What is digital history? What distinguishes it from “traditional” practice in the field of history? What distinguishes it from the larger field of digital humanities?
As mentioned in “What is Digital History”, “digital history might be understood broadly 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…digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collection efforts.” So what does that mean exactly? Well, I’d like to start by addressing the fact that like digital humanities, digital history isn’t the most popular and we have seen examples of historians becoming disenchanted. In “Promises and Perils of Digital History” we hear from two historians in the early age of digital history. Marxist historian David Noble says “A dismal new era of higher education has dawned…in future years we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic high education system and wonder how we let it happen.” However, none of this predicted chaos has come to pass. In fact, the field of digital history has been on the rise.
It was mentioned in “The Past and Futures of Digital History” that digital history was tailor made for historians. The author of the article itself mentions having an affinity for working online and with computers and in this technology age, history is now becoming more and more accessible and collaborative than anyone has ever seen it. Digital history is not just historical journals online or endless databases, it is also a resource for the “amateur historian”: the teacher, the classroom student, the enthusiast, the Civil War reenactor. Because of this new digital world we find ourselves in, information is more accessible for non-historian. In fact, a few years ago Yahoo listed 32,959 history websites providing information for virtually every archive, museum, house, site you could possibly think of. In “Projects and Perils of Digital History” we are told that “almost every historian looks at the computer as basic equipment.” One of the projects mentions is “H-Net” which is a “large, active, differentiated, participatory, and convenient network of historians of all levels talking to one another about our common passion.”H-Net is simple and straightforward—the desired of effect of the being influenced by the digital world.
Not only has history become more accessible; but we are seeing a larger capacity to hold information (a 120 GB hard drive can hold a 120,000 volume library that can be accessed right at your desk!), more diversity (more people can access this information than ever before) and more flexible (the experience of consuming history has changed drastically).
It is also important to note how digital history differs from the giant umbrella of digital humanities. In digital history, we tend to focus on collection, presentation, and dissemination of material online whereas digital humanities focuses more on creating than organizing or defining anything. Digital humanities and digital literary studies have different focuses, for example. As Stephen May mentions: “I’m not saying that the presentation of material online is not part of digital literary studies: electronic scholarly editions and manuscript collections such as The Shelley-Godwin Archive are longstanding parts of that field, but, as the current debate indicates, at present they are not its predominant focus. To clarify, historians are going to focus on getting the information and not so much in creating any type of visualization or creation.
Digital history is not a perfected art form. According to Dr. McClurken “digital projects are complex, and because of versioning and because projects may take directions that the software creators never intended, it raises all kinds of questions.” Some of those questions might be: how do we give credit to every contributor? Should every contributor be recognized for their contribution? After all, “historians as professionals are not trained to play well together. We go alone into archives, commune with the dead, and come back. But most digital history projects are collaborations. Within the discipline, there are resources for collaboration: for example, librarians and archivists. In terms of digital humanities training, the library field is so far ahead of us. Now, I think, history graduate students are getting better at engaging with digital tools in their teaching.” And that is true. Each new generation that decides to come to this field will be more adept than the rest of us as well as be able to bring new ideas and new ways of envisioning/studying history.
Of course these aren’t the only issues. How does the digital historian or even the digital history students do about reliability? How can we determine what is authentic on the Web. We tell our kids to stray away from particular sites such as Wikipedia due to its ability to be edited; but, now we can see that sites like Wikipedia are using citations and becoming more and more reliable tools for history students.
It’s clear that there are a lot of mixed emotions when it comes to studying history digitally. I think that, with anything else, we will be able to grow and adapt and make these tools work for us in ways we can’t imagine even now.