Digital History: Where Do We Begin?- Kyle Vratarich

Alright folks, it’s the start of a new semester.  We’ve had a week now to look at our first set of assigned readings, and for those of us with little to no background in digital history, this might prove particularly challenging.  Now that I mention it, it may seem even more challenging to individuals reading this online who are not enrolled in our class.  Thankfully for anyone reading this, we start off our posts with an investigation into what digital history/humanities means as a discipline.  The links to the texts assigned for class & addressed in this piece can all be found within this article.  I’ll look at some of the pieces in this post, but make sure you read Josh’s companion piece- the two posts will hopefully provide enough.  With that, let’s jump right into some of this week’s assigned readings.

“The History Manifesto” by Jo Guldi & David Armitage, Introduction & Chapter 4,

In the first of the readings that I am covering, Guldi & Armitage present an argument that in a time filled with short-terminist thought, long-termism is the necessary method of analyzing connections between the past and the future.  They offer that the biggest challenge in the present to short-termism comes from the boom of information technology that makes massive amounts of data accessible and workable.  Using this “big data,” especially quantifiable data, through tools such as the Paper Machines toolset, entire archives can be disseminated as easy-to-read resources.  It is the role of the historian to contextualize this data to address questions of scale, causation, and correlation of seemingly unrelated issues.  With much of this research requiring additional studies in areas outside of history, the authors suggest that the university of the future will be very different from what it is today, with historians becoming both the “arbiter of data for the public and investigator of forgotten stories” (Guldi 113).

“Returning Women to the History of Digital History” by Sharon Leon,

The first of two pieces involving Sharon Leon, this article serves as a survey of women’s contributions to digital history, contributions which are more often than not overlooked.  This has traditionally been an issue within the field of history, but she does point out several factors that have led to this issue within digital history that still make it a significant issue today.  The structural patriarchy has limited women’s advancement in academia, which has created less opportunities for roles as project leaders.  Additionally, a focus in citations on the project directors greatly ignores the work of the female contributors on these projects.  A traditional focus on academia as the driving force behind historical research has discounted the work of women in other fields and areas of expertise on history thought and practice.  By focusing on these three areas, as well as providing a wealth of knowledge on women’s contributions to the advancement of digital history, Leon advocates that we must both consider the contributions of women in the field while also providing further opportunities to continue to make new contributions.

“Getting Started in the Digital Humanities” by Lisa Spiro,

My personal favorite from this group of texts, Spiro finds a problem within the field and directly addresses it in an easy to read blog post that every new digital historian should have bookmarked.  While giving a presentation on, as she puts it, “Why the digital humanities?,” it became clear to her that there was interest in the field but that problems existed regarding a starting point for those with little to no experience.  She makes the decision to not get bogged down in technical terminology or the traditional history writing style, instead opting for more of a “popular” style blog post with a bulleted list that anyone can read.  In doing so, she has presented a great many techniques for beginner involvement (familiarizing yourself with the field, networking/ getting involved, and staying informed are just a few of the important steps she identifies).  While this does seem like it might not be the most traditionally professional of the sources identified in this post, it’s almost as though that is Spiro’s point- she’s almost serving to recruit people who have an interest in the field.

“The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Sharon M. Leon” by Melissa Dinsman,

The second reading involving Sharon Leon from this week, this interview serves to clarify several misconceptions held about digital humanities while advocating for more changes to be made to the field.  While she again discusses her concern regarding credit to women, she also discusses the lack of diversity in the field and suggesting that more can be done.  She delineates the difference between digital history and digital public history, in that public history has an intended audience, where otherwise many individuals do digital history in public and then make it available to any audience.  The realities of working in the digital humanities are addressed, as Leon broaches working in collectives within departments with little funding outside of grants, as well as addressing if a digital historian should have coding skills or not.  Leon delivers an optimistic and informational summary of her time in the field to provide examples of the field, thus encouraging potential future digital historians to take the next step and drive the field forward.

Each of these readings serves as a starting block for a digital historian that answers a particular question: where do we begin?  For Guldi & Armitage, the digital historian should focus on long-term answers that address past, present, and future connections.  Leon points out several holes in the field that ought to be corrected, especially for women and minorities, as well as addressing areas for the field itself to change from within.  Spiro delivers several sites for novice digital historians to dip their toes in the water before diving in headfirst.  By combining these readings, a beginner in the field should be able to see a place to begin to look for a hole in the scholarship that they can fill with their own research.  And even if you haven’t found that hole just yet, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of data out there for you to get your hands on & make your mark.

These readings do bring up some questions that need addressing, in terms of both style and content.  For example, when addressing questions like “what is digital history?” or “how do you do digital history?,” is it better to base an answer in the form of a blog that everyone can read and relate to, or should we as historians try to base these answers in traditional, scholarly formats like books and journal articles?  For those who have studied public history and not just from a general history student like myself, is Sharon Leon’s distinction between digital history and digital public history sufficient? Or should all digital history be considered public history?  Due to the relative youth of digital history, what is the long-term future of the field based on the past?  I’d love to hear what everyone thinks!

6 Replies to “Digital History: Where Do We Begin?- Kyle Vratarich”

  1. I really liked Sharon Leon’s distinction between “doing history in public and doing public history.” Just making something available online is not the same as making it inviting and engaging to a general public audience. I’m not sure all of the authors we read this week necessarily saw and recognized that distinction.

    With respect to the question of “is all digital history public history?”, I don’t think it is and I don’t think it needs to be! For some projects, the impetus for choosing a digital platform might lie less in the desire to make it widely available than in the digital format being the best tool for a particular analysis. I don’t see any problem with having digital history projects that are targeted at a niche academic audience, the same way we have print monographs and journals that are targeted at that audience. But if digital historians are going to put a project up online without any consideration for how best to engage a public audience, they shouldn’t be surprised if that public audience never materializes.

