Adventures in Digital History

The Evolution of Digital History

What do you first think of when asked about historical scholarship, or history in general? Most people I know would describe it as being “stuffy,” “boring,” or “a lot of reading.” I will acquiesce it can be all those things, yes, but also so much more. Once upon a time I also thought history to be just these things. When I declared myself a history major I accepted I would likely be pouring over large book, academic journal articles, transcripts, and more to write my own equally long and convoluted findings for others to later write about. Then I discovered digital history was actually real, and the rest was history.

Digital history is just what it sounds like: history made digital. What type of digital medium is used is up to the historian. Anything from digital maps, to storyboards, custom computational methods, imagery, video, and more are all things that make up digital history. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite examples that has more recently been discussed is the application of video games as a form of digital history.

The discipline has changed so much over the years, even if many of the older historians refuse to acknowledge it. This especially true in the face of COVID-19 lockdown procedures, which forced many institutions, schools, and businesses to adopt digital means of communication and conducting business. Just last year, Ian Milligan said this wonderful statement:

“Almost all elements of the historical workflow are mediated through a computer screen. . . . We are all digital historians now.”

Ian Milligan, American Historical Association Annual Conference 2020.

We’re all digital historians. Whether we want to admit it or not, it’s what we’ve all become.

Since we were tasked with looking through some documentation related to the evolution and changes to the field of digital history over the years, I decided to look I at some of the oldest examples provided, as well as the newest articles from 2022. I, of course, also read through the Organization of American Historians’ Digital History Reviews. How could I not? Dr. McClurken is the editor! All jokes aside, this would actually be one of many, many times I’ve looked at this site. It’s become a hot topic over the years, especially where digital history and digital humanities are concerned. Dr. Whalen actually recommends you look at it if you take Applied Digital Studies with him. I’ve also looked at it many times to get ideas for projects too. What I really love about the DH Reviews is how flexible it sounds. What to try coding something history related? Go ahead! Want to create a digitally enhanced essay or short video documentary? Why not? I’ve actually done the last two and have to say the video, while being double the work and three times as frustrating, was actually pretty fun. The digitally enhanced essay was fun too, and I would consider it to be a good introduction to digital history if no one has done one before. It sort of combines the old with the new, easing people into it and letting them be creative with their work.

The American Historical Association also has some good input on the subject. They discuss the struggle of defining digital history, which is to be expected. This is much more tougher today then it was year ago, simply because new technologies are constantly evolving and changing they ways we approach things. For example, Cameron Blevins and Sheila Brennan discuss the value of having primary sources available online in a collection. This is very similar to what were are familiar with today with the various databases. You can often find an archive for whatever you need. For example, did you know there is an archive for Billboard Magazine? Over the years World Radio History has archived every Billboard Magazine from 1894 to 2017. I last used this archive when I was doing research in high school, and back then the records only went to 2014. It sounds like a niche topic, but it came in handy when I was writing a research paper about music trends in the 1950s for a class about the history of popular culture. Plus the older magazines have been made available in PDF format, which are searchable to make finding things easier. This is one example I know off the top of my head that I think is an excellent example of digital history, especially since I have used it in the past.

I also found Cameron Blevins and Christy Hyman’s new article on “Digital History and the Civil War Era” to be fascinating. They seem to be arguing that historians should take advantage of new digital technologies to reach a broader audience, while also considering other ethical implications of using those technologies. Not only that, historians of certain concentrations, like Civil War historians, should also consider digitally enhancing their projects to make them not only more accessible, but more interesting, more visually appealing, and more interactive. This includes things like learning ArcGIS to map battles, image reconstruction of people using algorithms, and so much more. This type of stuff may seem overwhelming to older historians who are set in their ways, but as new generations come into the field and embrace these technologies, digital history will surely become the norm and not just the exception.

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