Digital History??

As we begin our journey in digital history it is important to know where we have been and how we got here. Beginning with Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s book Digital History, I get a real feel for the history of not just how historians have used the Web, but how the Web has evolved to what it is today. And what is it today? On the one hand, it is a wonderful place where everyone can have their say. On the other hand, it is a terrible place where everyone can have their say.

And what does this mean for digital history? Dan and Roy said it best when they wrote that amateur historians can (hopefully) teach professionals a thing or two about different ways to use the Web for historical outreach, and professional historians can (hopefully) teach amateur historians how to analyze and interpret data in order to take a small step closer to historical “truth” (or at least a bit farther away from impassioned opinion).

As a public historian, I wonder if the growth and evolution of digital history will finally achieve the “postmodernization” of history, where there are no absolutes and each and every historical opinion is valid. What does this mean for the museum and historical society? Will the day of journeying to see artifacts behind glass go the way of the three martini lunch, smoking jackets, Pince-Nez glasses, and books written on paper (this last one particularly worries me)?

We already see some of this in our current political culture. With the growth of the Web and the 24 hour news cycle, one is able to find a myriad of sources that agree with their specific political inclination or social outlook. Conservative, liberal, gay, straight, religious, secular, if you have an opinion, someone has created a website about it. For digital history, you can find sites on race, gender, social history, political history, military history, immigration, slavery, cultural history, etc. And as with politics, you can find enough out there to stay in your specific neck of the woods and never come to terms with anyone who may not think the same way as you. Is digital history just another tool that dooms us to have our own way of thinking reinforced while convincing us that everyone else is just ignorant?

I say no. I believe in the power of knowledge and do not fear for our future. The vast expansion of material available to the masses via the Web is a positive development in the history of thought. It reminds me other innovations such as mass-produced newspapers, the telegraph, radio and television.  Most people embraced each new technology while some lamented for an earlier time.

So what does this mean for our study and use of digital history? I say it means we must get as much historical “stuff” out there as possible. It does not matter if some old, disproved theories rear their ugly heads again (slavery not causing the Civil War and evolution/creationism to name the two most obvious). There is no reason to worry about those that want to use the Web as a place to reinforce their own values and beliefs. Haven’t we all been doing this already? Think about the radio stations you listen to, the part of town you live in, the restaurants you patronize, the books you read, movies you see, and people you spend time with. We already self-select in everything we do and that is human nature.

The key for digital historians is to get their work out there for people to see. The more “good” history on the Web, the more knowledge available to all. Of course by “good” I mean the traditional standards of well researched, cited, understandable, and as objective as possible (as loaded a term as “objective” now is in the profession). Knowing the history and uses of media in the past (have you ever read a 19th century newspaper?) and the vitriol of politics of an earlier era I do not fret over the Fox News vs. MSNBC argument.

It is our job, as historians, to use the new media of the Web to engage the public in a thoughtful, ongoing dialogue about what makes us…us. And I by no means believe it takes an advanced degree to make a contribution in this endeavor. Let the professor of 19th century Victorian courtship and the amateur enthusiast on Pickett’s charge each take on the responsibility of sharing their knowledge, evidence, and passion with the public.

As for the museum, there is no need to fear the future. Yes, digital history and the integration of new technology must be introduced and embraced. However, I do believe there will always be a need for the traditional museum and historical society and the experience of seeing artifacts and real history up close and personal. As interesting and interactive as digital history can become it will never take the place of walking on the battlefield, touring the historic home, seeing the slave shackles. These artifacts and sites link us to the past. They link us to people who lived in a different world than us yet the more we learn about them, the more we learn about ourselves.  This journey of discovery starts through digital history.

It’s a brave new world my friends.  Time to get started.

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One response to “Digital History??

  1. I agree with your point that the web has become another forum like past media formats. Penny press publications and the sensationalism they caused during the 19th century are in some ways similar to the anxiety I feel when inundated by the massive outpouring of opinion now available on the web. I think one issue that you allude to: authority, may generate much discussion. Will the accessibility of the web become the next great leveler of society? Will the academics be toppled from their pedestals, making way for less studied, but perhaps equally valid interpretations of history? If so, then how do we evaluate authority and credibility, is it valued less if everyone has equal access to the public forum? Like television and newspapers we seem to have various opinions on validity and news-worthiness (as you point out), but perhaps we see that as the state of things now, and not from the perspective of the early years before credibility was established (or questioned). Maybe the concern of authority and credibility is just part of the maturation process of the medium, so something that will become less of an issue as time goes by. I suppose this would be a great kaffeeklatsch topic if not for the fact that as a potential PhD degree-seeker, I should be supportive of education as a winnowing process towards authority and credibility rather than accepting the technical prowess required for opening a blog or creating a website as a new standard of authority. Yes, the bow ties, hoods, and the Pince-Nez glasses did evoke the regalia of yesteryear’s academia, but what will be the new symbols of academic authority in a faceless world?

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