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



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