Entering the Realm of Digital History

by Rachel Petroziello

One of the assignments for my Intro to History class during my very first college semester was to download an application called Zotero onto our laptops. We weren’t given very much instruction, only the information that it was bibliographical tool that would record and organize any sources that we wanted to remember for later. I somewhat forgot about Zotero until Digital History class a couple of weeks ago, where becoming acclimated with it was a large focus of one of our class periods. Of course, with my luck, I ran into technical difficulties that caused some fluster and frustration, which got me wondering: if I was experiencing issues so soon into the semester, then how was the rest of it bound to go?

My Zotero practice bibliography from class. I’ve highlighted one of the items in order to show some of its capabilities. Looking at it now as a college junior, I’ve come to understand why it has been emphasized as an exceedingly exceptionally useful tool in multiple of my history courses.

When I chose to take Digital History during my last course selection, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. It was required for my public history concentration, so I didn’t see much reason to look into it too deeply, other than to wonder if I would even be capable of doing something like that in the first place. Despite being twenty years old and having graduated from a cyber high school, I’ve never been very tech-savvy. My whole life, my IT technician cousin has practically been on speed dial, and during the height of the pandemic, the only new piece of technology that I added to my repertoire was Zoom. Needless to say, my background hasn’t exactly asserted me as someone who would thrive in a technology-focused environment, and my early-on experiences with Zotero only seemed to support that.

As a junior history major, I’ve become quite accustomed to the general structure of history classes at Messiah University: lectures and discussions followed by reading and writing assignments, often involving research of some kind. With the exception of using online databases such as JSTOR or ProQuest, this structure doesn’t require much technological adeptness, much to my freshman self’s relief. For the past two years, I’ve even kept all of my bibliographical information manually, without the assistance of a tool like Zotero. However, now a wrench has been thrown into that formula. For Digital History, I’ve had to make accounts on WordPress, Omeka, and Wikipedia – all one right after another on the first day of class!

Some of you reading this might be thinking, “Rachel, surely you must be familiar with Wikipedia!” If you’re someone who’s asking that question, then you’re correct. I am familiar with Wikipedia, but only from the perspective of a reader. I’m even somewhat familiar with WordPress thanks to my experience working on Dr. John Fea’s blog, leaving Omeka as the only one that I’ve never seen before. That being said, I never imagined that I would ever contribute to Wikipedia as an editor, nor did I anticipate using WordPress for a different reason so soon. Therefore, not only have I already been exposed to new technologies during these first few weeks, but I’ve also been encouraged to use familiar ones in new ways.

After all, that’s what digital history is about: bringing the historical discipline into the digital age by utilizing available resources in innovative ways. If this seems like a very loose definition, then that’s because it’s difficult to assign a set definition to something that encompasses so much. Even authorities in the field such as Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas would agree. From digitizing resources to putting together online exhibits, digital historians do a lot. It’s thanks to them that we can closely view every page a 13th century text without having to travel to it physically, allowing us to conduct advanced historical research from the comforts of our own homes. We are no longer living in a culture of scarcity where the best sources are locked behind maximum security in an archive far away. Rather, as Roy Rosenzweig explains, just about everything is only a click (and possibly a paywall) away, making it quite exciting to be a historian in this age of abundance.

An example of the type of work that digital historians do, linked above via “online exhibits.”

Although I’ve always been thankful to have the internet at my disposal for conducting research, I realize now that I’ve become somewhat blind to this luxury in the wake of my concerns about entering the world of digital history. I was so focused on myself that I neglected to consider the fact that I won’t be alone on this journey. Not only have my professor and peers been very helpful thus far, but the highly interdisciplinary nature of digital history means that historians aren’t being hung out to dry. Web archivists, library scientists, and more all contribute to this vast field, supplementing skills that historians may not have by themselves. Additionally, the work doesn’t end when the digitization process does; as Adam Crymble points out, many early digital collections are gone now because the people maintaining them did not anticipate that rapidly changing technology would render them obsolete, meaning that sustainability is a massive endeavor (and problem) in this field, as well.

In my case, the Center for Public Humanities – among other groups – is affiliated with the same or similar projects that my Digital History class will be diving into, meaning that it’s not all riding on my ability to use a computer properly on the first try. I certainly hope to learn new things and to continue expanding my horizons, but it’s okay to need a little bit of extra practice. So what if Zotero has been giving me a bit of trouble? Someone will always have my back when it comes to digital history.

Rachel Petroziello is a junior history major with a concentration in public history and a minor in pre-law at Messiah University. She also works as Dr. John Fea’s student research assistant and is currently serving as a student fellow at Messiah University’s Center for Public Humanities.

3 thoughts on “Entering the Realm of Digital History

  1. Rachel Petroziello,

     I found your brief article interesting and useful. My own early acquaintance with the new technology grew only at the pace of my fumbling curiosity, motivated most often by a blockage that I'd encountered unexpectedly. I'm still a novice.       Good luck in your future as an historian. If you develop work in which you think we may be interested in sharing with an audience that's especially concerned with working class people and their allies, please let me know. We publish an annual journal that consists chiefly of short essays. 

    James A Young President, Pennsylvania Labor History Society Professor of History emeritus Edinboro University

    P.S. I think that the caption below your first visual would better describe your tool as exceptionally useful, unless you do mean too useful. (Sorry, old English teacher here).

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