Musings on Digital History

What is Digital History?

“The class focused on US history since the Civil War, but at every opportunity Mr. Hill guided them to the present, linking what had happened a hundred years ago to their current lives.  They’d set off down one road at the beginning of class and it always led back to their doorsteps.”1

Before grad school reading took over my life, I was almost finished reading The Nickel Boys, kind of a literary last supper before I would be reading books that others have chosen for me (good choices, just not mine!). As I was reading, the quote above really resonated with me, and with how I have tried to make history relevant to the present in both grad school and in my work in museums.  So how can we (historians) not only make the past present, but make it something that others care about? Digital history, to me, is a critical component of sharing history in the 21st century.

So what is digital history (or DH as those in the know call it)?

In 2009, historians Douglas Seefeldt & William G. Thomas write that:

“Digital history might be understood 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.  [It is both an] open arena of scholarly productions and communication [and] a methodological approach.”2

They argue that to participate in the realm of digital history is not only digitizing the past, but creating a “framework through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a major historical problem.”2 The last part of this quote gets to the crux of how digital history can be useful.  In a way, digital history initiatives are curated history narratives, and can be a place not only to read history, but to experience and visualize primary sources, maps, photos, art, objects, and first person accounts of a moment in the past. DH allows users to escape to the past through the aural experiences of hearing music, natural sound recordings, and voices from the period in which they describe.  Digital history can allow for a multi-sensory self-guided experience for the user, allowing for, as the authors point out, the question to be opened up for “readers to investigate and form interpretive associations of their own.”2 History is multifaceted, and different people have different perspectives and preferences, thus, allowing for a more dynamic, user-led sense of history makes history even more meaningful for the user. Digital history can also make history accessible in ways that books and physical museums cannot.  From a person’s home, they can be transported into history, and in some circumstances, those who have vision, hearing, and physical limitations can be immersed in history in a way that was not possible before the digital age.

I believe that computers and digital access have democratized research.  Travelling to museums, archives, and special collections in libraries was once only available to those who have the means and funds to do so.  While there are still MANY collections which are not available online, digitization projects have created better access to collections online. Furthermore, digital humanities projects at their core, have the possibility for more elasticity, thus, as new scholarship identifies new ways of thinking and shares new knowledge, the internet allow for a more fluid ability to share history without the permanence of the published book.

The challenge, though, as Ian Milligan points out in his book History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research, is that we now face a massive amount of historical materials and data, especially materials that were born on the web, when in the period before the internet, scarcity was the norm, and was frustrating! Milligan states:

“Our collective cultural heritage, the legacy that we leave behind for the generations to come, faces a serious problem in the digital age. We used to, as a rule, forget. Now we have the power of recall and retrieval at a scale that will decisively change how our society remembers. For historians, professionals who interpret and bring shape to narratives of the past, this is a dramatic shift. The digital age brings with it great power: the prospect of a more democratic history and of more voices included in the historical record, a realization of the social historian’s dream. Yet it also brings significant challenges: what does it mean to write histories with born-digital sources – from websites written in the mid-1990s to tweets posted today? How can we be ready, from a technical perspective as well as from a social or ethical one, to use the web as a historical source – as an archive? Historians with the training and resources are about to have far more primary sources, and the ability to process them, at their fingertips. What will this all mean for our understanding of the past? How can these sources be used responsibly? Finally, if historians cannot rise to the moment, what does this mean for the future of our profession?”3

His statement has a Spiderman-like aura: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Milligan, and others, remind us that there are serious ethical considerations at stake when we consider the vastness of the online historical record.3 He posits, and I tend to agree, that we will need to forge partnerships with organizations like the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to make sure we have a second set of eyes looking at our work, and thinking solely of the ethics of our research methods and findings. But if these things are considered, the potential to transform the field. Milligan ends by saying that It’s uncharted territory and will be messy, but “Ultimately, it will be worth it. Web archives offer the prospect of incorporating more voices and more people. A more inclusive history is around the corner. We need to be ready.”4

In this moment, as we are living in isolation as COVID-19 ravages our communities and our sense of normalcy. We are depending on the internet for education, medical appointments, and work, among other things.  Imagine if DH projects aimed at children for self-guided learning existed and were more available?  Self-guided instruction would allow for a more flexible, less “one size fits all approach.”  We know that the traditional lecture approach is not working well for K-12, but today’s youth are very computer adept.  The potential for new ways of teaching and learning history for children could transform the online classroom into one which meets the needs of children’s attention spans, the workload of teachers, and the overall enjoyment and memory of a class or topic.

I think the very real challenge for historians, which I experienced this week, is to not lose one’s cool over technical difficulties. I was tempted, more than once, to throw my computer at the wall as I was migrating my domain name to WordPress. I took a cue from Seinfeld, had a moment of “serenity now,” and got back to work. Once I was able to launch the new website, which is way less clunky than my old one, I started getting in the groove. I added plug-ins, updated my CV, and now am able to take a sigh of relief. I think for many historians, the tech feels impossible, but we need to rally, and get on board. DH is the future, whether we are ready or not.

