Let’s Get Digital: Theorizing Digital History

If the role of the historian is about interpreting and presenting narratives from the past, then digital history offers countless opportunities to gather and disseminate information at a rate like never before. As current/future professionals in 2019, we are aware of the benefits attached to online engagement (why else would we be taking this class?)—but to fully grasp how we can use digital history for the future, we must understand how the field emerged and what our responsibilities as digital historians entail.

How can one consolidate the nuances of a barely 30-year-old history that changes more rapidly than a preteen’s hair color? Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig meet this challenge head-on in their online, free access Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, where they present a brief outline of digital history and address the seven qualities and five dangers that we all must face as we enter the field.

The history side of the internet found its footing in early 1990s as a means to share ideas amongst experts in the field. This was largely done through email discussion groups like H-Net. Picture those long chain emails that you receive from your grandparents but replace the cute animal pictures with copies of old documents or syllabus lists.

As the internet gained popularity as a place for sharing ideas, users developed theories regarding its positive and negative functions. In many ways, the seven qualities (Capacity, Accessibility, Flexibility, Diversity, Manipulability, Interactivity, Hyper-textuality) and the five dangers (Quality, Durability, Readability, Passivity, Inaccessibility) interact with and contradict each other. For example, Cohen’s and Rosenzweig’s main argument congregates around historians’ obligation to defend the reputation of the “History Web” against corporations and commercial enterprises. Much like what Rebecca Onion addressed in her article, “Snapshots of History,” websites that post false or sanitized histories permeate our online environment without offering context or supporting evidence (Quality). This content often does not fit into the five reputable historical website genres presented by Cohen and Rosenzweig, (“archives; exhibits, films, scholarship, essays; teaching; discussion; and organizational”), however the popularity of such posts often lists them ahead of more reputable sources (Hyper-textuality).

In the History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage view this plague of misinformation as symptomatic of society’s short-term thinking brought on by “data overload.” They argue that historians must return to a long-term study of history in order to actively engage the digital tools and information that have become available over the last few decades. Through wielding this data, Guldi and Armitage believe that historians can begin to remedy the five dangers of the digital age presented by Cohen and Rosenzweig.

When it was published in 2014, the History Manifesto stirred up controversy amongst historians when Guldi and Armitage condemned the popularity of micro-histories and short-term thinking for “killing historical relevance.”[1] According to Guldi and Armitage, politicians and economists abuse data by painting a pro-capitalist, free market interpretation of history; however, historians are in the position to scrutinize statistics for human agency. They claim that only through broader, long-range study will historians reestablish their place as respected arbiters of the past to serve the future.

Both Digital History and the Historian’s Manifesto stress historians’ responsibility as active contributors in shaping internet content and addressing issues rather than leaving them to be exacerbated by commercialization, reductionist opinions, and/or legislators. So, what is the role of a digital historian? What can we do to contribute to a more well-informed future?


[1] Guldi and Armitage, 11.

Notes:

Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History, Introduction, Ch. 1.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto Introduction, 1-14, 88-117.

Rebecca Onion, Snapshots of History: Wildly popular accounts like @HistoryInPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you.


8 Replies to “Let’s Get Digital: Theorizing Digital History”

  1. Thanks for the great post Haley! I think both of the articles you discuss here make interesting and important points. However, I do find the idea that historians are responsible for addressing historical issues and shaping the internet a bit daunting and problematic. The internet is huge and often unwieldily, and while I recognize that this responsibility placed on historians is of a collective nature, it is a lot of responsibility and seems hard to manage. The idea that historians are responsible for shaping digital history also leaves me uneasy because it holds echoes of the ivory tower. Should historians really be responsible for managing who is participating in digital history and in what way? Perhaps this isn’t exactly what “History Manifesto” or “Digital History” directly suggest, but I think the space for such issue remains open. I do believe historians have a responsibility to engage with the public online and correct and comment on issues when necessary, but I’m not sure what the preferred model of this is, or if a model can even really be made? Perhaps it is case by case.

  2. Thanks for the great post Haley! I think you summarized both articles and their arguments here well, highlighting interesting and important points. However, I do find the idea that historians are responsible for addressing historical issues and shaping the internet a bit daunting and problematic. The internet is huge and often unwieldily, and while I recognize that this responsibility placed on historians is of a collective nature, it is a lot of responsibility and seems hard to manage. The idea that historians are responsible for shaping digital history also leaves me uneasy because it holds echoes of the ivory tower. Should historians really be responsible for managing who is participating in digital history and in what way? Perhaps this isn’t exactly what “History Manifesto” or “Digital History” directly suggest, but I think the space for such issue remains open. I do believe historians have a responsibility to engage with the public online and correct and comment on issues when necessary, but I’m not sure what the preferred model of this is, or if a model can even really be made? Perhaps it is case by case.

