Digital History is for Everyone

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.

8 Replies to “Digital History is for Everyone”

  1. I absolutely agree that Spiro’s “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities” seems to be the perfect guidebook for anyone seeking to be a part of the DH community. I found the part on workshops and institutes particularly helpful. Online tutorials in particular I think is something I will investigate today on this very cold day. Plus I think it is also useful to be reminded that we can ask AU staff, for instance, when I was trying to figure out my footnotes and endnotes, the front research desk helped me in a heartbeat.

    1. I definitely agree that the part about relying on institutions was helpful. As a graduate student, I often forget—as I expect many of us do—of what a unique position I am in right now to have access to university support and resources. This is a level of support that many of us, particularly the public history folks, will likely not have for many years (or ever) going forward in our careers.

  2. You raise a great question with regard to Onion’s article: When caption space is limited, what information is most important to include? I think the answer is pretty straightforward when you’re looking at, for instance, a daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams—in that case, you can put in a quick sentence saying that the 1843 JQA daguerreotype is the earliest-known photo of a U.S. president, created by Philip Haas, and then link to the National Portrait Gallery’s page on the image. You’re able to hit all of Onion’s major points easily enough by providing context, providing attribution for the image, and providing a link for readers who want to investigate further.

    But this gets a lot more complicated when you look at pictures that require more nuanced context. In her article, Onion brings up Hiroo Onoda, whose image was posted “with a simple, link-free explanation” (unfortunately the tweet she linked to is now gone—I’d like to have seen what she meant by that) that failed, as we would say, to address the difficult history part of Onoda’s story in favor of a more retweet-friendly version. In cases like this, when the history requires a more sensitive and less binary treatment, do we have to fall back on the thread? Is that the most responsible way to communicate the information, even though you run the risk of people retweeting the picture only without the rest of the thread? Can you really hope to have a nuanced conversation about difficult history on Twitter?

    I had looked a bit askance on Cohen and Rosenzweig’s claim that the internet isn’t quite up to the task of handling the sort of nuanced analysis that’s so crucial to the history field as a whole, but in considering this issue, I’ve started to think they were more right than I’d thought. Thanks for raising this question and giving me something to think about!

    1. I think you make a great point that responsible citing depends a lot on the material in question. Lesser known photos or images require more explanation or context than images of well-known people and events.

      I worry that many historians will look at the difficulty of having nuanced historical conversations on Twitter or other internet sites and write those conversations off, but I do not think that is the way to go. We cannot ignore the role of the internet in our lives and audiences’ lives, particularly us public historians, so rather than write it off as too challenging, I think it is important to think deeply about how we use and interact with the internet to find ways to offer both wide accessibility and nuanced conversation in our historical work, which I suppose is partly the point of this class!

      1. Hi Emily and mccauleykr!

        This is what I also thought about reading through your post and the readings. While in many ways the internet is able to expand the historical horizon in terms of its reach to both academics and nonacademics, it can also be limiting in its format (e.g. 140 character tweets). As mccauleykr pointed out, for some images, it’s nearly impossible to fit the level of nuance said image would require in 140 characters. And while a thread would expand what one can say about the original post–its on the initial tweeter to designate that that post is in fact a thread, so that even if only the first post is retweeted, those who see it on their timeline will know there is entire thread of information.

        This is why I think posts like Lisa Spiro’s are so great for myself and other historians looking to break into the digital world. It provides a wealth of information and resources so that when one does enter the digital domain of history they have the social media savvy necessary to communicate their information effectively. Knowing the basic “rules” and “etiquette” of twitter are essential in order to create a successful post. So for more nuanced tweets which require a thread, knowing that its common practice to start said thread with the initial tweet reading “1/” or “(thread)” is important knowledge for historians to have. I admittedly don’t know much about the digital world–but I think it is small things like this which could make or break the success of a post.

  3. Hi Emily, thank you for this thoughtful post! I have been interested recently in how to use social media as a public historian, so I found Onion’s article really informative and useful. The question you bring up regarding Onion’s article- “What is most important for the Twitter audience to know?”- really got me thinking. It will be a challenge to decide what exactly to include with Twitter’s limited caption space, but I agree with you and Onion that including a link to another learning opportunity is very important. I also love Onion’s goal of having her posts act as a starting point in learning, not a dead-end. Despite certain challenges, it will be exciting to try out different things on social media that encourage historical exploration in the public we interact with.

  4. I was also struck by “Digital History and Argument,” particularly how the authors introduce “scholarly primitives for history” and then use them to discuss forms of digital history. Thinking about how historians build arguments by selecting, synthesizing, arranging and contextualizing sources, then communicate their ideas, provided a clear framework for understanding and comparing how digital and analog historical arguments (might) work. I agree that digital history holds unique and exciting possibilities, and I’m intrigued by the role it might play in our Public History work.

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