Arguing with Digital History

This is the piece I wrote for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media's Arguing with Digital History workshop, being held September 15-16, 2017. A draft of this talk is versioned on Github, which will also likely include the most up-to-date version of this essay.

First, a loose definition of “digital history”: I take digital history to mean a variety of approaches to using computational, visual, and informational methods in analyzing, visualizing, and presenting historical analysis and arguments. As I consider the ways that “digital history” can engage with argumentation, then, I assume particularities of digital history that rely on graphical displays (maps, networks), take advantage of narrative and hypertextuality, provide access to digitized primary sources, share historical evidence and data compiled for computation and visualization, and that takes the form of a digital scholarly website that integrates some or all of these aspects of research and communication. Such projects are distinct from efforts that define themselves as public history; while much of digital history can be said to be public scholarship, that does not mean they rise to the criteria of public history.1 Under this definition, to state it plainly, digital history must be explicitly digital: that the arguments, visualizations, and narrative are much harder to achieve in print and, thus, can only exist as a digital version.

Many digital history projects tend to fall into the realms of digital collections or data visualization. Some of these projects have led to more traditional venues of historical writing and publishing. The Valley of the Shadow, an archive of Civil War-era material detailing the experiences of Confederate and Union soldiers in Augusta and Franklin Counties in Virginia, led to the publication of “The Differences Slavery Made” by Ed Ayers and William G. Thomas, as well as Ayers’ In the Presence of Mine Enemies.2 The appearance of digital history projects alongside print continues: Richard White’s Railroaded was accompanied by a digital component3; Karl Jacoby’s Shadows at Dawn relies on a digital companion to provide access to primary sources.4 Conspicuously, these digital components don’t exist primarily for driving a historical thesis, nor do they offer much in the way of expanding on narrative elements of their print partners (or experiments in nonlinear hypertextual narrative). They instead hinge on providing access to a set of material used by the writers in the creation of their monographs.5

The list of digital history projects that attempt to exist as digital-only publications is quite short, a situation that likely reflects the promotion and tenure realities of the academy. Few history departments have attempted to devise promotion structures and guidelines that accommodate digital scholarship, instead continuing to value print (and a book, in particular) as the cornerstone of scholarly merit.6 This is not, however, a limitation of how digital history can engage with argumentation. Digital history is no different, in some ways, with more traditional approaches to history: an interpretation built upon evidence and that recognizes context. While digital history can change how argumentation might look, by being more computational, more visual, and rely on large-scale machine-readable sources, argumentation otherwise utilizes the same techniques and venues for contributing to historical knowledge. While these changes in digital historical argumentation influence the kinds of questions we can ask—after all, only a computer can read and find patterns in 100,000 pages of newspapers7—the answers must still grapple with context and existing historical interpretation.

Insofar, then, that any notion of “digital history” supposes some distinction from “traditional” history, the notion mostly comes down to form. There are cases, such as Mapping the Republic of Letters, where digital projects do not make historical claims. But that presupposes the purpose of such projects. These projects exist not to make arguments in and of themselves, but as aids to research and new knowledge that result in publications destined for traditional publishing venues—and, for better or worse, where such work reaches a specific audience. In other words, these projects still strive for argumentation even though their eventual form may not be only digital.

In my own work, I have pursued projects that exist as both print and digital with the exception of one project. The first of these projects, Framing Red Power: The American Indian Movement, the Trail of Broken Treaties, and the Politics of Media served as a digital companion to my Masters thesis and contained narrative, primary sources, and data visualization.8 That project served as an aid to research, but also exists as a stand-alone project containing a greatly abridged version of the traditional thesis. My second project, still in progress, called “Self-sustaining and a good citizen”: William F. Cody and the Progressive Wild West, stands as a digital-only publication that will be going up for peer review.[^8] No print version of this project will exist, but will be accompanied by the imprimatur of a scholarly authority. My third project, also in progress, is Machines in the Valley, which served as a digital companion to my dissertation but is being expanded upon as I begin working on my book manuscript.9 In each of these cases, however, I have tried to design the projects to stand on their own—to engage with a scholarly literature, to narrate historical events, and to take advantage of computational methods to aid interpretation. My projects have tended to serve as publically-accessible digital scholarship: to provide access to historical sources, but also contextualize and narrate those sources with the hope that others may build off that work.

  1. Jason Heppler, et al., “Public History as Digital History as Public History,” working group, National Council on Public History Annual Meeting, Nashville, Tennessee, April 2015. 

  2. The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, University of Virginia; Edward L. Ayres, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859—1864 (New York: Norton, 2004). 

  3. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: Norton, 2012). White’s digital companion, Railroaded, is found at]; William G. Thomas’s The Iron Way likewise had a digital component, providing access to primary sources, data, and visualizations^[William G. Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). Thomas’s digital companion, Railroads and the Making of Modern America, is at

  4. Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: Penguin Books, 2009). Jacoby’s digital companion, Shadows at Dawn, is at

  5. The same can be said for scholarly articles. Some digital projects provide digital-only whitepapers or pre-prints, such as Stanford’s Spatial History Project Other digital projects may be accompanied by print publications that appear alongside the digital. See, for example, the work of Claire Arcenas and Caroline Winterer, The Correspondence Network of Benjamin Franklin: The London Decades

  6. This is not to suggest there are no digital projects that attempt to be digital-only, but few of those have been peer reviewed let alone granted the imprimatur of an academic press. For example, see Douglas Seefeldt, Horrible Massacre of Emigrants!! The Mountain Meadows Massacre in Public Discourse; Nick Bauch, Enchanting the Desert; Michelle Delaney and Rebecca Wingo, “I Shall Be Glad To See Them”: Gertrude Käsebier’s “Show Indian” Photographs

  7. Library of Congress Chronicling America

  8. Framing Red Power: The American Indian Movement, the Trail of Broken Treaties, and the Politics of Media

  9. Machines in the Valley: Growth, Conflict, and Environmental Politics in Silicon Valley

18 August 2017 · @jaheppler