AHA Day 2: State of the Field

In the second workshop session sponsored by the AHA Research Division, Prof. William G. Thomas chaired a panel with Jon Christensen, Jo Guldi, and Andrew J. Torget. The purpose of the panel was to examine ways that digital scholarly work was being produced.

Jon Christensen sought to answer to questions: 1) what has the research produced?, and 2) so what? He presented on the research for his book Critical Habitat: A History of Thinking with Things in Nature. Much of the digital output from the book, which can be viewed at the Stanford Spatial History Project, sought to use spatial analysis to examine historical correlations. Data, he reminds the audience, is shot through with historical contingency. Thus, you need new methods to see through the data.

Jo Guldi suggested that digital materials press scholars to consider sources in larger scales of time and place, indeed, may even demand larger scale and longer periods. Methods of digital history help raise new questions. Guldi argues that we are secure in our traditional methods of doing micro history, but we don’t know how to release macro history in our work. The Annals school attempted this, but required large research teams. Mass digitization, however, gives us new tools. She demonstrated her uses of File Juicer and the timeline feature of Zotero to highlight ways of examining the longue durée of history.

Andre Torget illustrated his Texas Slavery Project and how spatial analysis helped him raise new questions about the extension of slavery into Texas. He spoke also about the challenges of translating digital work into traditional narratives. His dynamic maps of Texas speak as a sort of argument on their own, but moving that into print is a challenge and ultimately falls short. Some models of moving digital to print exist, he points out, including William Thomas’s The Iron Way and Richard White’s Railroaded, but the book remains the standard for tenure and promotion.

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