Published Date

September 1, 2016

Resource Type

AHA Resource, For Departments, For Professional Development, Program of Study


Digital Methods

AHA Topics

AHA Initiatives & Projects, Career Paths, Graduate Education, Professional Life, Teaching & Learning

This is part of The Career Diversity Five Skills project.

Author: Seth Denbo

What Is Digital Literacy?

Digital literacy means having a familiarity with and facility in navigating and using the Internet. At a basic level, historians can expect every aspect of their academic and professional lives to involve using networked digital tools of one kind or another, often in the most quotidian ways—using the university’s digital library catalog, sharing reports with managers and colleagues, working on draft chapters via email with a co-author, or doing keyword searches of newspapers online.

Disciplinary and professional digital literacy also requires having a basic knowledge of the impact of using digital technologies in all aspects of your working life. As teachers, digital literacy enables you to make better use of tools such as PowerPoint and learning management systems to improve the quality of your students’ education. Adopting innovative assignments, such as challenging students to critically evaluate (and even edit) Wikipedia, rather than banning its use, for example, can help students become more digitally savvy and prepared for success in the world. As researchers, digital literacy can lend a more critical understanding of how keyword search might provide a different window to the past than more traditional means of primary source discovery. It might also give insights into the conditions that affected the creation and archiving of born digital sources. Digital literacy also means knowing the value of social media, blogging, and other online platforms for exchanging ideas with others in our field.

Acquiring Digital Literacy

How does one obtain this elusive digital literacy? Many graduate students assume that everyday use of Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram makes one automatically digitally literate, but the digital literacy needs of a graduate student looking for a job require strategic thinking, intentionality, and reflection, not to mention a willingness to take risks and chances. Figure out what sorts of digital skills you need and then pursue them deliberately. The first step for graduate students is to seek out resources at your institution. Your university’s website, the library, the campus center for teaching and learning, and IT services, will all provide resources for helping you get started or build your knowledge in many of the key areas of digital literacy. Some institutions run workshops, seminars, and even entire programs on these skills.

As you develop expertise, four fundamental areas should be your focus:

  1. Learn to manage your online identity because “If you don’t, someone else will.” (Many academic and nonacademic employers google applicants they are considering interviewing.)
  2. Be familiar with digital tools for research, teaching, and scholarly communication. Even a basic knowledge of tools that can help organize your work, such as citation management software, will be a step toward greater fluency.
  3. Use these tools with a critical eye. Build up an understanding of how digital tools such as learning management systems, keyword searchable full text databases, and web-based publication software are changing intellectual production.
  4. Be prepared to explain how these skills and knowledge make you a better candidate on both the academic and nonacademic job market.

This may seem like a lot, but you don’t need to become an expert in everything. Seek out training about the tools that are most relevant to your work as a historian, and develop your skills to the level you require. Digital literacy is invaluable no matter where your career takes you. Recognize the skills you already have, cultivate those you need, and remember that all of this work will open doors and bring opportunities.

This introduction was adapted from Seth Denbo’s blog post “On Being a Historian Today: the Importance of Digital Literacy.” He extends thanks to all those who helped solidify his thoughts on digital literacy via Twitter. For resources for graduate students, see below. Faculty wishing to teach digital literacy should see Faculty Resources for Developing Digital Literacy.

Articles, Blog Posts, and Web Resources from the American Historical Association

Digital History Resources

Digital technologies have expanded the reach of scholarship in the way scholars communicate their research to an audience and present findings, as well as influencing the questions they ask in planning a research project. Text analysis, data and text mining, mapping, data visualization, and a variety of other digital methods and tools make forms of research beyond the traditional text-based article or monograph possible, while also encouraging scholars to consider questions of data storage, visual presentation, and user engagement. Here, you can find resources on getting started in digital history, articles on doing digital history, and projects of interest.

“Modeling Bermuda and Making History Work”

By Aiala Levy, AHA Today, 23 September 2015

Aiala Levy, PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, shares the work she did as part of an internship with the Digital History Lab at the University of Rochester, an experience made possible by the AHA Career Diversity for Historians initiative.

“My Two-Year Tour: Exploring What to Do with My MA as a Grad Student”

By Stephanie Kingsley, AHA Today, 25 August 2015

Stephanie Kingsley, associate editor for web media and social media at the AHA, describes how assisting on digital history projects while earning her MA at the University of Virginia helped her to cultivate a valuable set of skills.

“A Taste of Food History”

By Jake Purcell, AHA Today, 29 July 2015

Jake Purcell, PhD Candidate at Columbia University, interviews fellow graduate students Mookie Kideckel, Alma Igra, and Jordan Katz, who are all working on digital projects related to food history that intersect with their academic research.

“Data Storytelling and Historical Knowledge”

By Seth Denbo, Perspectives on History, April 2015

Seth Denbo, director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA, provides an overview of data storytelling and a new website that provides access to a catalog of datasets collected and managed by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

“Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Modeling John Donne’s Gunpowder Day Sermon”

By Seth Denbo, Perspectives on History, February 2015

Seth Denbo discusses the Virtual Paul’s Cross, a digital history project that demonstrates how traditional historical methodologies can be combined with new technologies to make interventions in a rich scholarly conversation.

“Doing History Digitally: Taking Advantage of Training Opportunities to Learn New Methods and Approaches”

By Seth Denbo, Perspectives on History, December 2014

Interested in learning more about digital tools and methods but don’t know where to begin? Seth Denbo provides a list of training opportunities and resources to get started.

“Student-Created Websites as Useful Forums for Reporting on Historical Research”

By Gleb Tsipursky, Perspectives on History, November 2012

Gleb Tsipursky, assistant professor at The Ohio State University at Newark, shares an assignment he created that challenges student teams to create websites based on historical research, a task which allows them to develop skills they can apply in their future careers.

Video Resources

“Introduction to Digital History”

Kalani Craig and Seth Denbo via Google Hangout, 12 October 2015

This one-hour Google hangout provided an overview of the digital-history field in preparation for deeper encounters with more specific digital history skills at the 2016 annual meeting in Atlanta.

“Publishing History Digitally”

AHA 2014, Session 67

Digital platforms provide new means to disseminate historical research, but what are the strengths and future of these online resources? This panel from the 2014 annual meeting tackles these questions and features Daniel J. Cohen (Digital Public Library of America), Charles Homans (Atavist), Christopher H. Heaney (University of Texas at Austin) and Yoni Appelbaum (Brandeis University).

“Getting Started in Digital History”

AHA 2014

This pre-conference workshop from the 2014 annual meeting brought together historians with an interest in using digital tools and resources with experts in digital history to address such questions as how to build collaborative projects, where to find funding, what is the best way to manage projects, how to use digital tools in the classroom, and more.