Encountering History in the Digital Age 

 by Sam Erikson

I have always had an interest in history and for as long as I can remember, I planned to major in History at college to someday become the person working at the museum rather than the curious visitor. Following my first year at Messiah University, I encountered frustration with the course work and decided to pursue a slightly different path. This year as a Communication major, with a minor in History, the prospect of taking this course was interesting because the course structure was different than any of the other History courses offered in the department. The interactivity and hands on approach to the study of the field of digital history is more appealing than listening to lectures and writing research papers for a whole semester. I enjoy exploring the similarities and differences between the two academic programs and to discovering how this course will benefit my academic and personal growth. 

I knew very little about digital history coming into this course, except for the basic fact that it is the digitizing of history through many forms of media. That knowledge has stayed the same and has grown more concrete throughout the first 4 weeks in the class. Now, my definition of digital history looks like this: Digital history is the study of the past using various digital mediums such as the Internet, databases, and online forums as new ways of examining and interpreting history. The mass digitization of history affects the study of history by allowing it to be more widely accessible to people of all ages, academic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, races, ethnicities, etc. 

There are five main things that I have learned about digital history that I believe are at its core. First, and perhaps most obvious, digital history is flexible because it can convert all kinds of media and place it into databases, easily preserving and organizing film, text, etc. Through this, a more complete picture can be created when the information can be synthesized into new formats, combining the data together. Second, it has a greater capacity for information storage than traditional brick and mortar archives do. If historians tried to fit the same amount of data into paperback material, they would be wasting exponentially more physical resources and time. Next, digital history is accessible. Storing historical information on digital networks means that a wide range of audiences can be reached. This information is stored on networks that can immediately distribute it to whoever is trying to access it. Fourth, digital history offers a new platform for collaboration between historians and the public because online forums open the possibility for debates and exchange of information. Finally, digital history allows historians to reexamine historical events/people by having easy access to endless images, sounds, and moving pictures, which reveal new insight/new information about the events/people. 

One of the most engaging readings was “History in the Digital Age” by historian Toni Weller. I appreciated how she talked about the collaborative capacity of digital history, because that is what I am primarily intrigued by and drawn to. She states that, “Content can be shared instantaneously, and research now has the ability to reach a wide demographic. Due to the digitization of historical scholarship, it is becoming more interactive and dynamic, linking researchers to much wider communities of participation (69).”1 She also explains, “digital history software tools help to focus attention through indexing, concordance, visualization, clustering and relating. Algorithms also analyze documents or passages to automatically cluster them by similarity, summarize them, or find other sources that are most closely related (68).”2 All of these aids are meant to simplify the data retrieval process and accelerate research. 

I am planning to complete a research project about bounty hunters in the Old Eighth Ward in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Old Eighth Ward existed up until the early 20th Century, in the location where the Capitol Complex now stands. I would have never expected bounty hunters to be a part of local history. This is a complex and nuanced topic as it is intriguing in some aspect, but it is important to remember the human aspect of this when thinking about what the bounty hunters did. The crucial part is telling the narrative as it was and being as non-biased as possible. 

I was not even aware of the Old Eighth Ward’s history until this class. My ignorance is a perfect example of why digital history is so necessary. It connects people like me with their past, enriches them, and equips them to be more responsible citizens and humans. 

About the author:

Sam Erikson is a sophomore at Messiah University. He is majoring in communications and minoring in history.

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