“Expanding and Blurring:” What Becomes History in a Digital Age?

The first blog post I composed for History 5104 was just a few weeks ago, and it was an extremely stressful experience for me. Not only was I worried about whether or not I’d satisfactorily completed my assignment, I was filled with anxiety about publicly posting my thoughts. Should I be allowed to so openly voice my opinions on a topic when I’m still just a student? Is my voice important enough to be heard? What if, by some fluke, someone actually reads this stuff? Without realizing it, I was engaging in the practice of digital history. I was forcibly elbowing my way into a global discussion in a field that has, arguably, not experienced such massive change since the 19th century. To me, that was, and remains, terrifying. Instead of spending years focusing on a body of work, having it vetted by respected academics in my field, and then releasing it as historians have typically done, I was just letting my thoughts out there, like releasing balloons into the sky.

The field of history is changing…but what, then, is the historian’s role in this changing world? While Ranke codified and professionalized history in the 19th century, today we are facing a mass disbursement of information and a veritable cacophony of voices determining what history is. As Leslie Madsen-Brooks states, “…one important role for historians at this cultural and digital moment is helping people gain the skills to interpret an era’s documents, photographs, and material culture.”[1] That is exactly why I find myself writing this post. Four years after finishing my BA, I decided to leave an awesome position at a museum to return to school. While I loved and was good at my job, I wanted to be trained as a historian. I wanted to more fully understand the methodology of a historian, to be taught and trained, to become better, to become erudite enough to engage knowingly in a historical conversation no matter where it takes place—in a journal, on a conference panel, or on a blog. In coming to Virginia Tech, I am looking to my professors to do just what Madsen-Brooks claims is their role—to continue training laypeople to understand how to do history. In essence, one of the most basic roles of a historian needs to be that of a teacher, whether it is to the general public or to a class of graduate students.

Even before coming to grad school, though, I could have engaged in this conversation as so many others do. As Robert S. Wolff discusses, Wikipedia and similar sources have allowed for an incredibly diversity of voices to engage in not only the discussion but the creating of history.[2] One could argue, then, that what is happening right now is exactly what historians have been trying to do over the last 60 years or so. Instead of looking back to try to find lost voices and marginalized histories, individuals are taking the initiatives to record their own history as it is happening, and to offer their thoughts on history—in a sense adding to the historiography of that topic. While the conversation can seem chaotic and undisciplined, isn’t this the kind of materials historians have been dying to find since New History came to life?

In addition to helping non-historians to acquire the critical and analytical skills needed to interpret and understand sources, historians can also provide a curated offering of historical materials for the general population. This already happens, of course, in museums and libraries and at universities across the world, but it’s also happening on the internet. Some of my favorite examples come, interestingly enough, from Michigan. For years I have been using the resources provided by Michigan State University at their Feeding America online exhibit for my research. This online exhibit provides not only transcriptions, but also scans of original materials and information concerning provenance. As Sherman Dorn pointed out in his essay, actual copies can be of far greater value to historians due to the potential presence of marginalia or annotations.[3] MSU offers even greater context for this exhibition, providing an introductory essay, a video tour, a collection of FAQ, and other items that provide context for the exhibition. Just today I found another wonderful online exhibition from the University of Michigan’s Clements Library concerning the history of sugar production and trade. These exhibitions make amazing resources available to anyone with just a few mouse clicks, but what makes them wonderful is that they don’t leave their user alone to muddle through alone. Instead, they give a bit of interpretation to guide their user, showing another critical way that historians can curate or mediate the dissemination of historical knowledge in our growing digital library.

It’s clear that the internet must now be considered a source for history, just as our books and journals have been in the past. The internet diminishes privilege of access to resources in an exciting way, while also allowing for potential abuse. With easier access there will certainly be more misinformed interpretations and more spreading of inaccuracies. However, this provides historians with the opportunity to proselytize. Instead of bemoaning the spread of falsehoods, historians—professional historians included—need to take this opportunity during a time of change to solidly re-root their profession and demonstrate how essential they are to daily life. History flows through the veins of every individual; every political, social, or cultural movement; and every community. The distance between history and those who compose it is being shortened, and the days of history being only found at academic presses are potentially ending—but that doesn’t mean that methodology and academic rigor need to be lost. Indeed, it provides historians with the opportunity to spread their knowledge and remind everyone of the inherent worth of the study of history.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Leslie Madsen-Brooks, “’I Nevertheless Am a Historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 2013), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12230987.0001.001/1:4/–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1.

[2] Robert S. Wolff, “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 2013), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12230987.0001.001/1:4/–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1.

[3] Sherman Dorn, “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 2013), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12230987.0001.001/1:4/–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1.

 

1 Comment

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One Response to “Expanding and Blurring:” What Becomes History in a Digital Age?

  1. Tiny

    Hey Sara,
    I really enjoy reading your blog posts as they truly are able to convey your feelings. I noticed a section at the end of your post this week that really struck me:

    “With easier access there will certainly be more misinformed interpretations and more spreading of inaccuracies. However, this provides historians with the opportunity to proselytize. Instead of bemoaning the spread of falsehoods, historians—professional historians included—need to take this opportunity during a time of change to solidly re-root their profession and demonstrate how essential they are to daily life.”

    This is so true and there are a lot of bad sites out there, but as Dr. Nelson pointed out, (and I took to heart) there are a LOT of good sites out there as well. This caused me to re-examine my train of thought on the use of the internet when researching any given topic, and in doing so, I am finding more and more that this can be a very useful tool in spreading “facts” to rectify much of the misinformation that is out there. We are most certainly into this new digital age and if we do not adapt to our new surroundings, be they digital or advancing into the future via any new form of technology as it arises, then we, as historians, will become history ourselves.

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