As I embark on my Ph.D, I am thrilled that DH is such a big part of the curriculum at GMU. This week, I also launched my initiative Instrumental Women on Twitter and Instagram, with the mission of amplifying the global histories of womxn instrument makers . It is my hope to use the tools I learn in this class to help me bring these stories alive. Looking forward to what comes next!

  1. Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, (New York: Anchor Books, 2019), 30. []
  2. Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, “What is Digital History,” May 2009 [] [] []
  3. Ian Milligan, History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 3. [] []
  4. Ibid, 245. []

8 replies on “What is Digital History?”

I enjoyed how you opened your article – it is a good teaching method for history to pull the students to the present to see how history relates and events tend to repeat themselves. Your definition of DH aligns with mine, as we both built off the AHA article’s definition a good bit, agreeing with the importance of collaboration and democratizing research and sources. I find that to be the most important benefit of DH. I also agree that COVID has placed digital learning and access at the forefront, and it will only become even more intertwined with k-16 education, to the frustration of some. Proper training, proper access, and good projects and work will help.
I so look forward to keeping up with your Instrumental Women project! I always enjoy your discussion of the use of sound for DH since it never crosses my mind but is valuable (and fun!)

Thank you for writing such a thoughtful, accessible piece about DH. There were two areas of your blog that really resonated with me.

1. You mentioned how DH has the flexibility to especially reach out to people of all abilities, particularly those with physical disabilities. I am passionate about broadening the typical approach to historical research and publishing (in whichever format) that all individuals can access. Though I am new to digital history, my understanding is that there is a ways to go, but I am excited about the steps forward to universal design. Besides, I think history is more fun with a variety of perspectives and contributions. The more the merrier.

2. You also speak about web archivists joining with an existing historical review board to help ensure an ethical approach. I wonder if professionals within this field should create its own institution to enforce ethical methodology. As someone learning DH, each little step into this digital world is intricate and often confusing. Someone with intimate knowledge of these ins and outs would more easily understand and speak to others about their moral responsibility. Hopefully, this institutional need will soon be realized.

I think you are right that there should be a separate ethics review board for historians, both generally and in regards to DH. I think the IRB is great for certain kinds of research, but when it comes to oral history (which often does not need IRB approval), it would be great to be able to meet with a history ethics specialist to go over research methods, interview techniques, and appropriate ways of using web-based materials. I feel like we all end up having to learn so much of this on our own, and by making sometimes unnecessary mistakes. It would be great to have more things in place, especially that broadly span many disciplines in the humanities. This type of knowledge is critical for anyone studying history, even if (like me), your academic grounding is in music schools.

Milligan’s chapter on Geo Cities, its creation, development, and demise is a “must read” chapter for anyone entering the field of history, archives, records management, and business. If one of Milligan’s intentions was to highlight how social media platforms are digital born primary sources records documenting twenty-first century behavior, he certainly impressed this student with the necessity for historians to re-evaluate how any digital born material is reviewed.

I am looking forward to learning more about your dissertation project and I wish you the very best this semester.

I enjoyed reading your first blog post. I think DH has a lot to offer K-12 schooling (perhaps more 9-12), and am interested in seeing how schools transform the online experience from what it was in the spring to this fall and make use of digital resources and platforms. Are you familiar with the Facing History programs? They run online classes for teachers, but I keep thinking their model might work well for high school students.

Jayme, this are such great questions! I really appreciate your discussion of the accessibility and potential reach of DH projects, and it makes me wonder where the practices of digital history intersect with those of public history. It seems like there are natural affinities between the two, but thinking of the other questions/issues raised of the evaluation of DH projects in tenure reviews, I wonder how much priority is placed on making or framing content to reach broad audiences while supporting deeper scholarly investigation. (And to clarify, I don’t believe this is “either/or” issue — but there does seem to be an ongoing prejudice towards digital history projects, despite examples of excellent, accessible, and relevant scholarship!) Given your work in museums, I suspect this issue has cropped up more than a few times in your experiences, too!

I copy-pasted Janet’s statement at the opening part of my comment: “There were two areas of your blog that really resonated with me.”, Janet wrote. Well, the same is here.
The first area is related to The Nickel Boys and how Mr. Hill guided his students from the past to the present. The importance of the past for modern times (and vice versa) is something that occupies my mind a lot. This is why I chose Faulkner’s “The past is not dead, it’s not even past” statement to appear on the top part of my blog.
Once I took the image of the monument at the U.S. National Archives headquarters: “The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future” is engraved on the monument (and Google just enlightened me that it was Boston’s first mayor and abolitionist Wendell Phillips who said this). I am one of those “naive” people who believe that knowing the past will help not repeating the mistakes in the future.

The second area is the credibility of electronic resources. Seefeldt and Thomas rightfully highlighted the importance of Wikipedia among other sites, referring to Wikipedia as a site that “our graduate students need to be exposed to.” This was written in 2009, today barely any grad or non-grad students are unaware of Wikipedia. The question is, how reliable this highly convenient source is. I agree with your quote from Milligan that “we will need to forge partnerships with organizations like the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to make sure we have a second set of eyes looking at our work.”

P.S. Well, there is also the third area that resonates, however, it is less academic: I was also tempted and more than once, “to throw my computer at the wall as I was migrating my domain name to WordPress.”

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