Final Thoughts (Final Exam)

Getting Down From the Ivory Tower

If you asked me a few months ago why digital history is important, I probably would have told you that it isn’t. I always felt more comfortable using tangible resources and writing things down by hand, so I never really considered digital history as essential.

This isn’t to suggest that I was ever totally dismissive of digital history. In fact, one of the pieces of work I’m proudest of ever creating is an article for Gettysburg College’s Killed At Gettysburg online project.[1] I’ve had some familiarity with digital history and how it can be useful, but I never really viewed it as necessary to pushing the field of history forward. And then this semester happened.

It started with Zotero. What was at first a nifty tool soon became an important way to streamline the citation process. As the website GettingThingsTech argues, “Citations are important, they’re just also inefficient. You want to show the world that you’ve done your research and help future readers (or yourself) see where they can learn more on your topic. It just shouldn’t take so long.” [2] As I found in my own research project (which I’ll address later on), it was almost a necessity to use a tool like Zotero. While I could have done my research without the use of a citation manager, it would have taken me so long to get the full citation data that I would have been unable to do as much research as I ultimately did. On top of that, having all of my sources in one organized location made it much simpler for me to return to those sources when I needed to.

So, cool, an app made my life easier. Nice, but not really groundbreaking stuff here, right? The thing is, the tools of digital history aren’t just meant to make things faster and easier – they’re meant to help convey information in new ways than the standard paper or dissertation. Why else would George Mason University allow their doctoral candidates to create a digital dissertation? [3] If digital history was simply a tool for comfort and ease of use, then universities would not allow students to submit works of digital history as academic scholarship. This is proof that digital history is actively pushing the field of history and forcing historians to engage with the public more often than before.

This, of course, presents challenges, and we’ve discussed them at length on our class blog. But digital history also presents tremendous opportunity. Errol Morris used digital tools and techniques to answer the question of the sequence of two photographs from the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” in the Crimean War. [4]

Two photographs of the same road, but which came first? From Errol Morris’s “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? (Part 1)”.

Authors and historians had argued unequivocally that the second photograph (the lower one on this post, the one with the cannonballs on the road) was taken after the first one. They used these photographs to make an argument about the character of the photographer, Roger Fenton, and how he altered the scene to make his own experience appear more harrowing. However, Morris proved that while the sequence of photographs was correct, Fenton did not alter the scene. In this instance, digital tools helped historians come to a new understanding about the past and proved prior assumptions incorrect.

Digital history tools were necessary for my research project to come together. [5] I created a timeline to tell the broader story of the 1985 bombing in Philadelphia that killed several people and left hundreds homeless. I could have easily written a paper on it; there’s a number of well-done books or journal articles that talk about this event using only or mostly text. But creating a digital site allowed me to use photos, videos, and images that I could not have in a “typical” old-fashioned history paper.

Something I’ve learned through my own personal experience in public history is that showing is always better than telling. So, I’m going to try a little experiment. I’m going to write a short sentence or two about an event from my research, and then I’ll post a video that I included on my timeline. I want you to think about which has a stronger emotional impact for you.


In 1978, the group MOVE got into a shootout with police. In the crossfire, police officer James Ramp was shot in the neck and killed.

And now, the video: (WARNING: Violence/gunfire is shown in this clip.)

Easy, right? That kind of emotional power is not something I can convey through words, but that feeling is just as much an essential part of the story as any date or name. That is how digital tools can advance the field of history as well.

Digital history is a game-changer, both for research and for helping historians to tell narratives. It isn’t without its drawbacks, of course. But its flaws should not make historians cower in fear of it. Instead, it’s time to embrace the possibilities of a digital history approach. Historians need to come down from the ivory tower that is academia and make their work accessible to people. Digital history allows them to do just that.


  1. Martin, Jeffrey. “William Jones, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery”. Killed At Gettysburg: The Final Footsteps of Gettysburg’s Fallen.
  2. GettingThingsTech, “Zotero, the free citation manager for students, teachers, and more”.
  3. George Mason University, “Digital Dissertation Guidelines”.
  4. Morris, Errol. “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” New York Times, September 25, 2007.
  5. Martin, Jeffrey. “‘It Was War’: The 1985 Philadelphia MOVE Bombing”. Sutori.–4qQtASBHxHPEqN2pJ69Cb5TE
Project: Visualization

Timeline: The Day Philly Police Bombed Their Own City

Cleanup crews take away debris and human remains from Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. May 15, 1985. George Widman/AP.

On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia Police dropped a bomb on a building in a residential neighborhood, killing eleven people and leaving over 200 people homeless. If this incident is discussed at all in modern times, that’s usually the extent of it. That was the extent of my own personal knowledge prior to this semester. My dad had told me about it a while ago, but in a very basic, matter-of-fact way.

