What is Digital history? Spatial History?

This week we were tasked with completing a third annotated bibliography in a blog setting. Here’s mine!

What is Digital History?

Thomas, William G. “What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology.” William G. Thomas III (blog). February 28, 2015, www.railroads.unl.edu/blog/?p=1159.

William G. Thomas focuses on the categorization of digital scholarship in this relatively recent blog post. Aiming at the promotion of engagement in and the discussion of digital scholarship reviews, Thomas proposes three categories that digital scholarship may fall in to: interactive scholarly works, digital projects/thematic research collections, and digital narratives. The interactive scholarly work, or ISW, is a hybrid according to Thomas. These works employ archival materials, primary sources, and digital tools in an effort to promote a historical argument based on a “historiographical concern,” or a particular interpretation to my understanding. The thematic research collection, or TRC, is the most scholarly in my opinion. The TRC combines tools and archival material in an effort to visualize or frame these items around a particular historiographical problem. They also utilize primary sources that fit their themes or problem, much like that of Digital Harlem. The final project, digital narratives, are born digital projects or scholarship that support a specific argument through the layers of source material. The digital narrative differs from the digital monograph due to the non-linear focus and hyper-textuality. These projects fit into the framework of Slave Revolt in Jamaica.

Thomas, William G. and Douglass Seefeldt. “What is Digital History.” Perspectives on History. May 2009.

Here we see William Thomas with his contemporary, Douglass Seefeldt, as they propose three areas of digital history. First, keeping their title in mind, they ask “What is digital history?” Prior to the digital age, historians relied on the monograph as the primary means of scholarship. The authors suggest that digital history parts from this traditional monograph in the medium it presents its findings. Digital history examines and represents the past in ways that work with the new communication technologies of the computer, internet, and various software systems that are available today. Their following discussions center on their two other stages and then what they see as the future of digital history. The major propositions made in the following discussions center around the potential challenge that digital tools will present to the traditional scholarship, as well as the call to embrace digital scholarship.

Cohen, Daniel J., et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 5, No. 2., 2008: 452-491.

In this article, a variety of authors including Cohen, Frisch, Gallagher, and Thomas keep with the theme of this week’s bibliography by addressing the promises that digital history brings modern scholars. This article, an interview transcription, addresses a variety of methodologies, tools, merging traditional and digital history, institutional resources such as research centers that allow the development of the field, copyrights and open access, research, and other subjects. The beginning of the article discusses the JAH definition of digital history: “anything (research method, journal article, monograph, blog, classroom exercise) that uses digital technologies in creating, enhancing, or distributing historical research and scholarship” (453). The authors trace the origins of digital history back to both Thomas and Ed Ayers. They believe the term originated in the essays accompanying and focusing on The Valley of the Shadow project, one of the hallmark projects invoked by digital historians. Thomas goes on to define digital history in multiple respects. He defines digital history as “an open arena of scholarly production” and as “a methodological approach” that utilizes new technologies to reassess or form new questions about past topics (454). Turkel addresses the promises of digital history through the fluidity of the sources used in it by showing how the sources can be easily create, edited, transmitted, and categorized. Cohen joins the conversation when he discusses the age of abundance we live in, that is the abundance of source material and statistics. Digital history is the only way to fully utilize this source base, and the collaboration present in digital history is also backed by Mintz’ statements on the active learning world we live in.

Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. “Promises and Perils of Digital Technology.” A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

This chapter of A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web addresses both the potential promises and perils of digital technology. Anne Kelly Knowles discussed this in her GIS publication, but the authors here focus on slightly different aspects. Their first focus is that of increased storage capacity and what that offer digital technology. Second, due to the internet age we live in, digital scholarship is an excellent way of transmitting scholarship to the public and bringing interesting sources to light. Third on their list is the variety of mediums digital scholarship can take its form in, these being picture, text, video, sound, and maps. Fourth, they say that digital scholarship promotes diversity as it allows those who would not have access previously to have that access. Fifth, they address the ability for users to refine and customize their own searches. Sixth, interactivity is fostered between student, parent, teacher, and community through digital technology. They also go on to list possible perils, the first of which is the inconsistent quality of internet sources. Second, the ever updating field of technology quickly  makes digital projects out of date unless they are kept up with. The third peril they address is the ambiguous or vague theses in digital projects, and that sometimes they can be hard to discern. Fourth they address passive interactivity. The interactivity needs to allows the user to apply critical thinking skills and actually engage with the scholarship, rather than a guided tour through it. Their final problem with the digital world is that the majority of the globe does not have consistent, if any, access to the internet.

Ayers, Edward L. “The Past and Futures of Digital History.” University of Virginia, 1999.

Ayers, the principal mind behind The Valley of the Shadow, discusses the past, present, and future of digital history in this essay. Ayers explains that despite society fully embracing the age of technology and the internet, historians are still skeptical in their own embracing of it. Without this full embrace, historians will not unlock the endless possibilities of this new technology. Ayers goes on to state that history may be the best suited field to utilize this new technology versus other humanities fields. One of his primary points comes from the growing network of professional communication, online publication, digital archiving, and many others, and how history has already placed this vast framework. He concludes by claiming that “Only historians can decide whether history will participate in the intoxicating possibilities of a true hypertextual history, of a reconstituted social science history, of an entirely new kind of immersive history. Only we can decide if we want to make use of any of the tools that are being created for purposes far from our own current practice” Ayers provides a visionary approach to the field of digital history, like many of our authors.

What is Spatial History?

White, Richard. “What is Spatial History?” Spatial History Lab. February 1, 2010.


Richard White discusses the Stanford Spatial History Lab in this article. He begins by outlining how the Spatial history Lab operates outside of traditional historical practices in its collaborative nature. They also utilize visualizations, they are heavily dependent on computers, they offer open ended projects, and they focus on the conceptualization of space through their projects. Bringing a deeper theoretical approach to digital history and the spatial lab, White introduced Lefebvre’s concept of human producing space or time. White goes on to discuss this idea with Lefebvre’s triad of spatial practice, representations of space, and representational spaces. Spatial practice is “the segregation of certain kinds of constructed spaces and their linkages through human movement” (2). Representations of space include the “documents of city planners, politician,” etc. (2). Finally, representational spaces are “space as lived and experienced through a set of symbolic associations” (3). Despite these, White’s most important aspect of spatial history is the concept of movement. According to White, “Spatial relations are established through the movement of people, plants, animals, goods, and information” (3). While the map represents a static space, spatial history must also address the dynamic element of movement. This is why, according to White, systems such as ArcGIS have become paramount in digital and spatial history as the program allows for both the study of movement, physical space, and relational space all in one map. Finally, White suggests that spatial history represents more than a visualization, but it is rather a new methodology and new means of researching and producing questions.

Thomas, William G. “Is the Future of Digital History Spatial History?” Newberry Library Historical GIS Conference, March 2004.

William Thomas analyzes the future of digital history and its possible space in spatial history through the mind of Janet Murray. Murray, a leading critic of new media and narratives claims that the four keys to a successful narrative in an online setting revolve around the work being participatory, procedural, encyclopedic, and spatial. Thomas then takes over the panel by focusing his discussion around Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History. This work, according to Thomas, “advances exploratively, even metaphorically, recognizing that the future is invented.” Spatial history, according to Thomas, purposes to recover contingency in the past, deconstruct the hegemony of the linear narrative, present multiple perspectives, and reject the positivism of empirical methods. Thomas concludes with the idea that spatial history is not “historicizing space,” but “spatializing history.”


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