Thinking About Digital History

Bauer, Jean. “Baking Gingerbread, as a DH Project | Packets.”

  • Digital humanities is the process, not the outcome. Your level of technical skill does not have to meet a certain minimum to be considered DH – it’s about the process of thinking through the systems and structures in which you’re participating.

Bauer, Jean. “Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries: Fuzzy Boundaries of a False Trichotomy | Packets.”

  • Digital Libraries consist of the human and cyber infrastructure required to build and maintain structured repositories of metadata and digital objects designed for access and reuse by researchers with an undelimited set of research questions.
  • Digital Scholarship is the set of skills, methods, and tools required for researchers to work with digital materials, as well as the people who teach these skills. 
  • Digital Humanities is a field of research and a labor structure. As a field of research, Digital Humanities is characterized by “using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.” 2 As a labor structure, Digital Humanities is designed to maximize collaboration and, in the words of Ed Ayers, “scramble hierarchies” to the betterment of scholarship and the human experience. Digital Humanities practitioners use the skills and tools of digital scholarship and rely on (or create) the metadata and objects in digital libraries to answer their research questions.
  • Digital Humanities Projects often have features in common with digital libraries, but DH projects are designed to answer a delimited set of research questions.

Cohen, Daniel J. “The Future of Preserving the Past.”

  • Digital advancements make it possible for us to access and share far more and far more widely than at any other time in history. However, this comes with its own concerns and potential issues. 
  • Issues: Digital collections are characterized as being shallow and less useful for research than traditional archives, for which provenance and selection criteria are critical. Some fail to collect much at all because few people hear about or contribute to their websites. An inverse relationship between the quantity of digital artifacts gathered and the general quality of those artifacts may exist. Digital collections are more susceptible to problems of quality because they often lack the helpful selection bias of a knowledgeable curator and the pressure to maintain strict criteria for inclusion engendered by limited physical storage space. Digital collections tend to be less organized and more capricious in what they cover.
  • Benefits: Digital archives can be far larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives. Perhaps the most profound benefit of online collecting is an unparalleled opportunity to allow more varied perspectives in the historical record than ever before. Networked information technology can allow ordinary people and marginalized constituencies not only a larger presence in an online archive, but also generally a more important role in the dialogue of history. The greater size and diversity of online collections allow more opportunities to look for patterns. Because of a digital collection’s superior ability to be searched, historians can plumb electronic documents in revealing and novel ways. The speed of analysis can enable quick assessments of historical collections and more substantive investigations.
  • Solicitation and Preservation of Digital Sources: Reaching out to and interacting with historical subjects online, either in real time or asynchronously, is far more economical than traditional oral history. Ways of soliciting for online collections at the time of writing include email, blogs and instant messaging. Concerns about the authenticity of materials and narratives, as always, exist in the digital world as well, but concern about the falsification of digital historical documents and metadata has mostly turned out to be a phantom problem and The best defense against online fraud comes from traditional skills. Historians have always had to assess the reliability of their sources. Countless notable forgeries exist on paper. Written memoirs and traditional oral histories are filled with exaggerations and distortions. Historians will have to continue to look for evidence of internal consistency and weigh them against other sources. In any media, new or old, solid research is the basis of sound scholarship.

Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rozenweig. “Digital history: a guide to gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the Web.”

