Prying the Discipline from their Cold Dead Fingers

This post was originally published on 9/12/2015 as part of the Clio I class at George Mason University. 

After sampling the scholarship (or debates) concerning digital history over the past fifteen years, several things stand out:

  • There is confusion regarding what constitutes digital history
  • There is a need to move scholarship forward and stop rehashing old debates
  • In order for the vast capabilities of digital scholarship to be fully realized, change must occur in the historians’ guild itself.

Historians’ opinions regarding the usefulness of digital history depends significantly on how they define the term. For some, digital history means the publication of an article or book online. For others, digital history means the digitization of resources and an opening of scholarly communication. For a final group, digital history means breaking with the traditional modes of linear thought and argumentation in favor of dynamic visual displays that are a combination of a tool, a teaching resource, and a form of scholarship.

Stemming directly from the confusion surrounding digital history is the stagnant discussion on the topic. The same concerns that historians voiced in the late 1990s are still voiced by many historians today. Although advances in technology storage and tools (emulators) have eliminated the need for concerns about longevity and preservation, much of the debate is still devoted to such issues. Part of the problem is that new historians are continually entering the nebulous world of digital humanities for the first time. There is not yet a long tradition within graduate education of the teaching digital history. Although more and more historiography and methods courses are adding digital components, it will be years before these benefits are realized. The other contributing factor is a lack of centralization. Digital humanities can mean many different things and developments in one discipline do not always make it back to other disciplines as quickly as they should. Following Twitter feeds, reading blogs, and trying to keep up with the different digital journals still trying to find a footing can be disorienting. Thankfully some work is being done to address these concerns such as the Press Forward project at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Using this plug-in has helped create a way of aggregating and selecting current and innovative scholarship through Digital Humanities Now.

The other static discussion revolves around the utility of digital history and whether or not it will fade. Digital history is not going anywhere. It is time to stop debating if it is here to stay and start shaping where it is going tomorrow. The final and most important discussion that would benefit from devoting more energy to shaping the future is regarding publication. The profession is still dragging its feet about how to evaluate and credit digital scholarship (see Does Digital Scholarship Have A Future?). Why are guidelines from the AHA about evaluating digital scholarship only being published in 2015 when digital scholarship is over two decades old?  Perhaps historians are waiting for the book to be pried from their cold dead fingers.

As Tim Hitchcock notes, historians are confined by the medium of the book. For the historical profession, the book is a hegemonic force that imposes an ideology among its practitioners. For Hitchcock, it is time to do away with the book just as “we have also abandoned the whole post-enlightenment infrastructure of libraries and card catalogues (or even OPACS), of concordances, and indexes, and tables of contents. They are all built around the book, and the book is dead.” As Hitchcock himself admits, the printed book will still exist, but it is necessary to move beyond the cognitive constraints it imposes.

This is easier said then done, as William Thomas and Edward Ayers discovered in their attempt to write a digital history journal article from scratch.  Edward Ayers summed up the issue in an email to his colleague: “The point of our entire effort is the FUSION of content and form. That’s the only reason to do this. We’ve had an oil & water effect up to this point on argument and form and that leads to confusion and disappointment on both sides. We need to make them one and the same thing.” Making content and form become one in the same can require a change in the inquiry process.

An example of this liberated thinking comes from Tim Sherratt and his development of new tools of inquiry and presentation.  Just as educators have embraced Understanding By Design, or backward design, so too must historians. For educators, this process involves determining what skill or content knowledge that they want their students to master and then designing a lesson and activities to help meet that goal. Sherratt’s thinking closely followed this logic: “it’s important to note that the tools I developed were guided by the types of questions I wanted to ask.”  Here, the historian does not constrain him or herself by what technology already exists, nonetheless the medium of the book, and instead asks bold questions that require innovative solutions. Design companies often employ a similar strategy by asking consumers, without an engineering background, what they would like to see created. The consumers’ thinking is not constrained by the knowledge of what is currently feasible to produce or engineer. This fresh thinking helps drive innovation. If the profession can train a new generation of scholars to ask different questions that break away from the constraints of traditional scholarship, the possibilities are endless.

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