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History for the Digital Masses

April 15, 2013

As we wind up this series of blog posts on the implications of historical inquiry in the digital age, it makes sense to return to a central question: Who owns history? This is an inquiry that is actually much older than the internet itself, posed famously by luminaries like E.H. Carr and Eric Foner. That said, the emergence of open source, widely available platforms for discussion of all things historical has complicated this issue.

For instance, Roy Rosenzweig is guardedly optimistic about Wikipedia in his piece, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42. The problem, Rosenzweig notes, is endemic to public history generally; how can you present complicated historiographical disputes in a format meant for public consumption? Likewise, William G. Thomas III writes in “Writing a Digital History Article from Scratch: An Account” http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/essays/thomasessay.php, that both historians and readers need to adapt to the impermanence of historical inquiry. History is, after all, an ongoing project. The speed, accessibility, and temporary nature of digital media only quickens our perception of this fact.

Chuck Tyron argues that the ongoing dialog between historians and the public is nothing new. In “Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere” http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mla2009/tryon/mla2009draft, Tyron notes that blogging is a natural outgrowth of this timeless exchange. Yes, there are the problems of fragmentation and misinterpretation from the results of professional historical inquiry, but there is also the democratizing element we have been exploring here on this humble blog all along: the walls have broken down between the academy and the public by the new digital tools at our disposal – for better or for worse.

Ultimately, this transformation embodies a continuation of a long running debate over who gets to have intellectual authority. This was true in Leopold von Ranke’s time just as it in ours. The question is: What kind of context will this dialog will play out? Because these changes are happening before our eyes, future historians have a their work cut out for them. Good luck to them.

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3 Comments
  1. I wonder what the major difference between the historians and the public is nowadays, or what will it be in the future once the wave of technology has surpassed multiple generations. Will history just be channeled to Wikipedia?

  2. Jay Weixelbaum permalink

    I feel like face to face interaction isn’t going away — but Wikipeida and MOOCs are likely going to share that space. My two cents.

  3. You raise an interesting question Michael. I wonder if part of the anxiety historians have had about Wikipedia is the very idea that we are the public and don’t have a privileged and elevated standing. Of course not all spaces are equal, and there are others that are not so leveling.

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