Blog Post #13: What is Digital History?

What is Digital History?

Ayers, Edward L. “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History.” Virginia Center for Digital History. 1999. (accessed April 18, 2016).

In the article from 1999, Ayers encourages historians to take advantage of digital tools to further their work. Ayers points out, “Digital history could be both a catalyst and a tool in the creation of a more literary kind of history.” Ayers challenges historians to develop hypertextual narratives that allow “dynamically interlinked text on an electronic screen.” Ayers explains that, “Such a medium would offer new ways of making arguments and associations, of arraying evidence and documenting our assertions. It would offer layered or branching or interweaving narratives, or deep and dynamic annotation and indexing. It would permit us to embed narratives in shared networks of communication so that references, connections, and commentaries grow and change. It would hold out a new aesthetics of historical narrative.” The article from Ayers was groundbreaking because he anticipated the opportunities offered by digital history before it became prevalent.

Cohen, Daniel J. Michael Frisch, Patrick Gallagher, Steven Mintz, Kirsten Sword, Amy Murrell Taylor, William G. Thomas, III and William J. Turkel. Interchange: The Promise of Digital History. The Journal of American History. Vol. 95, No. 2 (Sept 2008): 452-491.

In the exchange, the various authors attempt to define digital history. William G. Thomas III defines it 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.” William J. Turkel emphasizes that “Digital history makes use of sources in digital form.” Daniel J. Cohen describes digital history  as “the theory and practice of bringing technology to bear on the abundance we now confront.” Meanwhile, Steven Mintz does not openly define digital history. Instead, he describes the different stages of it, from Stage 1.0 to Stage 4.0. Kirsten Sword discusses the “three heads” of digital history-New Archives/New Inquiry, Audience, and Collaboration. Michael Frisch first admits that he does not consider himself to be a digital historian, but he calls himself a “working historian with a tool orientation.” Interestingly, Frisch adds, “I’m skeptical of the lasting value of ‘digital history’ as a term. It either will end up meaning too much or too little and pretty soon will be so inescapable (in twenty years, will anyone do professional work in history without involving what we’re talking about?) as to provide little purchase on anything specific enough for a course, workshop, or blog.” Meanwhile, Amy Murrell Taylor claims that “the most coveted skill is simply thinking: thinking in bold and creative ways about how this technology can serve the interests of history, thinking about how students can create a truly ‘new’ history as a result.” The exchange is intriguing because it indicates the different ways scholars define and understand digital history.

Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. “Introduction: Promises and Perils of Digital History.” in Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. 2005. (accessed April 18, 2016).

Cohen and Rosenzweig acquaint readers with the promises and perils of “doing” digital history. 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. 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.

Seefeldt, Douglas and William G. Thomas III. “What is Digital History?” AHA Perspectives on History. May 2009. (accessed April 18, 2016).

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.” The article reiterates the ideas of Roy Rosenzweig concerning the present and future of digital history. As Rosenzweig pointed out, digital history invites both students and the public to take part in the process. As the article indicates, digital history entails the integration of research, education, and public outreach.

Thomas III, William G. “What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology.” December 2014. (accessed April 18, 2016).

In “What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology,” William G. Thomas discusses various definitions of digital scholarship and how to categorize digital scholarship. Thomas also suggests a typology for digital scholarship in the humanities. Thomas explains that he is not attempting to “exclude or restrict the definition of digital scholarship. Indeed, I hope these definitions might provoke some further discussion about how to undertake reviews of digital scholarship.” His categories are Interactive Scholarly Works, Digital Projects or Thematic Research Collections, and Digital Narratives. Interactive Scholarly Works are amalgams of archival information and digital tool components. Like Interactive Scholarly Works, Digital Projects or Thematic Research Collections combine digital tools and archival materials and frame them around a “historiographically significant or critical problem.” Digital Narratives are born-digital, and “feature a work of scholarly interpretation or argument embedded within layers of evidence and citation. They do not and presumably cannot exist in analog fashion. They may be multimodal, multi-authored, and user-directed.” The article points out various ways historians can approach digital history.

What is Spatial History?

Thomas III, William G. “Is the Future of Digital History Spatial History?” University of Virginia. Newberry Library Historical GIS Conference. March 2004.

In the 2004 article, Thomas discusses the diversity of expression found on the World Wide Web. He also mentions the work of Janet Murray in which she describes four key criteria for successful digital narrative. According to Murray, the work must be participatory, procedural, encyclopedic, and spatial. Like Murray, Thomas advocates “ever more expressive narrative landscapes.” He discusses such narrative landscapes like the work in spatial history by Paul Carter called The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History. The article includes Carter’s definition of Spatial History, “Spatial history, according to Carter, does not go confidently forward. It does not organize its subject matter into a nationalist enterprise. It advances exploratively, even metaphorically, recognizing that the future is invented. Going back, it questions the assumptions that the past has been settled once and for all. It undermines the empirical stability of roads and buildings. It runs the risk of becoming as intangible as distant views. Its objects are intentions and, suggesting the plurality of historical directions, it constantly risks escaping into poetry, biography, or a form of immaterialism positivists might think nihilistic. After all, what can you do with a horizon?” Thomas further claims that, “All space is invented, constituted by the traveler.” According to Thomas, “Spatial history, then, has several characteristics. It seeks most of all to recover contingency in its depiction of the past. It attempts to achieve multiple perspectives in its story and to break down the hegemony of linear narrative. And it has served mostly to advance post-structuralist, and to a lesser degree post-modern, criticism from critical legal studies to post-colonialists. Spatial history rejects the positivism of empirical approaches.” Finally, Thomas asserts that, “The goal of these scholars is to spatialize history not to historicize space.”

White, Richard. “What is Spatial History?” Stanford University Spatial History Lab. February 2010. (accessed April 18, 2016).

In an article called “What is Spatial History?” by historian Richard White, the author claims that The Spatial History Project at Stanford is part of a recent spatial turn in history.  White seems to define spatial history as the study of the movement of people and goods across time and space. White discusses the ways in which the Spatial History Lab encourages collaboration between “historians, graduate students and undergraduates, geographers, GIS and visualization specialists, data base architects, and computer scientists.” White goes on to define digital history as simply using computers for historical research. He further defines it by saying digital history “allows the exploitation of kinds of evidence and data bases that would be too opaque or too unwieldy to use without computers.  It is all the stuff that we cannot narrate, or at least narrate without losing our audience.” In this article, White explains the importance of digital history. He claims that a spatial turn in history has developed that focuses on collaborative efforts and digital visualizations. He defines digital history as using computers to further digital research. White asserts that spatial history’s focus on movement and visualizations allow for new ways to explore history.



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