Week 3: Understanding Digital History

This week we focus on understanding the role history plays in our every increasing digital lives.

The first reading “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” by Hayden White discusses how many historians use the method narratives to communicate history. In the beginning it seemed that White was critical of the narrative method of communicating history, but after further reading it appears that White is more favorable of the use of narrative when discussing history. As a historian it is challenging NOT to resort to using narrative methods to discuss history, especially when pieces of the historical puzzle are missing. In most cases, that would be African-American history or any marginalized community. White is careful to point out that narrative is different than fictional communicating methods of history. White’s reading is timely for historians as we adapt to the new digitalization of history.

Our second reading “Essays on History and New Media” by Orville Vernon Burton was written in 2005. The internet has changed drastically since then, but Burton mentions how the traditional history field began to slowly introduce digital forms of history to the public. If historians want to remain current and resist fading away into obscuring, it is best to adapt to the times, which Burton suggests. Museums have since become hip to how useful digital methods of communication have become, therefore many museums are creating digital collections online using websites, and social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook to attract customers. Ten years ago, the most historians contributed to digital history was creating digital libraries online, made searchable by the public. According to Burton, we can thank “a pioneering group of historians “laid the groundwork for the digital history collections we enjoy today. With the possibilities of the internet being endless, it will be interesting to see what the internet has in store for historians and the general public.

Our final reading “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers and Books,” was a different type of historical reading. It starts off mentioning how famed statistician, Nate Silver went from being completely obscure, to reinventing his digital identity, and ultimately becoming a famous statistician that many journalists rely upon each election cycle. Initially, Nate used his statistician skills to chronical the best burrito joints around town. I’m not sure why he thought this would be a good blog idea, but whatever floats his boat. It wasn’t until began predicting presidential races that Nate Silver became a well-known internet sensation. His internet popularity led to high profile journalism jobs. Nate took the often ignored practice of presidential predictions, stats, etc., and made it mainstream. Perhaps the writer of this article used Nate Silver’s net-savvy story to illustrate how useful the internet is, and how one must be creative in order to stand out from the competition. Historians could take the same approach and reinvent historical projects by learning how to make the internet work for us, not against us.

Use what works.

By Evan Meehan

Hayden White’s “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory” seeks to ascertain the value of narrative as a method for conveying historical thought.  Its important to consider the profundity of such a question before moving too far forward with the examination of White’s work.

Narrative is present in all facets of historical writing, so much so that it has mostly just been assumed to be a a part of what history is, and how history is conducted.  Yet this assumption rests on largely unexplored theoretical ground.  What White’s work explores is what the proper role of narrative is in history, and to establish a theoretical framework upon which narrative may be implemented.

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The new frontier in narrative scholarship

The narrative we construct as we move through historical discourse and find our niches, are an individual truth. These narratives are representative of our personal schools of thought as well as the learning we have subjected and been subjected to throughout our academic career. To make it easier to understand the true power of the narrative is to relate it to the evolution of museums and museum theory. The original museum (i.e. The British Museum) displayed objects “exotic” in nature with a simple system of naming the object and relating its origin. A move to creating a discursive approach to display and arranging items in terms of cultural context. The narrative, I believe, is the impetus for the move we see in internet scholarship.

Creating thought provoking discourse that not only rings true factually but is also easily digestible and accessible is, as I believe, the zenith of academia. The internet has allowed thinkers like Nate Silver and others a platform to speak on issues and ideas close to home or of particular interest without the rigidity of publishing a book. It is hard to think fivethirtyeight.com could reach the same amount of people if it had been bound and shelved in your local bookstore.

This is also creates a conundrum. As discussed in Dan Cohen’s piece, even with the extreme accuracy of Nate Silver’s insights, viewing the website and the author as a true dealer in the political analyst realm was difficult for news outlets. It was an accurate and well thought blog but still just a blog. Latent in the human psyche is a fear of the unfamiliar and a skepticism of things that fall out of the uniform and the traditional. True scholarship in this thought is found in books, in college lecture halls, in the “experts” we refer to on the news. The “quick turnaround” Mary Coussons-Read mentions in Cohen’s post is also what makes for skeptics. How can these facts be right if they have not gone through the age-old vetting and review process?

