Monthly Archives: August 2014

Week Two Reading Blog: Struggling to Define Digital History

The seemingly exhaustive exchange between and among the eight scholars participating in the 2008 JAH “Interchange” highlights for me the same issues that come to mind when I think of digital history: Is digital history a method or a medium? I’m inclined to agree in part with William Thomas’s perspective that it can be both (JAH, 454), but I can’t help but think that this duality is equally problematic.

Historians consider method to be a combination of primary-source types and a theoretical construct. For example, method would be a qualitative analysis of working-class labor patterns in 1890s Baltimore as seen through an analysis of time cards and wage rates – all viewed through the theoretical prism of Marxism.  In its broadest sense, this approach would be labor history from a Marxist perspective. Other methods include social, cultural, military, gender, and other forms of history, all defined both by their genre and their selection and approach to the primary sources.  I have trouble placing digital history into this definition, unless digital history is an approach to examining how historians of all stripes over time have used technology to present their arguments.  In other words, digital history may simply be a sub-genre of history.

I am most comfortable with seeing digital history as a medium through which to present a historical argument, much in the same way that we use the medium of printed monographs and journal articles to present historical arguments today.  I am still a strong believer in causal thinking and an organized, linear flow to presenting an argument and its attendant evidence.  Edward Ayers feels that the digital medium has not affected the writing of history at all but instead has simply opened up new possibilities for portraying the argument visually and spatially (Ayers, third paragraph). My sense is that Ayers feels that only the mode of portraying the narrative historical argument has changed, not the narrative mode itself. Yet when I reviewed Ayers’s The Valley of the Shadow Web site a few years ago, I had some difficulty teasing out his argument from the various hyperlinks scattered throughout the site. Clearly, Ayers’s approach was social and cultural history using a digital medium, but simply overlaying the narrative form onto the medium without mastering how the medium can enhance the argument is fraught with problems. Thus, I would counter Ayers’s point by arguing that the writing of history, when applied to the digital realm,  must adapt to the requirements and possibilities of the digital medium without simply cobbling the text together through a series of disparate hyperlinks to other bits of text. That approach is akin to taking a published monograph and flipping through it randomly. In other words, you can miss the main point very quickly.

In the main, I am more convinced at this juncture in my limited exposure to digital history that it is a medium we must master in the service of our historical arguments in much the same way that we have mastered the book over time as a means of organizing and presenting historical arguments.  I agree fully with Amy Murrell Taylor’s  point in the JAH Interchange that historians have to think “in bold and creative ways about how this technology can serve the interests of history” and how “students can create a truly ‘new’ history as a result” (JAH, 459).  I don’t mean to slight Ayers’s early digital efforts, because his ground-breaking The Valley of the Shadow site has made fantastic strides over the years in refining the argument’s presentation visually and spatially.  But some of the old problems I encountered with his site years ago still remain. Thus, I think digital history is more about the medium than the method — unless the method speaks to a genre that is the history of digital history itself.

Another theme that arose from the readings was the double-edged sword inherent in the abundance of source material now available to all historians.  Daniel Cohen, Mike O’Malley, and Sean Takats each discussed  the abundant nature of sources in the digital world — something that for me has both positive and negative implications.  O’Malley suggests, and Takats seemingly laments, that the wealth of information available to historians today via technology means that historians will have to look at everything available to them and select as examples only the very best evidence. While O’Malley sees a silver lining in the elimination of superfluous evidence in favor of only the best examples, Takats seems concerned that peer expectations will demand exhaustive reviews of enormous corpuses of material instead of being satisfied with carefully selected samplings. I agree with Takats. My fear is that scholars who find such data corpuses too time-consuming and daunting to tackle will only seek out topics based upon smaller  data corpuses.  James McPherson, in his book For Cause and Comrades (1997), argued his point effectively using a carefully selected sampling of Civil War soldier letters. He explained that he selected around 1,800 letters written only by those soldiers in combat-engaged units to argue for the reasons why they fought.   Any amateur Civil War historian knows that the extant Civil War letters in personal and public archives number in the hundreds of thousands. Does McPherson’s 1997 argument now fall flat because he engaged in hand-picked evidence-gathering and sampling to make his argument? Imagine McPherson spending a lifetime going through every one of the existing Civil War letters out there to support just one monograph and the stifling effect it would have on his ability to generate much more knowledge through other projects.