  • Note: This book is important in the world of digital history, but it is also old enough that almost everything about the methods is different now. However, the principles remain the same!
  • Probably the most helpful way to classify history websites is by the types of materials they provide and the functions and audiences they serve. Conventional history categories, such as cultural, social, and intellectual history, are less useful in regards to history websites. There are five main genres of history websites that follow preexisting patterns and categories: archives, exhibits, films, scholarship, and essays, teaching, discussion, and organizational. These categories are often loosely followed and frequently blurred. Think of building a website as you would building a house: most of your focus needs to be on the larger issues rather than small technical issues. Ask yourself questions like: “What is the genre of this site? The scale? Who is my audience?” rather than “Windows or Linux? Oracle or MySQL?” These secondary questions are only there to support your primary questions. 
  • Digitization turns the “gradations that carry meaning in analog forms” into precise numerical values that lose at least a little bit of that meaning. But how much of that meaning is lost depends, in large part, on how much information you gather when you digitize. It may be impossible to move from analog to digital with no loss of information; what you really need to ask is the cost of representing the original as closely as possible. First-time digitizers typically overestimate the production costs and underestimate the intellectual costs. Even if you have no experience with the web, you have still seen good design in other areas, including books, whose familiarity masks centuries of design thought, including size, font, themes, organization, layout, navigation, and more. When designing your website, keep in mind Williams and Tollett’s four tenets of design: contrast, proximity, alignment (or misalignment) of elements, and consistency. You are ethically – and possibly legally – obliged to make your site as accessible as possible for those who “view” or use a page in a different way than we expect due to blindness, color blindness, or motor skill disabilities.
  • You need to understand the community – the audience – for your site, and develop ways to reach the members of those communities, as well as trying to reach visitors in much larger aggregates.. Where do they congregate–both offline and online? Which organizations do they join? What do they read? The success of most websites relies on repeat usage, on becoming one of your users’ favorite places on the web. Don’t make the mistake of expecting your initial efforts to carry you forward. The most important strategy for encouraging return traffic is to keep your site “fresh” with continual updates to make your website look active and lived-in. Unfortunately, using the web to gather historical materials is harder than using the web as a one-way distribution system. Online collections tend to be less organized and more capricious in what they cover, but they also can be far larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives. Furthermore, in contrast to traditional oral history, online collecting is a far more economical way to reach out to historical subjects. When considering if your topic is a good candidate, consider the size, activity, and interest level of the community or discernable body of contributors. What ultimately matters in choosing “magnet” content is not so much its exhaustiveness or the refinement of presentation, but rather its distinctiveness on the web. A well-crafted policy page will help protect you and your contributors from ambiguities. Be wary of asking for too much; try to keep at least the initial entreaty short and as open-ended as possible– definitely less than ten questions, and ideally under five. Finally, be flexible – be willing to change wordings and formats for better results, and be willing to accept things you had not intended to collect. 
  • University copyright policy may differ from intellectual property law, affecting what you are able to offer your students. Luckily, one of the key weaknesses of the web—its lack of durability or fixity—makes life easier for digital historians; you can remedy copyright violations on the web quickly and easily. Historians are sometimes reluctant to put their work online for fear “someone will steal it.” But placing your work on the web gives you a way of establishing that you are the original author. More practical concerns include figuring out how to recognize adequately everyone’s contributions, including those of students and volunteers, establishing whether you or your employer actually claim ownership of your work, and deciding whether you are concerned with property rights in your work at all in the collaborative world of digital history. Copyright law is confusing, and gets even more so outside of the United States, or the further into the past you go. If you cannot determine a copyright status of something you use, it’s in your best interest to include a disclaimer and document all of your attempts to find a copyright holder, or to claim fair use after determining that your use qualifies. 
  • Electronic resources are profoundly unstable, far more unstable than such paper records. Nondigital materials usually remain intelligible after modest deterioration, while digital materials often become unusable or inaccessible at the first sign of corruption. Issues of corruption, access, and technological ability to view these materials all contribute to a predicted short lifespan. Deciding what is worth preserving for the future is tricky, but some questions include: Is the information (they hold) unique? How significant is the source and context of the records? How significant are the records for research (current and projected in the future)? Do these records serve as a finding aid to other permanent records? Are the records related to other permanent records? Be sure to back up your files and data. 

Dougherty, Jack, and Kristen Nawrotzki. Writing History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

