As someone who is new to digital history, I am excited to see so many articles and blog posts grappling with some of the same questions that I ask myself: What constitutes digital history? What is the role of digital history in the broader history field? How do you get started in digital history?
The relative newness of digital history and its accessibility to large audiences have generated multiple works trying to answer these questions—both for the sake of digital historians themselves, but also to encourage others to become digital historians or to use digital tools in their own work.
Similarly, many digital historians are grappling with the ethics of digital history. The ethical considerations of historical work are not unique to digital history—it is a robust conversation in public history (see Decolonizing Museums by Amy Leontree) and pops up every so often in academic history (see Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past)—but it is an important consideration, particularly given the often diverse and disperse reach of digital history both in terms of audience and sources. I find the conversation on ethics fascinating in any field, but particularly in digital history since the conversation is happening tangentially with the emergence of the field rather than linearly.
“Digital History and Argument”—a white paper that grew out of a workshop hosted at George Mason University—explores five different forms of digital history to demonstrate the role they currently play in traditional, or analog, history, as well as to help digital historians join the wider historiographical conversation. Rebecca Onion discusses the role of history on Twitter in her piece “Snapshots of History,” arguing that Twitter accounts that post daily historical photos like @HistoryinPic are bad for history since the tweets contain no photo credit nor historical context, which prevents audiences from engaging further in the history. Lisa Spiro wrote an entire blog post dedicated helping people do digital history, recognizing that what often stops people from doing digital history is lack of knowledge rather than a lack of interest.
“Digital History and Argument” — What is the role of digital history?
“Digital History and Argument” explores five different forms of digital history—archival, public, methodological, computational, and visual—to explore how they can be used in making historical arguments, their implications for analog (traditional, paper-based) history, and their ethical considerations. Much of this paper works to explain what digital history is and how it can be used. It assumes unfamiliarity with digital history and aims to help historians understand how to interact with and do digital history.
The authors argue throughout this paper that digital history can make compelling historical arguments, but that for digital history to succeed, historians and academic history publications need to recognize digital history and sources as different from paper based sources and analog history. The paper calls for a shift in how scholars cite digital sources—scholars should cite the digital sources that they actually consult rather than the original paper source that they have never seen—arguing that the nature of the cited material affects how people interact with it.
What most struck me about this paper was the focus on argument. I think many people, including myself, think of digital history as a tool of history. It helps you make your argument, but it is not the only thing that makes your argument—it is never the primary focus. This paper helped me realize that a historical argument can be formed exclusively from digital history in unique and exciting ways. The examples of digital history strewn throughout the paper helped ground the argument in reality, embracing the “show, not tell” moniker all historians know well.
“Snapshots in History” — What constitutes digital history?
Looking at Rebecca Onion’s Twitter @SlateVault, her historical photo tweets typically give a title and a date (every so often a location and/or source are also included) for each photo, along with a link to learn more. These tweets differ from the tweets in question in “Snapshots in History” in that they include historical information (like dates and sources) and links to learn more. Onion argues in “Snapshots in History” that the proliferation of historical photo Twitter accounts like @HistoryinPics is harmful to historical professionals and audiences because tweets promoted on these accounts stifle further audience investigation and at times promote fake or misleading photos.
Onion’s argument is compelling. She uses two of the three forms of digital history identified and described in “Digital History and Argument” to make her argument, using individual tweets as a form of visualization and statistics on the citation and dating frequency of the most popular accounts as a form of computational analysis. However, her article begs the question, what is enough information to include in a tweet for it to be productive, or at least not harmful? Onion recognizes that most people likely do not click on the links she includes in the photo caption or researches further, but she claims that providing the opportunity to know more is enough. With the limited character count on Twitter, I wonder what information is the most crucial to include in the caption. Obviously (to me) a link to learn more is a requirement, but after that, a short description? A title? A date? The source? If you cannot fit all, and you often cannot, which is cut first? What is most important for the Twitter audience to know?
“Getting Started in the Digital Humanities” — How do you do digital history?
Unlike the previous two articles, Lisa Spiro’s “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities” is less concerned of the role and ethics of digital history, but instead on helping people DO digital history. She notes at the start of her blog that many people shy away from digital history not for lack of enthusiasm, but for inexperience and lack of guidance. Her post acts as a “How-To” manual for getting started in digital history—both in terms of the state of the field and practical tools. She includes tools for those with funding and those without, those who can travel and those who are location-confined, and those who have institutional support and those who do not.
As someone with almost no background in digital history, I found this post incredibly helpful and certainly bookmark-worthy. Her sections on staying informed and online training are particularly helpful as a newcomer since they give me a place to start learning more and getting my hands (figuratively) dirty.