  2. The question you ask about whether all digital history should be considered public history is a great one. In my readings, it did seem that the digital realm was particularly well-suited for audiences (or markets), and that it was the natural place for public history work. Additionally, the greatest concern for the digital turn was the theoretical roadblocks that traditional history concerns itself with.

    And the point that Callie makes is related. Making historical argument can be done in many forms but that doesn’t make it accessible. These are the topics we’ll have to tackle moving forward.

  3. I really like the point you bring up about “how do you do digital history” in the fact that should it be in a blog or an academic book? Blogs are definitely shorter to read and written in a prose that is easier to understand than some of the historical books we have read in our graduate programs. However, I don’t think that there even has to be a one-all, be-all for how to do digital history. It’s almost similar as to how I’m learning to ‘do public history’ is that I don’t fully know. I’m hoping I find out along the way. I think the best answer to your question is what Sharon Leon said about doing digital history as attempting to answer questions about history in a different format. Isn’t that what public history or oral history is? Digital history is just another aspect of that.

    Leon’s distinction between “doing public history and doing history in public” seems to be fitting for the definition of public history as well. I think this distinction fits in well with Onion’s article about the historical twitter accounts. I think Leon is right in moving forward how do we merge digital history with public history or even how do we make the two unique, separate fields? “Those tools are now in the world and they are changing the ways that people are presenting their scholarship and the kinds of questions they are asking. More and more, everything is tilting toward open access and open source. We can’t get there fast enough as far as I’m concerned.” (Leon, I think the best way to move forward as emerging digital historians is to look at the gaps that are in the current field of digital history and figure out how we can marry it with our respective interests and studies (i.e. U.S. history or Public History, etc).

  4. The History Manifesto book was of particular interest to me because it is something I think about all the time. There is a fascinating paradox occurring in the digital age as people become increasingly wrapped up in short-termism while having more and more tools at their disposal to consider the long term. It seems that despite the repository of tools associated with the dissemination of information and the rise of Big Data people are still stuck looking at the short term. The implications of this data for historians is enormous but this reading points out that historians have yet to fully take advantage of the huge sets of data that have been gathered in the twentieth century for future research.

    I think that historians will soon start to properly utilize this data but I am struck by another worry. Right now there are massive amounts of data preserved for future use on the internet and in digital archives. However, as we continue to move forward will this data still be accessible? We have leap-frogged through many data collection strategies and repositories in the past fifty years and it worries me that much of this information is being held in digital forms. What if it becomes lost to time. Maybe we are too caught up in short-termism to adequately consider the long term of data storage.

  5. These were particularly interesting readings that stimulate the mind and will hopefully allow for a lively debate. In particular, the History Manifesto proposed more questions than it did answers, which in the study of history can be a worthwhile exercise. As historians of the 21st century, much of what we are taught now is to utilize every resource at our disposable in attempts to do “good history”. One of my favorite quotes from a past professor was that historians have to know everything, all the time. Understanding context is just as important as understanding the event or topic being discussed. This is where I believe Guldi and Armitage quantify a key point. Short-termism not only limits the ability to suggest or predict future events, but it impairs the historian, and subsequently the reader or student, to fully grasp context from the past. Obviously, it should not be assumed that educators or professional historians maintain a perfect memory of each worldly event that could be used as contextual reference, but there is something to be said in making connections to events that happened more than decades past.

    While it is notable work that Guldi and Armitage are taking part in, I disagree with their assertion that historians of the late 20th century “ceded the task of synthesizing historical knowledge to unaccredited writers and…lost whatever influence they might once have had over policy…” (Guldi and Armitage,8). They miss the usefulness and quality of interdisciplinary work to the field of history. Luckily, most work submitted by historians today has influences from a number of social science disciplines, ranging from sociology to anthropology.

    Overall, Guldi and Armitage are aiding in the evolution of history as an educational field by arguing the future style universitiies will take. I agree that the system itself will be much different, but like the authors I am happy to see the gradually increasing use of long-term historical thinking. The increase in availability of data can undoubtedly be daunting. But it also encourages an interdisciplinary look at history and increases the potential for new, well-researched scholarship. And if this is executed correctly, it can create a level of scholarship within the historical field that is unparalleled.

  6. I think it is important to note just how controversial The History Manifesto is in any analysis of it. Guldi and Armitage’s argument that short-term history and short-term thinking are connected and are the downfall of the historian’s influence in the public sphere drew both significant praise and criticism within the field, including a particularly blunt critique by Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler in the AHR. This critique points out that Guldi and Armitage failed to properly utilize the methods they so vehemently promote, resulting in their evidence actually proving the opposite of what they argue. In fact, Cohen and Mandler say in their review: “Why do Guldi and Armitage get the history so wrong? To judge by their disregard for the basic rules of evidence, argument, and proof, they don’t seem to have tried very hard to get it right.” And though Cohen and Mandler admit early in their take down of the piece that they agree with Guldi and Armitage’s recommendations relating to digital history, public outreach, and the use of data, Guldi and Armitage’s response implied that the criticism was really just a “defense of the status quo.” It is especially interesting to consider that Guldi and Armitage’s response claims that Cohen and Mandler are not calling for change in methods, making digital and public history the battleground for the debate instead of the book’s arguments and use of evidence. There was also some controversy surrounding the book’s open format, as some alleged that Guldi and Armitage were making unacknowledged changes to the Manifesto, making it appear as if those quoting the book (such as Cohen and Mandler) got it all wrong.

    The context and not the content is what I feel is so important about the History Manifesto, as it presents an example of the debate surrounding digital history’s place in the field and the ethics surrounding its use in scholarship.

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