Ghosts and Monsters: Human-Scale Digital History at #RRCHNM20
Seth Denbo, January 2015
Several years ago I was small cog in a large digital humanities project distributed across three continents. The project had the admirable goal of breaking down barriers to digital scholarship in the humanities. Doing so, at least in this case, meant integrating digital tools that would allow scholars to do textual analysis and publish and share the results of their research. A lot of the intellectual inspiration that drove the project forward came from the early modern and classical textual scholar Martin Mueller. Digital textual scholarship in the humanities makes possible the analysis of large-scale corpora by tools designed to give a continent-level view (Franco Moretti’s much-talked-about “distant reading”), but this can also have the effect of obscuring the small stories and local matters that are at the heart of the human cultural experience. Mueller’s reformulation of this idea was to call for “scalable reading,” or a form of engagement with texts that combines reading with the contextual overviews at which computers excel. In Mueller’s words:
Scalable reading, then, does not promise the transcendence of reading—close or otherwise—by bigger or better things. Rather it draws attention to the fact that texts in digital form enable new and powerful ways of shuttling between “text” and “context.” Who could complain about tools that let you rapidly expand or contract your angle of vision?1
Working between text and context is at the core of the historical discovery process, and questions about how to do this are a central concern for many historians using digital tools and methods. Moving from the particular, such as a trial report in a newspaper, to the entire archive of that newspaper for a given period presents significant methodological and theoretical challenges and historical opportunities. On his blog, Tim Hitchcock, professor of digital history, has referred to the information scientist Katy Börner’s concept of a “macroscope” to call for tools that “provide a ‘vision of the whole,’ helping us ‘synthesize’ the related elements and detect patterns, trends, and outliers while granting access to myriad details.”2
Digital historians’ perspectives on this dichotomy—big versus small, close versus distant—were a central topic during a session called “The Future of Digital History” held at George Mason University in October. The session was part of a two-day conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) and included presentations by Hitchcock and Spencer Roberts (a fellow at the center), as well as prominent digital historians Will Thomas and Kathryn Tomasek.
Founded by Rosenzweig in 1994, RRCHNM was one of the earliest centers to develop and promote the use of computers by humanists. Over the years since, the Rosenzweig Center has been responsible for developing widely used tools such as Zotero and Omeka, for launching and fostering the THATCamp movement, and for numerous digital-history projects, including the September 11 Digital Archive, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, and the Papers of the War Department 1784–1800.
Digitized map showing how counties in all 48 states voted in the 1912 presidential election. Clicking on the map brings up the results for that county, including details in relation to the larger context. From the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond, dsl.richmond.edu/historicalatlas/110/b/.
In addition to a room bursting with scholars of digital history, both venerated and nascent, ghosts and monsters were prominent guests at the conference. The benevolent ghost of the center’s much-missed founder was present throughout the conference as a number of speakers invoked Rosenzweig’s generosity toward other scholars, especially those at the beginning of their careers, and his humane vision for a democratization of history through digital engagement. This vision has been at the core of the center’s mission from its inception.
In order to achieve this democratization, speakers throughout the day saw digital history as transformative, as having the potential to allow a reshaping of the discipline. While Hitchcock sees the transformation as a product of the new historical narratives that can evolve in the interplay between big and small data, for Will Thomas, chair of the history department at the University of Nebraska, transformation comes from the engagement between the past and the present. As Thomas stated in his talk, a “fully complex social reality of the present meets a fully complex social reality of the past” when there is more direct engagement with both sources and audiences, and when barriers between historians inside and outside the academy are broken down. Thomas argues that, to make this a reality, we need better mechanisms for peer review of digital history, greater critical engagement with the interpretive maneuvers of digital historians, and better means to engage in dialogues with our audiences.
Contrasting with the paeans to Rosenzweig’s humanitas were the monsters that occasionally joined the festivities. Along with a celebration of the possibilities that digital history offers, speakers were wary of the monsters that technology might produce. Hitchcock invoked “the hubris and sick imagination” of Victor Frankenstein, whose creature he used in a cautionary metaphor for the journey of digital history from a hubristic embrace of technology for its own sake to a sense of humanity. Historians who are enamored of digital tools must remember to ground their work in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the past.
What is the future of digital history? Engagement with digital tools can be a route to a reinvention of historical narrative that enhances the role of history in our society and culture. The key to this is remembering, in Wheaton College historian Kathryn Tomasek’s words, the “value of the granular.” Tomasek’s comment that “big data is made up of the granular” concisely captures this. For historians, digital engagement should mean being able to move from the vast realms of big data to the smallest component parts of the larger whole. In some sense, this is what good historical writing has always been, a deeply integrated narrative that moves from the particular to the general and back again. The promise of the digital, then, is threefold: that it allows for engagement with far more sources than ever before, that it makes possible a much more dynamic interaction with those sources when moving between text and context, and finally, that it enables a dialogic approach to engaging audiences. With these things in mind, we can banish the monsters and move toward the humane and democratic history we should all strive for.
Videos of all of the talks and notes on the sessions, as well as more information about the projects mentioned, are available on the #RRCHNM20 conference site (chnm.gmu.edu/20th).
Seth Denbo is the AHA’s director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives. Follow him on Twitter @seth_denbo.
1. Martin Mueller, “Scalable Reading,” Scalable Reading, May 12, 2012, https://scalablereading.northwestern.edu/scalable-reading.
2. Tim Hitchcock, “Big Data, Small Data and Meaning,” Historyonics, November 9, 2014, http://historyonics.blogspot.com/2014/11/big-data-small-data-and-meaning_9.html.
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