Changes in Digital History

This week, our class read a number of web essays that discuss the evolution of Digital History in terms of how it has affected historians. Common themes I found within these readings include a new emphasis on methodology rather than ideology, the field-defining push toward accessibility, and moderately diminishing societal fears of illegitimacy that come with the shift toward digital media.

Though in the past historians have focused their energy on forming arguments surrounding historical events and details, there has been a recent gravitation toward more technical aspects of the field. Rather than analyzing, focus shifts to digitally archiving; this is because it is easier to pitch methodology than an argument. A move towards ensuring deliverable products has allowed digital history to remain within the public’s attention and continue to innovate in the internet age, though it does have its own set of weaknesses. These are best exemplified in Cameron Blevins’ 2016 debates in Digital Humanities, where they discuss both the upsides and downsides of this shift, as well as what it may mean for the future of digital history. They call for a return to argumentation as a supplement to digitization, as they believe that this new approach creates a rift between technologically-enhanced historical projects and academic scholarship, and in turn, waters down the purpose of recalling history to begin with.

Sheila Brennan’s 2016 debates in Digital Humanities brings to light our second theme: a recent emphasis on increasing accessibility as a means to define digital history as a field. In her essay, Brennan separates the ideas of “public history” and “digital history” by emphasizing the importance of utilizing tools in ways specific to one’s audience within digital products, as she believes that digitization must have purpose. Ensuring user-friendliness and accessibility are key within the field, as these aspects are more important than advertisement, viewership, or amount of attention garnered. Jeffrey McClurken’s “Waiting for Web 2.0” tracks the changes present in archival systems from the perspective of a historian and professor, once again noting an increase in speed and accessibility over time, provided through databases and primary source collections.

Along with recent shifts toward methodology and accessibility in digital history come a decrease in worries about the illegitimacy of digital projects and sources. Subscription-based journals and peer-reviewed publishing sites are legitimate sources, but have not always been seen as such; nowadays, however, universities have moved toward subscribing to and teaching students how to use online databases and research, as Sherman Dorn argues for in his 2012 review of “Is (Digital) History More Than an Argument About the Past?”. In addition, sites like the AHA Guidelines and the Journal of American History‚Äôs Guidelines for reviewing digital humanities projects contribute to the legitimacy discussion, as they provide criteria for evaluating the quality of online resources.

As digital history continues to grow as a field, its constantly-evolving nature poses new challenges for historians who either choose to work within the medium or oppose it. While these shifts may encourage more audience interaction and participation, they can sometimes be overwhelming for those not used to digital media. Despite this, historical projects increasingly continue to become seen as legitimate and accessible; perhaps this means that this new era of scholarship could one day become new tradition.

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