Digital History’s potential and legitimacy

(this is the second in a series of reflections on the field of history, digital humanities, and historical questions about identity emanating from the 2011 American Historical Association [AHA] conference)

In his most recent posting, “The Ivory Tower and Open Web”, historian and director of George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM) Dan Cohen shares a video from a recent talk at the Coalition of Networked Information in nearby D.C. where he discussed important questions about the nature of the field of history and its practitioners. At the heart of these questions, Cohen asks why historians (finally?) seem to embrace digital tools as useful resources, but continue to produce (or favor) historical sites that mirror “off-line” scholarship: journals, papers, books, mediated reviews and commentary.

The ability to imagine different forms of historical scholarship has permeated much of digital scholarship over the last decade or two. The potential to realize it, though, is now.

New digital tools are increasingly making self-publication, remixes & mash-ups, and collaborative efforts (which were largely unimaginable even a decade ago) possible for scholars possessing varying levels of web-literacy. I’m not sure when we crossed the Rubicon in this regard; “old” new media typically entailed curious scholars contacting computer programers for ideas related to research: How can I archive and display images? How can I create interactive footnotes? How do I make a footnote without throwing off the line-height? Nowadays it seems that design principles, knowledge of html and styling sheets, a basic understanding of photoshop, and marketing savvy are all part of the emerging job description of a digital humanist…but the truth is that the glut of digital tools is actually demanding less immersion than early pioneers faced a while back in digital scholarship.

The degree of difficulty “newbie” digital historians face varies, depending on which programs they plan to use. If someone wants to learn how to build a website from scratch, that might be a useful skill to learn (although history graduate students at GMU can attest to this painful process), but…why not simply use WordPress to build a website?

Some scholars might want to use an existing template and let the strength of their research sell their website. Others, still, might enjoy hacking and modifying an existing template. The open-source nature of platforms and browsers like WordPress, Firefox, Zotero, and Omeka even allow a few daring scholars to invent new plug-ins that can radically transform what a scholarly site can do.

So…what can historians do on the web?

At the 2011 AHA conference in Boston I gave a presentation that was, in part, inspired by a recent series of articles by Robert Townsend in AHA’s Perspectives on History (OctNov, Dec). In his findings, Townsend noted that scholars are increasingly embracing digital tools based on responses to an extensive survey of over 4,000 members of the academy. Nearly 70 percent of respondents characterized themselves as “active users”-a number that might surprise many. Upon closer inspection, however, active digital users are mostly younger (no surprise here) and the most popular tools are not what many digital historians would necessarily consider as cutting-edge: digital cameras, scanners, search engines, word processors, and searching online archives. Tools that have the potential to change how we “do” history–text mining, social media, GIS/mapping, and data visualizations–received few responses in AHA’s survey.

My immediate reaction to Townsend’s articles? Is that it? While acknowledging that my association with CHNM colors any perception about the state of affairs of the field of history, I found it rather underwhelming to see what passes as “digital history” in the second decade of the 21st century. Nevertheless, I am not a utopian when it relates to digital history; lasting change rarely develops out of radical, or revolutionary, change. Any significant shift towards digital scholarship, according to new media scholars like Christine Borgman and digital archivist Daniel Pitti, will appear incrementally as change takes place within existing systems and serves the community as a whole.

The presentation at AHA, then, was designed to expose scholars and students of history a sample of the plethora of tools currently at their disposal–free and often open access in nature. As always, these tools are helpful but only when applied with thoughtful consideration towards teaching and research (several good reads recently posted on Edwired deal with the perils and possibilities of web tools)

Digital Tools for…PRESENTATIONS

  • Google Maps is a good instrument for examining memorials, battlefields, and other historical sites, while also allowing users to create new and interesting links between locations.
  • Google Earth allows users to create placemarks, polygon shapes, paths, and images on their database of satellite images. This is ideal for creating original maps or recreating routes on military campaigns, plotting the Underground railroad, or analyzing the Great Migration patterns of African Americans to see if new relationships emerge.
  • In ManyEyes, users can upload data and choose visualization preferences that might shed new information about the past
  • Hypercities uses historical overlays on geographic maps to show change over time
  • Prezi is a structural and/or non-structural approach to presentations where you can type text, embed media files, graphically organize items, and highlight the importance of elements—relative to other ones on the infinite canvas platform—based on size and colors. The presentation at the AHA conference used a Prezi.

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