Publishing on the Web

Start of Semester Understandings

(NB: I am not writing this for a grade, but instead as a tool to help me see how my understanding of what Digital History is, and what can be done with it changes over the course of the semester, and am publishing it because I think it might generate some interesting discussion.)

Digital history, fundamentally, breaks down into three pieces, not all of which are related to any great degree. First is what could be called Digital Pedagogy, which concerns the use of digital technologies to enhance learning, such as long distance courses, blogging, websites and such. Second is what I may term digital research, which focuses on the utility of digital technologies, such as portable cameras, digitized archives, and beyond that the ability to contact and engage with historians on research questions and share research material. However, gathering and sharing is not the extent of the influence of computers and the internet. Rather, computers also allow an engagement with information in more quantitative, rather than qualitative methods. Finally, what I may term digital history proper. Rather than a question of doing history using technology, it is a history of digital spaces.

Digital education has been a question facing the academic world for well over a decade, and is the domain not only of marginal institutions, but even academic centers, such as the University of Edinburgh. These provide a new way to engage with students, not just in the classroom, but beyond it. However, outside of the path of the direct academic teaching, there are also some 10,960,000,000, pages searchable by Google that to one degree or another touch on history. This online presence is the pathway that the vast majority of the population engages with historical topics.

Digital Research really represents a fundamental change in how research is done, what is useful in research, and how we as historians access resources. First, it globalizes what research can be done. Rather than solely focusing on local issues, and what foreign assets can be found in nearby archives, or making expensive trips around the world, the digital age has made it so that vast collections of materials can be brought to bear from anywhere with an internet connection. Computers also create the ability to engage more fully with large amounts of data, such as looking at day to day production at a particular factory, or rosters of Civil War regiments.

Digital history is a history that engages fully with the questions of digital spaces. At the risk of becoming too political, the 2008 campaign had a significant investment in digital spaces, what David Carr of the New York Times described as “a network of supporters who used a distributed model of phone banking to organize and get out the vote, helped raise a record-breaking $600 million, and created all manner of media clips that were viewed millions of times. It was an online movement that begot offline behavior, including producing youth voter turnout that may have supplied the margin of victory.” This was not a one off event, but rather one piece of a much larger opening of a political and social debate. Equally, the GSRM movements (Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Minorities) movements gained significant ground, in part due to the ability of the internet to create communities and link individuals with similar conditions. While these topics are somewhat too close to ourselves to be engaged with in academic histories, the question of how and why digital spaces have shaped modern history is still one that should be considered, especially for the next generation of teachers, who will likely be guiding the research into these fields.

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