What is Digital History?

**Full disclosure, I created this blog as part of a school project. While some of the posts here include specific assignments (such as the one below), others will be my personal thoughts on life as a graduate student and the challenges and celebrations that come with it!

The Digital History Quilt

What is digital history? In order to unpack what digital history is, imagine the field as a quilt, with multiple fabrics and patterns stitched together to create a cohesive blanket for the public. Essentially, each of the quilt squares represent something different, whether that be the medium through which digital history is accessed (think Internet, archives, podcast, video, augmented reality, etc.), the type of history represented (women’s history, African American history, Medieval history, history of shamanism, from the “big hitters” to the minuscule), or the use of digital technologies (phones, computers, vitural reality glasses, headphones, digital applications). If you’re unfamiliar with quilting – and I promise this post does not explain the complexities of quilting, just bear with me – a quilt is finished with a binding, which covers the raw edges of the quilted fabric. For this analogy, imagine that the binding on this digital history quilt is the representation of the past in some capacity. So while the quilt is comprised of different histories, different mediums, and different technologies, the representation of the past binds our quilt together.

 

The Journal of American History published an article, “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” in 2008 in which the authors state that digital history – no matter the definition – should include the common components of “capacity for play, manipulation, participation, and investigation by the reader.” If you think about these common components acting as the foundation (either separately or working together) for digital history, the ideas for application could be endless. For example, museum employees could create a digital application for an exhibit that features maps, and once the reader/user has downloaded the app, they can scan the maps, and stories/images from historical characters living in that region could appear on their screen. This application represents the past while incorporating the capacity for play by the user (how often do they want to scan the map/read stories/see images) and possibility for investigation (what story might they read that inspires them to explore this region/time period more).

 

As William G. Thomas states in the “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History” article, digital history is fluid. In this respect, digital history, whether it was created for academic or public purposes, becomes an active entity, which needs constant attention. Scholars, librarians, museum workers, historians, the public and others must grow and learn as technology changes. The more our digital history quilt is used, the more we have to learn how to patch, sew, and mend it. If a blog created in 2010 uses the same algorithm in 2018, it remains hopelessly outdated, and while it may retain the interest of old readers, perhaps it never gains the interest of new. Even if the blogs content remains contemporary, an outdated blog’s necessity in the ever-changing digital world fades away. In this aspect, I infer that digital history must evolve as digital technologies do, incorporating social media, augmented realities, videos, and more, or else they risk falling to the wayside. A perfect example for understanding this is Dan Cohen’s The Ivory Tower and Open Web (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. “Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books.” In this blog, Cohen explains how Nate Silver begins his blog The Burrito Bracket with an idea for rating burritos in Chicago. Starting with an idea and limited knowledge on web development, Cohen makes it obvious how Silver adapts to the ever changing internet to include images, maps, charts, spreadsheets, and more. This humble beginning then kicked off Silvers personal website, FiveThirtyEigh (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.t, which later becomes a staple part of publication by The New York Times. While I believe Cohen’s intent in his introductory chapter is to highlight and emphasize the blogging stereotypes, academic prejudice, and reluctance of scholars to embrace the digital world with open arms, I think his example of Nate Silver’s website trajectory is a perfect way to highlight how do-it-yourself bloggers adapt and change as the digital world progresses.

 

And so, our (giant) digital history quilt becomes a source for all who want to use it. Whether it’s an amateur historian who visits the local library to access a digital newspaper bank, a visitor to a museum who wants to try a new exhibit application, a scholar examining archives that reside halfway across the country, or a website that provides millions of individuals the ability to explore history at their own leisure. It changes (and challenges) the way both academics and the public think about history. No longer is history contained to textbooks, rote memorization, flashcards, or the provincial ivory tower; instead, history, for lack of better terms, comes to life with videos, images, digital scavenger hunts, oral histories, and more.
As a final example, I urge readers to explore the Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. This website, created by a culmination of “scholars, researchers, developers, programmers, designers, project managers, educators, multimedia producers, and graduate and undergraduate students” with backgrounds ranging from history to computer science allows the user to see the different ways that digital history can be used through a variety of mediums. Centered at George Mason University, the purpose of the RRCHNM is to “create websites and open-source digital tools to preserve and present the past, transform scholarship across the humanities, advance history education and historical understanding, and encourage popular participation in the practice of history.” With just a brief glimpse, a first time user at RRCHNM can see the multitude of different digital history projects, ranging in mediums and subject matter. Here, they show how digital history can mean creating the tools to engage the public as well as the academic sphere. One of the best qualities (in my humble opinion) about the RRCHM, is the collection of historical projects they have compiled and made easily accessible to the public.

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