What Is Digital History?

Today is the #dayofdh2015. It’s a day to celebrate the extraordinary in digital humanities your projects, pretty maps, cool visualizations, amazing findings. It’s also a day to explain the mundane tasks of DH aka what we actually spend our time doing- filling out grant proposals, munging data, updating Java so that MALLET works. The idea is that our non-digital colleagues will see more of the former than the latter and come to value our methodologies.

So what is digital history? For me, there are many binaries in which I recognize digital history, each of which urge elaboration, but which I will only briefly mention now. The first is micro vs macro viewpoints. Successful digital history almost always zooms in and out between the these poles of evidence. From the single story- a name plucked from the record via full text search to the  overarching- historical forces marching across maps over time. Digital history most successfully displays the macro-level analysis, while not missing the human stories that ground great histories. The second binary is unfortunately a part of digital history, the commercial vs. the open. The historical and archival discipline has ceded vast quantities of our history web to corporations, from ProQuest to Google. These collections and tools are in various levels of access, but are certainly not in the public domain. This is both a threat and a call to action to maintain our discipline’s role as open and democratic sources for historical knowledge.

The third binary describes visions of digital history which I first discussed. There are the utopian- DH will “save the humanities”, and the mundane- DH is merely tools to make stuff (and these tools have their own perils of power relationships).

As Tom Scheinfeldt has noted in his post on the Dividends of Difference, digital humanities comes from a computational linguistics and cliometric world of Father Busa and “Time on the Cross.” It also comes from a radical history of collecting stories from below using the tools of oral history and folk collecting. This collecting was technological, archival, public, collaborative, political, and networked. Both of these branches are simultaneously utopian and mundane approaches to scholarship.

I also approach digital humanities with a slightly different influence. Considering my time at CHNM, my “DH” is Digital History and I define this work as: the use of computers in researching, presenting, or teaching history. It’s a deceptively broad definition as its goals are deceptively broad in its attempts to use modern tools in pursuit of past experience.

In this vein, it’s a forward looking methodology. Digital history is, as Cameron Blevins noted during a recent AHA talk, “in a perpetual future tense.” Though Blevins meant his discussion as a call to action- to use new tools to challenge accepted historical narratives, I think there’s something in DH’s utopian genes that will always push the methodology’s envelope in performing its roles of research, presentation, and teaching.

I use the term methodology deliberately. There are some aspects of disciplinary formation common to digital humanities- I use similar tools and speak the same language as my literary colleagues. We have common goals and approaches in our work. Yet I believe my fundamental questions and missions align with history, the discipline and the digital is a way to achieve these. Though we use different approaches, Eric Foner and I both attempt to “democratize history” (he more successfully than I).

This definition is not meant to exclude those who fall in the liminal spaces of discplines. Andrew Prescott’s work crosses boundaries of science, museums, literature, and archives to illuminate the human condition. Prescott has worked in many different positions within these discplines, but it is work that is rooted in materiality. Will Thomas, Ed Ayers, Dan Cohen, and Roy Rosensweig, all describe fantastic visions of what digital history can create, but each vision- from Ayers historic virtual worlds (1999) to Thomas’ call of merging the past with the present (2015) is rooted in a materiality that is foundational to history.

So if you’ll accept my premise that digital history is perpetually forward thinking methodology, I hope you’ll also accept that this requires grinding work of the “non-DH” variety. So like Roy and Dan have urged, we should “sit down in front of our computers” on this #dayofdh2015 and “get to work.”

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