Does Digital History Count as Scholarship?:
In several of the readings for this week, I noticed that the main theme was not only about practical ways to publish content online, but also how that content is valued. In Alex Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett’s piece, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,” the authors talk about the informality of blogging, but also discuss the ways in which this informality can reach people. They emphasize that “dense writing deters an audience” and for non-historians “the historical blogger can help decode the field.” This makes blogging invaluable for reaching a wider public and catching interest. Yet, the authors remind readers that the importance of blogs (and really digital scholarship in general) is being questioned. Sloppy writing, descent into professional gossip, inaccurate information, and the biased nature of opinion are all points of criticism. These are valid concerns, but adaptation and willingness to change for the enrichment of the field of history, as well as for the benefit of those who wish to learn from historians but need to do so in a different way than traditional scholarship, is something that must be considered here.
New Methods of Imparting Knowledge:
Blogging is quickly becoming, if it hasn’t already, one of the main mediums of information exchange to vast amounts of people in an easily understandable way. If you google advice on blogging, you will find hundreds of different people telling you the best way to start, maintain, and improve a blog on almost any subject. The articles this class read over for discussion on this subject are only a few out of the mass of articles we could have looked at. Mignon Fogarty’s post, “How to Write a Great Blog Comment,” insists that one of the requirements for a good comment is that you respond to someone else’s work with an acceptable level of knowledge about the subject you are discussing. If this medium is becoming so important in the age of technological innovation we live in today, and if it clearly is something accessible to a giant audience, it already merits value as a communication tool. If you add to it the fact that people who may be experts in their chosen field, hobby, or really anything, can share their knowledge to help improve the lives of others, it seems that blogs and other digital tools should be held in higher esteem than they are by the academic community.
Audiences can learn so much about a historical topic from a website or blog in a shorter amount of time than it takes to read books and articles. The colors, images, and design aspects of online content also draw in more viewers of varying demographics than other media can. As a viewer with almost zero knowledge of the racial violence happening in Harlem during the Great Depression, I was impressed by the two online publications telling this history that were assigned for this class to read. The first website, “Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930,” while a bit less user friendly than the second website, “Year of the Riot: Harlem in Disorder: A Spatial History of Race and Violence in the Great Depression,” it was helpful in showing me the context for the events surrounding race violence in this period. It also made it clear with informative captions and just a general representation of the geography both how many speakeasies and nightclubs actually existed at this time in Harlem that I had never actually thought about, along with the pure volume of violence that occurred at these places. I learned this information by simply clicking on the picture entitled “Nightlife” on the site’s home screen. This site is also a blog, making it even more relevant to this point of the importance of this type of digital media in the world of history. The author provides documentation of source materials used, and interestingly enough they are predominantly primary sources. Does this not make this site a piece of scholarly work worth appreciating and learning from? I learned more from the interactive and colorful nature of the website than I would have ever learned trying to skim through a book on the subject with few pictures.
The second website on Harlem, linked earlier, was even more informative than the first. The design was attractive but not distracting, and it drew me in to start clicking on links to learn more. The best part about this site is that it is still in progress, and is constantly updated with new information and improvements. Stephen Robertson, the creator of both sites, is working on a digital historical project and planning to continue building upon the work he did in his previous website/blog “Digital Harlem.” Looking over this ‘work in progress’ I have already learned more about the events mentioned than I would have thought upon first glance.
I say all of this to remind people that this kind of work is educating many people who don’t have the ability to learn more about historical topics through schooling and reading countless books and journals on important and relevant historical moments. Maybe this should be considered more valuable than it is? It could be bringing history forward as a field, acting as a way to reach wider public audiences and educate larger numbers of people on historical topics.
Cummings and Jarrett accurately sum up my feelings on the subject when they claim that we have to stop hoarding our knowledge and viewing ourselves as the only ones able to “master” it. They suggest approaching our knowledge in our field as curators. We can share the information we possess with a larger audience, and facilitate their learning of it, adding to the development of knowledge instead of keeping it to ourselves.