Digital publishing combines a number of advantages and disadvantages. While worth exploring, the nature of digital publishing makes it a better platform for some forms of history than others. While a common concern seems to be the question of whether blogging is scholarship or not, such as in Cummings and Jarrett’s piece, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy.” I personally find that to be an issue that lacks in nuance and imagination. Blogs, and digital publishing generally are not challenges to traditional historical methods. Much like Facebook cannot replace meeting people in real life, so to can blogs and websites not replace conferences and seminars in the real world. Rather, it is a fundamentally different pursuit, one that can bring in new audiences who are not engaged by traditional historical work.
Digital publishing, and presenting work in the digital sphere has a few key components that make it better in some ways than traditional historical works. The first critical element is that digital publishing can engage far more fully with primary sources. Unlike a conventional book, which nearly always must cherry pick quotes and phrases, with a few extended sections, digital publishing can include pictures of the primary sources, and, with a little more effort, transcripts. Second, digital publishing is far more agile. With a physical book, once the work is printed off, there is little that can be done to make changes and corrections. Comparatively, for a digitally published work, there is an ongoing peer review process throughout the life of the work. This cycle of posts, comments, and revisions creates opportunities for websites and digitally published media to reflect not just a snapshot of a historians thoughts at the end of the process, but rather an ongoing conversation between the readership and the historian. Third, digital publishing allows for far more informationally dense work. Rather than having to spread all of the information out within the constraints of a page, digital publishing, such as Digital Harlem’s ability to map out hundreds of events that all occurred within a month in and on the borders of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. (http://digitalharlem.org/)
However, there are also disadvantages. First and most critical is that web systems are to a great degree fundamentally temporary. Even for information that is still somewhere, the links get lost or disconnect, changes on the technical back end can break integrations. Secondly, digital history often breaks the narrative arcs that traditional history relies on. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom works on narrative arcs both within chapters and across the entire work. When that narrative is hyperlinked, readers forge their own path, walking through pages that catch their interest. Further, each piece is often shorter, for example the Ted Talks usually range between about seven and twenty minutes, far shorter than common historical documentaries.
For historical work, digital history straddles the lines between popular, public, and academic history. While limited based on platform, digital publishing offer a pathway to present primary sources, examine secondary works under a historian’s lens, and publicize the historian’s craft. Beyond that, the internet can be used to present incomplete ideas, or simply interesting historical individuals. However, the most critical use of this public environment is actually to engage with the parahistoric works that see far more wide distribution than even popular historical works.
First however, some terms need to be explored, specifically, popular, public, academic, and parahistoric. While popular history is often little more than a snarl word in academic circles. However, it does provide a significant advantage in engaging mass audiences. As Wikipedia describes it, popular history “emphasizes narrative, personality and vivid detail over scholarly analysis” However, this style of history is also gripping, bringing in people who simply want a good story. Public history comparatively, is done by trained scholars, in attempts to reach out to a public audience. Academic history is primarily analytical. While bringing new or rediscovered primary source documents is a key piece of the historical system, academic history primarily relies on analysing, comparing, and interrogating the accuracy of source materials.Finally, there are the parahistorical works. These cluster around history, using historical themes, historical assets, without really explaining the significance. A clear example of this is the Call of Duty series, which engages with history, showing critical battles and high resolution images of the weapons and uniforms (most often of world war 2) but does not really draw on a real sense of history. It is these parahistorical works that provide the clearest challenge to traditional methods of history. First, they are popular. To use Call of Duty as an example, Call of Duty: World War 2’s multiplayer on Steam alone had some 56,174 concurrent players, and the game overall, had sold nearly 20 million copies as of February 2019. However, it is also fast moving. Within traditional history, the reaction and replies can often take months, or even years to formulate. By the time the historical sphere could react, the parahistorical sphere had already moved on to new media.
And that is where the advantages of digital history are maximized, while the disadvantages are comparatively minimized. It does not matter that a link has broken three years down the line, because the audience has moved on two and a half years ago, and is looking at different content. While traditional historical audiences demand footnotes and endnotes, a parahistorical audience often will not follow those footnotes, but may well follow a link.
A blog or other web project creates a space where some of the articles can relate those interesting personal stories of history, the ‘believe it or not’ pieces that drive much of popular history, while combining it with academic rigour by paralleling those with digitizing primary sources and more analytical articles. While traditional academic approaches are often difficult to approach, and require careful reading even for trained scholars, the informality of blogging and online spaces allow for history to be more approachable than either walls of verbiage or simple recitations of places and dates. Blogging, and online history more generally needs to be a gateway from a popular history to more academically driven approaches. Rather than being purely a side project, or a way to promote the “real” history books, a blog can serve as a place of historical development.This is not to say that real, serious, historical work cannot be done in the digital sphere, but rather that digital history opens opportunities to engage with communities that the standard practices of history do not reach.