It took me a little while to figure out a topic for this project. Initially, this was going to be a part of a broader examination of racial conflict in Philadelphia. But as I did more research into this event specifically, I found that there was far more to the story. This couldn’t just be a part of a larger narrative; it deserved its own detailed analysis. I had to know: How did this happen? What happened to the people involved afterwards? Is anybody in the right in this story?

To very briefly give some background, MOVE was an organization operating in West Philadelphia beginning in the 1970s. While not initially founded as a black liberation group, that’s essentially what they became (although with very contradictory politics). Violent clashes with police led to the city government leaving MOVE alone for several years until the situation became untenable. After fighting with MOVE for a full day, and neither side able to gain an inch, the police decided to drop a bomb on MOVE’s fortified compound on Osage Avenue. The resulting fire spread to surrounding row homes and burned out several blocks.

What I intended to do with this timeline was expand the scope of this story. While most studies of the bombing start around 1978 (MOVE’s first violent clash with police), I argue that the story really begins in the 1960s. And while some studies continued through the investigations into city officials, they usually end it there. This timeline allows me to prove that the neighborhood is still feeling the effects of that bombing almost 35 years later. Using a timeline also allowed me to easily connect one event to the next, which allows me to argue that neither MOVE nor the city are the “good guys”. Everyone made bad decisions, people died, and the residents of Osage Avenue are still paying the price for those decisions.

The Problem of Abundance

It’s All Too Much

In the wise words of John Oliver: memes aren’t facts.

The truth is, though, a large amount of people get their information on current events from easily digestible sources on websites they usually go to anyway. I’m certainly guilty of doing that, and I’m well aware that those sources might not be entirely accurate. As our readings this week pointed out, though, there’s just too much out there to sift through. At some point, you just have to accept what’s convenient and move on with your day.

Another issue that came to mind is how sites like Facebook and YouTube use algorithms to “suggest content you’ll like”, but ultimately end up creating an echo chamber for the opinions you already have. 60 Minutes did a piece a few months ago that discussed, in part, how YouTube’s suggested videos feature helps spread conspiracy theories, false information, and the messages of hate groups.

This is a systemic issue. Social media platforms and popular websites seem to not care if they put too much information out there. As long as they get traffic and advertising revenue, they don’t care if an individual falls for conspiracy theory nonsense. They have no incentive to curate what information is spread. Worse, if these sites did start to monitor the accuracy of information being spread, they’d be accused of violating someone’s First Amendment rights.

All of this is to say… I legitimately have no idea how to approach this issue. You can tell individuals to “be vigilant” or “corroborate your sources”, but even then, people will take the easier option if the information in question isn’t of dire importance to them. The only real way to have a permanent solution to this is to monitor what is uploaded and what is distributed, and there’s no way of ethically doing that.

Digital and Public History

Brokers of Knowledge

As I was reading this week, a line from Brenda Trofanenko’s chapter jumped out at me. “Instead, I suggest, there is a need for museums to consider themselves as brokers of knowledge,” she writes, “and that such knowledge can come through engagement with technology within and beyond the museum.” When you read that sentence out of context, it seems as though she is reinforcing how some museums currently operate. How many museums have you gone to where it feels like you’re being lectured to? I know I’ve been there. There are definitely still public history sites that see themselves as the defining authority on a topic, and they deign to provide the public with the singular truth about that topic.

But knowledge can have a few different meanings, can’t it? Sure, knowledge can mean understanding factual concepts. In that sense, even the most uppity of museums could be brokers of knowledge. But that’s not what Trofanenko’s talking about. As she writes later on, “Can our youth problem solve, communicate, or be creative and innovative by attending a history museum? I cannot say for certain.” This kind of knowledge goes much deeper than regurgitating facts. This kind of knowledge is about acquiring skills that can be applied to daily life.

We’ve discussed before in class what the role of digital history is within public history. Honestly, that seems to be the topic of discussion most weeks, or at least some variant of that topic. But I think Trofanenko’s chapter has helped me to find the words I’ve been looking for all semester. Digital history is (among other things) a tool for the public to learn critical thinking skills.

If a person is more engaged with something, they’re more likely to think critically about it. I want to use the George Washington site Taylor talked about in his post this week as an example. So, before we were under a Stay at Home order, my dad and I visited Washington’s Crossing State Park while I was home for spring break. The site covers not only the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River, but also the fighting at Trenton and Princeton that followed. We were there for most of the day, and we saw several presentations and many artifacts and text panels in the two museums on site (one on the NJ side, one on the PA side). I thought harder and empathized more with Washington in ten minutes on the Be Washington page than I did in six hours at Washington’s Crossing. This shows the potential of digital history for public history spaces. By allowing visitors to immerse themselves and choose what they want to interact with, sites can create much more powerful connections than by just listing facts (or only providing one interpretation of those facts).

