Tomorrow's Historian

Rachel's Adventures in Historical Research

…One Giant Leap for Me

Taking in the streets of Amsterdam

Hello! You might recognize me by my busted backpack or my love of cheese.

I graduated from UMBC in May with my B.A. in History and International Affairs and I am the former president of the History Student Council (P.S. if you haven’t joined HSC yet, what are you waiting for?).  I returned this semester to take a digital history course because:  A) I just couldn’t quit UMBC cold turkey and B) digital skills are incredibly important for the future of the history field and sometimes I feel like I have next to none.

It is my hope that writing these blogs that investigate digital history, the landscapes of slavery, and chronicle the historic sites I visited in Romania will fully prepare me for the digital portion of my Fulbright proposal and help me to find my blogging “voice.”

Up until this point, my experience with digital history has been limited to online archives, history websites, and the sharing of historical information on social media sites. But, of course, the realm of digital history extends far beyond merely digitizing the past. Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas of The American Historical Association write that it is a duty of the digital historian to “create a framework through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem.”

This indicates that digital history scholarship relies on interpretation and it is the focus on interpretation concerning a historical question that separates the digital historian from the librarian. Additionally, consumers of digital history are often actively engaged in interactive materials which allow them to reach their own conclusions, unlike most history books and exhibits. From this assessment, we can conclude that digital history scholarship does in fact exist, although digital history as a whole appears in many forms.

The future for practicing digital history is bright, with many universities, organizations, and historians constantly crafting innovative ways to use technology in academia. At the moment, some of the biggest benefits to the field still lie in the capability and accessibility of the web as discussed by Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in the introduction of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. The ease of finding sources and the extensive number of sources available online makes “doing” history rather convenient.

While the practice of digital history improves the ease of conducting historical research and engaging historic materials, there is debate in the field regarding shared authority and public use. However, as Cohen and Rosenzweig point out, the level of inaccuracy on the web is no more prominent than the level of misinformation in society. The better questions concerning the public may be how to reach the public or the appropriate audience and how to interpret the past clearly to the public using digital media.

I look forward to exploring more of the benefits and challenges of practicing digital history in the coming weeks!

3 Comments

  1. Hi Rachel – I like your point about the interpretation of information. It’s one thing to share a piece of information but that information needs to be interpreted and put into context. I too worry about inaccuracy (whether deliberate or not) of information available on the internet and how to weed out the good from the bad.

  2. Rachel, you bring an excellent point of illustrating the fluidity of digital history. The main problem/conundrum is the access/ownership of digital history. Although we are many years into the digital era, we still are not completely confident as to who owns what. We also still don’t trust the internet as much as a book or museum even though the website/online article etc. can be just as reputable. This is something that takes time and we just have not yet arrived at the point where we know all the rules of the internet.

  3. I agree that there is certainly a level of apprehension in digital history about the quality of open online authorship. Within this argument, you raise a good point that all sources in scholarship and general society are worthy of scrutiny in order to bring forth a more legitimate final product in your work. One of the big benefits of open authorship is that we cannot be certain that the standards and conventions to which collegiate instituions adhere are the only way to attain knowledge and skills. As a college student, I definitely believe there is great benefit to a college education. However, open authorship gives voices to those who may make up for their lack of credentials with self-education and a non-linear mindset.

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