The McPherson example leads to another concern for me that emerged from my analysis of the readings — the relative impermanence of one’s argument if conveyed through digital means. If more and more digitally based sources can now be made available each year, when should the historian consider an argument closed for his or her purposes? William Thomas suggested that historians publishing in the digital medium will be tempted to keep ‘intervening’ by constantly “editing, adding, annotating, and refining” their online work (JAH, 457).  My concern is that historians will become wedded to one lifetime project that he or she will constantly refine and revise, perhaps only to defend the integrity of his or her scholarship as new sources become available or as peers raise counterpoints. I see value in “locking down” one’s argument after a certain point to allow new scholars to build upon and refine those arguments in later years and to allow historians to do what they do now: venture into multiple projects over the course of one’s career.

And so what did the readings tell me about the state of digital history today?  The strongest message was that we as historians are on a fast-moving train when it comes to digital history.  We have to embrace it for what we can do with it and not what it can do to us.  Miriam Posner was correct when stating that the first big step is to develop an online presence.  And now we’re off to the races.

Steve Rusiecki


How extensive should my online presence be?

Establishing this domain name is perhaps my most deliberate attempt to develop a more permanent online presence.  I agree with Miriam Posner’s assertion that “being visible on the Internet can benefit your scholarship, pedagogy, and even service.” Yet I have found myself advancing cautiously into this realm, quite possibly because my primary online experience for the last 25 years has been through the Army’s information-technology prism. The message the Army has beaten relentlessly into us Soldiers (and former Soldiers still serving the Army as civilians) is that the Web is a dangerous place prone to cyber attacks and the pilfering of personally identifiable information, the loss of which might jeopardize our safety and the safety of our families.

But I have steadily begun to recognize that those of us in the Army are no more and no less vulnerable than the average purveyor of the Web. However, for published historians like me, the risk of making myself available online seems worth it based on the benefits gained: collaboration with other scholars, constructive assessments of my work, and the ability to hear from people deeply affected by the military history I write.

When I Google myself, the primary links that come up are directly related to the two World War II books I published in 1996 and 2010 respectively. The fact that very little comes up about my background as an Army infantry officer testifies to my reticence during my active-duty days to plumb the Web’s depths and leave a more visible  thumbprint.  But the online presence I developed through my two books demonstrated clearly to me the necessity and benefit of a solid online presence.

Despite excellent reviews, my first book suffered from a lukewarm marketing campaign, principally because the publisher (an academic one at that) was more interested in selling library copies than individual copies to an interested public. But things changed dramatically with my next book. My publisher, the Naval Institute Press (an academic press like my first publisher), marketed the book widely on the Web.  They even convinced me to engage for the first time in social media by establishing a Facebook page so that readers could reach out to me directly.  Thanks to the Army’s overly cautionary propaganda, I hesitated at first but finally succumbed. My subsequent Facebook page was (and still is) a very “bare bones” sketch of my personal background with about a dozen “friends.” But in spite of this minor presence, some amazing things happened. Numerous people contacted me directly via Facebook about my new book and provided me with incredible feedback, including veterans of the battle whom I had not known earlier.  Most of all, my presence on Facebook, on (I still don’t have an author’s profile there!), and on CSPAN’s Web site (they posted a 15-minute video clip of me from their BookTV feature) all breathed new life into my first book, resulting in another publisher picking it up and re-publishing it in softcover. The sales exploded — and continue to outpace my second work. Amazing.

The most rewarding aspect of my online presence, though, is that I have been able to provide answers for several family members of men who fought and died in the two battles about which I wrote. In short, we were able to find out what happened to their loved ones. The World War II Army’s manual (and laborious) administrative machine  often provided very sketchy details about a Soldier’s death to his family, inadvertently leaving questions unresolved and old wounds unhealed. In one case, a Facebook request from a lady whose father died before she was born sent me back into my  primary sources to seek out some information for her. Remarkably, I was able to tell her precisely when, where, and under what circumstances her father died. The entire process was highly emotional for everyone involved. But without the ability to reach me directly online, I doubt this woman would have bothered to go through the publisher to seek me out.  The knowledge I provided to that lady and to her family helped heal  some long-standing wounds and provided me with a great sense of personal satisfaction.

My larger point, like Miriam Posner’s, is that we — as historians — have to overcome our fear of the Web and establish an online presence that will work for us. For me, Facebook opened up new possibilities very quickly, but I think other mediums, such as Twitter and our own personal Web pages, have great promise. In fact, I have longed to develop a Web site for my two books that will allow me to post photographs and maps that never made it into the published versions. Additionally,  I want to create a function on the site’s main page where the public may submit questions directly to me about my work. I would also like to scan and post some of the more interesting primary sources to give the reading public a sense of my qualitative approach to the material.  The only thing stopping me has been one simple fact: I don’t know how to build a flipping Web site! My experience so far with Word Press and Reclaim Hosting  has been very positive and user-friendly. My suspicion is that other tools out there for Web-site development are just as easy to use, and I look forward to diving in.

Steve Rusiecki