    1. All very good points, Alex. I definitely agree with you about the uncertain role of historians in digital communities and the potential to slip into the ivory tower. While it did seem that Guldi and Armitage placed more pressure on historians to direct the interpretation of online data, Cohen and Rosenzwieg were more inclined to share authority . I guess this also goes into issues of “emotional labor” because many people are not being paid for their contributions to the “History Web.”

  3. Jo Guldi and David Armitage raise an important concern they refer to as “short-terminism” (this phrase was coined in the 1980s), but they do not always provide sufficient context for their argument. The authors call it “a disease” that is “much complained about but not often diagnosed.” In her interview, Sharon Leon dedicates a significant portion of time to explaining the many structural and social barriers standing in the way of this very well-known problem. According to her, the problem is well-known, and due to the near-absence of funds for long-term projects, ever-changing nature of the field, and as Chapter 4 of The History Manifesto rightly claims–information overload of the smartphone era, digital historians often have to turn to shorter-term ones.

    While analyzing the role of the digital historian, one has to acknowledge both the power imbalance in both the past and the present. “Big Questions, Big Data” discusses the issue of “invisible archives.” And indeed many archives remain censored, if not officially, then protected by various bogus exemptions or financial and physical barriers. One example would be numerous historians, who try to access archives of currently authoritarian countries, having trouble accessing information the regime may deem “sensitive.” Similarly, plenty of former colonial powers attempt to whitewash their terrific past actions. For instance, Belgium does not allow full access to the documents on the Congo during King Leopold’s and Belgium’s colonial rule. Similarly, religious institutions like the Holy See, which represents the Catholic Church, would not allow access to the documents that would increment it in its role during the Holocaust. A lot of the “invisible archives” are watchfully protected for fear of negative consequences for the holding party. How does a digital historian, or any historian for that matter, petition this? Would uniting academics and the subsequent public or legal request make a difference?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Laura! I’m not sure if any of us can answer the final questions you’ve posed about the ways in which we can access restricted archives. I’m more inclined to believe that access will not come by any major movements or actions by an assembled group of academics or communities, but only through individual researchers requesting documents again and again, like the “Declassification Engine” that Guldi and Armitage mention. But on the other hand, in an age of Wikileaks and scandal, perhaps only a heightened demand by social media can shame these institutions into releasing more documents.

      I’m also wondering about your perspective on Guldi’s and Armitage’s claim that recently developed digital tools are slowly moving us out of the “data overload” era, especially in regards to the “silent archives.” How can digital analysis work if there are still sources missing from the database? Do you think that we can ever truly organize all of the content in an organized manner?

    2. I had the same thoughts as I was reading “Big Questions, Big Data.” The authors suggest historians take a more active role in the institutions that govern data, such as government and activist data repositories, libraries, and archives (112) but in practice this can be difficult. As someone who studies the history of the Middle East, the inaccessibility of archives from war-torn places like Syria create significant barriers to a long-term study of the Levant.

      One solution to the problem of access is to create a digital archive of sources gathered by scholars in the past. I know my advisors has several boxes of files from Damascus that she used for her new book. An online repository would help preserve archives that might have been permanently lost or dispersed, but that does not answer the questions Laura posed above. How does a historian petition for documents from a notoriously closed regime?

  4. Very nice points, Haley! I also found Guldi and Armitage’s “The History Manifesto” to be quite intriguing. It brings up the question of what exactly are the roles of historians and digital historians’ today? Does their role include manipulating history in order to form narratives? Does it include the responsibility of ensuring that the internet is portraying the “correct” history? That leads us to the question of where is the line drawn between “sharing authority” and taking responsibility over the internet? Whose job is it to say that some histories are wrong, and some histories are right? Will there come a time when there will be no controversy over a historical narrative?
    I do not believe any of these questions can be answered. Furthermore, there will never be one concise way to document, write, or preserve history online. Evidence of this can be drawn from modern-day historians reverting to long-term thinking while the rest of society is enthralled by “short-terminism”. Will “short terminism” culture (i.e. Twitter and Google Ngrams) ever fall out of style? Will society ever revert back to thinking long-term, like historians recently have?
    Like you mentioned, modern-day long-term thinking is a direct result of information overload. Historians are reverting back to long-term thinking because the internet and technology has made is easier to get through larger texts and information faster. Various tools have also allowed long-term histories to be made possible, like Zotero and keyword search tools. Thus, historical research is instantly made simpler, less time consuming, and less work. However, is this obscuring and influencing the histories being documented? And if so, are they being impacted in a negative way?

  5. Haley, thank you for your reply. I think that if digital tool developers and user will try to keep up with the data-overload era more, we could definitely better our lives. I think this is where our class discussion next week will come in handy, aka crowdsourcing. If applied, rewarded, and monitored well, I believe we would be able to manage the database better. With the availability of material, just as with nondigitized archives, the scholar makes a choice when applying certain evidence and providing an argument.

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