Final Thoughts (Final Exam)

The Future of History

Digital history is a concept that terrifies and excites.  As an academic field, a subset of the history field, it is new, yet somewhat familiar.  As a method of study, digital history has many interesting and exciting possibilities for the future. 

Every field of study is, in some capacity, becoming a digital discipline.  That’s just the nature of our digital age.  Everything is being done by computers, so academic study is, too.  However, some within the history community continue to resist this technological progress (and that’s simply all it boils down to), while some departments have been quicker to embrace it.  George Mason University already offers a digital dissertation option.  Departments around the country are teaching digital history courses.  So why are some not so quick to embrace it?   There seems to be two main reasons: fear of the unknown, and older faculty being set in their ways.  The field of history has its own history of being done a certain way for a long time, and many are slow to want to change that. 

The process goes like this: a historian lives inside an archive for a period of time, then emerges to write their findings into a manuscript.  That manuscript then becomes either a journal article or a book.  That’s it.  Research towards a written page.  However, the internet age is now approximately thirty years old, and the times are a changing.  Most information has been, or is continuing to be, put online for digital access.  Even academic journals and books are digitized online now.  The process has already begun.  However, digital history doesn’t just mean putting printed materials on the web.  There’s a new way of thinking about history, and presenting history. 

The purpose of digital history is to not only make history discourse available digitally, but to also challenge the way we think about the subject and its presentation.  This semester, instead of writing the same type of twenty-odd-page research paper, as I’ve done several times, I had to create a website and a visualization of my research.  I had to think in terms of presenting my research to somebody who wasn’t an academic expert in my subject.  I had to think of the wider public as a possible audience.  That’s the great power of the internet and digital technology: it has democratized information in a way that the world has never seen.  Farmers, who a millennium ago would be illiterate peasants in the field, can now access the world’s top experts giving free lectures on physics.  Manuscripts which once took significant travel funds for a researcher to get to an access, because only one exists in the world, can now be digitized and available to anybody, anywhere.  Few webpages are secure from prying eyes without a paywall, so any digitized product must be ready for a wider public to stumble upon.  In many ways, I had to think of my research in terms of a museum exhibit, which is purposefully for the general public instead of academic experts.  This is one of the most important aspects of digital history, and one of the biggest changes to the game that digital technology will force.  Though academics will still write for academics, and we have a long time before books go away completely, digital presentations will reach wider audiences which will cause a more democratized engagement with history among society.  History will no longer remain a closely-held secret of the ivory tower.

Another change that the digital realm is going to force on history is its form of presentation.  Books are great, and have immense value in the unique experience of sitting down with one and reading it.  However, many people quickly tire of line-after-line of words.  Webpages, videos, and other digital presentations help such people engage with important material to a greater degree.  Webpage design forces a different format on text.  Instead of dense paragraphs, webpages work better broken into smaller chunks of text that are more easily digestible.  Photos can be added into the text.  Video can be added into a block of text to show a relevant event or message.  Things that were not possible before can now be utilized to grab the attention of more people, keep them engaged for longer, and hopefully drive the author’s message home harder than ever before.  Digital history is here to stay, and it’s a bright future for the study of history.

Project: Visualization

Care For a Song?

My research focused on the lyrics of American presidential campaign songs.  While I personally wanted to do something with music history, I also wanted to explore what purpose music had in the grandest political machine in the country.  Ultimately, I had two major questions: how did the choice of song affect a candidate’s campaign, and did song selections among parties convey different messages?  I also wanted to keep this study fairly modern since the twentieth-century commodification of pop culture is a unique part of today’s campaigns.  Therefore, I went from Franklin Roosevelt to Donald Trump.  While my first question would be hard to answer visually, my second question could be done so.  Analyzing the songs’ lyrics could be done visually.  To do this, I needed to focus on text mining, and a tool which could show trends in text.  So I chose to use Voyant, which is a tool that takes the entirety of a text and shows a word scramble.  This enables somebody to look at the resulting image and identify the most frequent words that show up in the text, which can give an idea of a particular tone or message.  However, if ‘the’ showed up too much, it would be the biggest word which would show nothing.  So I did edit the lyrics I entered to get rid of such articles, as well as third-person pronouns.  I wanted to focus on the words which would actually convey a message, if possible.  Ultimately, I found that there were clear differences in the messages of the songs based on a party line.  Republican-chosen songs tended to include words which reinforced a message of country, freedom, and strength.  Democratic-chosen songs tended towards messages of hope and a can-do attitude.  This shows that there is a possibility at songs being chosen by candidates along broader ideas than personal affinity of the candidate. My findings can be seen at for the total aggregate, for the Republican-only aggregate, and for the Democratic-only aggregate of lyrics.

