Embracing the Gerund: A Definition of Digital Historian

Being new to the world of the digital humanities in general and digital history in specific, I surveyed these first course readings with an eye to a better understanding of what I was getting myself into. It all just seems so exciting and action verbs abound. Weible talks about “enhancing understanding;” Onion of “kindling a fire” [for knowledge]. Cecire discusses as “hackers,” those who learn by making or doing. Spiro’s recommendations are all active: join, learn, discuss, and make. With all these options, what precisely is it that we do?

Cohen and Rosenzweig’s discussion of the history of digital history in relation to the history of the digital and seeks to align us as “techno-realists,” the people who look at the opportunities provided by unlimited storage and recognize that they are counterbalanced by the complexities of access. Sure, you can keep anything and everything you want, but you’ll never be able to find it. This, in my opinion, is the line in the sand: appraisal. An enthusiastic amateur grasps the capabilities of unlimited storage and starts trying to cram everything in. The “neo-Luddite” camp see the problem and wash their hands of it; we were, after all, warned. The Techno-Realist, in contrast to both, steps back, defines the need, identifies the resources, and then develops a plan.

The Digital Historian as Techno-Realist, from what I can determine, is the one who understand the balance between what the consumer wants and what they need. Spiro defines the optimal qualifications for the role of digital historian as ‘open-minded, experimental, and playful” and the chief characteristics of the professional body are “energy, creativity, and collegiality.” To summarize: fun, friendly, and ready to give it a go.

Onion’s discussion of a dedicated professional who decried a lack of scholarly citation being branded as “against fun” brings to the forefront a paradox. Digital Historians, as Spiro points out, are largely self-taught and yet, as my colleague Jamie will discuss, there remains a dedication to scholarly integrity. Weible calls it, “a discipline of practitioners,” and to my mind, the key word for building a definition of Digital Historian is “practitioner” because it defines the discipline as something that is practiced, something you can get better at, and to return to Spiro, something that is experimental.

So what does this make the Digital Historian? I would like to put forth the argument that we are the missing link. There is a gap, illuminated by Onion, between the information that is available about many and varied historical topics and what is being presented to the public to maintain easily digestible nuggets; between what the public want (fun) and what they need (correct information and context). Weible, citing Franco, discusses the greater digital history forum as being, ideally, “a safe place for disagreement.” The paradox in this is that the public hasn’t changed: interests are narrow, time and attention are limited. Not everyone wants to expend the energy to do the research themselves and the abundance of the history picture Twitter Feeds alone suggests how the public wants the information: pithy and easily digestible.

To my mind, this is where the Digital Historian can come in: with experimentation and fun, embracing the action verbs and doing. Establishing not a second ivory tower of the Academy nor fast-food education, but something in between: I quite like the summer camp analogy, but I would also put forward the comparison of a Children’s Museum. It might be simple, but everything in a Children’s Museum is both fun and educational, proof that the dichotomy can work. The challenge becomes figuring out how to connect the wants and needs of the data consumer external to the confines of a formal academic setting. The definition of the digital historian would seem to be someone who goes out and does.

How would others define Digital Historian?

2 Replies to “Embracing the Gerund: A Definition of Digital Historian”

  1. (snip)”What precisely is it that we do?”(snip)

    If “history is the stories we tell ourselves”, a Digital Historian tells the stories of digital culture which have not been told.

    She is an archaeologist, an anthropologist, an archivist, and above all a storyteller. He is an epidemiological dissident against Whig History, that fantasy of a linear, plodding, inevitable, deterministic Progress driven by Great Men and superior products in a rational marketplace.

    We dig up forgotten data, organizing it, collect testimonies, and tell stories about what we did, how and why we did it, and how we came to be where we are now.


    ref: Pinch & Bijker, Harold Innis, Lewis Mumford, Andrew Feenberg

  2. For me, the digital realm is a great big experimental test kitchen. This metaphor may not make sense to anyone but me, but I see digital historians as chefs who pull out the utensils and tools and often provide the raw ingredients but don’t necessarily tell the amateur cooks (the public) exactly how to prepare the dish and instead encourage experiential learning and improvisation.

    You articulate not just the promise, but the challenge of doing digital history — a challenge that I suspect is a constant theme in the field– and making it palatable to the general public while maintaining accuracy and integrity. I appreciate your suggestion of modeling it after a children’s museum…these kinds of institutions are all about the multi-sensory experience, sparking imagination, and instilling a love of learning. This mission sounds strikingly familiar to Onion’s argument about the value of contextualized knowledge– she (rightfully so!) suggests that the goal of sharing historical photographs online should be to “ignite a spark”, not to treat history as a dead end. A noble goal indeed, but not one that I think is easily achievable in the Buzzfeed age.

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