Rediscovering the Digital Side of History

Ever since I could remember, I’ve always been a history buff. Something about telling people’s stories and learning more about the human experience has kept me fascinated for years. As I’ve gotten older, the sheer complexity of human history and what we as a society stand to learn from it continues to astound me. There are just so many angles that can be examined on a single issue. Each new one, in turn, reveals something new about the event in question and brings to light consequences affecting the bigger picture. This causes such an information overload for historians who, while curious, find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available that they must compile.

This problem has grown exponentially with the digital age and the internet allowing unparalleled access to thousands of pieces of historical data. I myself have never even considered this to be a problem until I reached the college level of education. What’s wrong with having an abundance of sources, right? That way you have multiple sources specific to your topic. Being born right before the turn of the 21st century, I’ve grown up with this technology and have never really considered it to be the start of a digital revolution. Having computers in a classroom and doing basic online research has become second nature. However, now that I’m required to do extensive research in such short amounts of time, I can see just how much information there is to wade through before finding the right source. What used to be a pretty easy process now takes hours which I frankly can’t afford.

Digital Harrisburg Project Collaboration at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA

Being a history major, incorporating digital technology into my work never seemed of paramount importance. Yes, I use a computer, but I never thought of the digital investigation or presentation of history to be a needed skill. I signed up for a digital history class in order to check a box for my public history requirements. However, in a few days of class I have seen just how extensive and pervasive this field of historical study has become. I expected to be shown how to map old cities or read census records and statistics but what I have encountered is so much more than that. In the first week of instruction I’ve learned that through digital technologies historians and students alike can discover new interpretations of historical data and present them in a way that is readily accessible to millions.

Digital history, as defined by Douglas Seedfeldt and William G. Thomas in their article “What is Digital History?”, is “an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems” (Seedfeldt, Thomas). This is probably one of the broadest definitions possible, but it’s difficult to encompass all the characteristics of digital history in a single explanation. It might be easier to explain how the digital aspect changes the meaning of historical research and presentation. On the research side, technology has allowed for thousands of documents to be digitized and catalogued in several forms. Online databases like ProQuest and JSTOR allow for public access to documents and journals previously exclusive to academic circles. Reference systems like Zotero compile, organize, cite, and take notes on several different sources. These are just a few of the more complex programs that crawl the internet for numerous relevant sources and bring them together for one’s convenience. Historians can now search for and organize sources in half the time.

The digital age has also had a profound affect on the presentation of historical material. Because of added media in online archives and exhibitions, a reader can simultaneously experience different aspects of the same information. Video and image tech as well as digital maps and representations of data leads to a sort of “hyper learning”: a more involved understanding of the material. The internet itself reaches an exponentially larger audience than paper books could ever do. Finally, social media sites like Twitter create a forum for discussion that helps to solve complex historical problems and introduce new inquiry into the field. This technology has incorporated new voices into the historical community, combining the efforts of people all over the world in order to better understand humanity

Digitized Newspaper
map of historic Harrisburg created by Digital Harrisburg Project students

I have never really thought about how much digital technology has changed how historians work. In reading the first few chapters of History in the Digital Age by Toni Weller, it has become clear just how much change has been brought about by computers. People are now actively involved in the making of history all because of their mobile phones. They can take pictures, leave comments about events on social media, access nearly any article they want, and all within a fraction of a second (if the wifi is good). Instead of spending hours in isolated research and typing out theses day after day, historians and novices alike now collaborate with artists, technical specialist, librarians, and anyone else who can contributed to the final project online. Computers do all the minutia of research which frees up the researchers themselves to formulate their own unique thoughts. Web exhibits offer such immersive learning on subjects that any public observer can easily understand. Even social media like Twitter and blog sites open a pathway for thought exchange and collaborative feedback.

Going into the digital projects required from this class like blogs and contributions to the Digital Harrisburg Project, I realize that there will be a bit of a learning curve to using all this new technology. But, according to Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, the way history is studied and presented is changing whether we are prepared for it or not. While it may involve learning new methods and considering new elements of preservation, like digitizing millions of artifacts, it’s benefits have been shown to far outweigh the work it will take to master them. We have access to so many programs that could help us and should not shy away from them or take them for granted. Digital history has revolutionized the way people all over the world see and do history and I look forward to rediscovering just how much it can do.

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. “Promises and Perils of Digital History.” Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Accessed January 16, 2018.
Seedfeldt, Douglas, and William G. Thomas. “What Is Digital History?” American Historical Association, May 2009.

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