Dan Talks Digital History

Digital history is the use of computer technology to preserve, store, sort, and share historical materials. In my rendering, “historical materials” is a flexible category – it can encompass datasets, analog primary or secondary sources that have been digitized, or born-digital projects and exhibits.

It’s crucial to note that, depending on your definition of history itself, your definition of digital history will also change. If you define history as meaning only the secondary accounts that academics write, based on raw data, then the term digital history would apply only to born-digital or digitized history books, exhibits, etc., with a clear analytic slant. Conversely, if you define history as encompassing all of the past and not just stories based upon the past, then the meaning of digital history will expand to include digitized/digital primary sources, as well as secondary narratives.

The Internet is a nice element of digital history, but it’s not a necessary element. Remember the glorious days of CD-ROMs in the 1990s. Those CDs that came loaded with the first history encyclopedias, collections of digitized sources (I’m looking at you, New Yorker, and your cartoon archives), and games often didn’t need the Internet to function. Should the Internet ever get fried in the future, digital history – in either its primary-and-secondary-source or secondary-source-only permutations, depending on your definition – could survive on ‘Net-less computers, transmitted through CDs, flash drives, and floppy disks. However, the loss of online historical data in the event of a massive Internet attack would be catastrophic. Digital history, like any other digital practice, can only survive future pitfalls if we back up, print, and/or Faraday-cage everything.

A lot of academics (Roy Rosenzweig, Daniel Cohen, Lisa Spiro) think collaboration is inherent to the field of digital history, or digital humanities writ broadly. On the other hand, Adeline Koh and Mary Rizzo argue that, while digital history should be collaborative, d.h. can be nasty and cliquey, too. I side with Koh and Rizzo on this topic. D.H. should be just as collaborative as any academic field, yet wherever people are concerned, bad behavior invariably follows. “Niceness” is not guaranteed. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that good manners will always appear with computers. We have to constantly practice that ethic of collaboration and kindness while we practice d.h.

Is digital history its own field or a set of tools? Honestly, I think it can be both, depending on the circumstance. I could see unique digital history degree programs emerging in the future. Digital history might also mean people who write analog books about the history of humanities computing (here’s looking at you, Father Busa). Then again, digital history for some people will just be a new set of skills, like material or visual culture or archaeology, that supplement the usual methods of historical analysis.

Lastly, I do see a distinction between digital history and digital humanities, sincehumanism can encompass many methodologies and goals separate from the methods and goals of the historian. To get axiomatic, all digital history is digital humanities, but not all digital humanities is digital history. Within digital humanities, I see similar distinctions as in the history field: Digital humanities might just mean digitized humanities scholarship, or it might mean born-digital scholarship, or it might mean humanists who write in an analog matter about digital issues.

Aren’t taxonomies fun?!?

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