Hist 696: Thoughts on the history of Digital History

(How meta)

For those of you following along at home, this weeks readings consisted of:

Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,

Susan Hockey’s entry “History” from Blackwell’s A Companion to Digital Humanities,

Robert B. Townsend’s article, “How is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians”,

and from the Journal of American History, an exchange between Dan Cohen, Michael Frisch, Patrick Gallagher, Steve Mintz, Kirsten Sword, Amy Murrell Taylor, William Thomas, and William Turkel entitled “The Promise of Digital History”.


While there are many points and themes that can be highlighted from these pieces, those which I was most struck by revolved around the disagreements in goal of digital humanities in general and digital history in particular. These are conflicts that I have already seen in action in my short time in the digital humanities world and are conflicts that I think can be very productive.

Susan Hockey makes the observation in her “History” that a “Hypertext in particular attracted a good many theorists. This helped to broaden the range of interest in, and discussion about, humanities computing but it also perhaps contributed to misapprehensions about what is actually involved in building and using such a resource. Problems with the two cultures emerged again, with one that was actually doing it and another that preferred talking about doing it.” While I chuckled at the criticism of the theorists in this description, this is a definite divide within the digital humanities field. My own intuitions coincide with those of the “builders,” which was one of my motivating reasons for locating myself in a history department, rather than American Studies. However, it is important to note that there is a choice to be made here, and work being done on both sides of that divide. Do we as humanists engage in exploring and explicating the assumptions and structures that underlie our digital experiences? Do we explore the layers of mediation (and there are many) between the user and the digital artifact or tool? Do we use the digital tools and see what can be created with them to expand knowledge and access to knowledge? These questions are interesting and productive, but do represent different schools of thought regarding how humanists approach the digital, and I am sure there are additional schools of which I am unaware. It is interesting that, despite the label “Digital Humanities”, there is a lot of differing opinions about what this sort of work entails.

(Side note: this split also exists in Public Humanities. I took a class during my MA in Public Humanities and I quickly realized that there are a variety of understandings of “public”, public engagement, and the like.)

A second point of conflict, more appropriate to digital history, is the question of what digital technology means for scholarship and how we craft and present historical arguments. Robert Townsend’s assessment of the survey given to historians on their use of digital technology offers an interesting view into two of the different approaches. Figure 6, which displays why historians consider publishing online, points to a pattern which I found interesting. While both avoiders and power-users saw reaching wider audiences, both popular and academic, and publishing more quickly as reasons to consider online publishing, avoiders rarely saw “telling the narrative in a new or different way” as a possible benefit, and  apparently none thought it would “improve presentation.” While these were lower also for the power users, I would suggest that this drop-off suggests a difference in perception of the requirements for history scholarship. If one assumes the traditional narrative and linear argument to be the best way to communicate scholarly research in history, then the benefits of digital technologies are limited. The monograph or scholarly article is well suited to the linear argument and narrative. There are minor gains to be had by producing a monograph in a digital form, but it is unclear if it is worth the effort. I think the lack of interest in “improved presentation” and new ways of telling the narrative is due to these historians being very committed to the argument structure of the monograph.

However, it is the possibilities for scholarship beyond the linear monograph that, I think, make up the “promise of digital history.” And, fortunately for me, those authors largely seem to agree. Taylor notes that digital history requires a shift in understanding the role of the historian. He notes, “…I think the difficulties students have also stem in part from the fact that we are asking them to make a huge conceptual shift in how they think about history. The traditional chronological or thematic narratives of history are so deeply entrenched in their minds—and, frankly, in most of our minds—that it is very difficult to start thinking of creating history that is not so linear and is “participatory” or “interactive” (or akin to “gaming”—an analogy I like). A student who is friendly to digital technology can be quite uncomfortable with thinking about history in new ways. This discomfort may also have to do with being asked to rethink the position of the historian—in ceding some control to the user to define the experience, what control does the historian/creator retain?” Digital history offers the possibility of thinking about and inviting others to engage with history in new ways. This opens up questions of what constitutes a historical argument? and how can we convey information differently? Megan also takes up this theme in her post, discussing the benefits of engaging through exploration and discovery, in contrast to more linear presentations.

These articles reveal different aspects of digital history, but one common theme is that digital history cannot simply be traditional history made digital. Archives and papers and maps are all helpful and are all part of digital history, but they are only the beginning. The questions I am excited about are what digital history means for how we think about history, how we engage with history and how we draw connections about the past.