On Digital History: Audiences, Archives, Tools, and Sources

I’ve been kicking around the idea of working up a proposal for a book about digital history for a few years. At this point I’ve taught digital history grad seminars for a decade. Through teaching that course I think I’ve developed a particular take on the subject. That said, every time I’ve started to sketch out ideas about it I end up running out of steam.

When I went back to review a lot of work that I’ve published about digital history as part of my most recent attempt to explore this idea I ended up deciding that the set of articles and blog posts I’ve written really cover what I want to cover and say at this point. So instead of continuing  to think about developing a book proposal on this I thought I would instead just share something that works as an index to a lot of the writing I’ve done on the subject. 

Engaging Audiences and Users around Digital Collections

The web presents new ways for historians to engage with audiences and communities. I wrote Digital Cultural Heritage and the Crowd as a piece to work out a series of frames for thinking about inviting user participation with digital collections through crowdsourcing.

Many organizations produce online exhibits or narratives to go along with digital collections, but there is not much guidance on how to go about that kind of writing. While working on an online exhibit a number of years ago, I wrote up and shared a guide for writing text for online exhibits. That same project prompted me to write Curating in the Open: A Case for Iteratively and Openly Publishing Curatorial Research on the Web. That essay was largely about the way that the research and writing process for an online exhibit could become more public and open up points of entry for others to explore digital collections. 

Approaching and Understanding Digital Archives 

As historians get more involved with digital collections that work increasingly blurs boundaries between work historians do and the work of librarians and archivists. Thomas Padilla and I work to lay out a lot of foundational and definitional issues around digital archives and sources in Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History. I also explored some of the connections between work archivists are doing with Jesse Johnston in Archivists as Peers in Digital Public History. 

Connecting back to the points about engaging with audiences and participatory aspects of work with history, in Archives as a Service: From Archivist as Producer and Provider to Archivist as Facilitator and Enabler I made a case for revisiting notions around archives as a product and focused on a range of ways that community archives and other explorations of participatory ways of engaging with communities to organize, preserve and interpret the past. 

Digital History Tools and Computational Analysis

Toward the end of my time at the Center for History and New Media I was working on a project to explore various text mining and computational data analysis tools for historical research with Fred Gibbs. The results of that work turned into a series of essays that came out in 2012 and 2013. In Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward Broader Audiences and User-Centered Designs Fred and I reported out on a range of issues that illustrated a lack of user centered design approaches to many digital humanities tools.

In parallel to that, we worked up The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing, which largely focuses on ways that historians can integrate computational data analysis into historical narrative writing. While working on both of those projects I spun Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence? which is a shorter piece that attempts to work across the various ways that historians can approach data. 

Engaging With and Interpreting Born Digital Sources

Over time, I’ve worked on a number of projects that explore issues with interpretation of born digital sources and historical thinning and argumentation. One of my first explorations in this area was Modding the history of science: Values at play in modder discussions of Sid Meier’s Civilization an essay that focused on how a popular video game represented the history of science and the way that its user community was imaging and altering the game as documented in online discussion forums. Rebecca Mir and I took a somewhat similar approach in Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization but in this case focusing on issues in the representation of indigenous peoples in video games.

In Tripadvisor rates Einstein: Using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage I used some of the same approaches to doing research grounded in discussion in online communities but instead of studying a video game I was studying online reviews of a memorial on Tripadvisor and Yelp. While working on those projects I was also working on  Lego, Handcraft, and Costumed Zombies: What Zombies do on Flickr which is more about the way that Flickr and it’s discovery system for photos was enabling new ways to explore and study trends in vernacular culture. In The invention and dissemination of the spacer gif: implications for the future of access and use of web archives Grace Thomas and I dove into the kinds of historical research one can get into on the history of web design through working with web archives. 

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