Cohen notes the “stereotype of blogs as the locus of ‘information’ rather than knowledge, of ‘recreation’ rather than education” is commonplace and unfortunately uninformed. There are however the experimental minds with credentials enough to make official the the unofficial. As in Silver’s case, a chance run in with the editor of the Times magazine led to a licensing arrangement that gave validity to the blog Silver was unable to find on his own. This however does not happen often. Reviews and Journals are creating and commissioning a number of ways to promote digital history and scholarship. This is a chance for other innovative blogs and websites to find cogency.

It is an exciting time for both young up and coming thinkers and their more seasoned counterparts. The internet has created a favorable climate for content to be developed, shared and reviewed by others across the world. There is a transparency inherent in creations like fivethiryeight.com and its counterparts. We see the information being updated and often we see the conversations held in the comments. It’s a nice change to textbooks and quarterly journals and may even inspire the young tech generation to get involved and create new and exciting content.


– Lynn Robinson

Week 2

Cohen and Burton both wrote about the topic of digital media’s encroachment into academia. While both agreed that historians’ success in the world depended on greater efforts towards digital content, they both saw different challenges to that change. Burton argued that historians would need to be trained in basic computer languages, especially HTML, and that all future digital history projects will be best achieved through cooperation. Cohen argued that the problems between historians and the digital realm went deeper than a practical lack of skills, but rather extended to the core of academia itself. Academics, especially historians, have been slow to embrace change. In a world which values, above all things, tradition and prestige, convincing a historian to devote time and effort into creating digital content when they could be working on publishing a book or a scholarly article is, according to Cohen, impossible.

In the years since Burton and Cohen wrote these articles, much has changed in the field of history. Many qualities of early digital history which Burton extolled are now somewhat taken for granted by scholars and students alike. There is a wealth of knowledge and digital sources, created by historians and computer programmers working together to provide some transparency within the traditional historical narrative. Many professors include as many primary source documents as possible in their curricula, mostly relying on digital archives in order to connect their students to the content. As a result of this, many young students of history cannot comprehend why every worthwhile archival collection has not been digitized. They do not know how expensive it is to digitize a collection, nor do they understand the related conservation risks to a century’s old document. There is a level of opacity between the doing of history and the doing of public history which, to some extent, no longer exists within the realm of historical study itself. Professors and scholars have used the internet to bring about transparency within their classrooms, perhaps public historians could use similar resources to bring about transparency between themselves and the public.  

While expensive digital exhibits and fancy touchscreens are one way for archives and museums to ingratiating the public, there is a simpler and less expensive solution. By maintaining multiple social media accounts, especially accounts like twitter, facebook, and a blog, institutions, even small ones, can generate interest and keep their public informed on some of the issues facing the field of public history. These sites could be used to broadcast new collections or exhibits, or explain why certain items could not remain in rotation. Most institutions today have one, if not many social media accounts. They are typically used to generate interest for new events, by presenting some version of the finished project. However, some of these accounts, especially twitter, or longform blogs, could be used to share the process of creating an exhibit with the public. This is part of my job at the Rose Library at Emory. The Rose Library maintains a blog, among other social media accounts, and during my tenure there as an intern I will post bi monthly updates on an exhibit I am researching. This will include images of materials, discussions on preservation, as well as being a way to keep the public updated and informed on the exhibit itself. However, like all social media posts, this blog will basically be a regularly scheduled broadcast into the void if there is not a large enough following. This is a risk with which historical institutions are very familiar. Public interest is in no way guaranteed for any project, exhibits and blogs included. The creation of digital content is just the latest in a long list of necessary duties associated with doing public history.

Struggles of Digital History in the Museum Field

As Orville Burton and Dan Cohen note in their articles, the history field still has a ways to go in accepting and fully utilizing technology.  This struggle has become especially important within the museum field as well.  When I attended the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in 2015, AR and VR technologies were everywhere in the exhibition hall.  Everything from scavenger hunt apps to google glasses leading an automated tour through a mini gallery.  The most impressive, though, was a Civil Rights Movement VR demonstration.  The patron would take a seat on a bus bench and don a VR headset and a massive pair of headphones.  When the VR program started, the seat began to rumble and you found yourself in Rosa Park’s shoes (well, seat actually).  You could look around at all of the passengers on the bus, but your attention would be demanded by the bus driver and eventual police office that would often be far too close in your face for comfort.  The entire experience was very impressive and very unsettling at the same time.  Overall, it would be an amazing experience for a museum to host.

