What is Digital History? A Work in Progress

What is digital history (DH)?  Even though DH is relatively new it has expanded tremendously since its inception with computers in the 1950s and the World Wide Web in the 1990’s.  These new technologies have opened up new opportunities for historians even though they have not always been motivated to use them.  The following articles give different perspectives on the effect technology has had on the history field, what new opportunities are opened up, and what new challenges historians face in the digital age.

Susan Hockey, “History of Humanities Computing,” A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Susan Hockey gave a very technical history of the growth of DH from punch cards in the 1950’s to the wealth of tools historians have at their disposal today.  Some common themes in this history were the cycle of amateurs experimenting with new technology to come up with innovative new uses for these tools.  Once a new tool is discovered it becomes popular and receives grants and institutional support from governments or universities.  This support makes the technology even more popular and feeds new people to find new ways of using the technology.  In most cases the user group gets together through some group associations to develop standards and universal formatting so that the technology can be operable in many different types of formats and settings. There are important lessons we can learn from this brief DH article.  It should teach us to always think big and envision what else can be done with the technology.  I would imagine people in the 1990’s using Mosaic would have a hard time imagining the growth of the internet in popularity and its uses in just a matter of about 15 years.  In the same way historians today should not limit themselves to the technology available now but they should think about what new technology can be invented to help better serve the history profession.

Another main idea in this article was the transition from linear to nonlinear data.  When punch cards and micro film were originally introduced people could only read them from start to finish.  One of the best things about the internet today is that it can give a nonlinear perspective of an event that opens up new ways to communicate history.  This is a great advance but I don’t think we should be overawed but this development.  Historians should not blindly use this technology to create nonlinear history if that is not the best way to express it.  It is probably best to use a nonlinear website to show the overall historical context of a period but it may be better to stick with traditional linear printed matter to tell how an event caused change over time.

Cohen and Rosenzweig, “Exploring the History Web,” Digital History

Cohen and Rosenzweig give valuable tips for people thinking about creating their own DH projects.  The main starting points are to research what others have already done in the field of DH and decide what genre your website is going to be.  Researching what others have already done ensure that you do not duplicate what somebody else has already one and it also helps one get ideas for new tools that could be create where there is a whole in the scholarship.  Deciding on a genre for your website makes one think about the audience who you want to reach.  Do you want to create an archive of primary source material for professional historians or a more entertaining but less substantive website for the general public?  I think this is valuable advice especially for public historians, which we talked a lot about in my museum studies last semester.  The general trend in museums has gone from “experts” sharing their knowledge with the public through museums to more of an emphasis on the viewer.  What is the user expecting when they go to a museum? What do they know already and what do they not know?  How do their difference experiences shape how they view a particular display?  These are all valuable questions that can easily relate to creating a website.  Thinking about the user can make your site more popular and more engaging, which is even easier to do online with the ability to create history “games,” communication with other historians, and the technology to enable the user to only explore the areas they want to explore.

Another important point is that DH is always changing.  This is why Google’s algorithm is better than Yahoo’s manual organization because it is impossible for individuals to keep up with the changes of DH.  It is also important to see that there are some biases in the internet’s search features.  For example, popular history, like British history, has more results than African history.  In addition, some areas do not come up in the search feature like databases and sites like JSTOR where the content is gated.  Again, this shows historians should not be molded by the technology they should try to mold technology to their needs.

Cohen had an interesting argument in favor of open access which I do not totally agree with.  I do think open access is can have great results in making it easier for people to see the content and enable people to manipulate the data to come up with new conclusions.  However, I think in some instances new advances would not come about without being profitable.  In this tough economy less people have the startup money to create something on their own without the hope of recouping some of their money in revenue later on.

William Cronon, “Getting Ready to Do History,” Carnegie Essays on the Doctorate, Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, Carnegie Foundation, Palo Alto , 2004, 1-18.(pdf)

Cronon does an amazing job at synthesizing the key aspects of the historical field, shows their limitations, and gives advice about how to improve the historical profession by using DH and raising the standards for the PhD.  He had a great point that other disciplines also study the past in their own fields.  Instead of fretting about this historians should embrace this and have more communication with other disciplines to gain a deeper understanding of the past from different perspectives.  Cronon says the PhD can sometimes force historians to be more specialized and overlook aspects of the past.  This is an excellent point but I think the history field needs both.  We need specialized historians to research little known or underrepresented aspects of the past but we also need historians to synthesize the contemporary material to try to make sense of a period so it is not just chaos.

I believe his thoughts on historizing the past was an important aspect of the historical field.  Historians believe that each person is biased because of their historical context and each different historical context shapes the particular events of that time.  Thus, historians look at the individual circumstance more than try to find general rules as political or the physical sciences try to do.  I have had experience with this in talking with my friend in other disciplines. They have a hard time understanding how historians can say everybody is biased and at the same time not be complete relativists.

I do have some problems with Cronon’s discussion about the PhD.  I think he becomes a little do didactic and theoretical at times.  I found it discouraging that he says things like if history departments cannot live up to these standards they should not be giving out PhDs at all.  I see that he is trying to inspire people to work hard to do better. I also know that everybody has lives and just because something is not perfect does not mean it should not exist.  I also found it kind of awkward when he was talking about how history departments can create your best friends.  Again, I understand and agree you can become friends with people who share your common interest this is not always the case.  One can learn a lot from somebody with different interests, which is something I think Cronon would be in favor of.

