Defining Digital History

Week of January 25 Reading Response

This week we’re reading about what digital history is and how both historians and the public interact with it. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig published their book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, in 2005. Their book is the first of its kind, providing accessible descriptions of how various people might use the internet and technology to make, learn, and present history. Ultimately they argue that it is a historian’s job to navigate and interpret this new world of digital history. Cohen and Rosenzweig are referenced repeatedly throughout this week’s readings, and the newer works build upon the ideas they discuss in their book and other articles.

With the increased development of digital history, accessibility in the field has also increased. Cohen and Rosenzweig note that digitized archives allow more people to access primary source material that would otherwise not be available to them. Each of the authors this week seem to agree that this increased accessibility is positive, but it also raises some concerns for historians. Quality and authenticity are two words that appear in several of our texts this week. What examples do you see in our reading that address quality and authenticity? What are some suggestions given to remedy these concerns and do you think they are effective?

With increased accessibility of digital history, there can be a lot of drawbacks. Rebecca Onion’s article addresses concerns of authenticity in the Twitter world. History photo accounts are notorious for posting uncredited and no context images to their accounts. The most egregious posting doctored photos trying to pass them off as real, but there are other places on the internet where history can be accessible, authentic, and quality. Edson’s article discusses the rise of the Vlog Brothers who have changed the way many consume and present content online. The Green brothers are responsible for the youtube channel, Crash Course, which gives a rundown of various educational topics ranging from biology to history. As someone who used to watch crash course history in middle and high school, this is an encouraging example of quality, accessible history content.

There is a lot of history content on the web written by a variety of different people, but some historians worry that this general accessibility can impact the quality of the content we see. Wikipedia allows any registered user to edit or create content on their site. In his article, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”, Rosenzweig notes the benefits and drawbacks of the site. Web users worldwide turn to Wikipedia first over many other online sources and encyclopedias. Wikipedia has become an invaluable tool for both scholars and amateur historians to produce historical writing for a public audience. Wikipedia also encourages collaboration among users, something which is rare for the discipline. Instead of a singular author working on an article, a single article could be worked on by any number of people, all volunteers. Collaboration is another common theme that we can see in our readings this week. Guiliano, Leon, and Cohen and Rosenzweig, want to take a collaborative approach to teaching and writing history.

While digital history was born out of collaboration there is also the concern of giving appropriate credit to everyone who contributed to a project. Leon writes that this lack of crediting each contributor hurts women and people of color most of all. Women’s research is consistently less cited than research conducted by men. This creates a ripple effect that impacts all aspects of a female historians career. Requirements for tenure track positions often fail to recognize the significance of digital history scholarship and digital methods are often ignored when considering bodies of scholarship that would qualify one for tenure. This leads to an imbalance of female professors with job security which prevents women with the flexibility to pursue projects like digital histories.

I want to call attention to two quotes from our texts:

“The primary connection between analog and digital that grounds this book is the belief that what makes it into our histories is a statement of our values and positions as individuals and as historians” (Jennifer Guiliano, A Primer for Teaching Digital History, introduction).

“In selecting (and excluding) material, a historian makes an argument about what sources are important for understanding a topic. Creating a digital collection further elaborates an argument through the organization, categorization, and description of sources, as well as the design of an interface for presenting and accessing them” (Robertson, et. al., Digital History and Argument, 4).

How do you interpret these quotes in relation to each other? Try to figure out why I would put these quotes side by side.

As we have read this week, digital history can be many different things, and can be done by many different people. History is important not only because it tells us about our past, but because it teaches critical thinking skills which is something this world needs now more than ever.


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