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.” 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?
 Guldi and Armitage, 11.
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.