More than Just a Website: Stumbling Upon Digital History

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

by Alex Shehigian

I never considered myself to be technologically inclined growing up. In fact, there was a running joke in high school that I was anti-tech because I never had my school-issued Chromebook on my person and was one of the few students to still take handwritten notes. I was not particularly opposed to incorporating the digital into daily life; I simply felt I would never need or want to become more than casually acquainted with it.

My perspective began to shift, however, while browsing job listings.

I’m a public history major and hope to spark society’s interest in the past through developing innovative exhibits and educational programs at museums. While working with items typically associated with the past—books, letters, and newspapers—is certainly part of a public historian’s job, I quickly found that almost every posting called for digital skills, particularly in the realm of website development. This all made sense to me; I knew that many museum websites were old, neglected, and visually unappealing, while digital content was the preferred way to engage my generation.

Upon enrollment at Messiah University, I signed myself up for an introductory-level website building course. I familiarized myself with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. I learned how to fix those formatting issues that made unmaintained sites so user-hostile.

When I added a Digital Public Humanities minor in the spring of my freshman year, I thought I would just be getting more in-depth training in web development and perhaps a little exposure to filmmaking. What began as a quest to become a more hirable public historian, however, transformed into a deep exploration of the meaning the digital revolution carries for humanities scholarship. This minor has presented me with the opportunity to create meaningful digital scholarship through digital humanities project courses. Currently, I’m working with other Messiah University students and the Civic Club of Harrisburg on a project that will honor the women of Harrisburg’s City Beautiful Movement. I look forward to providing more updates on this initiative throughout our research process.

This semester, I’m also taking a course in digital history. Thus far, it has built upon the understandings I began to develop last year. It has shown me that digital history is more than just websites—it is a different way of thinking about and conducting historical scholarship.

Digital history projects encourage collaboration between academic historians and the community.
Photo by Dio Hasbi Saniskoro on Pexels.com

My favorite element of digital history is its deeply collaborative nature. In class, we learned that, as Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig note in their book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, when history is brought into the digital landscape, the barrier for entry to the field is lowered significantly. This means that the creation of valuable historical scholarship is no longer restricted to academics with upper-level history degrees. Rather, institutions will often partner with the public, enabling the people in the community to bring their own insights and perspectives into the conversation. We looked at digital history projects such as Victoria’s Victoria and Railroads and the Making of Modern America, both of which are websites that blend the contributions of academic historians and members of the community.

Digital tools, such as word clouds, help visualize the frequency of words and phrases in texts. This word cloud, made with Wheaton College’s Lexos, shows the most frequently occurring words in Sophocles’ Oedipux Rex.

We’ve also been exposed to the concerns scholars are raising about the impact of the digital on historical scholarship. This past week, we looked at the meaning of making the transition from “documents to data,” a concept identified by Jim Mussel. When uploading the information from historical documents onto the web as machine-readable text, we are enabling computers to manipulate this information in new ways. We can determine the frequency of a given word or phrase in a document or compare the frequency of this phrase in all documents from two different time periods or authors. Accordingly, the digital allows us to analyze historical information in broader, pattern-based ways, but the amount of contextual information we incorporate in our analysis when the historical information is isolated from the physical book, newspaper, or letter it was originally contained in is called into question.

The study of digital history is about much more than collaboration and datafication, but these two concepts begin to demonstrate its complexity. Digital history certainly presents many challenges, but it also creates so many opportunities for new connections, new ideas, and new conversations about our past. I look forward to engaging with these opportunities by putting skills and concepts I learn into practice through the project component of this digital history course. While I do not know exactly what that will look like yet, I am fully confident it will be more than “just” a website.

Alex Shehigian is a sophomore at Messiah University. She is majoring in public history and minoring in the digital public humanities. She is also an Archives Office Assistant at the Messiah University Archives and volunteers with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association archives.

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