History 428: Adventures in Digital History

HIST 428: Course Introduction

Introduction

It’s Spring 2020, which means that I’ve officially entered my last semester of undergrad. While I have another year ahead of me for my Masters program, this will be my last semester with the history department!

While Adventures in Digital History serves as the capstone for my digital studies minor, I was excited to take the course regardless as I wanted to work on an accessible, outward facing, locally focussed project within my history major. I had actually first heard of the course before declaring my digital studies minor when I attended a history symposium. Now, my group in the course will focus on to digitizing a collection of scrapbooks that cover three generations of Fredericksburg women.

Digital History versus Digital Humanities: Initial Thoughts

For our first blog post of the semester, we were tasked with exploring the similarities and differences between the fields of”digital history” and “digital humanities.” To do this, we were given a variety of readings and definitions, all of which are included as notes at the bottom of this post.

Defining Digital History

Beginning with the Wikipedia definition, digital history is defined as the “use of digital media to further historical analysis, presentation, and research,” and is listed as a branch of digital humanities. [1]

The 2006 book Digital History by Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig traces the origins of the field, beginning with a look at early, mid-1990s predictions as to how a rise in global connectivity through the internet would affect the study of history. Cohen and Rosenzweig define the field through both qualitative and expressive advantages.

C&R’s Qualitative Advantages of Digital History [2]

  • Capacity: While storage online is not purely infinite, information can be easily stored and shared in ways that are save costs and maximize space. While the C&R point out that a 120 GB hard drive in 2006 was $95, that same external drive today, fourteen years later, would retail for roughly $20.
  • Accessibility: Historical research that is published online is, while perhaps not broadly accessible, definitely accessible to a wider audience of scholars. While not all historical researched published online is intended for the general public, even publishing scholarly journals online in restricted databases allows for scholars to utilize and reference wider volumes of works at once.
  • Flexibility: If history is to be understood as a medium reliant on arguments and storytelling, then digital history heightens these elements. Because it is easier to integrate text, photographs, charts, sound, and videos together, historians have more flexibility in how they tell their stories. Further, translation tools allow for more scholars to utilize works across the world.
  • Diversity: C&R point out that the barrier to entry for creating web-based materials is far lower than that of a brick and mortar establishment. It is easier, cheaper, and faster (generally) to make a website than it is to publish a book.

C&R’s Expressive Advantages of Digital History [3]

  • Manipulability: The “command+F” search feature is quite valuable when navigating sources. Similarly, if items in an online database are properly tagged, research becomes quicker.
  • Interactivity: Materials that are posted online generally have a platform for commenting or sharing, thus increasing venues for discussion of ideas and receiving feedback.
  • Hypertextuality: It is quicker to move through a large amount of sources online. Unlike a book, navigating digital sources is fairly unstructured, therefore altering the ways in which we create narratives.

Problems and Shortcomings

All of the above qualities help define digital history. However, these qualities also raise questions about potentially problems or shortcomings in the field. According to C&R, problems posed by digital history include the “real potential for inaccessibility and monopoly” in a world where not all individuals have internet access. Further, digital history raises its own questions of preservation. How will websites be preserved? What is a program used to run a project becomes outdated? What if a page is simply deleted by the owner?

In terms of shortcomings, digital history, while technically online, may not be any more accessible than the field of history itself was decades ago. Journals can still exist behind paywalls, and resources can still be hidden. Very little of the internet is accessible to the standard user.

Defining Digital Humanities

Beginning again with the Wikipedia definition, the digital humanities are defined as “an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing or digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities.” [4] According to Stephen Robertson, digital humanists “share a commitment to collaboration, openness, and experimentation.” [5]

Digital humanities are not a “tent,” under which certain disciplines, like digital history, rest, but a “house with many rooms” in which different rooms hold different, unique traits. [6] Unlike the more optimistic (and earlier) sentiments found in Digital History, Robertson argues that simply putting information online does not actually increase its audience or promote accessibility.

Differentiating between Digital History and Digital Humanities

When understanding the differences between digital history and digital humanities, it is important to look again at both the advantages and shortcomings of digital history.

One of the advantages of digital history is that it allows historians to use a variety of tools (flexibility) to share information with the public (accessibility). If a digital history project, such as a database of primary sources pertaining to the Atlantic slave trade, is publicly accessible, then that digital history project fits in a “room” in the “house of digital humanities.”

One of the shortcomings of digital history is that is can be just as easily promote inequality or suffer from monopolistic control as any other branch of academia can. While these factors may or may not diminish the quality of research done, they certainly diminish the spread of new research and k knowledge to the public. For example, if a scholarly journal is simply translated into another language (diversity) with just the intention to be used by other historians, then that example of digital history is less of an example of digital humanities. Digital history is not automatically a subset of digital humanities, but it can be.

These disciplines, however, are of course not set in stone. Shortcomings or areas for improvement are being addressed, as evident in American Quarterly’s special issue regarding the digital humanities. Citing the longstanding relationship between American studies scholars and digital humanities, American Quarterly outlines a variety of ways in which they hope to “engage actively with the digital humanities,” such as through showcasing digital projects, exploring essays on identity, engagement, and pedagogy online, and by hosting forums. [7]

Applying Digital Humanities to ADH

In the instance of our Adventures in Digital History course, our group projects will fit comfortably within the realm of digital humanities, as they are intended to bring forth information and narratives to be accessed by wide, public audiences.

In her blog post “How did They Make that?” Miriam Posner lists example of technical skills needed to create successful digital projects, such as creating primary source databases, creating searchable maps, 3D modeling, and showcasing long form text posts. [8] Many of these tools could be very useful in working on our group projects.

Notes

[1] “Digital History.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 16, 2019. Accessed January 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_history.

[2] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History (2006) http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/introduction/

[3] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig.

[4] “Digital Humanities.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, January 12, 2020. Accessed January 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_humanities

[5] Stephen Robertson. “The Differences Between Digital Humanities and Digital History.” Debates in Digital Humanities. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/ed4a1145-7044-42e9-a898-5ff8691b6628

[6] Stephen Robertson.

[7] Lauren Tilton et al., “Introduction: American Quarterly in the Digital Sphere,” American Quarterly 70, no. 3 (September 29, 2018): 361–70, https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2018.0026.

[8] Miriam Posner. “How Did They Make That?” Miriam Posner. August 29, 2016. Accessed January 14, 2020. http://miriamposner.com/blog/how-did-they-make-that/

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