The Challenge of Digital History

Over at his blog, Dan Cohen writes about “The Pirate Problem” in digital history. He says that “the digital humanities represent a scary, rule-breaking, swashbuckling movement for many historians and other scholars. We must remember that these scholars have had—for generations and still in today’s graduate schools—a very clear path for how they do their work, publish, and get rewarded.” It is a somber look at what digital humanitarians have to face when explaining what digital history means the profession.

The transformation of the way we research, write, and present the past is no doubt a big change for the profession, and apprehension is to be expected. Prof. Bill Turkel, who is visiting UNL today and tomorrow, remarked this morning that the transformation must be akin to the introduction of the word processor. Historians who had for years labored over a typewriter must have been stunned by how quickly their students could produce assignments. The same thing is happening in digital history, where our ability to search Google or online databases such as American Memory or America: History and Life eases the process of research. Rather than spend copious amounts of time straining my vision with a microfilm machine, I can keyword search the 19th Century U.S. Newspapers database to locate articles related to my topic at hand. I can type in William Jennings Bryan and locate the ninety-five citations of his name in their database in an instant. The process of locating sources quickens, but the job of the historian to assess the source remains.

As Cohen pointed out, this is a new way of research. Rather than examine letters and newspapers contained in a bankers box, we have instant access to thousands of digitized resources. The traditional path of scouring archives, reading sources closely, generating copious notes and examples, synthesizing and analyzing the information, writing a monograph, and receiving tenure has been changed because research and the presentation of history itself is changing. I want to assure those who are skeptical of digital history that this field is not trying to upend the traditional practice of history; this is not Cliometrics 2.0. One of the great aspects of digital history is the ability to utilize new tools to make our jobs easier, like Google Books or newspaper databases, and to present the past in new ways that cannot be replicated in a monograph. In a large sense, digital history will combine both the “old” and the “new” realms. We have new ways of locating historical material, but the ways that we assess that material will not go away.

Cohen’s clarion call that digital historians “threaten to take that calm ship into unknown waters” certainly rings true, but that does not mean we should avoid the concepts that allow us to explore and understand the past in new ways. Additionally, more and more people are turning to the web for information and go no further. Shouldn’t historians have a role in helping define and create what constitutes “good” history on the web?

[Photo credit: jcarter]

23 April 2008 · @jaheppler