Reviewing Digital History Projects
While the American Historical Review has previously featured traditional articles based on “born-digital” projects, like William G. Thomas III and Edward Ayers’ “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two Communities,” until now, the AHR had yet to review actual, digital scholarship. Thus, it is significant that for the first time ever, in this month’s publication of the journal, the AHR featured two reviews (and author responses) of digital history projects.
Not only is this significant in the development of the journal, but it is also significant for the field of Digital History as digital projects seek to earn the same respect shown to traditional, print scholarship. Reviews of DH projects in scholarly journals like the AHR are so important to the development of DH as a field given that the lack of a normalized peer review process has been a controversial topic that has prevented DH projects from receiving the same consideration and approval shown to print publications.
Thus, helping to create a normalized process for reviewing digital history, the AHR Exchange provides an introduction, two different reviews of different projects, and two responses from an individual involved in the project’s creation. While authors do not traditionally respond to reviews in this format, being that these are the AHR’s first digital history reviews, allowing authors to respond may help shape the way digital projects are reviewed in the future. Encouraged to “engage with questions of presentation, legibility, organization, historiography, research, and interpretation—to evaluate the effectiveness of the medium as well as the message,” the reviewers presented their findings and the project creators responded (141).
For its first DH reviews, the AHR looked at two interactive web based projects: Digital Harlem: Every- day Life, 1915–1930 and Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761: A Cartographic Narrative. Both digital mapping sites, these two projects show how “digital tools can reveal both geospatial and sociohistorical patterns not visible through a more “traditional” reading of the historical sources available” (141). So, let’s check it out!
In reviewing Digital Harlem, Joshua Sternfeld made several key points. First, throughout his review Sternfeld seemed to believe that Digital Harlem lacked historiographical contribution. With a constant emphasis on the lack of contextualization, Sternfeld criticized Digital Harlem for lacking “digitized photographic or full text source material” and for lacking comprehensive sampling data (147). Furthermore, Sternfeld argues that Digital Harlem focuses too heavily on criminal activity as opposed to “everyday life” in Harlem. Finally, Sternfeld notes that by “combining data from these disparate sources into a single searchable database, the authors have decontextualized the data” (152). As a whole, Sternfeld seemed to suggest that Digital Harlem was in adequate in its source material, its argument, and its historiographical contributions to the historiography of everyday life in Harlem.
In response to Sternfeld, project contributor Stephen Robertson explains to readers that Sternfeld misses the main contribution of the project. He explains that as Robertson “only fitfully engages with spatial orientation… his emphasis remains on collecting digitized sources, not on visualizing them” (151). Then, explaining the technological and copyright limits prevented the project creators from implementing some of Sternfeld’s suggestions, Robertson shares that Digital Harlem was not designed as a public history project, teaching resource, or archive, but rather as a spatial visualization of historical sources (160). Thus, where Sternfeld criticizes Digital Harlem for neglecting to make a historiographical contribution with an accurate argument, Robertson explains that “Digital Harlem is an opportunity to think about digital mapping as a research method, not as a means of making or illustrating arguments,” but as a way to investigate sources (166). Then, addressing Sternfeld’s critique of the site’s attention to criminal records, Robertson explains that the criminal records represent the cultural (places) and economic (numbers game/gambling) everyday life of Harlem (161).
Slave Revolt in Jamaica
Distinctly different from Sternfeld’s review of Digital Harlem, Natalie Zacek offers a positive review of Slave Revolt in Jamaica. Describing the site as a cartographic narrative, Zacek reveals the sites’ two primary contributions: 1) challenging the traditional narrative that the revolt was the result of a series of disconnected rebellions by providing insight into the rebels’ strategic aims and tactical dynamics of the entire insurrection and, 2) suggesting the rebels’ long term goals of establishing their own society. While Zacek believes the second contribution is a bit of a stretch, she praises the project for providing an argument based on primary sources.
Responding to Zacek, principle investigator Vincent Brown echoes Zacek’s point about argumentation by emphasizing that scholarship should evidence and interpretation over the medium of presentation. Acknowledging that his rationale for the project was primarily historiographical, Brown explains that by viewing the slave revolt spatially, he was able to “advocate interpretations of the past that might otherwise go unarticulated” (179).
Reading the reviews and author responses was very intriguing. What stood out to me most was that Sternfeld criticized Digital Harlem for its lack of argument while Zacek praised Slave Revolt in Jamaica for its historiographical contribution. Yet, the fact that Robertson writes that Digital Harlem is not a “means of making arguments,” suggests a point of definition needed in the review process of digital projects: should digital projects be reviewed for their argument?