And trust me, museums would love to host experiences like these.  But, as with most things, the problem is money.  When designing a new exhibit, the type of displays that a museum can even hope to design depend greatly on funding.  While the classic no-frills history exhibit can cost as little as $25-$120 per square foot, multimedia booths and interactive displays can send exhibit prices as high as $650-$1000 per square foot (and this, of course, is not including design/consultation fees that would be needed with most larger exhibitions).  And on top of that, the technology must be kept current, as patrons can become quite disgruntled when they pay for admission only to find ten-year-old technology that only halfway works in the galleries.  The relative lack of funding in the museum field prevents many museums from creating multimedia or interactive exhibits, thus blocking a large portion of museum professionals from learning to work with these resources.  We do, though, get some opportunities.

The Atlanta History Center’s new flagship exhibition, Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta, uses a number of pieces of technology to tell various narratives and explain extensive statistics. The most interesting problem we ran into, though, was on how to display a born-digital periodical.  This problem, which is one that many museums and archives are currently struggling with, was debated over the course of a couple meetings.  Should we print it out and display it like the other newspapers and magazines in this section?  Or, do we find a way to display it digitally?  Thankfully, we eventually found a digital photo frame that matched the aspect ratio of the periodical, so we were able to display it digitally in a way that was not overly awkward (such as on a TV or monitor screen) and maintained the original intent of its creators.  This solution was also not prohibitively expensive and is a solution that we could recommend to other museums.  It’s a small step forward, but when you don’t have many opportunities to work with digital resources it’s definitely worth something.  We are lucky at the History Center that we have a dedicated donor base that allows us to continue implementing new technology in our exhibits.  I hope that as prices fall on certain technologies, that even smaller museums will be able to work with it as well.

Week 2: Digital History, For Me or Not For Me?…that is the question

On March 1, 1889 an act was signed into law deeming the first formal United States Census enumeration, June 2nd, 1890, which went on to become known as the inaugural U.S. Census Day. Also in 1889, German immigrant Herman Hollerith patented his electric tabulating machine and in 1890 the US Bureau integrated use of the device into their day-to-day operations. Although, census data had been recorded since 1880, the electric tabulating machine allowed for greater amounts of data to be collected and a lesser amount of time needed to publish statistical reports. Various demographics including race, marital status and occupation became of interest to social scientists, particularly historians, who were looking to use the quantitative data to inform historical narratives such as Orville Burton’s In My House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield. It was during this time that digital history was used solely by academics and other professionals. As technology began to advance, accessibility to various digital mediums widened as well. This resulted in trained history practitioners, their audiences, and other untapped communities finding a means to exhibit and experience history through the use of computer technology. Although, some feel that this creates greater access to historic interpretation some, particularly within the field of history, feel it poses a threat to the trained professional’s exclusivity and authority.

In 2005, In My House Are Many Mansions’ author Orville Burton wrote an essay entitled The Growing Field of Digital History. In it, he chronicled the evolution of the medium and how it has been received by practicing historians. Contemporary developments began to occur around 1990, as “IT-savvy historians began using the Internet and World Wide Web as mediums for the teaching and researching of history” (Burton 2). Digital history today most commonly involves the use of computers, rather than in years past where technologies like the electric tabulating machine were used. The advent of home computers and consumer use products such as the Internet, has resulted in a conveniently accessible means to doing history. What exactly does “doing history” look like? Well, it’s the development of self-published books, interactive games grounded in the history of various forms of cultural music, or online libraries with extensive primary source catalogs. This creates an opportunity to develop various digital techniques to attract a variety of audiences to historical content. One of the more obvious uses is for an improved pedagogical experience. Many high school students view history class as an incubator for prescribed historical knowledge rather than a setting for reflection and interpretation, so digital history mediums provide an opportunity to reverse that effect. Yet, as Burton notes, if the instructor or teacher is uncomfortable with digital history formats, then he and his students will be disconnected. Being that this article is more than 10 years old, I am curious to know if there has since been a push to close the digital divide? Have scholars pursuing careers within the field of history been advised to garner the technological skills to perform digital history, as well?

