Digital History: Defined

Many of this week’s readings attempt to define Digital History. Whether it is a field or methodology, its origins, and fundamental ethics. Unsurprisingly for a young discipline, there is no consensus on a central definition, though the JAH attempts one: “anything (research method, journal article, monograph, blog, classroom exercise) that uses digital technologies in creating, enhancing, or distributing historical research and scholarship.” Perhaps digital “anything” is too inclusive of a definition. Emails between professors and the JAH online or in JSTOR don’t rise to elements that signify Digital History to me. William Thomas and Douglas Seefeldt have a similar definition to the JAH’s but specify that it is “an approach…” this points to methodology more than field. Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig offer seven characteristics of digital projects, “capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity, and hypertextuality (or nonlinearity).” These descriptions help evaluate the positives and negatives of using digital tools and technologies in the creation and representation of history. Again, this is a description of methodology, not a field.

But a methodology is only as powerful as the results it is able to procure. And this is the second part of the question which most of the articles attempted to answer with what was possible. Some conceivable products are four dimensional historical “lost landscapes” as Will Thomas expects, Ayers’ gamified “simulated worlds”,  or Cohen and Rosenzweig allowing for the “dream of the complete historical record” online and searchable. Yet Edward Ayers’ still awaits the answer to his question of how scholars will utilize the new technologies. Most award winning works of history have not gone to digital scholars. The past fifteen years of Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes have gone to traditional scholars writing (save for Ayers own award winning book using research from his Valley of the Shadow web project). I truly expect that future leaders will have to use digital methods in order to stay relevent in a digital world.

Digital History is not yet in crisis. Mills Kelly argues that the tools have become infinitely easier and more powerful to use. This should lead to such commonplace use that Sean Takats and Mike O’Malley won’t have to worry about whether there is too much evidence in digital scholarship because the types of evidence will be unique from what has been produced previously. I thought O’Malley’s idea of a footnote with a search query was interesting if possibly unrealistic right now given the web’s changing nature.

A different definition of Digital History is Ben Schmidts’ tongue-in-cheek definition of his work: “Using tools from the 1990s to answer questions from the 1960s about 19th century America.” I hadn’t fully understood what he meant about 1960s questions until reading Will Thomas’ article with its comments on social historians of the 1960s. Tom Scheinfeldt echoed the difficult decisions in how to align oneself as a digital historian. Thomas and Scheinfeldt brought to the fore how important the definitional questions are for a new discipline. If the Cliometricicians thought they could redefine the historical field in their image, they overestimated the strengths of their own methods and their underlying data. This is a good lesson for digital historians today (how close will OCR come to perfection?). While we aren’t at four dimensional lost worlds, I expect we are closer to it today than when Edward Ayers wrote in 1999.


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