My Encounter with History In this Digital Age

Hello, I am David and I am a Junior Digital History Student from Messiah College. My major is history and my love for history lies primarily in military history and the World War II era. I am also fascinated by ancient Greek and Roman history as well. As part of my history experience, I enjoy interviewing and hearing and recording the stories of those who have come before.

The Parthenon with restoration scaffolding, on the Acropolis, Athens.
Ron Gatepain

Before coming to this digital history course, I had no idea what digital history involved. I had always thought of history as books and research, interviews and exploration. I imagined that all of this would be done in a physical manner. I would have defined digital history as any history available on the computer. I honestly had no real concept of digital history or just how surrounded by it we have become in our every day lives. It is surprising to see just how influential digital history has been to my development as a historian, and I didn’t even notice.

In these first few weeks, I have learned that digital history is all around us and complicates the process of studying history. Digital history has opened up history to make it accessible to nearly anyone. Through pictures, videos, electronic scanning, independent websites, and general access to information, anyone can study history and have access to nearly any document one could imagine. You no longer have to go on an archaeological dig to Greece to see the pottery fragments. They can be digitally scanned and you can examine them thousands of miles away in your home. In the past, a historian could master a subject. There was much less information circulating and evolving, but it was more static. Now with the constant discovery and addition of new insights and material, the subject is ever changing and evolving.

Consider Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Book: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, one of our introductory texts for digital history. Although the book is over ten years old, it explains how much has changed in the study of history in this digital age. The authors note many advantages and disadvantages that came with the new technology. Some of these advantages are increased storage space, the accessibility of history, the flexibility of digital history, and the ability to give anyone a voice. Some of the disadvantages are inaccuracies on the web that become accessible to everyone, the ease of making fake history, and the divide in accessibility. While the authors emphasize that digital history is only accessible for those with a computer or internet connection, this is less of a problem now than it was when Cohen and Rosenzweig’s book was released in 2005.

I was also surprised by how well Cohen and Rosenzweig were able to assess the challenges of managing websites. In chapter four of their Digital History book, they outline what makes a website effective and provide examples of such websites. Some of these websites are flashy, while others are plain and even clunky. These authors note that: “Most visitors to amateur websites, such as Atomic Veterans and Famous Trials, will forgive design flaws as long as the information desired is placed within easy reach or the site has other virtues such as a unique point of view or documents found nowhere else on the Internet”(Cohen and Rosenzweig chapter 4 Designing for the History Web). What makes these amateur websites special and workable is the information on them rather than the presentation. Reading this section allowed me to better understand the delicate balance between information and presentation, and that there are many attributes to designing a web page that I had not considered such as a viewer’s internet speed. The visitor with slow speed will not always be able to load intensive sites. I also had not considered how different disabilities can affect a person’s access to the site (see chapter six of Collecting History Online).

My plan for a research project is to examine the 1930 census record and the military records to see the demographics of the veterans in Harrisburg at that time. My focus will be on either the veterans of the Philippine-American War or the Spanish American War. I would like to see where they lived, how many there were, their families, and how they integrated back into society after the war.

Image of Theodore Roosevelt leading rough riders in Spanish American War. Source: Theodore Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, 1898; print created by Kurz & Allison.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (reproduction no. LC-DIG-pga-01946)

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