Introduction to Digital History

As a junior history major at Messiah College, with a public concentration, a course in digital history fits naturally in the courses I ought to take. A public concentration means that you want to work with the public to help them grow in their understanding of history. Jobs in public history can include work in museums, archives, oral histories, and more. Public history is about connecting to the general public. In a lot of ways, digital advances in software and technology have opened the gap between historical resources being available to the public. As a public history student, I want to understand more about the how the digital world not only helps historians but also the public’s interest in history.

I expected this new class in Digital History at Messiah to give me more insight into the digital capabilities that are used by historians. Coming into the class, I understood how it is now common for historians to use online databases and archives when doing research. It is a faster and easier way to do research. Often, these databases have a searchable engine to make finding information even quicker. In addition, I knew curators and history professionals use online websites and blogs to get information out on the web. Curators set up online exhibits whereas other history professionals use blogs to place short historical writings online. I recognize that even social media, including twitter, could be a great way to share historical information. Christine Kelly, a history alum from Messiah College, argues that twitter helps history become accessible to a more diverse audience. Twitter and other social media have allowed for those in other fields to learn a little more history each day. While I had a basic overview about the capabilities of the web, it has come to my attention that I did not know half of the capacities of the new digital technology.

This is my Zotero library.

Within three days, I have learned that there is much more efficient software out there for researchers to use as they organize and develop their ideas. One of the main software programs is Zotero. Zotero is “a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.”  It automatically saves information, so it makes doing citations easier. Zotero also allows users to export parts of their research collection to other users. Therefore, sharing and collaboration become easier between historians. Research becomes so much more refined and developed as historians collaborate. Cohen, a well-respected historian, notes that Zotero opens up new possibilities for scholarly communication.

The more I read and learn about the digital world, the more I am impressed. For me, the most impressive new development was the idea of the H-bot. In 2011, Rosenzweig, a prominent historian, wrote about the developments of the H-bot. The H-bot is programmed to look at website data to answer historical questions and to determine whether historical information online is any more or less accurate than information in traditional publications. Rosenzweig writes, “through a combination this motley collection of sites (some might say comically so), H-Bot accurately answers the user’s historical questions.” Rosenzweig’s main point is that historical information online is not necessarily inaccurate, but rather the web becomes more accurate as a collection. While the H-bot system is yet not perfected, it is a new system designed to deal with the growing problem of abundance. It is no secret that more and more information keeps being put up online. While having access to a lot of information online is great, it can take a lot of time to sort through all the different materials. Therefore, this system is designed to data mining tools to figure out the most likely answers to the questions. These new software systems are all designed to help organize and sort through available research in the growing world.

Pennsylvania State Archives

Within the coming weeks, my class will go to archives, the Dauphin County Archives and Pennsylvania State Archives, in order to create and develop research about the City Beautiful movement. This project will have us create a bridge between the physical world of document research and the new digital world. To complete this, we will digitize the data and work on online exhibits. Cohen and Rosenzweig  have pointed out that “new technology and media have challenged historians to rethink the ways they research, write, and present the past.” As digital history students, my class has begun to think in new ways about what we are able to do with new technologies to help the general public. Our hope is that we will be able to come up with a project that uses digital tools to help make access to information and research more available.

-Robin, Junior History Major, Messiah College

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