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Digital History: The Transformation of Historical Methodology

Digital Histories Aims[1] Experimentation with Digital History is a central theme for me this academic school year. Traditional forms of historical research are taught to all historians in the Messiah History Department yet bits of digital history, its themes, and procedures, find their way into the curriculum of multiple classrooms. We have the privilege in Historical Methods, Messiah’s methods class for history majors’, to practice a digital assignment. This year, after briefly being introduced to GIS mapping through the Digital Harrisburg Project in Historical Methods, the students completed a short assignment, using an interactive map and census data to look up Harrisburg families. While simply being introduced to these terms does not qualify as teaching Digital Historical methodology, my J-term class, Digital History, most certainly does.

As I finished my Sophomore year and began my Junior year, I worked on a project tentatively named Spaces of FearIn this project I specifically looked at travel, black and white relations, and discrimination in the Harrisburg area. This project combined many of the themes described in Toni Weller’s book “History in the Digital Age”, such as digitizing sources, teamwork, and the use of the cloud. What was missing however was a way to promote interactivity between these themes both in theory and in practice. This class provides both the theory and the practice of Digital History. It actualizes the skills that myself and others practice in this digital age, changing it into a methodology that can shape future historical projects.

A class named “Digital History” could cover a multitude of topics. Firstly, it may either be a digital historical methods class, which is described in the previous paragraph, giving growing historians the tools to maximize their research capabilities with new computer technologies. Another path for a “Digital History” class is uncovering historical narrative of the digital age over the past couple decades. Luckily, this class is a mixture of both. A small portion of the class is dedicated to establishing the setting of Digital History and how it grew and evolved. It began when government began storhathitrust[1]ing information from physical storage devices such as floppy disks and CD’s. Digital History soon evolved into complex online databases such as HathiTrust and the Internet Archive which provides millions of  historical artifacts and archives endless amount data into a new “Library of Alexandria”. After the data needed is uncovered Digital History tools can aid in data organization. Programs such as the Zotero do this, and copies and backups are supported by the vast internet storage systems such as the iCloud, and Microsoft One Drive. The last step of this class, and arguably the most important, is to utilize the tools in an actual project, that of which will be the part of the final project due for the class.

Utilizing and understanding the nature of Digital History focuses multitudes of data into educational projects. This is made a reality by programs such as Zotero which can categorize web pages, hard drive data, e-books, cloud storage into an easily accessible format. In addition, with the increased communication capabilities of the internet the project may be shared with others, as well expanded upon, and hopefully worked on by big groups. Zotero, allows groups to do all activities listed above as well as a unifying both the technological and commutative strengths of digital history.

One of the most important pieces of Digital History is the frame shift it provides to the study of history. In fact, Digital History should be a larger part of any historical methods classroom. It is no longer just another theory that can be added to a historians toolkit, but a changing of the toolkit and the tools within it. Historians in the past attempted to collect and organize scarce sources; now historians must refine their searches and maintain their attention so they are not overwhelmed by the abundance. Archival work, bibliographical work, and digitization no longer need to be done independently, but can now be done all at same time. Research used be centered around someone’s independent work, but now giant projects such as the Texas Slavery Project unify multiple scholars under an interdisciplinary umbrella. Historical research becomes an interdisciplinary endeavor, combining geographic, and quantitative data analysis with historical sources.

Lastly, Digital History is changing the relationship between the historians and the public. The digital  world is a bigger one than the traditional one, reaching a larger group people. This blog for example is an example of the marriage between historicity, the digital arena, and the public. Digital History bridges the gap between history and the broad and growing field of public humanities. While these transformations are controversial in some academic communities, these transformations are occurring nonetheless, thus requiring adaptation in training and in education for students and scholars so that informative and expansive projects can be produced.

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1 reply »

  1. Very impressed by these articles. As an amateur genealogist, this is the future of research in this area. A great way to put primary data into the hands of all. Hopefully interconnecting multiple sources into a singular database. Has anyone looked into what happens to all the consumer data being accumulated in the electronic market place?
    Future census data seems to be contracting in content captured. I see expansion of this type of effort something that could be marketed similar to Ancestry’s practice. It could repair content loss in the federal census.

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