Narrative: The White Flag in the Digital History Debate

The uneasy relationship between historians and “technology” is one many of us are quite familiar with. Academic practice, which has been more or less consistent for decades now, is complicated significantly by the ability of historians or, as some would have it, self-proclaimed historians, to publish online. However, if the past fifteen years have taught us anything, it is that technology will continue to be a major part of our personal and professional lives. Let us use it for good, no?

We certainly do not need to abandon the strongholds of academic, historic discourse. In fact, our use of narrative as a primary, valuable methodology is well-suited to the technological medium of online book publication, blogging, and (live) Tweeting. In fact, our use of narrative is extremely important: “There is a certain necessity in the relationship between the narrative conceived as a symbolic or symbolizing discursive structure, and the representation of specifically historic events.”[1] Given the significance of narrative to historic practice, perhaps narrative, as a discourse and technique, may aid our uneasy transition to accepting digital historical scholarship.

In part, I mean this as an alternative to the truly daunting task of learning the bells and whistles more suited to the technological, rather than historical, side of things. As Orville Vernon Burton wrote, most “historians lack the digital creation and programming skills necessary to make their historical scholarship truly digital historical scholarship.”[2] Although I agree that there is a skills-related disconnect among technology and history professionals, I do not believe this discredits the historian’s work on digital platforms. A complicated digital format is not necessary for most internet users, let alone individuals who hope to use the internet for a (traditionally) separate purpose. Even without programming skills, historians can use digital formats to create scholarship valuable to the public through use of narrative.

Why narrative? Well, all of the plug-ins in the world do not change the content of a digital site. As such, digital historians should embrace narrative formats. According to Hayden White, narrative provides information and meaning,[3] as it provides episodic and configurational dimensions.[4] More importantly, for our purposes, it already an accepted historiographic discourse!

So, while digital mediums bring up issues of information versus knowledge, entertainment versus education,[5] we can reflect on merging traditional and forward-thinking historiographical practice in a non-controversial way. Marrying technology and narrative is “perfectly in line with the fundamental academic goals of research, sharing knowledge and meritocracy.”[6] Making our research-backed stories available to a new public is certainly a move in the right direction for historians. In a sense, narrative is an important tool both on and offline, and could certainly be the white flag waving between battling the reluctant historians on one side and the digital age historians on the other.

However, transferring narrative from one medium to the other does not strengthen our arguments, or mean that every argument is appropriate for digital forums. There are many, many examples of successful digital history projects that do not use narrative, but other methods. Taken to the next level, technology can offer historians an immersive experience, or can offer a hypermediated one. This would be doing “history in ways impossible without the computer,” or true digital history, one might say.[7]

– Lauren Ericson

[1] Hayden White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” History and Theory 23, no. 1 (1984), 30.

[2] Orville Vernon Burton, “American Digital History,” Social Science Computer Review 23, no. 2 (2005).

[3] White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” History and Theory, 19.

[4] White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” History and Theory, 27.

[5] Dan Cohen, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft],” Dan Cohen (blog), July 26, 2011, http://www.dancohen.org/2011/07/26/the-ivory-tower-and-the-open-web-introduction-burritos-browsers-and-books-draft/

[6] Cohen, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft],” Dan Cohen.

[7] Burton, “American Digital History,” Social Science Computer Review.

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