Who knew there could be so much to consider when deciding to “digitize” history? Sounds simple enough to create a website, blog, or other informational forum on the internet. At first glance one would think all one needs to do is essentially upload written text to an electronic format and post it somewhere on the web. At least that’s what I had in mind before reading Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. This book goes well beyond my initial line of thinking by exposing all that goes into presenting history on the web. Before reading this book, I didn’t think too much about the behind the scenes work that is required to make the final presentation that I’m used to seeing. I knew the information didn’t just magically appear, but at the same time did not have a clear idea of what it takes to get history on the web in a coherent and respectable manner.
The presentation of a website is just the tip of the iceberg, and Cohen and Rosenzweig do an excellent job of taking the reader below the surface of the web to show what it really takes to create a historical website. As they go deeper, the terms become more and more technical (many of which I had never encountered before) and therefore a bit overwhelming. The authors are aware of this and even state in the introduction that some of the terms and examples may not make as much sense depending on how tech-savvy the reader is. While at times the jargon is a bit technical, the overall meaning of the book is quite obvious: “In what ways can digital media and digital networks allow us to do our work as historians better” (Cohen and Rosenzweig, 3)? This book got me thinking about how to use the ever-increasing access of digital media in ways that can best serve myself and the viewing public. By having a general understanding of the seemingly endless possibilities that digital media offers, I can begin thinking of ways to best use it and pick up the necessary technical skills along the way.
Perhaps the most significant question of using digital media and digital networks is determining the intended audience. This determination greatly influences the type of historical website that can, and should, be created. The audience can vary immensely, from professional scholars to grade school children and everyone in between. By considering the audience, it becomes imperative to determine how interactive the website in question should be. If aimed at scholars, then it might make sense to give the opportunity for the viewers to make suggestions and even add to the information on the site. This might not work as well with a less scholarly crowd.
The question of audience rolls into the even bigger question discussed in Rosenzweig’s article, “Can History be an Open Source?” The title of this article says it all and the answer is certainly up for debate. I see a direct correlation between the answer of this question and the audience to which the question might be posed. For me, I would change the question from “can history be an open source” to “should” it be an open source. There is no doubt that history can be an open source. Wikipedia has proven that much by having a free, collaborative website that makes history open to anyone. It presents a very specific history that is biased by the popularity of certain events and people. Nonetheless, it makes history open to all, no matter one’s background.
But should history be an open source? That depends on who is asking the question and what his or her goals are for the use of the information presented. If a historical website is developed with the goal of being as accurate and professional as possible, then it may not be a great idea to make the information open to all. This is what JSTOR seems to do. It presents information in the form of professional academic articles and limits the access to this information mostly to academic institutions, and even that comes at a price. Ironically enough, Rosenzweig’s previously mentioned article was published in The Journal of American History Volume 93, Number 1 (June, 2006): 117-46, which typically is a format that restricts access. However, when you access JSTOR you can be certain you are getting high quality information. That is not something that is guaranteed by sites that are open to anyone, but as long as the viewer is aware of that up front, then that issue is resolved.
Personally, I think history should be completely open. Everyone deserves the same access to the knowledge presented by history. Ideally, all information that is open to anyone would first be checked to make sure it is accurate, but that is not always possible given the enormous amount of information available on the web. Nonetheless, as long as the viewer/reader is aware of this drawback, he or she should proceed at will.