Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Discovering Digital History (Digital History Week 3)

            To me, since digital history is filled with buzzwords like scholarship, methodology, technologies, etc, looking at the pros and cons (promises and perils) of digital history provides greater insight into the field.
             First, one of the pros of digital history is its storage capacity. With a 120-gigabyte hard drive costing only $95 and providing storage for a 120,000-volume library, historians have the ability to store scholarship like never before. In addition to storage capacity, digital history offers historians more accessibility to resources than previously available. For example, while the Library of Congress has never welcomed high school students into its reading room, digitizing the items in the reading room opens up library’s resources not only to high school students, but also to the entire public. In addition to being more accessible, digital history is flexible. Being a flexible medium, digital history allows scholarship to take various forms such as texts, pictures, sounds, and movies. Along with being flexible, digital history supports diversity. Whether its the number of authors on the web, or the ethnicity and genders of people searching the web, digital history supports diversity as it engages with the public. Furthermore, another pro of digital history is its manipulability; for example, the word search on JSTOR allows individuals to manipulate their research agendas. In addition to having manipulability, digital history has an element of interactivity to it. Such interactivity allows communication between students, teachers, parents, and more. Finally, due to its digital aspect, digital history is nonlinear. Being nonlinear, digital history allows individuals to look at history in new ways both narratively and spatially (Cohen and Rosenzweig).
            Considering the cons of digital history, Cohen and Rosenzweig address several problems with the field. First, there is the issue of quality; often times searching the internet provides links to inadequate sources. For example, I once knew a student who was writing about Fredrick Douglass and decided to cite someone’s tweet as a primary source for their essay. Along with the problem of quality, there is also the issue of durability. Unlike printed books, which can remain for hundreds of years, digitized items can become out of date and unable to function with current technology. In addition to the problem of durability, digital history faces the issue of readability. For example, reading a book, an individual can often pick out the book’s thesis and argument. Looking at a digital history project, however, it may be more difficult to identify the author’s arguments. Another interesting issue in digital history is the idea of passivity. While digital history does provide users an element of interactivity, often times such interactivity comes in the form of yes or no decisions, keeping the user from thinking critically and processing the scholarship. Finally, along with passivity, there is the issue of inaccessibility. For example, less than 2/3rd of the world does not have access to a telephone, let alone the internet (Cohen and Rosenzweig). In addition to these cons, authors like William Thomas explain that while historians used to fear a scarcity of resources, now they live in a “culture of abundance” that might be overwhelming to sort through and difficult to archive (Computing and the Historical Imagination).
            After looking at the pros and cons, I believe that digital history is a valuable field that academia should embrace. As Ayers compares digital history to narrative, theater, and film productions, he writes, “Eventually all successful storytelling technologies become transparent: we lose consciousness of the medium and see neither print nor film but only the power of the story itself” (The Past and Futures of Digital History). With this idea in mind, I believe that academics should embrace the new opportunities provided by digital history and strive for a scholarly product that highlights the story itself.
            So what does that look like? Well, one phenomenal example of digital history is The Valley of the Shadow project. Going to the main page of the project and reading the description, one might interpret the project’s argument to that the voices of men, women, blacks, and whites, in both north and south, matter. As Dr. Jeffrey McClurken remarks, digital projects are evaluated for their scholarly value; to be a true digital project, it must be more than a companion to a book or a website with scans of texts, it must have a scholarly argument. Additionally, digital projects must be evaluated for their audience. If a reviewer cannot identify an intended audience, the project needs to be improved (The Junto). Looking at the Valley project, I would suggest that it is intended for undergraduate and graduate students along with educators and researchers. Finally, looking at some of the points raised by Cohen and Rosenzweig, the Valley project demonstrates great capacity (holding over 12,000 files), accessibility (open to anyone), manipulability (being able to search texts), and more. Thus, just from considering just these few aspects of the Valley project, I believe the project proves to be a successful, scholarly example of digital history.

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