The Pasts and Futures of Digital History

This week’s readings consist of cluster of smaller readings ranging from digital textbooks to small articles about Digital History. The American Historical Association offers their working definition of digital history: scholarship that is either produced using computational tools and methods or presented using digital technologies. The use and development of new technologies for digital history sometimes strays far from the traditional print publication. Sometimes the work done is absolutely indistinguishable from traditional print work in everything but its medium. After reading, digital history falls into two categories for me. The first category involves the types of work produced by scholars whether it be teaching resources, online exhibits, digital archives, or any other data collection the scholar performs. This represents the part of digital history that I consider the most traditional and scholarly. The second category involves the methodological approach used to create this scholarly projects, or the technical skills and framework required to communicate with the audience digitally. Scholars need to not only find research to present, but must develop ways to present it. You can see it simply as new mediums, rather than paper.

Historically, digital history started as humanities computing, where data driven social history projects and other disciplines took an extremely quantitative approach. Historians began utilizing statistical methods upon the creation of the computer, following in the footsteps of sociology and political science. So large was the push for quantitative history that some institutions gave incentives for using these methods. For example, Dr. Beiler’s university allowed statistics to be considered one of her two languages as the graduation requirement of many M.A. programs. This quantitative approach aimed to follow the replicability and preciseness of the sciences, and definitively rooted history in the now. Through the quantitative lens, historians could pull out patterns of social mobility, family formation, crime, and economic growth. All of these aspects allowed the research to be directly applied to current studies of our own population through political scientists and sociologists. I believe digital hisotyr differs from cliometrics primarily in its purpose. While some digital history projects can be a supporting database for scholarly research, providing primary sources to reach conclusions, it also involves teaching and exhibition, or the transferal of scholarly history to the public realm.

I believe the largest peril of doing digital history, just like the broader digital humanities, is the recognition of scholarship. Due to the field’s new nature, guidelines have rarely been established and accepted by institutions. The AHA Guidelines for the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History only state the “work done by historians using digital methodologies or media for research, pedagogy, or communication should be evaluated for hiring, promotion, and tenure on its scholarly merit and the contribution that work makes to the discipline through research, teaching, or service.” While I understand this is very similar to the traditional guidelines for hiring and promotion, it is significantly more difficult to convince a traditional full professor of the merit of your work when their only standard is the monograph. Dr. Beiler brought up the process of obtaining tenure and a full professor position at many institutions, and mentioned the controversial effect the inclusion of digital histories have on certain institutions. I think the AHA Guidelines clearly lay out departmental guidelines to help solve this problem. The AHA asks for departments to hold themselves responsible for their own guidelines and hiring process, as well as keeping up to date in the current field of digital history. Ultimately, both scholars and departments need to keep up to date, collaborate, and participate in the digital history community through grants and peer-review evaluations as one of the firsts steps to including digital history.



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