Written in 2011, Dan Cohen’s The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction, Burritos, Browsers and Books explores how the “the web’s radical openness has not only led to calls for open access to academic works” but it has lead “to a fully functional shadow academic system for scholarly research that exists beyond the more restrictive and inflexible structures of the past” (20). There was once a time when publishing companies and educational institutions were the primary means for disseminating historical research. Today, the do-it-yourself culture has also allowed for various “meaning-making” to take center stage on web-formats. People from all walks of life are reflecting on a number of historical subjects and are presenting them to public audiences via the web. Cohen follows the success of Nate Silver, a quantitative researcher who managed to insert himself in the secluded industry of journalism. Whereas, most of his counterparts had to endure years of academic training and professional experience, Silver was able to turn a consistent set of blog posts and an interest in burritos and politics into a “daily audience of 600,000” in 2008, which eventually lead to him securing a role as a political analyst with The New York Times.   This bit of a Cinderella story can be inspiring to most but a threat to history and other trained professionals. The time, and in most cases the money, invested in acquiring the methodological and theoretical know-how to produce “authentic” historical works, can now be trumped by a person with winning subject-matter, consistency and a knack for marketability. I hope our class discussion will provide some insight as to how open web history formats can also be a threat to “true” or “factual” information.

Works cited:

“The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft].”Dan Cohen. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

Burton, Orville. “The Growing Field of Digital History.” Chnm.gmu.edu. N.p., 2005. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

-Sophia Nelson


History’s Changing Place in Academia

If history is, as Burton chides, a series of names and places at its worst, then historiography is a series of dated concepts and theories. Such is the conundrum I find myself in after this week’s series of articles. It is difficult, as a twenty-something who still remembers what the save icon in Microsoft Office is supposed to represent, to take Orville Burton seriously when they discuss how CD-ROM is the hardware of the future, or that schools and libraries would suffer from a lack of access to new historical data. Thankfully for the profession, this has proven to be false.

There are points in his article, however, that do still hold true. The accuracy of history in a digital world is constantly a concern. We live in a realm of fake news, and there is little to stop fake history from proliferating across the internet. However, I would argue that the open forum of the internet allows for faster opportunities for peer review and commentary. If the internet is the wild west, then we are entering the period where Wyatt Earp comes to Tombstone to clean it up. For it is the crowd of armchair historians- those who claim to be Civil War buffs in order to display the Stars and Bars over their mantle- that make the practice of digital history seem less than those in the ivory tower.

As for narrative, I feel the question of whether it is relevant in our field is unnecessary. Then again, I am at heart an artist, where narrative has never been considered an issue. I have never questioned the place of history in the humanities. After all, is history not the true Neverending Story, constantly being rewritten with a new protagonist?

I think White’s questioning of narrative speaks to a bigger Postmodernist concern; where does history belong? Is it a social science, which would put us in the realm of data gathering and statistical analysis? Or are we in the humanities, with a focus on the self, the internal? No longer do we live in a world where sources are not readily available. That is the most important facet of digital history, and one that White could not foresee: there are so many stories out there to use in our research, it would be unfair not to use them.

Some questions to consider:

In a post-Trump world, Nate Silver and his emphasis on analytical research was called into question, including myself. Is a Five Thirty-Eight trustworthy? What are the differences between ranking burritos and predicting a presidential candidate?
While a narrative might be acceptable in history, how far can one take the idea? Is it acceptable to impart your spin on a narrative, as opposed to simply letting the historical figures speak for themselves?

Can a documentary, therefore, be history? Ken Burns lets the characters speak for themselves, but “Night and Fog” is more compelling to an audience. Is one style better than the other?

Is there anything lost with digital history (blogs, podcasts, etc.) that you still keep with traditional studies?

Doing History: A Changing Narritive

This week’s readings focused on conflicting opinions of how history should be done. What is the appropriate way to approach the process, and how have advances in technology changed how history can be done as well as consumed?

