In this post I will use several readings to extract meaning for the burning question of this class–what IS digital history?
Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web create one of the first works devoted to answering this question. In the introduction, they detail the ways in which the internet can be helpful for conducting history including its accessibility, manipulability, flexibility, and interactivity while also warning that hazards can include quality, objectivity, and issues with readability, to name a few. Given that this book was written in the mid-2000s, how many of these benefits and hazards remain? Any new additions for digital historians in 2021?
The first chapter is devoted towards exploring the genres and history of the “History Web”.” History of the web found its beginnings in the early 1990s, then the NetScape era of the mid-1990s solidified the presence of history on the web with the American Historical Association and Library of Congress websites taking the lead. Cohen and Rosenzweig then defined five main genres that a historical presence takes on the web: archives, exhibits, teaching, discussion, and organizational before advising that potential digital historians should think carefully about which of these genres their web presence would fit best. This brings some questions for those of us looking to become digital historians. Is your goal to have a massive outreach? Create an accessible archive? Design an interactive exhibit?
Though both men are cited frequently for their contributions in the digital history landscape, historian Sharon Leon challenges their description of the beginnings of the field. In “Returning Women to the History of Digital History”, Leon restores the contributions of women to the history of digital history while also uncovering the “conditions that have contributed to their erasure.” Using analysis of funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Leon documents that women were leading and participating in projects since the inception of the “history web.”
Leon also demonstrates that publishing practices for scholarly and cultural institutions often ignores those “who have produced extreme significant digital history”, leaving them “nameless.” Leon finishes by arguing that returning women to the historical record is not enough; the academy and the historical record itself must change to be more inclusive. How does Leon’s article and experience challenge some of the benefits of the digital creation for the historical field? How can we work to revise these inequities?
The last of these readings discussed how best to challenge the lack of inclusion and citation of digital history methods in the broader field of history. In an interview about the digital aspect of the humanities, Sharon Leon states that digital and “public history doesn’t look like what a traditional historian would consider to be a scholarly argument; it is a little bit more subtle and much more dialogic”, which can explain why the field of history has taken a while to warm up to the concept.
Similarly, a white paper published by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media criticized the field of history for its silence on recognizing digital history, calling it a ” problematic practice in which historians regularly use digital versions of primary sources, but almost never cite those versions.” This paper provides several practical methods and suggestions for the field to recognize the role and importance of digital history to the academy.
In conclusion, digital history is many things and often defies categorization. It is the presence of the historical scholars and fans alike on the internet, the establishment of accessible archives and databases, and the continuation of inequities of the profession on a new platform. The power and potential of digital history is clear for all to see, though it comes with its own flaws and dangers. How best would you define digital history and argue its importance? Which components stand out the most to you?