Blog Post #9: AHR Exchange on Reviewing Digital History

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This week, our class was asked to look at the latest issue of the American Historical Review (February 2016) for an AHR exchange about reviewing digital history. In the exchange’s introduction, the editor Alex Lichtenstein discusses the current lack of digital history review sites and explains that the AHR had not included digital history in their review section in the past because they had no “comparable procedure for receiving and combing through digital scholarship for review.” In the exchange, the AHR hopes to remedy that exclusion by reviewing two digital history projects: Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915–1930  and Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761: A Cartographic Narrative. In the article, the creators of the digital history projects were also given the chance to respond to the reviews. The responses from the project creators gave the digital editors the chance to defend their methods and to explain their interpretations of their topics. The reviewers evaluated the digital history projects based on presentation, legibility, organization, historiography, research, and interpretation. Additionally, they were asked to “evaluate the effectiveness of the medium as well as the message.”

In the AHR article, Joshua Sternfeld reviewed Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930. Digital Harlem examines criminal records and places them onto an interactive map of Harlem to reveal the lives of ordinary African Americans in Harlem. Sternfield’s review points out the strengths and weaknesses of Digital Harlem. He praises the site’s endless possibilities pertaining to the number of possible searches a user could make on the site. However, Sternfeld finds fault in the “open-ended nature” of Digital Harlem and blames it for limiting the site’s overall effectiveness. He approves of the site’s analysis of parades, beauty parlors, and churches as important features of social life in Harlem, but he points out the limitations of the arguments made by the site’s creators pertaining to the significance of basketball and athletic clubs in Harlem in the 1920s. Because of the scant evidence on the site concerning basketball games, Sternfeld claims that, “Someone searching for all basketball games recorded in Digital Harlem could easily draw the wrong conclusion that the sport was not popular in 1920s Harlem.” Sternfeld finds a number of issues with the site’s method of data entry due to its lack of consistency. Furthermore, he states that the site “reinforces a racialized perception of black, predominantly male, criminality.” Instead of exploring everyday life in Harlem, he claims that the site primarily reflects daily criminal activities in the community. Ultimately, Sternfeld concludes, “Trying to be equal parts sociological and historical case study, Digital Harlem winds up doing neither effectively.” In his response, Stephen Robertson attempts to address the weaknesses identified by Sternfeld. Robertson explains that many of the weaknesses stems from decisions he and his team made early in the project’s design stage. He also claims that Sternfeld misreads the site’s maps and misunderstands some of the site’s goals. He also accuses Sternfeld of oversimplifying the sources from Digital Harlem when he asserts that the site is too focused on data related to crime.

The AHR exchange also includes Natalie Zacek’s review of Vincent Brown’s Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative. Zacek recognizes the site for including a plethora of text and images and for making the vast information available to the public. At the same time, Zecek faults the site because “the site does not currently allow a viewer to map the locations from which slaves escaped, or those to which they were believed to have fled; nor does it present an argument about broader patterns in the experiences of fugitive slaves over the century, or at any point therein.” Zacek calls the site visually appealing and approves of its ability to comprehensively describe complex events, but she expresses disappointment in the lack of the inclusion of a blog, a feature that was promised on the site but had not been implemented two years after the site’s launch. Furthermore, Zacek notes that there is not a way for users to leave questions or comments, which affects the ability to engage in conversation. Ultimately, Zacek calls Slave Revolt in Jamaica “essential reading not only for historians who are interested in the Caribbean, slavery, or military strategy, but for anyone who would like to learn more about how digital tools can contribute to the humanities, and about how she or he might engage with a form of inquiry that has much to offer in relation to the advancement of historical understanding.” In Vincent Brown’s response to Zacek’s review, Brown lengthily highlights the exciting opportunities that converged media offer to the academic world and the public. He also further explains his site’s purpose and aims.

The exchanges in the recent AHR journal indicates just how important reviews of Digital Humanities projects in scholarly journals are to the development of Digital Humanities as a field. Reviews of digital projects not only hold creators accountable for their work, they also allow the project creators to address issues with interpretation, argument, sources, and design. Reviews can also increase traffic to the sites and give the projects scholarly credibility. Reviews of digital history projects are necessary in order for the projects to be taken seriously as academic works.

Source:

Alex Lichtenstein, Joshua Sternfeld, Stephen Robertson, Natalie A. Zacek, and Vincent Brown, “AHR Exchange: Reviewing Digital History,” American Historical Review,  Vol. 121, No. 1, (February 2016): 140-187.

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