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


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