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What is Digital History?

January 28, 2013

[This is Part 2 of this semester’s series of response posts from the History and New Media course I’m attending at American University.]

In continuing the discussion on the perils and advantages of doing history in the digital age, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig have put together a text called Digital History to explore these issues. Available on the web, “Promises and Perils of Digital History” lays out some of the subject matter explored in my last blog post: the advantages of digital media in terms of capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity, and hypertextuality. While these categories are explored in more depth than can be explained here, suffice is to say the authors generally describe the ubiquitous and democratic nature of content on the internet, for better or for worse.

Another interesting exchange is explored in the Journal of American History in “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” In this forum, multiple heavyweight historians including Cohen, Michael Frisch, Patrick Gallagher, Steven Mintz, Kirsten Sword, Amy Murrell Taylor, William G. Thomas III, and William J. Turkel attempt to define what digital history is, and what value (and drawbacks) it can have for present and future historians. In essence, they agree that “digital history” is a broad category that can encompass many different forms – including digital archives, blogs, the use of search engines in research, and quantitative analysis, to name a few.

Meanwhile, Cathy Davidson, editor of the Journal of American Literature, notes in Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions that humanists, which she defines as individuals whose special mission it is to explain to the rest of us the impact of technology on our lives, are isolated from the rest of us by the academy. Thus, we are robbed of the potential benefits of a wider view of the benefits of the information age. She argues for a paradigm shift, in which there is cross communication between disciplines in open access forums. Indeed, this is the thrust of many of the scholars here, with a growing sense that the ground is shifting rapidly below their feet.

What does all this mean? “Digital History” means everything and nothing. A great many academics are concerned with it, but have not built consensus around what it means. Does that make you uncomfortable? It should. Fear not! We’re all in this together.

One Comment
  1. Here you turn to “we,” later it is a source of angst. Can you explain in a future post your ambivalence?

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