History and the Digital Image: Introduction
Allen Mikaelian, October 2012
Digital images have a way of piling up. Ease of acquisition—a click of the mouse or the release of a shutter—makes historians instant owners of JPGs of valuable archival documents; rare books in PDF format; high-resolution maps; and cultural artifacts like old postcards, family photos, and priceless artwork. The stuff that used to fill office file cabinets now occupies multiple external hard disks, waiting to be retrieved and woven into histories.
The articles in this forum address the opportunities and problems presented by the digital image. They focus on topics ranging from the presentation of history to the public (in person and on the web) to the creation of a personal archive and the challenges of merging massive amounts of historical data into maps. Running through these articles as a common thread is the historian's act of interpretation, and how the digital image and tools associated with it aid and influence that act.
Carl Abbott contends that scanners have democratized history and illustrates his argument with examples of his slideshows and history talks in the pool halls and brew pubs of Portland, Oregon. "The availability of images is a great equalizer that smooths the disconnect between academic and popular approaches," he notes. His public history projects, with images at the center, create loops that brings the public into the historical enterprise, not just as consumers, but as producers of history. Tanya March's short piece on the practical aspects of scanning, which supplements Abbott's article, might also help the equalizing process by showing how easy it is to scan and use images.
Trevor Owens and Jefferson Bailey's article suggests that digital imagery can similarly democratize the archive. They claim that Viewshare, the digital tool they describe, can not only make access to archives easier and more universal, but can also provide a way to make a key aspect of the historian's craft widely accessible. As historians know, organizing data is itself an act of interpretation. Viewshare allows for each digital object to carry any number of "facets," and for these facets to be mixed, matched, and ultimately visualized. The archive is thus not only made accessible, but can be manipulated and reinterpreted. "The process of creating visualizations," they write, "is not merely a means to provide access, but is in itself a mode of scholarly inquiry."
While Viewshare allows a researcher to assign data to digitized archival objects, geographic information systems (GIS), allow a researcher to assign data to geographic spaces, and to represent the result on a map or other visualization. Peter Bol sees vast opportunities for historians in GIS, including a true "spatial turn" in history and ways for historians use "big data." However, there are significant infrastructural challenges to widespread adoption of historical GIS, which he
The use of digital images in communities or the visualizations of big data might appear to be concerns of historians with special interests; but all historians trying to use digital images have to face a common question—how can we keep these ever-growing collections organized? At some point, professional historians have to become amateur archivists, and make deliberate choices about how their personal collections should be arranged. This question goes far beyond the basic issue of easily retrieving a needed document. The ways historians' personal digital collections are organized can be reflections of their thinking, and can helpfully guide their further thinking, from collection to further research, to presentation.
Elena Razlogova offers her own workflow as an example of the use of the digital image in historical research, from capture to writing. Her preferred organizational tool is Zotero, which is best known for its ability to grab bibliographical data from online catalogs and web sites. Her approach allows her digital images to be stored along with all the standard fields and tags that Zotero offers, and has the further advantage of relying on a storage system that is free and open source.
Nancy Brown describes how her master's thesis was facilitated by Adobe's Lightroom, an application designed for professional photographers but easily adapted to the needs of a historian. Brown used Lightroom to examine trends in newspapers, and the software met her dual needs for a quantitative analysis and a way to organize content. Brown's method highlights how digital tools allow researchers to assign multiple classifications to a single object (as in Viewshare), and break out of a simple hierarchical file-folder system. The act of organization offers new possibilities for interpretation.
Finally, Rachel Leow describes how she uses DevonThink, a Mac-only solution that appears to be pushing us closer toward the elusive paperless office. Like the tools discussed in the other articles, DevonThink allows for multiple systems of organization to exist side-by-side, but it adds the ability to index content and offers an artificial intelligence function that serves up related documents. Leow is an avid user of DevonThink, but in her essay she takes a big step back from the digital to advocate also for the importance of the physical world in historical research.
Taken together, these articles offer more than just practical advice. The digitization of historians' research materials has the potential to change not just how historians work, but how they think. It can further blur the already fuzzy lines between the academic and the public, and also between the curator, archivist, and historian. The choice of tools and workflows will greatly influence how deeply and productively these lines blur and what sort of historical work ultimately emerges.
Allen Mikaelian is the associate editor of Perspectives on History and is also the AHA's media relations coordinator.