The historical scholarship on presidential campaigns music is scarce.  There are a few articles I found about nineteenth-century campaigns, but nothing that really helped for my chosen period.  My main sources were popular newspaper articles, such as USA Today, along with lyric pages for the actual song lyrics.


Griffiths, ,Michael. “American Presidential Campaign Songs That Have Backfired on the Candidates.” The Independent. February 19, 2016.

Murse, Tom. “List of Campaign Songs Used by Presidential Candidates.” Thoughtco. August 14, 2019.

History – Music in Politics. 2020.

McDermott, Maeve. “Election Day Playlist: 15 Famous Campaign Songs.” USA Today. November 1, 2018.

Data/Visualizing the Past

Photo Manipulation as Zeitgeist

This week’s readings deal with the issues surrounding imagery, including source manipulation and the resulting interpretations.  However, these issues are not exclusive to history: this is a digital issue, period.  Image manipulation is a problem that will come with access to Photoshop.  However, with that also comes better cultural awareness of the practice.  We can notice that, regardless of the bias of the presenter, there is plenty of awareness of fake news and narrative in today’s social discourse.  Only which ‘side’ is fake is the subject of debate anymore.  So history, and humanities in general, is only being affected by a larger societal problem.  What we should be grateful for is that academics SHOULD be in position to better recognize when it’s happening. 

However, it does also bring up the question of how far we should go to institutionalize targeted education at recognizing source manipulation.  Should we have entire classes based around recognizing Photoshop in history departments?  Tools continually get better, and photo manipulations in particular are getting almost indistinguishable to ‘real’ photos.  And that’s the value of Morris’ article: it shows that photos in themselves are not always enough to count as irrefutable evidence: we still need the written sources.  It shows that on some level, history will remain a discipline of textual analysis.  No matter what other changes come to the field, there’s still a core set of skills and methods which will make history a professional discipline.

Content Management & Exhibits

Concepts Over Specific Tools

Omeka is a great tool, but it isn’t the alpha and omega of the concept of digital history.  It’s an iteration of a concept.  For instance, there’s many types of hammers, but they’re all hammers.  Sure, it has features that other web programs don’t, and so far it seems to be the best one for humanities work, but the most important idea is the concept of what one can do with a digital format.

The examples that we looked at for this week made one thing clear: websites are a superior medium of presenting information.  Books are still a wonderful thing and should not be forgotten (they’re still the most portable, and there’s nostalgia, etc).  However, websites allow imagery and interactivity that levels the learning curve of different types of learners.  For someone like me, who is increasingly finding it hard to concentrate on slogging through books, websites offer a way to stay engaged with material and not burn out as quickly.  Furthermore, these features allow one to see concepts which only adds to the experience.  Take a timeline for example.  I can read a story and map out a timeline in my mind from the narrative.  However, it’s more pleasing and engaging to have an interactive timeline on a website.

Another concept that these example sites show is simple organization of data.  For a traditional history book format, all the information comes in a narrative, with maybe some charts and graphs if data is concerned.  Yet, these sites can take that information and group it under headlines and subpages.  Many books don’t even come with indices.  With a proper website, one doesn’t need an index; just click on the right link and be taken to the right section of the site.  This is also another example of adding visualization to the information.

Basically, I can envision websites becoming the standard form of information publishing, especially as generations shift in history departments.  As the new crop comes in, it’s going to be filled with people who have increasingly grown up in a digital world, which will influence how the structure of the institution is viewed.  Plus, as time goes on, the internet is going to become more accessible which is going to lead to more people being online in previously inaccessible spots.  People will be walking through the jungle looking up trees on Google.  Therefore, books will no longer be the most accessible form of publishing, leading to more people looking for history online.