A Discussion on Digital History

In this blog post, I would like to highlight some aspects of a online discussion held by scholars working on digital history, facilitated and published by The Journal of American History (JAH): “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” For the purpose of the conversation, JAH generated several questions about the practice, teaching and challenges of digital history, while each of the selected scholars argued and presented their point of view around these questions. For this blog, I will not focus on the questions; rather I will highlight here some the arguments and issues presented in the answers given by the scholars, which I consider particularly interesting in regards to digital history.

In my opinion, I would first like to present the specific aspects of digital history that makes it so attractive, challenging and contradictory to our traditional notions of doing history.  Its instantaneity and multiplicity, allow for the constant revision of knowledge and breaks with the linearity of conventional history, creating new ways of thinking about historical processes.

William G Thomas III explains that “digital history possesses a crucial set of common components—the capacity for play, manipulation, participation, and investigation by the reader. Dissemination in digital form makes the work of the scholar available for verification and examination; it also offers the reader the opportunity to experiment….  The goal of digital history might be to build environments that pull readers in less by the force of a linear argument than by the experience of total immersion and the curiosity to build connections.”

Second, I would like to highlight one of the factors that makes digital history so different from traditional history. This factor is perhaps one of my personal favorites because it breaks with the convention of the historian working alone. Digital history is a collaborative effort; it is the result of joint forces with different disciplines. Kristen Sword argues that “the best digital projects are collaborative, involving multiple scholars and a technical team, and ideally an institution committed to keeping the project alive after its creators move on to other things.”

Third, I would like to present the issue of teaching digital history. Here, I need to say that the Clio Wired class has opened my eyes to new ways of approaching art history. It has showed me new and different possibilities of using technology – from the analysis and presentation of data to the different ways in which it is possible to disseminate history. In the end, it has revealed to me a great need to pursue the democratization of knowledge through the creation of open tools for researching and participation.

Despite all this, in order to teach digital history, professors are faced with the challenge of teaching a whole new subject. Amy Murrel Taylor explains that “the difficulties students have also stem in part from the fact that we are asking them to make a huge conceptual shift in how they think about history. The traditional chronological or thematic narratives of history are so deeply entrenched in their minds—and, frankly, in most of our minds—that it is very difficult to start thinking of creating history that is not so linear and is “participatory” or “interactive” (or akin to “gaming”—an analogy I like). A student who is friendly to digital technology can be quite uncomfortable with thinking about history in new ways.”

Fourth, I would like to highlight the idea of the virtual museum. Taylor argues that “digital technology can never emulate the experience of being physically present with an object from the past,” which it is true as there is no way to simulate the feeling of being in the museum. However, what it is important about the digital museum is its availability. Steven Mintiz explains, “unlike physical exhibitions—which are generally transitory—virtual exhibitions can remain available. Indeed, it is now possible to reconstruct past exhibitions virtually, as in Lisa M. Snyder’s extraordinary three-dimensional reconstruction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.[22] What a brave new world we live in, where the virtual can be more alive than the real.”

Fifth, the last issue I would like to present here is the idea of open access and the credibility of digital history as part of the work of scholars who use such methods to pursue obtaining tenured positions at universities.  Daniel Choen, has a very strong position about this, actually using the discussion to ask JAH to work towards greater open access, taking a new path regarding the dissemination of academic knowledge. He states: “I would encourage the Journal to take the most expansive view possible. In addition to enhanced, open-access articles such as those in the Katrina issue, the JAH could republish the best blog posts from the past quarter (perhaps following a process similar to the current article review system and asking for further edits from the authors); ask creators of new digital resources and tools to explain the intellectual (rather than technical) work behind them, to ratify such work as worthy of credit; add “trackbacks” to regular articles so that online references to, or reviews of, JAH materials can be aggregated on the JAH site (thus providing another layer of peer review and community around the Journal); have live and open Interchanges like this one (essentially group blogging) on a variety of topics. Ideally this more expansive view would blur the distinction between print and digital. It would begin to demythologize print.”

Scholars invited to this discussion touched upon other issues and ideas about digital history. I just presented here, some topics that I felt most relevant and interesting with the greater JAH’s interchange on emerging issues and opportunities through employing the digital landscape to practice history.

 

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1 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History. Vol. 95No. 2 (Sept. 2008). http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/

2 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”

3 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”

4 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”

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