As an archaeologist, I have often argued that the discipline I practice is a “soft science” (when I am having a really bad day in the field, it gets demoted to “pseudoscience”). We are scientists in how we approach the collection of our data, but the analysis and explanation of that data requires a human touch. Archaeologists excavate to collect data. After analysis, that data is used to tell a story about the human past. Historians do the same. The type of data and how it is mined is different, but one thing is true for both archaeologists and historians – the data we collect is used to report on the human experience. The data is for showing what happened and how, but the “why” is often left up for interpretation – and without explaining the why, these two disciplines are reduced to statistics. The human element is the key to the “why” – and a narrative voice is a useful tool in presenting this key element of these disciplines. Those who would argue that history is a social science are not wrong – but it is not entirely so, and to place it in this category removes a major portion of its makeup. History is about telling a story based on data. It is about thinking critically about what the data means – but not dehumanizing it.

I would argue that history becomes most valuable when it is relevant to the people whose story it is telling. It must be presented in a way that matters to the masses. People relate to narratives. Yes, it is an academic discipline, but the value of it diminishes when we cannot interest and engage the public. This does not mean “dumbing down” history, but making it more widely accessible. History is more humanized when it tells a story, and it becomes accessible when historians embrace one of the most powerful tools for both research and distribution – the internet. Both Burton and Cohen advocate the use of the internet for doing – and sharing – history. Digital libraries make doing history a democratic process and provide a platform for the world to access vast amounts of archival data that haven’t seen the light of day in a long time. Blogging allows historians to take a multimedia approach and enables them to present history in dimensions that the format of print cannot. Cohen claims that many historians are hesitant to get on board with these new methods of doing history because of the ease of publishing and the lack of peer-review may diminish the quality of work. However, when forums are open and blogs allow comments, it seems to me that the internet provides an even better environment than the academic journal for comment, feedback and peer review, and collaborative work can flourish. The takeaway, it seems, is get with the program or get left behind, but after clicking on some of the dead links embedded in Burton’s article I can’t help but consider the issues that may arise with digital curation. As digital technologies rapidly change, it is imperative that we defend our archives from the toll of outdated technology. Digital curation is a tool, but not a substitution for the physical. Nor can the digital library be abandoned once it has been created. Physical collections will always be of great value, and digital collections must be maintained to ensure they are still accessible by up-to-date technology.

–  Pam Enlow

Understanding Digital History

This week’s readings focused on the issues surrounding historical narrative and the place of digital history, both in the discipline of history and in academia overall. Digital history and projects ultimately provide a unique platform that allows for discourse and interpretation surrounding historical events. Both Burton and Cohen’s writings seem to be a call for change in academia and in departments to recognize, encourage, and provide institutional support for digital works in history.

In White’s “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory”, the ideas of explanation versus description of historical events were discussed, and ultimately it is argued that “a narrative history can legitimately be regarded as something other than a scientific account of the events of which it speaks.” This representation of the “real story” can have elements of discourse and story-telling and not be just a repetition of events as they occurred, which is inherently subjective. This article also seems to be arguing for history’s place in the humanities and states that history is not a science because this narrative representation of the past requires a certain amount of imagination.

Burton describes digital history as an opportunity to do better history in “American Digital History.” Burton discusses the lack of institutional support for digital history projects and overall lack of enthusiasm for digital history within the profession, save for a few pioneers of the area. The examples of digital history projects done by history professors and libraries show the potential of the work as well as some of their unique opportunities and challenges. The projects do more than simply make print content available in a digital format (are more than simply a device of convenience) and the digital tools allow for unique interpretations of the information. While this article was written in 2005, much of it is still relevant. Universities still face challenges in engaging faculty of all disciplines in digital projects and web publications and projects still don’t have the same “legitimacy” as publications in peer-reviewed journals or monographs. Additionally, securing the funding needed for the creation and maintenance of many digital projects can also be a daunting challenge.

