Studying History Online

In the fall of 2018, author and journalist Thomas Friedman came to Messiah College and spoke on the rapid transformations occurring globally initiated by technology. It is 2020 and it cannot be denied that fast-paced is often the speed set for society. One of my main take-aways from Friedman’s lecture was how impactful 2007 was on society. He says in an interview, “Most notably, it was the year Apple launched the iPhone, and most notoriously, the year before the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Also in 2007, Facebook and Twitter went global; Kindle and Android were released; Airbnb was founded; Google bought YouTube; IBM created its artificial intelligence system Watson” (CNBC). I was only 12 at the time and did not recognize the digital developments that began in 2007.

It was about the same time that historian Roy Rosenzweig founded George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (in 2004) and published, with Daniel Cohen, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (2006). Cohen and Rosenzweig’s guide serves as a foundational piece in understanding this sub-field of history. Published between the development of digital tools and resources, Rosenzweig and Cohen respond to the growth of digital history by offering their best practices for the field. While much has developed and changed since its publication, the majority of the concerns in the field still exist. Thousands of organizations and individuals are embracing the digitally connected world like Rosenzweig encourages as ways to further scholarship.

I first was reluctant to study history in college because I could not see its public dimensions. Assuming the major was only for people who wanted to teach or write 400-page books, I wanted something that would connect me more with the public. Now I see how the digital creates opportunities for public engagement. For example, as Carla Hayden has noted in respect to the Library of Congress, historians have welcomed the public to engage with sources on-line (Washington Post). Indeed, taking Digital History as a class is quickly becoming a necessity in all history programs. I am excited to keep learning as these are the new skills that keep the public engaged. I have worked with the Digital Harrisburg Initiative for one semester and witnessed how people become more willing to browse a website featuring maps and photos than read books. Both are incredibly valuable and feed the brain and need each other to be able to tell a complex story in deeper ways. 

My current research focuses on the 100 voices of Harrisburg’s upcoming Commonwealth Monument. I already had an interest in urban development and twentieth century America so this project has only fed my love for stories that have been hidden or pushed aside. Most of my research takes place online. Digitized newspapers, census records, and books have been able to help me in piecing this historical puzzle together. As Rosenzweig mentions, research that used to take hours to complete no longer has to. While I honestly could spend hours searching the “infinite archive,” I don’t have to. Through digital tools that find me the best results and bring them to my attention, through other digital historians that have shared their research collections with the public, and through the ongoing efforts to only make online research easier, things are only getting easier on the internet. And through this course, I am excited to continue learning best practices in the huge world of digital history.


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