What is Digital History?

According to The Journal of American History, digital history is “anything (research method, journal article, monograph, blog, classroom exercise) that uses digital technologies in creating, enhancing, or distributing historical research and scholarship.” (pp. 453) Digital history appears to be new enough that its range is pretty vast. Almost anything that was produced or distributed with the aid of any technology can fall into this up and coming field. William G. Thomas III’s definition of digital history is also vague, but I like where it’s going: “To do digital history, then, is to create a framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem.” (pp. 454)

By the time I finally got around to going to college pretty much everything was either already or on its way to being digitized. As my favorite Latin American history instructor would always tell her students, we have it easy. Most of us don’t know what it is like to have to look for a journal article by using a card catalog. An incalculable quantity of information is available to us at the click of a mouse. And any information we, as historians, put out there can be read, viewed, and experienced, just as fast.

Best of Both Worlds highlights the other side of the coin. Digital history is not only about making it easier for historians to create and distribute their research, it’s about seeing the transfer of knowledge through from origin to recipient. Historians don’t just want to share information with other historians. That would make for a very short conversation. The goal of historians is to convey their findings to the public and get them to engage. I like to think about it like T.V. show or movie or book that I am really into at the moment. All I want to do is share my passion with others. It wouldn’t be any fun, though, if I was the only one talking. Museums in particular have a huge task in getting people to engage. Most museum visitors go to look, not to ask questions. This is where digital history is crucial. I agree with Matthew K. Gould who finds that “digital humanities is not just ‘the next big thing’…but simply ‘the Thing’…” Welcome to the twenty-first century.


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  1. #1 by raydoswell on January 28, 2014 - 3:35 am

    I admire your blog structure, clean and crisp. You have also captured a number of the important points in the readings. I understand your point about the pitfalls of a potential one sided conversation on history if historians and museums don’t evolve. However, I think some of the authors were trying to make the point that, if invited, the audience will not only do more than just look, they will want to contribute and shape the story. Although intriguing, I still value the expertise of the content expert to shape the interpretation.

  2. #2 by emmaspeaks74 on January 28, 2014 - 2:38 pm

    Oh, absolutely. When I stated that museum visitors go to look and not ask questions, I meant to imply that as a reason for museums, as well as visitors, to embrace digital history. I didn’t mean to imply that museum visitors didn’t have any questions. On the contrary, they do, most just don’t ask, but technology bridges that gap by offering visitors other alternatives in obtaining the information they desire. And, yes, I completely agree with you that the interpretation is best left to the experts.Thank you for the comment.

  3. #3 by Chris Cantwell on January 28, 2014 - 8:06 pm

    Great reflection, Emma. But I’ve had a difference experience of whether digital history makes things easier. For scholars who use–but do not build or contribute to–digital resources, things are easier. But as someone who worked in a museum setting where it was incumbent upon us to build digital resources to reach our audience, I found DH initially different. I literally had to learn new skills and ways of thinking. In fact, I even had to learn a new LANGUAGE: HTML, etc.

  4. #4 by jacquadagray on January 28, 2014 - 8:49 pm

    I totally agree that college students now have it much easier! Often times I sit and think about what I would do without google and the internet. I am one of the students that does not like searching the library for a book. lol. But you’re post is very well written!

  5. #5 by arndh8 on January 28, 2014 - 9:39 pm

    I like the way you linked to the articles. I’ll probably steal your idea and and edit my blog. You make a good point by closing with the quote about digital humanities being “The Thing”. With everything in our lives being electronic and very connected it’s not surprising that history and museums would eventually pick up on that.

  1. A Different Way to ‘Do History’ | Emma's History Blog

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