Since the semester began at George Mason, I’ve been asked many times what classes I’m taking. A harmless question, but as soon as I mention that I’m taking a course on digital history there is the inevitable follow-up question of “what’s that?” After reading the discussion “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History” in the Journal of American History, I’m glad to know I’m not alone in having a difficult time defining digital history. When confronted with the task of describing what digital history is, I usually give a vague explanation that it’s essentially using digital technologies to present and research history in a new way. After reading the discussion noted above, it’s evident that there is much more to it than that (which does not surprise me in the least).
Digital history is a tough concept to understand. It seems simple enough when applying my generalized explanation, but when you hear from professionals who deal with the ideas inherent in digital history it becomes quite obvious how significant digital history can be. At one point in the article one of the scholars asks if it is possible in this day and age to not use digital history in some way. I think that is a significant question. Everything is digitized, or in the process of being digitized, and it seems like everything you could ever want is on the internet. To access that information for historical purposes throws you into the realm of digital history. Even if you do all of your research by physically going to a library and picking through newspapers or letters that are on file, invariably you will encounter a digital resource at some point. In order to make your research available to others, the most obvious, and easiest I would think, way to do that is put it online in some form. Digital technology is permeating throughout our culture and given that the study of history is very much a part of our culture, there is no way to avoid interacting with digital history.
The other major question (major from my perspective at least) that was brought up in the discussion was the idea that although the younger generation has grown up with technology, they don’t really know how to create it. This point hit home with me because that is exactly how I feel being part of that younger generation. I’m quite familiar with how to use most of the latest technology, but I don’t have a clue about how to create and publish it. My focus is on use, but as I get more involved in digital history I see my perspective changing to focus more on the purpose and techniques associated with various technologies.
Initially when I signed up for a class on digital history I imagined I would learn about how to use the tools to create websites and databases. Based on the article, I am not alone in the graduate community to think that is what digital history is all about. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by learning about the methods and theories behind digital history before going forward with the nuts and bolts of creating digital history sites. I think having the fundamental understanding of the purpose of websites and other digital repositories for history will enhance my use of digital technology. Before taking this class I was blissfully unaware of all of the issues that must be considered before actually creating digital history (i.e. copyright laws, open access, styles, audience, etc.). That being said, I am very much looking forward to the next step in my digital education. It’s helpful to know the fundamentals of digital history, but it leaves me longing for the practical skills that will allow me to actually create the website I am proposing for my final project.