“To do digital history…is to create a framework through the technology for people to experience, read and follow and argument about a major historical problem.” (D. Seefeldt, William Thomas, AHA Perspectives). The thought that digital history might be becoming the norm for burgeoning historians may seem a little far-fetched; but it seem that as we explore the Internet and conduct our research we are beginning to see more and more digital history projects. Some may be simple timelines and others are giant, complicated archives. These projects serve up a “blend of historiography, narrative, and interpretation” that may be more difficult to accomplish in the written text and the best digital history projects will find new and innovative ways of interpreting data and information that will make the possibilities appear endless. This is a vast difference from the archaic written text that we feel so used to and comforted by. In saying this, I still personally feel more comfortable with the written word and expressing my work that way; but these digital history projects are remarkable and I believe that is what is being emphasized in this review of digital history.
The AHA article review two digital history projects: Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930 and Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative. Let’s begin by looking at Harlem. Joshua Sternfeld’s review of this project calls it a successful attempt to “‘overturn the traditionally unilateral relationship between historian and audience’ and bring new life into a crucial period in African American urban life.” The authors of this project proclaim that Sternfeld was not able to grasp what was actually trying to be accomplished. The authors argued that Sternfeld “does not really engage with the spatial visualizations that it produces. He is drawn to maps limited to one category of record and one layer, maps that can be relatively easily interpreted.” The question must be asked: “Why was Sternfeld not able to understand the purpose of the project? Are the researchers at fault for this?” When looking at the project myself, I was able to see both points of view. First of all, I loved how easily navigable this site was. It was easy to put into context life experienced by African Americans in this urban area over increments of five years. You also have the ability to narrow down which crimes blacks were arrested for (abortion, burglary, beatings, etc.) you also have the opportunity to look at the crimes in a particular section of the city as well as on a particular day. “One advantage of its origins as a research tool was its interactivity: users could search and map whatever data they wanted.” This digital history project accomplishes two tasks: what was life like for African Americans in Harlem as well as serve as a record collection that is visually appealing and easy to manage. The only thing I believe that this project was missing was a comparison to white crime (if there was something, I must have completely overlooked it) I believe that that would serve Sternfeld’s interpretation more appropriately to compare how often blacks and white were arrested and for which crimes.
Next I will go on to review Slave Revolt in Jamaica which was described as a project which “illustrates something that is difficult to glean from simply reading the textual sources” and which makes the “definitive case” for the strategic and “tactical sophistication of the insurrectionary slaves.” My favorite component of this project was the animation used to express change and movement over time. Zacek asserts that the animated map makes two scholarly contributions.
“First she agrees that its spatial analysis allows us to gain better purchase on limited sources…however by extracting locational information from these records and plotting the combatants’ movements in space, the map allows us to view the archival evidence both against the grain…and along the grain….Second, Zacek welcome the way the map convey s a sense of how people experienced the revolt as an unfolding sequence of events.”
I believe that is definitely something that cannot be accomplished via text. To compare the two projects, I definitely prefer the Harlem projects because you are allowed to see all the data at once as well as change over time. That is still accomplished a little in Jamaica via the timeline on the bottom (you can see that most of the action took place in July and then you can go on and click on the individual events to find more information). I also didn’t’ find this one to be as visually appealing; but it was a little easier to navigate.