Defining Digital History

Firstly, hi.  It’s another exciting semester of (directed and well-considered) meanderings on public history.  This Spring, my entries will focus on Digital History.

But what is Digital History?  Let’s try and set some concrete ideas on that now.

It’s easy to intertwine the process for defining public history and digital history because both are ways in which historians work.  What I mean by that is that public historians are historians who work with people, one foot in the academy, one foot on the street.  Digital historians are historians who work one foot in the academy, one foot on the web.  However, public history is also defined as any history which occurs outside of the academy at places such as museums or historical societies.  Considering this definition of public history, it makes sense to also consider either digital history as a form of public history or to define it as any history which occurs with technology.

What seems to be the most useful in terms of this class and as a public historian is to think of digital history as public history which occurs with technology, whether that be an app, a website, or an exhibit installation.

Historically (according to last week’s class with Deborah Boyer), digital history falls under the “big tent” of digital humanities with literature, linguistics and art.  As Lisa Spiro wrote in This is Why We Fight: Debates in the Digital Humanities, it also holds an affinity with the civic role of librarians with values of inquiry, respect, debate, and integrity.  Spiro also shared the AHA’s standards of conduct to “trust and respect both of one’s peers and of the public at large.”  All of these considerations remind me of public history’s charge to utilize scholarship as a public service addressing immediate concerns of a community of memory.  For this reason, I will define digital history in this way, as a technological arm of public history with a slightly more flexible intention in that it might not be exactly a public service addressing an immediate concern.  Maybe it is most safely defined as an historical method used to connect scholarship with a community of memory.

So what is a best case example here?

What I would like to share is a digital history project featuring a map of oral histories.  I think Historymakers is cool because it is quite an organized digital archive of oral histories featuring African Americans.  What I would love to see is an organization of that archive which is somehow cartography… like the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project’s Memory Map.  It would be exciting to see a memory map with audio recordings available.  Hopefully I can make something of that nature for History Truck with both a web and mobile app version.  We’ll see!

I’m also quite taken with using maps as counternarratives.  I am creating one such map in a stationary version for the Truck’s first exhibit cycle in East Kensington, and it would be very interesting to visualize this map digitally.  Visualizing Emancipation is one such wonderful map-based digital history project.  (I know this example was shared in class, but well, when an example is good, it’s just good.)  It stands as an inspiration and example of what can be done with data using a map.

More to come!  Thanks for reading!

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