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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

What is Digital History?

Digital History is the use of digital tools including audio files, interactive maps, video, timelines, and textual analysis in the quest for historical understanding. Since the Web emerged in the mid-1990s, sites devoted to history have pervaded the proliferating public space. In 1997, Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig suggested of the Web that it would less likely present a radically new paradigm or way of thinking regarding history, but rather serve as a space with speedy access to existing resources.[1] At that time, O’Malley and Rosenzweig’s prediction seemed fair. However, an interesting and noticeable progression surfaced in history’s uses on the Web, beginning with rapid access to teaching materials, then to research, and finally to scholarship.

The practice of researching, teaching, and presenting the past has changed dramatically since the Internet and the Web entered the lives of historians. Digital history changes methodological conceptions and the ways historians collect, store, and present history online. Computers and internet technology promise to lead historians to conduct research and present history differently in the future. Like never before, historians, curators, and librarians can reach the public though digital resources. In developing early digital history, O’Malley and Rosenzweig note, “the Web offers an instant education on the uses of the past in the present.”[2] Rudimentary in form but promising something greater, digital history provided on the web allowed historians and teachers to give their students easy access to historical materials. Students and anyone interested, for that matter, will find digital history on the Web a unique resource to visualize how the past is used in the present. A digital project based on primary sources, accounts for previous research, and makes an argument – much like any book or article – comprises original scholarship on the web. The increasing number of digital archives and projects has enabled historians to present their craft in an accessible and useful way to a diverse audience. Indeed, digital history may reach individuals to a much greater degree than scholarly books.[3]

With unfettered and equal access to countless historical resources, the Web provides an exceptional space for developing new thought and methods for presenting knowledge. Technological advancements and network capabilities have transformed historical research and ultimately writing through convenient and widespread access to digital databases, archives, and libraries. In a self-published piece titled “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History,” Edward L. Ayers asserts, “Digital archives stand as yet another manifestation of new thinking…Such archives take advantage of the mass, multiplicity, speed, reiteration, reflexivity, and precision offered by computers.”[4] Digital archives and digitally based research help move historians toward more complex, more literary forms of narrative. By immersion in the digital realm, historians can deal more effectively with multiple sequences, multiple voices, multiple outcomes, and multiple implications to spread contextual knowledge of the interrelatedness of experience. Historians can do more, reach more people, store more data, give readers more varied sources, get more historical materials into classrooms, get students more access, and hear more perspectives in a digital environment.[5]

While digital archives and other resource repositories online provide the information, and certainly offer flexibility of research and exploration, digital history makes new intellectual connections from that material, thus providing new thought and new knowledge.[6] Digital history scholarship offers an argument within analytical and interpretive frameworks on a particular historical topic. Historians can create distinctive forms of narrative and analysis that adequately exploit the possibilities offered by technological developments. It is not just collecting diverse materials on a subject, but making sense of that collected evidence and weaving it together to construct an understandable story. Here, like Ayers suggests, historians must think along several axes in establishing coherent, layered analyses and narratives.[7]

Digital historical scholarship provides greater transparency in terms of scholarly method and source interpretation. The reader no longer has to take the author at their word; through digital historical capabilities, they can link to the evidence, inspect it for themselves, and possibly create their own narratives, their own analysis, or their own interpretation from those sources. New avenues for enhanced dialogue and interactivity amongst historians and readers, professional historians can open professional history to a broader, more diverse audience previously restrained in the confines of print publications. E-mail, instant messaging, and discussion forums have also broadened circles of communication and debate amongst historians and the public. Digital history, therefore, opens the potential for sharing not only information, but also new knowledge easily and conveniently. One of the clear strengths in digital history is that digital media can handle and generate electronic content outside the usual constraints of real books and museum exhibits.[8]

Through new technologies, historians can create new theories, interpretations, and knowledge. The ancient discipline of history has begun to metamorphose, so too must its presentation. Hypertextual history and narrative, for instance, interlink text on an electronic screen to offer new methods for making arguments and associations from an array of evidence. Weaving together text and source, hypertextual history embodies historical complexity on screen and provides adequate textual description for navigating the interlinked sites. The Valley of the Shadow Project, a work of Ayers and the Virginia Center for Digital History, unveils this unique form of professional scholarship on the Web that cannot be replicated on paper.[9] Through these digital projects, historians can unlock the store of information and human knowledge hidden in archives and books and combine them onto a widely used medium. Moreover, the Valley of the Shadow project reveals beneficial forms of history that can only exist online. In no book can you make the associational links to disparate information in an understandable form made possible in digital formats. Digital history and technological tools can help historians make that bond with the public. Similarly, as indicated, digital history assists historians in making associations while tracing historical trends and changing theories. Making these connections further history as a profession and validate the historical profession’s importance. It can allow fascinating assignments to illustrate to students that the past is not dead and forgotten but actively and diversely used.

Edward Ayers wonders if the quantitative history of the 1950s and 1960s will make a return as technology increasingly overlaps with historical research.[10] To what extent might the available tools and techniques of the new media guide research questions? Those of us testing the frontier of digital humanities need to explain how our exploration differs from other disciplines utilizing computers. Historians often differ from theory-driven social scientists by a loyalty to nuance and complexity. If historical scholarship is to follow the route of the social sciences, we must distinguish ourselves. It will not be enough to demonstrate that our digital tools can identify patterns or connections, but how these items can reshape or reinforce our conceptions of the past without diluting our commitment to nuance.

Since the mid-1990s, digital history has become a looming importance for historical scholarship and the historical profession. If professional historians are to have a hand in the continuing evaluation of concepts, tools, and importance of digital history, we need to pull others into the discussion and get to work. Writing in 1998, Carl Smith says that few historians engaged the new medium or ever discussed its possibilities.[11] Seven years later, Orville Vernon Burton startlingly reveals that “very little attention has been paid to [digital history] from the mainstream profession.”[12] The lack of discussion about digital history within the profession is a cause for concern.


[1] Much of this post is derived from a paper I recently presented, Brent M. Rogers, “The Historical Community and the Digital Future,” at the James A. Rawley Graduate Conference in the Humanities, Lincoln, NE 12 April 2008. The quote comes from Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web,” Journal of American History 84.1 (1997): 132-155.

[2] Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web,” Journal of American History 84.1 (1997): 132-155.

[3] For further information on history on the Web see Daniel J. Cohen, “History and the Second Decade of the Web,” Rethinking History 8.2 (2004): 293-301. See also Brent M. Rogers, “The Historical Community and the Digital Future,” paper presented at the James A. Rawley Graduate Conference in the Humanities.

[4] Edward L. Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History,” Virginia Center for Digital History (1999).

[5] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Promises and Perils of Digital History,” Introduction to Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (2006), 7. See also Brent M. Rogers, “The Historical Community and the Digital Future,” paper presented at the James A. Rawley Graduate Conference in the Humanities.

[6] Rogers, “The Historical Community and the Digital Future.”

[7] Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History.”

[8] For more detailed information see Rogers, “The Historical Community and the Digital Future.”

[9] The Valley of the Shadow Project, available from http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/. For further details see Rogers, “The Historical Community and the Digital Future.”

[10] Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History.”

[11] Carl Smith, “Can You Do Serious History on the Web?” AHA Perspectives 36.2 (1998): 5-8.

[12] Orville Vernon Burton, “American Digital History,” Social Science Computer Review 23.1 (2005): 206-220.

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