Defining Digital History and the Public It Serves

Hey everyone! Today, I wanted to sort of unpack the final four readings for the week. In total, the assigned readings this week give us a sense of the definition and theory behind “digital history,” but the last half of these readings wades into “who” does digital history and “who” consumes it.

In terms of the “whodunit,” there are many answers: anyone can do digital history—but who really needs to? According to “Digital History and Argument,” a White Paper document, there is a discrepancy between “digital historians” and every day academics. Although the two aspects of “doing” history naturally feed into each other, there seems to be a barrier between the two methodologies of digital work and more traditional research methods. Essentially, this white paper shows that digital methods can benefit academics, and vice versa… if only they partner up! As a result, many benefits await: non-linear research, pattern identification, and visualization of history, to name just a few.

An interview with “feminist digital historian” Sharon Leon dug a bit deeper, showing the discrepancies within the field of digital history itself—she emphasized that while there is an improved balance in the number of female digital historians today, there is an ethnic and racial gap that must be overcome by those in the field. Furthermore, she made a point which I’d love to discuss in class or in the comments below: the difference between public history and history in public. Is this differentiation important? Why? What implications does this statement have for those of us that plan to work in the field, and how can it color our own work?

Leon’s point here about taking digital history public leads to the last two readings this week, which really pinpoint the universality or vastness of interaction allowed by digital history. Spiro’s “Getting Started in the Humanities” blog post is a how-to-guide for engaging in this type of work, with helpful links, trainings, tips, and more. Often in academic history, issues of “gatekeeping” come up. Here, it seems like digital history is for everyone! The blog post’s accessibility level really shows the improvement in the realm of interaction and openness that digital history has, compared to traditional academic history.

This brings me to the final—and perhaps most interesting—of the articles. Slate’s article titled “Snapshots of History: Wildly popular accounts like @HistoryInPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you” is exactly what it sounds like… a rebuttal against the accessible, but often inaccurate, use of social media pages for disseminating quick history. Not only that, but the article details the detriment that these easy-peasy forms of historical consumption have on the public’s curiosity. When a fast fact is packaged in front of you, without sources or further reading, its audience is unlikely to desire or chase personal inquiry. I’d like to end on this topic, and ask you all—what effect does the “simplification” of interaction with history for the masses have on public consumption of history? Do we prioritize accessibility for all or accuracy, provenance, and context for all? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

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