History 428: Adventures in Digital History

HIST 428: Constant Changes to Digital History

Many of the classrooms in Monroe Hall feature posters that read: “History is an Argument About the Past.” Digital history however, provides an interesting counterpoint to this statement. While argumentation is certainly an important aspect of history, there are other elements of history, including public accessibility and disruption of narrative that encompass the field. 

Changes in Digital History Over Time

This week’s prompt asks us to analyze how digital history has changed over time. To do this, it is important to understand the beginnings of the field. When any field begins, it typically only has a few areas of focus. This is simply because there is not yet any long standing form of dialogue between scholars in which they can pick apart and discuss the best and worst elements of a field over time. The field of digital history began as a promise – a field that vowed to use the emerging technologies of the mid-late 1990s and early twenty-first century for change in the humanities. Gone would be the days of overhead projectors and pre-compiled primary source sets, and enter the days of (somewhat) unfettered access to online scholarly databases and public history projects. 

“Ideology over Methodology”

Cameron Blevins points out in his Debates in the Digital Humanities chapter “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense”  that, in both the early days of the field and the contemporary period, digital history was full of language of the future. That is to say, digital history was presented as a field of “potential” that would “possibly” impact the “future” for the better. [1] Even in 2015, the field faces the same verbiage challenges. Blevins argues that a reason for this gap is because digital history is more focussed on methodology than ideology. 

While I can see how this could stall progress of the field, I do not necessarily find this shift in focus to be a bad thing. As an education student, many of the history projects that I have created or practicum lesson plans that I have written are written with the intent of allowing my students, not myself, to craft their own arguments. Public history, too, often favors ideology over methodology, as public history projects are often tasked with making archival information accessible or understandable to new, large groups. [2] In her Debates in the Digital Humanities chapter “Public, First,” Sheila A. Brennan notes that public history has the “duty” to serve a specific audience. I find this true to be of the scrapbooks project, where our group is working more so to create a project that will benefit a specific audience than a project that makes a specific argument. 

Nevertheless, a point, or at least potential point, of change for the field of digital history would be to decrease the gap between ideology and methodology. 

Presentation of Information 

Another change, or at least unique point, of digital history is the way in which it alters presentation of information. In his Web 2.0 article, Dr. McClurken discusses how recent progress made to digitization and archiving has allowed students to access primary source compilations and other archives with much more ease than in the twentieth century. [3] While this is certainly true at the collegiate level, and I am definitely thankful for this ease of access to sources, some students access to sources, particularly those still in public school, is virtually unchanged from the 1990s and prior. 

While I personally attended high school in a county that allowed students to use computers, library databases, and other resources to engage in small research projects, this is not true of all schools. My practicum experience in counties surrounding UMW has shown me that many teachers still need to print out and prepare source compilations if they expect to have their students engage in research. This is because many web-based scholarly sources are behind a paywall, whether it be for the database itself or for overarching access to a web-connected device. While this difference is not to undermine changes in or benefits of digital history as a field, it is certainly something to consider when discussing accessibility. 

Disruption 

A notable point within the field of digital history is the way in which it interacts with and, in some ways, perpetuates, notions of disruption. Roopika Risam describes disruption as a “a valuable dimension of engagement” that is a “useful frame of thinking” about the digital humanities. In regards to disruption, Risam is referring to the numerous political and social movements, such as Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter that stemmed due to widespread access to the internet and social networks. For true digital history projects, such as those that both utilize digital tools and purposefully increase general access to information, disruption of narrative is made easier, as it facilitates the interplay between the “moment” of dialogue and the “dialogue of movement.” [5] 

Evaluating Digital History

The final articles that we read focussed on guidelines for evaluating digital history scholarship and projects, such as the AHA “Guidelines for Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians” and the Journal of American History’s “Digital History Review Guidelines.” These articles both point out that there is a lack of agreed upon guidelines for evaluating digital history scholarship and projects, in part because these works can take so many forms. [6] Because digital tools and web-based platforms are always evolving, guidelines for evaluating the projects that are made with these tools and platforms should also be evolving. This poses a challenge to historical societies, for the sheer fact that this poses a great time commitment. 

Similar to Cameron Blevins’ aforementioned article, some of the guidelines in the AHA and JAH articles use language of the future, such as “how are your departments and your institution responding to the opportunities and challenges presented by the emerging digital environment?” This suggests that historians are taking part not in a process of learning preset rules, but rather, in a process of learning and researching in a constantly-changing digital environment.

Final Thoughts

While reading this week’s articles, I thought of both the Scrapbooks Group Project and my experience as a practicum student teacher in surrounding counties. I was reminded of how the Scrapbooks Group is creating a project that is intended for a purposeful and clearly defined audience. I was also reminded of how, while there are so many useful technologies available, that the benefits of digital history or the digital humanities as a whole may not be practically used by all, despite being on the web. To speak in “future” terms, I hope that accessibility to web-enabled devices, scholarly databases, and other digital tools will become even more widespread in the future.

Notes

[1] Cameron Blevins, “Chapter 26: Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), accessed March 25, 2020, https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/4555da10-0561-42c1-9e34-112f0695f523#ch26 

[2] Shelia A. Brennan, “Chapter 32: Public, First” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), accessed March 25, 2020, https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/11b9805a-a8e0-42e3-9a1c-fad46e4b78e5#ch32 

[3] Jeffrey W. McClurken, “Waiting for Web 2.0: Archives and Teaching Undergraduates in the Digital Age,” accessed March 25, 2020 http://mcclurken.umwhistory.org/documents/JMRevised–SAA%20chapter%20proofs.pdf 

[4] Roopika Risam, “On Disruption, Race, and the Digital Humanities” (Disrupting the Digital Humanities, 2015), accessed March 25, 2020 http://www.disruptingdh.com/on-disruption-race-and-the-digital-humanities/ 

[5] Roopika Risam, “On Disruption, Race, and the Digital Humanities” [6] American Historical Association, “Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians” (American Historical Association, 2018), accessed March 25, 2020, https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/digital-history-resources/evaluation-of-digital-scholarship-in-history/guidelines-for-the-professional-evaluation-of-digital-scholarship-by-historians

2 thoughts on “HIST 428: Constant Changes to Digital History

  1. Nice summary of the key points in the readings. Do you see a connection between scholars who reject or resist the “digital promise” and the perceptions of history by the public?

    1. Thank you. If I am interpreting your question correctly, I would say that, in many cases, the scholars who “reject” the “digital promise” may perpetuate “old” notions about what history is and who it is for. It is possible that these scholars, in an attempt to maintain traditional elements of the field, are prolonging a divide between scholarship and the general public. Digital history is often intertwined with public history because both of these historians are looking for ways to broaden public use of scholarship and information.

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