Week 2 – Digital History vs. History

The internet has become a critical tool for a wide variety of academic fields. The online medium dramatically changes how we practice history, but it does not change the heart of what we want to learn. In the end, we all want to know what people who came before us were like. Historians want to learn about an ever expanding range: from specifics about prior human life (what people wore, did, thought, and where they lived) to larger conclusions that can be drawn from looking at large groups for long periods of time (how recessions and economic depressions occur).

We can share more and learn more from each other. History is somewhat unique that we have a large amount of “amateur” historians. Genealogists are thick on the ground at any good historical society library. The digital age has opened the floodgates of information, but at the very least, it’s there. You can find someone out there who cares deeply for the same obscure 19th century shipwreck or descended from the same crooked branch of the Hatfield clan (I am guilty on these last two counts).

A lot of information is out there, but not every historical society can publish their archives digitally and curators are constantly swamped in their attempts to catalog everything in their collections. Toni Weller in History in the Digital Age laments that “hands-on” interactions with collections will be lost. Specifically, she mentions a case of a historian sniffing Portuguese letters during a cholera outbreak to see if they had used vinegar as a disinfectant. Yet, when an item is digitized it is not immediately destroyed! If that historian wanted to handle these letters they are still more than welcome to travel and see them in person. Simply digitizing them makes them more available and perhaps protects them from over handling.

Although this may fly in the face of taking this course, I do not think digital history is any different than history. More specifically “digital history” is the application of these digital tools to continue studying history. Historians need to learn how to use these tools and apply them to their work. English professors, authors, scientists, and Japanese language students are all using the internet and digital mediums to further their work too. I cannot begin to tell you the love I feel for Professor Jim Breen and his simplistic, yet accurate Japanese-English dictionary. I would not have made it through four years of Japanese study and a year abroad if it weren’t for this online resource. Yet, when I studied Japanese there wasn’t a distinction between “digital Japanese” and “Japanese”. As I assume there isn’t a distinction between the other fields of study that are using digital resources. History should be no different.

Perhaps the only way I would use “digital history” for a different field of study, would be in a few decades when historians want to delve into online resources to research people living in the 1990s and onwards using their Livejournals, Tweets, Blogs, Facebook status updates, and Yelp check-ins.


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