We’ve talked about museums or sites not wanting to cede authority to the public, and I recognize that what I’ve been talking about is the ultimate ceding of authority. It’s certainly a complex issue. Can sites let their interpretation of the past take a backseat to visitor engagement? Is visitor engagement really more important than making sure they get the “correct” version of past events? Should public history sites be brokers of knowledge, or temples of fact?

Teaching About the Past

Learning Online in the Age of Coronavirus

Well, these readings hit a lot closer to home this week than any of us expected.

I’ve never had to take a class fully online. And yet, for the next month and a half or so, I’m going to have to get a lot more comfortable with using technology in all of my courses. I’ve certainly used my laptop in the past to do research, but outside of the projects I’m working on for this class and using Google Docs to collaborate on projects last semester, it’s rarely gone deeper than that. I’m not too concerned about myself, though – most of my courses will be using Zoom to do class meetings, and most of our assignments can be submitted online. But I was concerned about the impact this might have on undergraduates’ education.

If my undergraduate institution is any indication, undergrads are concerned about that as well. A friend of mine made a Facebook post showing comments from students who didn’t want to leave campus and move to online courses. While the broader point of the post was to show the entitlement of a select few students (and it does – I’m not linking to the post because the way that some students put themselves before the health and safety of others is frankly disgusting to me), I thought that this particular comment was relevant to our readings this week:

Taken from a friend’s Facebook post.

Ignoring the selfishness here, I think this demonstrates a lot of students’ feelings about taking courses online; it is an inferior educational experience to having in-person classes. I wonder: is this true, or is it just what we’ve been taught to think?

This article on learning management systems claims that while LMS can be a great tool for students, it should only serve as a compliment to in-class instruction. The same website also asked students about their learning preferences with regards to online courses, and provided data showing that students generally prefer in-person classes. However, when looking at the “BA Public” section (which I would assume has the highest number of online students, though I may be wrong), more students are open to the idea of mostly or fully online courses. Does this mean that students who actually take online courses enjoy the experience, and don’t see a noticeable change in learning when compared to in-person-class students? I don’t know. If anyone can find data on this, I’d love to see it.

Of course I recognize that online learning has its drawbacks. I was saddened but not surprised when reading this book chapter about Wikipedia and Women’s History, which details how hard it can be to include women in Wikipedia articles due to the biases of those who edit Wikipedia. As I read through, I became more and more discouraged about the possibility of an open-source website like Wikipedia to be truly inclusive. But wait! I thought to myself, “This class project was done in 2011, and the book was published in 2013! Surely things have changed in seven years!” Things have not changed. I don’t know what the solution is, but we first need to acknowledge that this is a serious issue with very dangerous ramifications for digital learning.

Content Management & Exhibits

What’s the Point?

I love historical interpretation. To me, being able to take information and create narratives with diverse and complicated actors is one of the coolest things about studying history. I know not everyone agrees with me, but I almost view interpretation as the point of studying history. Without it, history can become a malformed mass of dates and places and names, and I’m not interested in that.

Digital history presents an incredible opportunity for widespread historical interpretation. Using site-building tools like Omeka, historians can upload primary sources and use them to convey complex ideas to the public. The combination of visual aids, digital copies of documents or photographs, and the words of a historian can help some people connect the dots, or even present new ideas or perspectives.

I bring this up because there are some sites that have embraced this idea, while others still function largely as an archive. I don’t mean to suggest that archives are of no use, or that providing interpretation should be mandatory. Digital archives can be excellent tools for historians, and sometimes another person’s interpretation of that source may get in the way. But it still feels like a squandered opportunity to not even attempt some interpretation.

For example, let’s look at the Southern Appalachian Archives Mars Hill University site. As an archive, it’s quite useful. The organization of the site is easy to follow, and they have five collections full of digital scans of documents. If you are searching for these sources to use for a research project, the site seems great. However, you may be disappointed if you’re hoping for the site’s authors to demonstrate how these documents played a role in Southern Appalachian society. I now know that an unpublished manuscript called “The Spirit of the Dance” exists, and I can look at every single page of it, but without reading it all the way through I couldn’t tell you what the greater significance of that manuscript is. Even then, I wouldn’t know if this author was particularly well-known at the time, or if his writings had any regional or national importance. It’s important to note that there is interpretation on the website, particularly under the “Exhibits” section. But other sites have shown that there can be brief interpretive sections with their primary source collections.

Let’s look at an example from the Civil War Era NC website. This entry does more than simply provide an object and the metadata. There are only a few sentences in the description, but they convey a sense of jubilation that the image on its own does not. This site likewise has an “Exhibits” section, but by not limiting the interpretation to that section, the site can provide deeper meaning to the objects shown in its archive.

These sites and others show that a well-organized and engaging website can be a great historical resource. But can they do more to provide context to the objects they display on their online archives? Or, should that be the responsibility of the public?