The Challenges of Abundance

The topic for this week’s class is “What is Digital History?,” which is the very same question I get asked when I tell people about the Digital History Fellowship. I was unsure of how to answer that question, and despite this week’s readings am not yet confident enough to espouse my own definition. My goal is to have a definitive answer by the end of this semester.

One of the articles, “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” asks several different scholars how they would define digital history, and William Thomas, William Turkel, Dan Cohen, and Steven Mintz all have slightly different explanations. From the articles I can say that digital history involves the following:

  • Utilizing new technologies to spread and democratize history
  • Is a scholarly endeavor as well as one pursued by non-academics
  • A new methodology that allows the public to interact with history
  • Much more than just digitization

Digital history also has a different goal than “analog” history, by which I mean the history pursued by purely academics in a non-digital form. Sure, all historians want the general public to engage with history on some level, but in the analog world they are the best at spreading that knowledge among other members of the academy through peer review, conferences, and more. Digital history allows the public to see, explore, and interpret history in a more tactile, innovative, and creative way. Does this mean that digital history falls under the umbrella of public history? What if digital history is pursued by academics with PhDs – would it then be considered as academic? I realize that there is a spectrum, but I have yet to pinpoint where digital and public history fall on said spectrum. The definitions of digital history and public history remain ambiguous to me and I look forward to teasing out the distinctions and similarities throughout the semester.

What really struck me about these articles is the many challenges that digital historians face. In his article “Scarcity or Abundance: Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” Roy Rosenzweig argues that digital history will either have a future of scarcity or abundance: either we will be unable to preserve digital history, or we will be inundated with information due to storage capacity (also, I now understand where titles for O’Malley’s and Takats’ blog posts come from). In my opinion we are in an age of abundance, but preservation remains an issue for digital historians. What tools are in place to ensure that our digital history will be accessible and usable years from now? Preservation is also discussed in Rosenzweig & Cohen’s “Promises and Perils of Digital History,” and Seefeldt and Thomas identify preservation as one of the three main challenges of digital history.

How is digital history assessed? Ayers contends that digital history and new media must have standards in order to not dilute the authority of the historical discipline. This is especially important since anyone can use the internet, establish an online identity, and then create digital history. The information on the internet is not always reliable or factual. A popular Twitter account, @HistoryinPics, tweets images that are not authentic (Sarah Werner wrote about this on her blog in this post), but many people assume they are. There needs to be some set of encompassing criteria that can be used by anyone in the field to determine the authoritativeness, accuracy, and quality of work published as digital history.

Another significant obstacle is ensuring that all digital history is open access. I think that the model the Center for History and New Media employs is the best route possible for enabling the largest dissemination of digital history and digital humanities: using Creative Commons Licenses. PressForward, Digital Humanities Now, Histories of the National Mall are all licensed under Creative Commons. In addition, Omeka, a web-publishing platform, and Zotero, a citation tool, are both open source. It is important to not restrict access to any of the digital humanities; not only should they should not be prey to commercial interests but the information should be freely accessible.

But what about the digital divide? In “Promises and Perils of Digital History” Rosenzweig and Cohen briefly mention that there must be a way to reach those that have no internet connection. The National Broadband Map (which is a bit outdated – the last update was in December of 2013) displays broadband availability in the United States. There are still many regions in the US where such technology is not offered. Another issue with the digital divide revolves around those who use mobile phones rather than broadband, which was discussed in one of last week’s readings “40 Maps that Explain the Internet.” Egypt is one example: 2.7% of Egyptians have internet access at home, but 10 times that number have internet access on their phones (“40 Maps that Explain the Internet,” Vox, accessed September 4, 2014, Is digital history accessible and easily utilized on mobile phones? If we want to ensure everyone is able to obtain the information, then the different ways people go online must be considered.

So while I am still hesitant to define explicitly what digital history is, I have identified four of the challenges facing digital history today: preservation, assessment, open access, and the digital divide. As Scheinfeldt urges in his blog post, it is of vital importance for everyone in the digital humanities to work together as colleagues and find solutions. We are lucky enough to live in a world of abundance: let us take care of and treasure that gift by solving these problems.

Week 2 readings

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