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.”

Robert Townsend Article in Perspectives

Robert B. Townsend, a presenter at the Sustaining Digital History meeting, has written an article titled, “How is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?” that is featured in the current (November 2010) issue of Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. Dr. Townsend presented some of the slides and data found in this article at the October Sustaining Digital History meeting. This is the second of three articles reporting findings from a spring 2010 survey of research and teaching practices in the historical profession. The article is available online here. However, it is currently only available online to AHA members.


Two digital history interviews conducted in conjunction with the Sustaining Digital History meeting, with presenters Anne Sarah Rubin and Abby Smith Rumsey, are now available to view here. In the future, more interviews with other presenters and editors will appear. This blog will alert visitors when new interviews are available. These interviews, which concentrate on questions connected to issues of new-model scholarly communication and the overall sustaining digital history initiative, are located within the ongoing series of interviews at