The Historians New Canvas

David Cohen and Roy Rozensweig in their practical handbook Digital History, A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, argue that

“new media challenges historians to rethink the ways they research, write, present, and teach about the past.”

If done well, digital history has the potential to expand audiences, allow for multiple dialogues and greater accessibility; it will allow for a move towards a dream of “the complete historical record.” However, Cohen and Rosenzweig are quick to caution that despite this potential, there are still many deficiencies that need to be addressed: problems of historical authority, authorship, readability, durability, data manipulability, and authenticity are just a few.

Authenticity and historical authority are the subject of online article Snapshots of History: Wildly popular accounts like @HistoryInPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you. Twitter handles such as @HistoryPics, @HistoricalPics, @HistoryInPix, @History_Pics, are egregiously reusing and misrepresenting historical images on twitter in an effort to gain retweets. In her exploration of the historical handle tweet-sphere, Rebecca Onion discovered that many of these  handles are failing to link the image to the appropriate, and sanctioned, repository. As a result, the historical integrity of the image is compromised. At debate here is a larger ethical one regarding historical accuracy and integrity and the misuse of digital history.

As you can see above, there are quite a few problems with digital history. The first of which may perhaps be an identity issue, for example, what is digital history exactly? Does it do anything differently?

Dr. Stephen Robertson defines digital history in a comparative approach by what it is not, digital humanities. According to him, there are two major differences between digital history and digital humanities: the first, presentation and dissemination are more characteristic of digital history than digital humanities; and the second, digital history involves more mapping in their analysis than digital humanities and literary studies. Although neither of these qualities are mutually exclusive to digital humanities or digital history, these two fields have often been conflated. Robertson finds this conflation problematic as it does not allow for an extension of the conversation beyond the digital humanities realm.

Part of the reasons for these limitations lies in what Rosenzweig and Cohen differentiate as the digitally-born versus analog. One problem with digitization and traditional historical practice is the historian’s reliance on unpublished sources and machine-readable texts. For their analysis, historians rely on varied types of sources, some of which, are not easily transferred to the digital sphere.

Like most other authors, however, the pitfalls of digital history are outweighed by the potential. Some view it as a way to rescue the practice of history from its current “crisis.” Jo Guildi and David Armitage in the History Manifesto , identify this crises as “short-termism,” or “a shortage of long-term thinking.” In an age of information overload, careful curation of data is necessary in complement to digitization. As a result, for Armitage and Guildi, this proper balance of curation and exploration will help historians re-imagine standard narratives of modernity.

Despite all of the “dangers” as Rosenzweig and Cohen view it, public historians are continuing to embrace digital history in their developing field. With qualities that potentially allow historians to do their work better, like accessibility, flexibility, diversity, interactivity, and hypertextuality, and an increased presence in the digital world, the field of digital history seems full of possibilities.


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