Defining Digital History: The First Three

Hello all! I’ll be taking you through the first three readings for our Defining Digital History week.

The first reading is the introduction to an online textbook written by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig. Cohen is a professor at George Mason. He is affiliated with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. This reading briefly introduces us to some of the pros and cons of digital history. Ironically, there is a good deal of overlap between the pros and cons. For example, accessibility is a pro while inaccessibility is a con. The nature of the internet lends itself to greater accessibility because anyone with a computer can access published information without having to travel. However, not all information is equally accessible. Cohen and Rosenzweig mention a monopolization of knowledge. Historical journals that require a subscription pose a high barrier to entry into the “knowledge market.” What struck me about Cohen and Rosenzweig’s description of digital history is the extended metaphor of comparing the digital world to an economy. Rosenzweig alludes to this capitalist metaphor again in the last article I’ll discuss here. This idea of the History Web as a free market is an interesting metaphor that I will keep in the back of my mind as I continue this semester. 

This next reading is Chapter 1 of the Cohen and Rosenzweig textbook. The critical part of the History Web is the idea of audience. There are two primary author-audience interactions Cohen and Rosenzweig mention: intradisciplinary and popular. Professional online databases such as JSTOR allow scholars across the globe to disseminate and access information efficiently. This intradisciplinary interaction is much less democratic. Often the databases are only accessible to institutions who pay a, sometimes hefty, fee. While most scholars receive access through their institutions, amateur historians or people interested in learning more are often out of luck. This is where popular interaction is more common. In this case, the author can be a professional institution like the Smithsonian or an amateur historian seeking to share a passion project. These sites can lack the historical rigor of a peer-reviewed journal, but they are great for people who do not have formal training because they are written for the public. Neither one of these interactions is better or worse than the other, but they can both benefit from learning from each other. Scholars can present their work to people outside of academia while amateurs can learn historiography and have a more analytical approach. 

This article, written by Roy Rosenzweig, focuses on Wikipedia as an open-source encyclopedia that represents a microcosm of the History Web. Since the website is a source of open collaboration, it can cause dissonance in articles with hotly contested information. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some topics may not receive much attention because there isn’t enough interest. As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Another symptom of open collaboration is a lack of diversity in authors. As historians seek to diversify historical literature, Wikipedia still sees overwhelmingly more contributions from white males. Although there are attempts to ensure the quality of Wikipedia pages, this leads to a preference for factuality over interpretation. As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is not meant to offer original interpretations or theories. It seeks to provide the basic facts, which makes it a popular first destination for students beginning their research. Could we see digital open-source materials become more common in the humanities? Many STEM journals are already pushing for open access publications because they recognize the importance of open collaboration?

Let me know your thoughts about the utility of digital history! I think it’s worth noting that the first two readings were from an online textbook and the third one was originally published in The Journal of American History but reprinted for open access.