New Angles on Digital History
I’ve been thinking about squares and rectangles. In geometry class, I learned that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. Similarly, is it fair to say that all digital history work uses some kind of digital distribution method, but that not all digitally distributed historical work is digital history? My sense is that conflating digital distribution, like blogs or online exhibitions, with digital methods, like data mining or machine learning, has made digital history into a catch-all category. In practice, I fear that this equates publishing an edited essay on a blog, a vitally important but hardly radical shift in academic publishing, with the work of scholars who undertake massive text mining projects impossible to even imagine a few years ago.
As in the geometry analogy, the distinction I draw here between digital history projects and projects that use digital distribution tools is more than merely semantic. It relates to the nature of the work. Often, we receive pitches describing projects that purport to be new, exciting digital history projects when, in practice, they are putting excellent scholarship online in relatively traditional formats: exhibitions, essays, videos. During editorial board meetings we often find ourselves asking if such projects have made use of digital tools and epistemologies to generate a different kind of history.
Historians working in this way have embraced the widespread distribution potential of the web. Blogs like Nursing Clio (hosted on WordPress), resource collections like 19th-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts (powered by Omeka), The Chicago Sports History Driving Tour (run on Clio), or interactive timelines like Food in the West: A Timeline (created using Timeline.js) have all leveraged technology to build compelling distribution platforms for the kind of work that historians have always done: writing for both specialist and public audiences, collecting and annotating sources, building exhibits and tours, and explaining change over time. These projects have, undoubtedly, had an important impact on the public nature of historical work in recent years. However, they do not ask new kinds of questions or bring new kinds of evidence to bear on historical questions.
In contrast, fewer historians have integrated digital methods into their scholarship. When embraced as a methodology, digital history enables historians to work with new materials and ask different kinds of questions. There are many tools available to support this kind of work, many of them developed by colleagues working in data analysis. Historians might find themselves using AntConc or Mallet to analyze digital collections in ways that were nearly impossible, and certainly profoundly labor intensive, a generation ago. Most of these tools require at least basic programming skills, which historians can pick up in classes, using online tutorials, or by hiring an expert (if grant funding or institutional support is available). Approaching digital history in this way also requires a degree of comfort with new kinds of data sets and new approaches to old data sets.
Everything has a history, even the necessary but ambiguous pairing of distribution and methodology in explanations of digital history. Over a decade ago, in a May 2009 Perspectives on History article titled “What Is Digital History?,” Douglas Seefeldt (Clemson Univ.) and William G. Thomas (Univ. of Nebraska–Lincoln) characterized digital history as “an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems.” The field has matured since Seefeldt and Thomas wrote this, and historians now have access to many more digital distribution platforms that require minimal technical knowledge. We might be better served by thinking about digital history in a way that acknowledges the considerable overlap between examining, interpreting, and representing, while honoring the important advances made by those who study history using digital methods.
Ashley E. Bowen is Editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @AEBowenPhD.
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