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.


AHA Day 2: Presenting Historical Research Using Digital Media

At session 75 on Saturday, “Presenting Historical Research Using Digital Media,” the presenters introduced several new modes for presenting their scholarly work. The session included a companion website that contained resources for each of their talks.

Monty Dobson, a historian and archeologist, discussed his work in documentaries and showcased his upcoming PBS series, America from the Ground Up. Originally designed as a half-hour video for his classroom after he became frustrated with the lack of material on the history of the interior U.S., the project has grown into a four-part series. He hopes that his work will focus our attention more squarely on the interior United States, promising the audience that not once will he mention George Washington when discussing the arrival of Europeans and Americans to the region. In confronting a narrative that is East Coast centric, he hopes to reshape public history and examine the history of a region more closely aligned with New France rather than the experiences of the coast.

Phil Ethington discussed geo-historical visualizations. Digital media, he reminds us, is important because of its substance and what we’re communicating. The media is not the message; rather, the media enables new ways of seeing the past. He has developed HyperCities, built for urban research and collaboration, as a method to examine how people came to understand their place and space. Ethington also pointed the potential of nonprofits and community-based organizations to use HyperCities as a way to crowd source their local history.

Katrina Gulliver discussed her process of starting up her podcast, Cities in History. She came to podcasting as an experiment in learning how to do this technically, but also to think about presenting her work to a general audience. She outlined the various off-the-rack and easy to use tools she uses in her setup, including Jellycast and GarageBand to record and Tumblr for her site.

Jennifer Serventi ended the session discussing the variety of digital projects that the National Endowment for the Humanities funds and things to think about when writing proposals to the NEH. Serventi reminded the audience that humanities projects should use the best genre or medium for the project, whether it was a book, podcast, film, or otherwise. She also pointed to the NEH’s new database of digital projects as a way to begin learning about the sorts of projects that have been funded and may serve as a starting point for our own proposals.

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.


NYT: Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches

A recent piece by Patricia Cohen of the New York Times profiling some current digital history projects:


Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches
Published: November 16, 2010
Digitally savvy scholars are exploring how technology can enhance understanding of the liberal arts.


This is part of a series:

Humanities 2.0
The Liberal Arts Meet the Data Revolution

This is the first in a series of articles about how digital tools are changing scholarship in history, literature and the arts.

See also the NYT ArtsBeat Blog for a piece on “Digitally Mapping the Republic of Letters.”