The History of the Future

Frequent readers of this blog may recognize me–Rachel Williams–from other posts about various Digital Harrisburg topics, but today I am writing as a student of a Digital History class.

For the past two years, I have participated in the Digital Harrisburg project. Through this work-study experience, I have been able to gain a reasonable degree of digital literacy.

This collage represents my work-study activities over the past two years.

I understand the basic functions of ArcGIS in how we are using geospatial data, how to use and the Library of Congress website to access important historical records, and how to write a public blog post like this one. I have also learned more about programs like Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access and the manipulation of metadata. Other than this, my extent of historical exposure includes looking up terms on the History Channel website or an online encyclopedia for a class assignment or exam. For this reason, I am very excited to become more knowledgeable about this important facet of my major.

Coming to this class, I expected to be familiar with some of the content and gain exposure to unfamiliar knowledge as well. So far, this has proven to be true even though I underestimated just how much new information I would learn in so short a time. Entering this class, I was unsure of how our professor would structure it. Would it resemble a traditional course? Or would it be more like my computer science class from last semester? Three days in, it has clearly shown strong traces of both. This class contains the reading and abstract analysis and discussion of an ordinary history course. However, just the same it reflects the practical and project-oriented approach of a typical computer science class.

Since we run and manage the Digital Harrisburg Initiative on campus, I hoped we would include the capital city in our class discussions at some point. To my delight, I found out that we would be taken on our own tour of the city early in the course. Being a local, I have been through the city innumerable times. Even so, meaningfully driving through the streets for a digital history course brings me great excitement. Research is another component of the Digital Harrisburg project, one which I have not yet delved into myself. My main focus is handling the numerical and textual data instead of looking up new information about a relevant historical topic. I thought we might work on some form of online research projects and visit off-campus archives (the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Dauphin County Archives), but the opportunity to spend all day doing so is sure to be an amazing and informative experience.

Though we have only have had three class periods so far, I feel as if I have dived into the digital side of history. The first night’s readings focusing on blogging, twitter, and digital history in general provided a helpful base of understanding for this class. From these readings we created a master list of digital history themes, some of which were familiar points and others which were surprising. For example, despite how vast and open the Internet is (accessibility and abundance), I never thought much about the preservation of information therein. Due to the continual development of technology, managers of online resources must regularly put forth the effort to preserve the historical information (change and sustainability; preservation and fragility). The website reviews (mine was on Jim Crow-era Charlottesville) displayed this digital concern. Most of the websites were out-of-date and had functions that no longer worked, like maps that ran on an older version of Flash or images that no longer reside where the hyperlink leads.

This is a word cloud created from the readings from the first night of class.

Another concern of increasing digitization is the management of information. If you are researching for a paper, how do you actually find what you need in the massive ocean of websites, databases, and more? Zotero, software mentioned by numerous readings on digital history, is a helpful tool in navigating the Internet efficiently. It allows individuals to save information from a webpage to organize and note upon later. After beginning to use it, I can see why multiple authors felt compelled to include it in their writings. Some things I found fascinating about the pieces of writing are the variety of tone and the interconnectivity. Some pieces were more informal and comedic, like Dan Cohen’s ironic blogging about why more academics should blog. Many of the authors demonstrated a self-awareness through their writing by openly stating their intentions and opinions about blogging, tweeting, and additional topics. Other readings were more dense and intellectual like Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen’s text Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Rosenzweig is mentioned in at least every other reading, and other individuals are referenced as well. This exhibits the connectivity of the Internet and how many of those who are passionate about digital history have an awareness of each other.

I am looking forward to continuing this class, for I know that it will improve my skills for my work-study and also as a History major since digital history is the history of the future.

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