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ulrich’s work shows a definite shift in what was considered a value and legitimate source; lists of pots and pans previously had not been considered viable or relevant to history Now many fields, notably Native American and Women’s history, use less “traditional” sources to redefine what is history, who are historical actors, and what is important.

    In this sense, the potential to preserve nearly every word brings about potential for a revolution in what history could be defined as. It also poses a problem however in that too many sources can flood historians. I personally think this would lead to much more concentrated and tightly argued works focusing on smaller sets of sources, but who’s to say.

    In working with patient records, it’s been immensely frustrating when I’ve gone to find the file of a woman who was noted in the Baltimore Sun and then, whoops, her file was thrown out in 1883 for lack of space. Actually, past 1905 pretty much only every five years of files were saved. Ones from say, 1906-1910 were just thrown out. That’s four years of patients’ lives that could tell historians so much about medicine, gender, disease, public health, poverty, etc. But they’re gone.

    Chapter 1’s discussion of the downfalls or flaws of archival websites is related to this discussion, in that both sources that have been preserved in the past and sources placed on websites now are subjectively saved or omitted by individuals with agendas. Not necessarily overt, evil agendas, but biases of their own and restrictions, such as time or money, in the least.

    What strikes me as fascinating is the potential that, if a proper system is worked out, some 14 year old saving their instant messages with their best friends (though we all use gchat now, of course) could become the new Smith-Rosenberg. It’s like “The Female World of Love and Ritual 2.0” and it very well may open the gates for who will become objects of historians one hundred years from now.

    1. The daunting ‘flood’ of information that historians can potentially have access to does seem comparably more preferable than the frustrations of archival research today. I have a back ground in Early Modern Europe, and it is amazing the impact archival holdings shapes research – we can only write about what we can find, and that is often not very much. I liked your comment because you kept referring to a revolution, and I think that is most likely how humanities in the future will handle this onslaught of information – revolutionizing how the information is managed, and perhaps enlarging the field of professionals who organize and preserve that information. Maybe in a few decades one could pursue a masters in Digital Archiving.

  2. Cohen and Rosenzweig provide an excellent introduction to the field of digital history in clear, concise language. Balancing the technological knowledge that is inseparable from the discussion of the web with a welcoming tone that encourages the expansion of digital initiatives beyond the limited boundaries of inherent tech enthusiasts or digital natives is not a simple task. Working through a well-defined set of potential positive and negative outcomes of the advent of Internet Communications Technologies (ICT) with regard to historical practice, they have created a thoughtful map of what has been attempted in the past and, to some extent, what has and hasn’t worked.

    The presentation of the material itself, text drawn from a book which was separately published in both print and e-book formats, and its provision on their own website free of charge attests to the power of the “open sources” concept that they return to a number of times. While still allowing for traditional monetized distribution through assembled published formats, the authors’ commitment to the free transmission of ideas is evidenced in their making the full content available for scholars and enthusiasts alike to explore the notion of digital public history and, ideally, to put that knowledge into practice through the creation of useful historical web resources that benefit from thorough and thoughtful conceptualization in light of the history web’s past.

    Another interesting element of digital history practice unearthed by this material is its fleeting nature and constant fight against becoming outdated or obsolete. In regard to historical study where more time between the past of interest and the present has lapsed, the content may not change as quickly as when examining more recent events, yet the technology of access, archive, and presentation is constantly evolving and that has consequences for the entire practice of digital history generally. Even in the time since the publication of the Cohen and Rosenzweig piece in 2005, there has been a shift from the limited existence of “born digital” materials archived and presented online that they noted. The result has been a seemingly overwhelming impulse to immediately collect and permanently curate digital media content, personal experience testimony, and other artifacts from recent events online, as evidenced in the various web archives dedicated to 9/11 and the launch of the Hurricane Digital Memory bank in the aftermath of Rita and Katrina. These new resources and their documentation in such proximity to when the event they reference occurred have yet undiscovered consequences for historical practice that has traditionally been done in the context of materials gathered in retrospect and perhaps with greater psychological, social, and cultural distance.

  3. Digital History is a fantastic introduction to the technically as well as historiographical issues posed by the turn to digitally generated historic material. As a complete low-tech student that I am, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig do walk their readers through the history of historians presence on the web and the technically developments they were and still are a part of.

    In Chapter 1, they presented an issue that emerging historians know all too well. The earliest efforts of carving space within the web for history was done by amateurs, usually with an interest or background in technology. Carl Becker once proclaimed “every man a historian.” History’s presence on the web proves this very idea. But much like historical writing and researching, elites and academics have managed to muscle their way into this space as well. I have bounced back and forth on agreeing and hesitating to agree with Becker. One easy example that comes to mind are Civil War heritage sites, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But the prominence of that website seems to prove Becker right all along.

    The web provides a new space for the public to carve for themselves. In public history we are taught that museums are such spaces. But imagine a safe and engaging space like the museum, that spans the globe and connects ideas. We owe that reality to the every man. Thanks Mr. Becker!

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