Encountering History in the Digital Age

The Endless Depth of Digital History

My name is Grace and I am a senior history major with a concentration in public history at Messiah College. I am originally from Chico, California (about an hour and a half north of Sacramento) but last year my family relocated across the country to the lovely Berkshire County in Massachusetts. Ever since I was little, I have studied historical events to the point of obsession. I would check out every book and watch every film about the historical events I found most interesting. I have always been drawn to the personal narratives within history and bringing them to life for those around me. That is why I was so drawn to public history. I am currently in the process of applying for graduate schools for a public history degree to improve upon the foundational knowledge I have had during my time at Messiah College. After graduate school, I hope to work in a museum helping to bring the past to life in exciting and engaging ways. 

I have always known there was a digital side to the retelling of the past, but I didn’t know much about digital history as a study. I was born into the digital age, and much of the history that I have consumed has been through technology. I have immersed myself in history through websites, blogs, documentaries, films, and online exhibits. Technology has enabled history to reach a wider audience than ever before. We no longer have to travel hundreds of miles to see a great work of art or access a document in an archive or visit a European palace. While I have seen the changing ways of history (especially public history) in the context of the digital age, I was not very knowledgeable in the study of digital history before coming to college. 

Image of New York City Library by Alex Proimos https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/5914150081/

Since taking a public history class during my sophomore year, I have come to understand the great importance of digital history as a study. Two prominent historians, Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen discuss the many improvements that technology has brought to the study of history in their book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. They point out seven main improvements that digital history has introduced, which are “capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity, and hypertextuality” (Digital History). These improvements have allowed historical discourse and sources to become more readily available. The amount of people technology reaches surpasses that of an archive. With that accessibility comes an overabundance, and I have learned how vital it is that a historian has efficient software to store and categorize data. William Turkel, Kevin Kee, and Spencer Roberts, in their essay A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive, state that “we have a sense that the world online is big, probably in much the same way that a fish has the sense that the ocean is big: it seems unbounded in every direction” (Turkel, Kee, Roberts, p. 63). During my sophomore year, I learned about the program, Zotero. Zotero stores sources from online and categorizes them into folders that you create. It also exports your sources into bibliographies (which is amazingly helpful for a busy college student). However, since coming to class, I have learned even more incredible things Zotero can do, such as creating group files and sharing sources. During my first few weeks in the class, I have also learned the potential downfalls of digital history. Rosenzweig and Cohen point to a few important ones such as “quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility” (Digital History). In particular, they discuss how easy it is to falsify documents, photographs, and videos online. I have always known about software like photoshop that allows you to edit images, but I was not aware of how easy it is to then present these to the public as authentic historical sources. As a historian working within a new digital age, I need to be hyper-aware of the sources I find and use online. The importance of entering the digital age, but maintaining the quality of historical study is paramount to historians. 

For our Digital History class, we have been tasked with two primary research projects. The first looks to incorporate the 100 Voices initiative or stories from the Old Eighth Ward and create an exhibit. The second involves choosing a research project that fits with this semester’s theme of Harrisburg’s Forgotten Histories. I have my interests narrowed down to two subjects. The first subject is the Carlisle Indian School. While not directly located in Harrisburg, the effect of the school could be felt within the city. The Carlisle Indian School was one of the largest and most influential of its kind throughout the entire United States. Established in 1879 by Richard Pratt, this school strived to accomplish the government’s goal of fully assimilating Native Americans into white American life. The second research project I am interested in exploring further is the red light district within the Old Eighth Ward. Not much is known about the women who made up the red light district within Harrisburg and I would like to attempt to reclaim some of those lost voices. 

In all, I am looking forward to being a part of this Digital History class. There is so much for me to learn and discover about digital history and about Harrisburg’s multilayered, complicated history. I am excited about beginning my research and I know that whichever subject I choose to pursue, I will come away with new, extensive knowledge. I hope that the skills I learn in this class will enable me in the future to bring the personal narratives of history to life for a wider audience than I ever could have imagined.

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