  • This born-digital book is available online, in both its final form and in the open peer review web version, complete with comments. This format forms part of Dougherty and Nawrotzki’s argument, for, as they say, what better way for historians to reflect on digital tools than to use them to write a book? The publishing of this work differed from traditional publishing in three ways: first, it was published on the web in stages, as it developed, and the creators relied on collaborative web tools for contributors to share ideas, drafts, and comments. Second, instead of being subjected to anonymous private review, this book benefited from open peer review on the web. All readers, from scholars to the general public, were welcome to comment, but were not permitted to be anonymous. And finally, the digital version of the book is open-access, allowing anyone with internet access to read it and comment. Despite good writing being central to the historian’s work, our traditional methods involve secrecy and the hiding of how our writing develops, but then how do we expect historians-in-training to learn our craft? There are many reasons to publish, including for profit (unlikely in the history world), for professional status, and for the dissemination of knowledge. The editors believe that this method of publishing, with digital copies available for free online and physical copies available for purchase through the University of Michigan Press, is able to meet the needs of these conflicting motivations, much preferable to seeing your work lie unread due to a high purchase cost. Ebooks come with their own set of technological and legal limitations, and some scholars prefer the benefits of a physical book. The system of both a web-book (not an ebook) and a physical book sought to match the scholarly values and avoid the pitfalls of other methods. The creation of the web-book involved several requirements, including that it should: look like a book, protect authors’ attribution rights while maximizing public access, integrate narrative text and multimedia source materials, speed up distribution while preserving archival and print formats, be findable with existing library search tools, and promote peer review with two-way scholarly communication. The proposition of this book is simply that wisely-implemented web technology can help us to collaboratively create, constructively criticize, and widely circulate our writing in ways more consistent with our scholarly values. Selected chapters include:
  • I nevertheless am a historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers: Leslie Madsen-Brooks investigates how false claims about U.S. Civil War history arose, and have been combated, on the Internet. 
  • Beyond the Historical Profession: The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and the Wikipedia:  Robert Wolff explores what we can learn from analyzing debates over editing Civil War history on the multi-author Wikipedia platform. 
  • Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards: Ansley Erickson richly illustrates how using a relational database package reshaped her dissertation source-work and writing process, and led her to reflect on broader questions of historical categorization.
  • The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing: Frederick Gibbs and Trevor Owens argue that historians should emphasize our research methods more than traditional narratives, with a case study using tools such as Google Book’s Ngram viewer. 
  • Putting Harlem on the Map: Stephen Robertson recounts how he and his colleagues used spatial history tools to reconstruct the material lives of residents in this predominantly black New York City neighborhood during the 1920s, with examples of how these maps reshaped his historical analysis and writing. 
  • Conclusion: Thanks to the web, this is a time of great change. The internet has expanded the scope of the creators, products, processes, and content that is possible. Many of the authors discuss how digital tools allowed them to uncover richer interpretations of source materials than would have been otherwise possible. Some authors wrestle with changes brought on by the “democratization of history” on the web and the question of who creates the past, while others point out that “to digitize is not to democratize.” Other essays struggle with how we recognize arguments within these newer types of historical writing and process of creating, sharing, and assessing historical writing in the digital age, with collaboration as a recurring theme. Finally, Timothy Burke argued that although many of the contributors have argued that digital tools have fundamentally changed our capacity to create novel forms of dialogic interaction between publics and scholars, to reroute the circulation of historical expertise and to erode some of the privileged authority that the scholarly guild confers upon itself, that these digital tools are really a powerful new means to a long-articulated end. 

Lincoln, Matthew D. “Bridgebuilding in Digital History.” Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), July 31, 2017.

  • What distinguishes digital history from other forms of history is not whether to build models, but whether to build them explicitly, and approach them experimentally. The most important thing that distinguishes digital/explicit-model history from implicit-model history is uncertainty; digital history compels us to be specific and precise about our uncertainty. Digital history will always be interdisciplinary in its execution, due to the various skills necessary, but its core argumentative structure will be disciplinary, requiring discipline-specific contextualization. 

Lincoln, Matthew D. “Ways of Forgetting: The Librarian, The Historian, and the Machine.” Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 23 Feb 2017,

  • The librarian favors data that is standard: forgetting enough specifics about the collection in order to produce data that references the same vocabularies and thesauri as other collection datasets. The librarian’s generalization aims to support access by many different communities of practice.
  • The historian favors data that is rich: replete with enough specifics that they may operationalize that data in pursuit of their research goals, while forgetting anything irrelevant to those goals. The historian’s generalization aims to identify guiding principles or exceptional cases within a historical context. (No two historians, of course, will agree on what that context should be.)
  • The machine favors data that is structured: amenable to computation because it is produced in a regularized format (whether as a documented corpus of text, a series of relational tables, a semantic graph, or a store of image files with metadata.) In a statistical learning context, the machine seeks generalizations that reduce error in a given classification task, forgetting enough to be able to perform well on new data without over-fitting to the training set.

Mullen, Lincoln. “A Braided Narrative for Digital History.”

  • We have a deficiency of interpretation in digital history and a deficiency in explicit methodological discussion in history generally. Historians as a whole have a tendency to downplay or hide methodologies, while digital historians tend to focus on methods and tools rather than substantive conclusions or interpretations. The solution is a braided narrative, which would weave  discussions of methods with the process of interpretation rather than addressing them separately. Digital tools are powerful, but they underscore our need for prose to explain methods and argumentation. 

Neuberger, Joan. “Digital History: A Primer (Part 1).” and Neuberger, Joan. “Digital History: A Primer (Part 2).”