How can historians effectively use the Internet to enhance both their research and how they present that research to a wider audience? Daniel J. Cohen’s and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web attempts to answer this question by examining the potential possibilities and pitfalls digital media presents to historians. Within their introduction, Cohen and Rosenzweig define the seven major positive aspects of digital media as:
Capacity: Digital media gives historians the ability to exponentially expand storage space for object or archival research. This expanded space also allows archives and museums share collections not on display in their institutions with the public.
Accessibility: By using formats such as online exhibits, web sites, and digitized archives historians can reach larger academic or non-academic audiences than ever before.
Flexibility: Digital media has allowed historians to move beyond the use of text sources to include other forms of media such as sound and moving images.
Diversity: The openness of the web has given beginning, amateur, or hobby historians that may not be able to publish in scholarly journals an outlet to present their work to a broader audience.
Manipulability: The use of search engines lets historians search across broad swaths of sources in a short period of time, this makes the research process much quicker than only using print sources and microfilm.
Interactivity: By creating online sources, historians can directly and conveniently interact with a larger audience.
Hypertextuality: The broad scope of the web provides an expanded ability to move from narrative to narrative quickly.
These seven aspects of digital media remain particularly useful for historians because they expand our research options, broaden our audiences, and give us the opportunity to engage in direct conversation with other academics and the general public. In contrast to these positive aspects of digital media, the authors also warn historians of the more negative aspects of digital history, including:
Quality: Because of the openness of the web anyone can publish low quality or historically inaccurate work.
Durability: As technology rapidly changes, archivists struggle to keep track of and preserve born digital material.
Readability: Online scholarship can reduce the readability of articles by overloading readers with images and sound clips in addition to an already dense argument.
Passivity: Many of the more interactive components in digital history have trouble using the computer to detect “gray” areas.
Inaccessibility: Many scholarly databases only allow access to institutions able to pay the subscription fees. Also, there is a substantial “digital divide” between those who can and cannot access the Internet.
After Cohen and Rosenzweig detail some of the pros and cons of digital media within their introduction, they go on to give a history of the field that uses several links to web pages to illustrate advances made in historically relevant sites. This first chapter not only provides useful information on the history of digital media, but also provides more specific examples of the pros and cons discussed in the introduction.
Throughout the reading, I thought the authors most effectively demonstrated the positive side of digital media by noting the ability to increase public accessibility to history through the use of the Internet. By illustrating how online archives, exhibits, and articles, can provide both historians and the general public with access to historical materials that otherwise may have been unavailable to them, Cohen and Rosenzweig make a very persuasive argument encouraging the use of digital media. In regards to the darker side of digital media, the authors best argue that as corporations become more involved in history on the web, the accessibility praised above becomes limited. This seemed particularly relevant in regards to databases such as JSTOR or Project Muse that offer incredibly useful services, but only to those institutions that can afford to pay the hefty subscription fees. By illustrating both the pros and cons of digital media, and by providing a background of the digital history field, Cohen and Rosenzweig’s work helps technologically inept historians ground themselves in the basics of digital media.
To build on this week’s reading, I have included below three links that illustrate ways in which historians, archives, and museums, have used digital media to reach a broader audience. The first link to the Valley of the Shadow Project discussed in the reading illustrates how historians can use the web to bring their research to the general public. The next link to the National Archives Digital Vaults demonstrates how online programs can help archives reach K-12 teachers. Lastly, the National Museum of American History’s site on their collections illustrates how museums can use the Internet to show the general public larger parts of their collection unable to be displayed in the museum. Happy browsing, and please share a few of your own favorite history sites as well!
– Kelsey Fritz