Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What is Digital History?

            Active humanists such as Susan Hockey, Lisa Spiro, and Adeline Koh voiced their thoughts on digital history, its genealogy, and its place in the humanities throughout the last several decades. However, the more I read through their thoughts, the less clear the definition of digital history became. What was clear in these different conversations is that the common thread is that digital history is a process. It is the creation and/or presentation of a historical narrative on a technological platform that serves an audience both within and outside the “ivy-covered tower.” Digital history has been and continues to be conducted by academics and non-academics alike, which ideally constitutes an inclusive framework of content creation and engagement.

            Another key conversation is the theoretical divide: is digital history really all that new? Many argue that digital history is just another methodology to enhance traditional forms of academic scholarship. While I agree that digital history is a methodology rather than an entirely new innovation, I also argue that it is in some ways a unique one because it allows those with a nonprofessional interest in history to contribute to our repository of historical understanding. The revolution of the Digital Age made this possible. What was once historical scholarship that required citizens to know the ins and outs of card catalogs, academic journals, and the right people to talk to, is now an open source of not only consumption, but production of history. It may not be a new field, but it is a methodology that is not only targeted to, but also utilized by the audience itself.

            While this week’s theoretical framework was useful for engaging in the conversation, examining examples of digital history projects is the best way to discuss such a framework. Developed collaboratively by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Center for Media and Learning SUNY Albany, and the American Social History Project, the “History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web” includes thousands of links to primary source documents, cultural institutions, and access to historians' take on their process and craft. 
Courtesy of http://historymatters.gmu.edu/

           In this example, historian Michael O'Malley recorded voice clips where he discussed how he goes about analyzing this particular cartoon, placing it in its context, and making sense of the larger picture. This exercise, one of many, helps to close the divide with the academy because nonprofessionals gain insight into how professionals do their work, giving them the platform to pass on their methodologies and primary sources. Not only does this website provide resources on historical methods, but it also provides thousands of diverse documents that can be used to construct a narrative. The combination of history teaching and learning with a direct link to historians makes this an ideal example of digital history.  

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