Blog Post #3: The Pasts and Futures of Digital History

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This week, our professor wanted us to explore the pasts and futures of digital history by examining the writings of well-known and respected scholars and historians such as Ed Ayers, William G. Thomas III, Daniel J. Cohen, Roy Rosenzweig, and others. These names have become familiar to me as they are pioneers of digital history.

This week’s readings continued to discuss the definition of “digital history”. In an article called “What is Digital History?”, Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas III describe digital history 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.” They further explain that digital history is meant to “create a framework through technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a major historical problem.” By now, I have read numerous definitions for digital history, and every definition understandably suggests that digital history utilizes computer technology to examine historical topics. I cannot help but wonder if that is the only difference between digital history and traditional history. While I understand the desire to define the nascent field, I do not believe that digital history and traditional history are so different that they have to be perceived as being separate from one another. I feel that it might be a mistake to make such a distinction between the two. I suppose we will see if I change my mind about that after I ponder the topic more. (Thomas and Seefeldt, “What is Digital History?”)

Alas, if they are indeed the same thing, than what distinguishes digital history from the “traditional” field of history? In my opinion, the main difference between traditional history and digital history stems from the possibilities that digital history offers. Computer technology has altered the way that historical research is performed. Historians can ask new and different historical questions. Furthermore, technological advancements allow one to search vast digital archives without having to leave home or travel great distances. Historians can now easily sift through large quantities of historical data in a short amount of time. Another difference between traditional and digital history is the way that technology has given the public an opportunity to engage with history more fully. Mapping tools, visualizations, podcasts, digital archives, audio recordings, and other digital tools allow for new ways for scholars and for ordinary people to present and analyze history. Digital history permits the academic world and the public to delve into history together, in a democratizing way that is truly inspiring. As a historian who is interested in cultural history and in uncovering the voices of the common people, I believe that digital history can bring attention to those perspectives that have long been overlooked.

One of my favorite projects that were mentioned in the readings this week is the digital project Railroads and the Making of Modern America. The project’s purpose is to document the “social effects of railroads and to explore the transformation of the United States to modern ideas, institutions, and practices in the nineteenth century.” The project was created by William G. Thomas III along with a large, collaborative team that consisted of graduate students, cartographers, encoders, transcribers, librarians, historians, and computer programmers. Railroads and the Making of Modern America is an exemplary digital project because it highlights the impact of the railroad in ways that traditional historical approaches would not have. The project is also a good example of the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of digital history. Indeed, no digital project exists that was made by one person. That aspect of digital history is democratizing in itself.

This week, our class became acquainted with the promises and perils of “doing” digital history, as identified by Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, leading scholar-practitioners. In Promises and Perils of Digital History, the authors pinpoint some advantages for historians who choose to take part in the world of digital media. According to Cohen and Rosenzweig, the benefits of such an undertaking pertain to capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity, and hypertextuality. Cohen and Rosenzweig also discuss five dangers digital historians face concerning issues with quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. While it is helpful to understand the positive and negative aspects of “doing” digital history, it need not be intimidating. There are promises and perils in every field. Being overly concerned with the possible pitfalls of digital history might unnecessarily deter historians from embracing innovative approaches or perceiving new ways to explore history. (Cohen and Rosenzweig, Chapter 1, Promises and Perils of Digital History )

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