Giving Digital History a History

I recently picked up and rapidly read Adam Cymble’s new book Technology and the Historian: Transformations in the Digital Age. I found it to be a great read and I’m planning to use it when I teach my Digital History grad seminar next spring.

One of the books conclusions is that historians “must stop calling it digital history” (p.166) which I think is going to draw out some good discussion in a course that has “digital history” in its name.

Given that the book in part explores the rise and fall of history blogging and specifically includes my own blog as part of that history it seemed fitting to put up a post and share out some thoughts, reactions and observations prompted by the book.

Digital Historiography

“Digital history does not need definitions. It needs histories” (p. 161). This works as a great opener for Crymble’s conclusions. I read that and it hit me as being spot on as both being right and being the ultimate historian move in any game of definitions. When someone asks what something means the historians go to move is to assert that things mean what particular people meant by them in particular contexts at particular moments in time.

The book does a great job at historicizing digital history. In that context it is really useful in helping to bridge earlier “history and computing” work and more recent “digital history” work. Cymble follows and connects ideas about historical research, teaching and learning, and scholarly communications through a range of contexts. Including books like 1971’s The Historian and the Computer: A Practical Guide, 1987’s History and Computing, 2016’s Exploring Big Historical Data and most centrally 2005’s Digital History A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.

Defusing Digital History

In working across this history, Cymble ultimately argues that there isn’t much of a center to a thing one might call “digital history.” In his words “We must bring to an end our notion of a coherent digital history subfield” (p 164). That is, one historian’s work using digital tools and platforms to engage with the public has almost nothing to do with how a different historian is using computational tools to engage in analysis of historical sources. In service to this point, Cymble offers a glossary that includes a lot more terms we might use to describe the varied and different areas where computing and digital tools have emerged in a wide range of historical fields and disciplines.

In broad strokes, I agree. In the decade that I’ve been teaching the digital history course for American University’s Public History Program, I’ve increasingly embraced the eclectic survey nature of such a course.

To do any justice to the way that the work of historians and history organizations is changing as a result of digital tools ends up meaning that you can spent a bit of time on everything things including but not limited to;

  • User centered design
  • Project planning and management
  • GIS and mapping tools
  • Computational text analysis
  • Visualization tools
  • Computer vision
  • Digital platforms for oral history
  • Analysis of historical storytelling in video games
  • Development and creation of historical videogames and interactives
  • Mobile media and apps
  • Online exhibits
  • Crowdsourcing
  • The varied meanings of digital archives
  • Open access scholarship

That is a lot to try and cover in a survey course, but my sense is that, for most history programs, the option is having this kind of survey course or having nothing at all. That is, for graduate students, I think it’s still the case that they are lucky if there is a single catch all course like this in a history department. While I would love to see this kind of material showing up in other parts of the curriculum, I know full well that there is a lot of other kinds of material to cover in other courses too.

The Failure to “Un” All The Things

At the center of the book is a great exploration of the rise and fall of history blogging. As I’ve recently suggested, despite the fact that blogging didn’t take off like it could have, I think blogging is still an important set of practices for people to learn, particularly for folks that want to work at cultural heritage institutions. While we don’t see the kind of growth of individual scholars engaging in blogging as a practice, it still seems to be the case that cultural heritage institutions large and small continue to maintain and run blogs.

More broadly, I think the failure of scholarly blogging to take off represents a broader failure of an attempt to “un” all the things in academia. Blogging meant that publish became a button instead of being a function of who could authorize and enable distribution of one’s ideas. Unconferences, like THATCamp, similarly presented a chance to upend a lot of the norms and assumptions of how academics could convene, discuss, and build new kinds of scholarship.

Through that line of thinking, it made sense to gather together and think through how we might hack the academy and make something more open and democratic. Growing up professionally through events and communities like THATcamp had gotten me to think that we could build something like a DIY humanities. But it didn’t really happen. Digital history didn’t take off as something libratory in that vein. If there was going to be some unifying notion across a wide range of digital history areas it seemed for a bit like it might be related to changing norms about how openness worked in scholarship. To be fair, in hindsight, a lot of the “un” all the things ends up participating in a lot of what Franco Berardi calls the Wired Imagination, the set of values and ideology from Silicon Valley that operates to devalue much of the kinds of investment that needs to happen to support and sustain institutions like academia and cultural heritage institutions.

What Future is there for History?

On some level, it seems strange to try and sort out what the future of digital history can be given that we’ve got so much to think about in terms of if there is going to be much of a future for any kind of history.

We’re now legitimately in a place where archivists like Sam Win are helping us try and think through what Dying Well in the Anthropocene can look like for fields focused on memory work.

It does indeed feel like History departments in the academy should be reworking what they train future historians for too, but given that history professor jobs, like jobs in so many fields, really haven’t bounced back since the 2008 recession, it also seems like it might be a somewhat moot point. If the history profession is defined as what history professors do it does really seem like that, like so many other professions, is also dying and being replaced by a much more precarious adjunct gig economy.

In that context, if we start asking what kinds of things history graduate programs should teach students it seems like the answer should increasingly be disassociated with any idea that they are being prepared for a job market for history professor jobs.

In any event, I find myself lucky to have Cymble’s new book on hand. Its biggest strength is to help clarify and chart the varied paths that digital history and history and computing have followed to the moment where we are. Related, one of the resources that students in my course find particularly useful and helpful is The Programing Historian and the book provides useful context on how that open access publication and resource came to be. Significantly, I think the success of The Programing Historian on some level undermines the idea that that “digital history” doesn’t hold together as a concept in that the resource brings together information about a wide range of different areas of digital history and supports a very different kind of open form of scholarship. That is, if there is a thread that connects together digital history as a concept it may well be the kinds of open community that The Programing Historian itself manifests. To that end, I’m personally looking forward to putting it into the hands of students who can use it to help think about and chart where we should all be going from here.

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