Digital Historical Scholarship and the Civil War

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.

The Future is Here: Digital History at the 126th Annual Meeting

The Future is Here,” a series at the 2012 AHA meeting, will feature numerous presentations and discussions on Digital History. Several graduate students who are attending these panels will post reactions to these panels as well as participation at the THATCamp hosted on January 5.

 

When Was Linearity?: The Meaning of Graphics in the Digital Age

When Was Linearity?: The Meaning of Graphics in the Digital Age
Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara
August 2008 (version 1.0)

But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind. . . .
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

— Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1935)1

Prologue: “Emblazoned Zones and Fiery Poles”

After a lecture I gave at the Pauley Symposium on “History in the Digital Age” at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 2006, I was asked the following, profoundly felt question from the audience by the historian Tim Borstelmann: Continue reading

Mapping Freedom

Mapping Freedom
Edward L. Ayers, University of Virginia
June 2007

Let me begin with a quote from, of all people, Bob Dylan, remembering 1960 or so, when he was about 20:

“I couldn’t exactly put in words what I was looking for, but I began searching in principle for it, over at the New York Public Library. In one of the upstairs reading rooms I started reading articles in newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to about 1865 to see what daily life was like. I wasn’t so much interested in the issues as intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times. . . . Everybody uses the same God, quotes the same Bible and law and literature.
. . . You wonder how people so united by geography and religious ideals could become such bitter enemies. After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song, but there’s a certain imperfection in the themes, an ideology of high abstraction, a lot of epic, bearded characters, exalted men who are not necessarily good. . . . The suffering is endless, and the punishment is going to be forever. It’s all so unrealistic, grandiose and sanctimonious at the same time.”1

As Dylan says, the Civil War was “all one long funeral song.” But out of that funeral song came the most remarkable act of emancipation in modern history: four million people become free, with no compensation to the slaveholders and with a determination to bring justice as well as freedom to those held in bondage for more than two centuries. Continue reading

Creating the China Historical Geographic Information System

Creating the China Historical Geographic Information System
Peter K. Bol, Harvard University
May 2007

Slide 1

The China Historical Geographic Information System (CHGIS) project is one of a number of national historical GIS projects. The earliest and most advanced is the Great Britain Historical GIS [slides 3-4], and the United States Historical GIS (the “National Historical GIS”) [slides 5-6] is developing quickly. Continue reading