The Civil War lends itself greatly to the digital medium. In addition to the subject’s scholarly contingent, it also possesses a great public audience of increasingly computer literate members. This question of audience was something addressed in the AHA Panel wittingly titled “Hardtack and Software: Digital Approaches to the American Civil War,” a digital spin on John D. Billings’ popular 1887 reminiscence Hardtack and Coffee: Or The Unwritten Story of Army Life.”
Of the four projects presented during the session, two seemed to be readily open to the inclusion of the general public as well as the more general scholarly audience—Visualizing Emancipation and Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory. Yet the ability to play with data and explore the history provided by the digital medium promotes public use as well. Civil War Washington, while being a repository for scholarly information about the nation’s capitol, may also be of interest to “amateur” Civil War scholars. Mining the Dispatch is admittedly geared toward academics, however, Nelson’s findings will be of interest to any student of the Civil War, with or without professional scholastic credentials.
Each panelist provided an overview of their respective projects, which I shall not repeat here. Readers are encouraged to visit the sites and interact with them for themselves. Instead, each presenter introduced the scholarly findings or evidence displayed or exhibited in the projects. The tools and technology employed by each project received relatively little attention. During the comments section of the panel, Robert Nelson asserted that the challenge is to produce scholarship that is going to be of interest to scholars of the subject not the technology. We must focus on historical questions and historical moments, not on techniques.
This thought was one that stayed with me more than any other aspect of the session. If we want the discipline of history to be receptive of works created through and with the digital medium, it is essential that we emphasize the scholarship that is being produced, not the way in which it is being produced. In order for “doing digital history” to become synonymous with “doing history,” we need to convince the field of the validity of digital scholarship.
Back to the issue of audience, users outside of the academy—Civil War “buffs,” teachers, and students—are likely unconcerned with whether or not what they are interacting with is considered scholarship by academics, but rather what they can learn from utilizing such projects. To me, a Master’s student with career ambitions in the public history sector, this is the most exciting aspect of combining technology with doing history—its ability to make history more accessible and appealing to the public. Whether through providing access to documents and visualizations which allow a thorough analysis of Washington, D.C. or using an algorithm to reveal large societal and cultural patterns over thousands of newspaper articles, the digital medium is truly an effective way both to craft history and to communicate it.