Digital History: What is it exactly…

A conversation that has become fairly routine for me over the last few years goes something like this.

Me: “I am going to graduate school in history.”
Everyone: “Oh, that is cool. What are you studying?”
Me: “I study US history, primarily the nineteenth century. I specialize in religious history, more specifically Mormon history.”
Everyone: “That is very interesting…”
Me: “I am also going into Digital History.”
Everyone: “What is Digital History?”

The question of what Digital History is inevitably comes up. When I first started having these conversations, I would give different answers to that question. I would have flashbacks to Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride. In one iconic scene, Vizinni yelled (in response to the Dread Pirate Roberts not falling off the cliff) “He didn’t fall!?!? Inconceivable!” Inigo responded with, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Likewise, I kept using Digital History and yet my understanding of it was lacking. I eventually standardized my response by saying, “It is the study of history using information technology.” It wasn’t until I began my Digital History fellowship at GMU that I learned that even that response is flawed.

With this back story in mind, I read this weeks Clio Wired I class articles which are focused around the question of “What is Digital History?” Each article gave an answer, or I should say gave a part of the answer to what Digital History truly is. In this way my initial reaction is how diverse the field is. Its diversity is not only a product of what it has to offer but the extent of its impact. Mike O’Malley’s “Evidence and Scarcity” and Sean Takats’ response in “Evidence and Abundance” don’t outline what Digital History does but rather its impact on the writing of history. O’Malley outlines that the “long march of examples” traditionally employed to support or bolster a historian’s argument may become obsolete because of the digital world of sources. He puts forward a hypothesis that maybe in the future historians will outline their search parameters rather than results, since digital media can, with ease, reproduce the results for other historians. Takats responds by stating that with a mountain of easily accessible sources, historians will likely require the author’s research/writing to reflect that.  I always picture Digital History as a separate methodology/field and not something that would eventually influence the entire discipline of history. How then will I change on the whole as a historian because of my involvement and use of Digital History?

I really enjoyed by Edward Ayers article “The Past and Futures of Digital History.” Its worth noting that my undergraduate degree was not in history but geography (emphasis in GIS). I did minor in history but even still my experience in the field has been hindered by my major choice. At one point in the Ayers’ article, he states that time and space are incapable of occupying the same narrative at the same time. This may not appear complex but to me it is profound. In print media, the author must either discuss a specific place over time or a specific time over space. As a geographer, I love talking about space and object’s location in space. One of the reasons I became a geographer was because all things occupy a location in space. In a way, digital history then can not only redefine the narrative medium but the narrative itself. After reading that section I began to think of ways to explore both space and time in the same narrative using a digital medium. It was very exciting for me as a digital historian and as a geographer.

Finally, Dan Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig’s “Introduction: Promises and Perils of Digital History” addressed a part of digital history that is very important and that I had not thought about. What are the setbacks/caveat/dangers of Digital History? They break these down into five different categories of: Quality, Durability, Readability, Passivity, and Inaccessibility. Without diving into a summation of their arguments, I came away with concerns of my own. The issue of quality, to me, appears to be the paramount danger of digital history. In a world (World Wide Web) where scholarship online has been lacking and rigid styles of writing are not encouraged, quality seems to be on the chopping block. My writing style changes depending on the medium (essay vs. online forum). This issue is something I would like to spend time pondering and prodding to find answers that work for myself as well as can benefit the discipline as whole. Passivity is another pitfall that I see as a major problem, although I would call it complacency. The miracle that is the world wide web is lost on many of the up and coming generations as they don’t fully understand the countless opportunities that are available to them because of the internet. It is like “casting pearls before swine.” I am left to ask the question, “How do we reduce this complacency?” I don’t have the answer but it is important to ask the question.

In all, this weeks readings provided both an answer to the question of “What is Digital History,” while providing me with even more questions about Digital History. This is the game that we play in a newer and largely expanding field. I am excited to see how the events unfold and how I will involve myself in this ever changing and ever expanding discipline of history.

Digital History: What is it exactly…
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