The Digitally Disoriented Meets Digital History

By Rachel Dougherty

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Digital technology has never exactly been my forte. I think I am supposed to be “good” at it though. Or at least that’s what people say; I was born a “digital native” after all. But I can vividly remember back in grade school, sitting in computer class (when those still existed) feeling anxious about falling behind in the myriad of instructions flying at me in order to learn the computer skill or program of the day.

I had it in my head that there was only ever one way to accomplish something when it came to computers, and if I missed a step I would be sunk.  I also figured everyone else but me knew what was going on.  As with most facets of my life, if I do not understand something fully and completely, I do not get involved in it for fear of failure.  And let me tell you, even though I use technology every single day, I certainly do not understand it fully.

If the word “digital” is added to the front of any phrase I shudder. Well, that’s a bit dramatic, but I do think it automatically makes things more confusing for me. For example, when I first heard the phrase “digital history” I wasn’t sure what it meant. I certainly know what history means; after all, it’s my major and a large part of my life’s calling. But digital history…? Is it the history of digital technologies? Is it just history but, like, online? Turns out, digital history is simply the process of doing history using digital tools. I am overwhelmed by the possibilities of this definition; it seems to be all-encompassing and limitless. But it’s also hopeful and helpful to know that even I, a digitally-clumsy college student, fit into this realm of doing history digitally somewhere.

Reading scholarship on digital history has been an interesting experience for me and my love-hate relationship with technology. Almost every piece that I have read notes that historians (largely, those not born in the digital age) have been resistant to new methods of digital history. At some points I find myself empathizing with them. I too, would much rather read a physical monograph than view one online or make handwritten annotations on articles of historical scholarship that I printed out. But, at the same time, as I read Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s now classic work, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, I am thankful for the knowledge of simple tasks for which I use technology everyday. I suppose I am still learning where I fit in the world of digital history, but I am becoming more sympathetic to the idea of learning new technologies, harnessing the patience to adopt new methods, and even new softwares for my practice as a historian.

One practical new way I am engaging with digital history lies in my exploration of Zotero. This new software (not necessarily new to digital historians, but new to me!) has made easier the bibliographic process for historians. “Zotero: Social and Semantic Computing for Historical Scholarship“, a piece by Daniel J. Cohen, opened my eyes to the contrast between traditional historical research and research that is now accompanied by software and websites. The article calls for writing citations, remembering where you found a source, and even recording thoughts and notes “basic work” that Zotero is now capable of doing. I can see even in my limited time doing history in high school and college, just how revolutionary Zotero, and other softwares like it, have been to historical practice.

Two other themes persistent across scholarship on this topic are accessibility and abundance. These themes go hand in hand, usually written about with a sense of optimism attached. Optimism is warranted because vast amounts of primary sources, journals, archival materials, and general historical knowledge are now available to scholars as well as the public online. Physical locations of historical materials, language barriers, gaps in the current historical record being preserved, and an academic barrier to the study of history are all becoming a thing of the past thanks to the digital sphere. As a lover of history, that is truly something to be excited about! The past is more accessible now than it ever has been.

I am resolved to strike a balance between my frustrations with technology and my love for history. My goal in the coming weeks and months is to discover a digital outlet that I can tell a story in a compelling way with; using methods that would not yield the same impactful results as traditional methods of written narrative (though I am certain it will play some role in my future projects and research).

I am greatly motivated by the visual sense and am becoming aware of the power and possibilities the digital world has for storytelling in this light. In my research of traditional historical websites, I discovered Gilded Age Plains City. This site relies on the presentation of digitized materials and visuals in combination with narrative. The effect is an engaging, theatrical one. In my future research and projects relating to the Digital Harrisburg initiative, I hope to discover works of art, architecture, and artists of the Old Eighth Ward of Harrisburg before it was demolished. I would love to present my findings in such as way that brings their narratives to life in digital format like Gilded Age Plains City. I also hope to prove that artistic and architectural beauty existed in the Old Eighth long before the City Beautiful Movement was enacted.

-Harrisburg’s capitol building is one of the most extravagant in the country. But this accomplishment came at the expense of the beautiful community of the Old Eighth Ward.– Image courtesy of Rawpixel.

Only time will tell what I come up with, how I adapt, and how I will fit into the new digital world of the historian.

Rachel Dougherty is a junior History major with dual minors in Studio Art and Art History at Messiah University.

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