What I read about Digital History this week

The driving force behind the creation of this blog is a Digital History class at EWU. At our first class meeting, we tried to answer the question, “what is digital history?” To have a more comprehensive idea of what digital history has meant and what it has evolved into our professor assigned us some reading and a short video to watch.
First I watched, “The History of the Internet.” The video said that the modern day internet began in 1957 and is the melding of three different computer-based information sharing platforms. The origins story is important because digital history uses the internet. Why and to what end, was the topic of the next article I read.
In 2008 The Journal of American History’s (JAH) “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History” was eight professional historians answering questions posed by the JAH. Why digitizes history? Accessibility and cost savings were echoed themes. By making sources available online the cost associated with accessing information declines for the users/researchers. I’ve personally benefited from digital archives. Last year I wrote a paper that was vastly improved when I was able to obtain scanned copies of eighteenth-century laws passed by the Irish Parlament. In the JAH article, William G. Thomas felt, “he goal of digital history might be to build environments that pull readers in less by the force of a linear argument than by the experience of total immersion and the curiosity to build connections.” The future, as predicted by Steven Mintz is, “virtual reality environments, which allow students to navigate and annotate now-lost historical settings.” I think he’s right.
In the 2010 article “From Ancient Rome to a Valley in Virginia: More Digital Humanities Projects,” Patricia Cohen highlighted the “Rome Reborn” project by the University of Virginia “that offers a 3D digital model showing the urban development of ancient Rome…” it is a slick looking site. I think this site and others like it will benefit from the continued advances in virtual reality technology. Samsung’s virtual reality headsets are in mainstream advertisements, and holographic technology will likely also be as accessible very soon. This will make the stories historians tell not only more accessible but also even more interactive.
New techniques often have to prove their validity and digital history and humanities were interested in proving their value. In Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s, “The Humanities, Done Digitally,” I learned that social media had a strong role to play in the “digital humanities gained prominence” by increasing the visibility of the work being done.
Fitzpatrick’s article and others I read are on a site that is interactive. Once I created an account I could mark passage even leave a comment or read other’s views in the margin. It felt like the electronic version of reading someone else copy of an article. I’m not a fan. Not every product is going to please every user.
What I got most out of Fitzpatrick’s article and “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches” by Patricia Cohen is that digitizing information has provided a resource to fields outside history and the humanities and there is a crossover between fields. That crossover seems to be what makes it difficult for people to pinpoint an answer for, “what is Digital History?” The difficulty was perfectly captured in the article “Day of DH: Defining the Digital Humanities,” where many people working in the field had different answers in an attempt to explain the profession. My favorite response was by Amanda French, “I don’t: I’m sick of trying to define it.” (This article was on the interactive site and I left a comment on this line. Go to the webpage to see what I wrote.)

Adam Kirsch is also frustrated, but for a different reason. “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments, The false promise of the digital humanities” is written with a harsh view of digital humanities. One point I took issue with was his attack on Google Ngram Viewer. Kirsch states, “Aiden and Michel” (the people how wrote about using the viewer) “do not seem to recognize that this example, far from making a case for the usefulness of Ngrams, completely destroys it, by turning them into fancy reiterations of conventional wisdom.” But the people whose “conventional wisdom” Kirsch is talking about are scholars, not the everyday person. Google makes a lot of products for the masses. I also think Kirsch underestimates the power of such tools to captivate the user’s imagination and spark the question “why” and the desire to answer the question by becoming a scholar. Kirsch doesn’t see the intellectual value in going digital, “The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility.” An article by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” written in May of 2016 demonstrates that some people still don’t view the digital humanities as real scholarship. The article states that it’s the Digital Humanities movement’s general disdain for scholarship…” that makes possible the poor quality of work done.

I think all professionals are trying to have a larger virtual presence. Many have told me potential employers will Google me. I have a common name and hoped Miriam Posner’s “Creating Your Web Presence: A Primer for Academics” would help move me up the Google results. I already have most of Dr. Posner’s recommendations. What I didn’t have was the recommended a standard presence. Since reading the article I’ve begun using the same photo for every profile and standardized my name to Angel L. Rios where I could.

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2 thoughts on “What I read about Digital History this week”

  1. I like your observation on Amanda Frenches comment about the definition of Digital Humanities. It was probably my favorite of the responses as well. I think her answer was a lot more than just witty sarcasm too, because she admits that she has tried to define it. I think a lot of these people that have been frustrated with trying to define the term are frustrated because they expect to define something that is static, and since the digital world and it’s various mediums are changing, so too will the Digital Humanities.

  2. I notice we quoted a few of the same passages. The critiques from Hirsch and others didn’t bother me so much, but I agree that there’s an unerestimation of DH’s potential, there. (If you have to *say* you’re not a luddite…) Nice chatting with you about these readings!


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