Dan Cohen’s introduction to the “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web” begins by describing Nate Silver’s work as an example of the potential of the impressive work that can originate on the Internet rather than within a traditionally scholarly means. The introduction also describes some of the same challenges mentioned in Burton’s work: the hesitancy to regard the Internet and digital work as equivalent in legitimacy to traditional monographs or scholarly journals, an aversion to use of recent digital tools, and a skepticism to open scholarship. Cohen briefly mentions the publishing and dissemination potential surrounding open access journals, institutional repositories, and personal websites. Again, the role of institution is extremely important in providing support for things like digital tool trainings, copyright concerns (in my experience, a big reason for faculty simply not wanting to engage with the repository at all), and most importantly in implementing policies that give some kind of incentive to engage in the digital realm. The openness of the Internet is, as Cohen states, “at the core of any academic model” and “provides a way to disseminate our work easily, to assess what has been published, and to point at what’s good and valuable.” It provides further opportunity for sharing of information, for additional peer review and discussion, and for possible collaboration across institutions and disciplines.

-Sarah Kirkley

Week 1: Media Influence

Introducing Media Studies is built on two opposing ideas, one of which is the critic’s opposition to the pursuit of media as an area of study, the other is a validation of how it may very well be one of the more important social sciences pursued in scholarship today. Leaving behind the traditional style of argumentative paper writing, the author embraces the use of comic strip and television news copy formats, allowing him to argue his points in an imaginative yet fact-giving way. This along with the rest of the week’s readings, reveals just how much of an influence audiences and mass media alike have on each other. This was demonstrated in From Papyrus to Pixels, which explores the evolution of book formats and briefly discusses the influences that consumers and media producers both share.

In the opening pages of Introducing Media Studies the author introduces the idea that audiences who engage with various communication mediums such as television, news programs, radio and the Internet, are creating their own meanings and emotions in the process. The article goes on to advocate the importance of understanding how media is engineered, so that audiences can become critical users of the various formats. As a teen, I found myself almost intrigued, maybe even somewhat impressed, when I learned that The Walt Disney Company had acquired ABC Networks. Years later, as a young adult I was disappointed when I learned that the once black-owned television station BET Networks had been purchased and pulled under the Viacom umbrella. It is my belief that media conglomerates operate with a two edged sword. On one hand, a conglomerate has more resources, which usually results in improved production values and greater visibility. On the other hand, any entity operating under a conglomerate is usually doing so using the voice of the parent company. As the author suggests, media is mediated. As a member of a targeted audience, media studies will better prepare you to understand how and why cultural products have such a powerful influence over contemporary life. This goes against the functionalist and Marxist ideas that “presume audiences to be passive and powerless.” Again, as a kid, intrigued by Disney’s accrual of ABC I didn’t realize or maybe it wasn’t important to me that the culture would be shaped by the parent company, similar to how BET is shaped by Viacom today. Knowing that media is produced for mass-consumption and in most cases for economic impact, I mindful of how much influence I allow it to have over my spending habits and decision making – No “healthy” Sunny Delight, for me!

Although, one of the concluding thoughts is that mediation is an exchange that is mostly one-sided, I do believe that today audiences have a greater influence on mediums and media content. From Papyrus to Pixels provides a snapshot of how books have evolved since the mid-1400s. Starting with the development of materials such as vellum, which made it possible for print media to be created and ending with electronic literary formats, the author provides a number of instances where the audience has had a direct influence on print production. Let’s look at the first era of self-publishing. Before the 19th century, self-publishing was the primary method of an author to reader exchange. As publishing companies became more prominent, self-published authors lost their authentic appeal. Bookstores refused to stock their shelves with self-published books and this eventually led to the decline of such a format. Yet, in the late 20th to early 21st century, the advent of electronic books and a thriving do-it-yourself culture resulted in self-published books rising in popularity again. Gone now were the “egoist” and “kook” stigmas.

Introducing Media Studies and From Papyrus to Pixels were written in 2013 and 2014, respectively. So, I am surprised to not have found more of a discourse on data. Today, I would say a good amount of my information comes from social media interaction. I have found that the producers of social mediums have developed ways to tailor my social media experience based on the data they collect from my online use. If I perform a Google search for Reebok tennis shoes, guaranteed I will see an advertisement for the same on one of my social media pages. I am curious to see if media studies will someday prove that such ads are user-influenced or designed to influence the user?

-Sophia Nelson