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


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