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.