Digital History

August 30, 2020 – Module One: Defining DH

The most interesting part of the readings and the class discussion this week was, of course, defining and discussing “What is Digital Humanities”? Though my perpetually-a-student-self dislikes there being no clear cut answer, I had a fruitful discussion with our breakout room that built off the definition in the AHA article about digital history/humanities. Discussing our thoughts helped stretch my idea of DH, as it also did with the readings for the DH Practicum with Dr. Mullen. Coming in with my own definition of DH, while maybe not a bad thing, easily leads room for other perspectives and additional aspects that I may not have experience with or even considered.

During the breakout room with three other students, we specifically built on the article presented in the AHA article “What is Digital History?” written by Douglass Seefeldt and William G. Thomas in 2009. They wrote, “Digital history might be understood broadly 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.” We added other elements we had read and discussed so far that we thought were important, such as public involvement, allowing and encouraging students to be part of the process, and that digital history differed from digitization by approaching a historical question, allowing interpretation, using interactive and visual elements in the presentation, and that is was both experimental and experiential, as it as an ever-changing medium, especially compared to print publications, naturally. When we came back to the larger class to discuss, other thoughts stood out to us,  such as accessibility and the promise that DH could allow representation for marginalized groups, especially since historical research and sources favor those who were elite and literate to leave paper traces behind them (There are other issues with accessibility and representation in DH, posited by Miriam Posner’s blog post “Money and Time” and how digital labor can be undervalued and underpaid, and Ted Underwood’s post “Digital Humanities Might Never be Evenly Distributed” that posits similar issues of finance and access). 

But DH does promise the potential for representation for those often left behind for centuries and the traditional method of historical research. Ian Milligan discusses in his article “The Problem of History in the Age of Abundance” and his book, published under the same title, that the millions of websites and internet use preserves the thoughts and words of more non-elite men and women than ever before. He compares The Old Bailey, which preserved transcripts of criminal trials held in London between 1674 and 1913, and contained 197,745 transcripts, or the largest collection of texts related to non-elite people ever. Geocities, as Millian details, holds 186 million documents from over 7 million people (Ian Milligan, History in the Age of Abundance, 15). It feels incomparable, though it gives historians access to documents about non-elites in a way never possible before (the rise of literacy has also changed access to non-elite records, but still, the sheer volume left behind now puts it in a different category). I had not thought extensively about the sheer volume faced by modern historians until I had a professor lament that he would never be able to consume all the sources available related to his topic, and the other late twentieth historians around us agreed, as I glared at them in nineteenth-century historian. Yet, one faces an issue with too many sources, as there are for those looking in the late twentieth century because it is hard to know what would be helpful to read, or even where to look.  But, again brought up by Milligan, digital history and sources face inequities; one still has to have access to the internet, and either the knowledge or the desire to set up websites or leave written comments and such to be used by scholars also is at the mercy of computational search engines that rank findings and essentially knocks hundreds or thousands to the deep dark dungeon web result 100+ (or even lower-ranked) never to be seen. This does not negate the potential for more representation of non-elite people and even marginalized groups, but it does mean it is not clear-cut or inevitable.

So, what is Digital History? Sometimes it feels like a trick question, and other times it doesn’t. There are characteristics I believe are imperative, outlined above, particularly the use of visuals, quantitative approach, collaboration between public and scholars, as well as students; and simply, the use of new digital technology, and approaching a historical question and allowing interpretation. But there is even more to digital history than these visual projects presented for educational purposes, the public audience, or even other scholars. Digital history encompasses historians of early periods using digitized primary sources, modern historians using web archives and dealing with potential ethical queries related to privacy, and historians and scholars simply understanding – or at least attempting to – the computational search engine algorithms, and grappling with how to make things more accessible or representative, and not relying on the internet to do it 100%. These things I have discussed make my little public historian heart very happy, and I am hopeful it only furthers the field of history and the digital aspect becomes less a specialization and more all-encompassing.

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