defining digital history–evens

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?

8 Replies to “defining digital history–evens”

  1. Digital history truly does not get enough credit, as Josh points out. It is so often that people cite print versions even when they use the digital version. It is easy to see digital history, as simply just history and in many ways it is just history. However, it is also a distinct category that is growing and making history more accessible. The importance of digital history and its resources cannot be understated. As historians embrace its role in public and academic history, there needs to be a better understanding of why it is different from other forms of history and why digital history matters.

  2. From your post, I realized that part of defining digital history is understanding who has been recognized as the main contributors of the field, as well as who has not been. For example, Sharon Leon’s article identifies how women have not been recognized as important contributors to digital history specifically and how this is harmful because this is not a simple fix, but it is one that requires systematic changes to address the issue. This erasure defines the field and the work it has to do moving forward.

    Similarly, the “divide” between digital history and fields like “traditional” history and public history helps to clarify both similarities and differences between these areas. Sharon Leon’s quote you included about the difference in work between public history and traditional history work reflects a literal difference in what they do and how these types of historians view each other’s work.

    1. Hi Claudia,

      Thanks for the comment. Do you think that we as budding historians should separate the terms “public” and “digital” from the traditional practice of history? I’m curious to see if the divide you mention is beginning to close as historians are asked to wear more hats in their practice.

  3. Hi Josh –
    Your conclusions at the end, here, are intriguing. After having done the readings, I have to agree – digital history is just so many things there seems no way to fully describe it. I would best define digital history, though, as a meaningful engagement with history in some way. This distinction, as a meaningful engagement, helps draw a line between substantive projects in history on the web, and online accounts like those described by Rebecca Onion, which I believe is discussed in the “odds” post. What stands out to me most about digital history, though, is the potential to reach nearly anyone with access to a computer, anywhere in the world.

    1. Hi Emily,

      I like your definition a lot. Using the word meaningful is powerful–it shows the intentional nature of our work and the methods we use to ensure that the public can view our work. I think this definition is something I would build on should someone pose the million-dollar-question to me.

  4. Josh–I found the accessibility aspect of digital history to be very compelling. As Cohen & Rosenzweig point out, high school students and members of Congress can essentially have the same access to virtual archives. Teachers, historical societies, genealogical web pages, etc. are all able to connect and use sources and materials in ways that were not feasible without the web. I think if we have a goal of reaching/engaging the greatest number of people, digital components have to be considered and included. However, I am also a little skeptical of digital history in some ways–just in that I think there are elements of visiting, experiencing, and interacting with a physical space/place that I am not sure can be transferred or captured on digital platforms.

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      I completely understand your concern regarding the interactivity of digital platforms and what is lost in a purely “digital” project. I wonder what ways we can address this concern? I also enjoy spending time meandering my way through museums in person and finding little pockets of information I’ve never known before and this feeling is lost in a pure digital setting, in my opinion. However, I think the benefits of the outreach potential of digital scholarship weigh heavily in my interest to pursue this further as a public historian.

    2. Rebecca (and Josh!),
      I think your continued discussion about accessibility in the context of our goals as public historians, to reach a greater number of people, brought up a really interesting question about the role of digital history in dismantling the patriarchal and class based structures that remain prevalent in the field of history (and of course elsewhere). While we certainly have a lot of important ethical considerations with digital history, I think this aspect of equal experience that you brought up is significant in helping remove the structural roadblocks in place that make being part of the history community more difficult for women, POC, and those outside of the middle/upper class.

      I think you are right to point to the fact that some aspects of in-person experience cannot be replicated, but perhaps we can use digital tools to offer a similar or at least still enriching experience to those who do not have in person access!

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