The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History, September 2008.

Tim Sherratt, “It’s all about the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power and People,” Discontents

This discussion does a great job of talking about how DH affects the three main areas of history, research, interpretation, and communication of history through publication.  It shows DH is making it easier for historians to communicate with each other and use crowdsourcing to let users create the historical data.  This, again, goes back to my public history discussion between the temple and the museum.  In the past the museum was a temple where experts displayed their knowledge.  Now the museum and internet has become more of a forum of discussion where many new opinions are shared.  This makes new interpretations possible but it has the downside of lowering the credibility of the museum.  DH need to think about how we can use the internet to share ideas at the same time we keep some form of peer review to keep the quality of historical scholarship at a high level whether in print or online.  Sherratt explains some more benefits of how the increased communication can assist the historical profession.  She says that technology enables the artifacts to be the main focus not the relationship of the “expert” historian imparting their knowledge on the public which are passive viewer’s not active participants in DH scholarship and technological advances.

I am encouraged by the impermanence of DH that some people were discouraged.  I believe it is a good thing to show there is no objective history.  As any historiography will show the interpretation of the past has always changed, even when historians just published books.  Hopefully the quickening pass of DH will show this valuable insight to more people studying history online.

The discussion about the difference between museums with artifacts vs. a website on the same material was also interesting.  I do believe there are enough pros and cons to each that is worth keeping both DH and museums.  Even though online resources have more of an audience, and are capable of doing more things there is still a value in being close to actual artifacts.  Looking at the actual hat that Lincoln was shot in inspires an awe that cannot be duplicated by websites.  The ability to talk to a real person and share your experience with other visitors is also a benefit to museums.

The distant reading vs. close reading reminded me of DNA evidence in courtrooms.  Even though distant reading of looking at word or grammatical patterns may be a good way to come to historical conclusions this is a new way of researching the past that many may not be comfortable with.  I believe these practices should be used along with traditional methods to show how they fit with the regular historical scholarship.  This is the best way these new tools will gain acceptance.

Robert Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?,” Perspectives (November 2010).

I had a couple of questions about the setup of this survey.  Was this distributed online or in paper as well? How were the recipients chosen? If this was distributed through email it may be biased to historians who are more comfortable with technology compared to people who would only answer a paper survey.  The survey also showed how historian’s self-interest gets in the way of adopting DH.  For example, historians are hesitant to publish their work online because they are afraid this will give them less prestige than publishing in print.  This is understandable given that this is how they make their living.  It also goes to the discussion whether DH should be a field or a method.  In my opinion, ideally, DH would be a method that all historians would take advantage of.  However, until DH gains wider acceptance I think it will need to be a field with centers to be the leaders in adopting DH.

Comparative Website Review

Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair, 1886-1887


Argument:  Shows how Haymarket bombing incident created one of the first red scares in America. Focuses on events of bombing and trial with lack of evidence.

Sources: 221 newspaper clippings, 55 photographs, 19 letters, nine broadsides, and images of more than 20 artifacts. A linked exhibition, “The Dramas of Haymarket,”

Fields: 19th century radicalism, labor and law enforcement.

Searchable: yes but more by type of record than by theme like immigrant did not come up.

Aesthetic: bright background, hard to read. It does have a very organized layout so things are easy to find and navigate to. They have objects but they are in special section. They are not mixed throughout the website.

Interpretation: lack of interpretation goes with publisher by LOC don’t want to be subjective just give resources for others to interpret.  However, the website does not tell people that workers were protesting police killing a fellow worker so show everybody is biased in what they include and exclude.

 Illinois During the Gilded Age


Argument: Gilded age in Illinois themes such as politics, farming, law, labor, religion, and economic development. This site also has the following historical themes: economic development and labor, labor, law and society, political development, race and ethnicity, religion and culture, settlement and immigration, and women’s experience and gender roles.

Sources: political speeches, pamphlets, songs, audio recordings, and maps that deal with such

Fields: gilded age in Chicago but can talk about gilded age broadly.

Searchable: Organization is very well. Did good job of using tabs to narrow down your search.

Aesthetic: More pictures, better background color less distracting, more inviting.  Interesting has donation request above introduction to material.

Interpretation: Does have teacher’s lectures on important matters of this time period.

 Reflection of website comparison:

There were some similarities in both websites.  First, both focused on the type of sources.  For example, in both websites you can limit the search based on image, video, or textual websites.  They both used links to let user browse to the desired content. They were not linear narrative stories like books.

There were some differences.  The LOC was almost exclusively artifacts with little interpretation whereas the other website had more interpretation.    Makes sense that LOC wants to get archives out not give their own opinion. Obviously, each website had different focuses.  The Haymarket square website was more focused on that one event as opposed to the more general Gilded Age in Chicago website.

It seemed like the aesthetic of the background color or the organization was more important than in a book.  In a book you notice the content more than the typeface.  This maybe something websites should work on.  However, the basic historical evaluation was the same.  I found the same fault about in both websites of telling people the motivation of the crowd to be there in the first place.  This shows that doing good history is the same whether in print or online.   This review also shows that websites just like books can have different focuses even though they about the same subject. Also shows it is always important to look at the source of the information to see how that affects the scholarship.


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