January 19, 2015 by Susan Prillaman
This week’s readings cut a wide swath through the issues, concerns, considerations and obstructions faced by historians in the evolving age of digital history; tackling questions about the redefinition of historical scholarship and the nature of evidence, recommending new research methodologies, and providing illustrative examples. Though diverse in subject matter, common themes emerge–the changing nature of scholarship, the need to retain and practice traditional analytical skills, the reticence of historians to move from textual to digital methods.
Another theme circles around the ability of digital history to reveal new perspectives. William J. Turkel, Kevin Kee and Spencer Roberts describe a student’s reaction to using the organizational abilities of DevonThink that allowed him, “To see connections that had before remained hidden, and ask questions that had not previously occurred to him.” Different in process but similar in effect, the UK RED database fragments primary sources so they can be described such that users can analyze very large data sets in ways that point to new areas of investigation. “Scholars are thus able to present a number of different research questions to the same data and to discover new areas for further research.” For his part, Jim Mussell looks further into the future. “These transformative uses will inevitably provide new perspectives on the data, perspectives currently unimaginable because the environments within which data becomes meaningful do not exist.”
One existing environment that is nevertheless futuristic involves alternative reality games (ARG) which may be used to “demonstrate how communities working in unison can solve problems that otherwise defy solution.” This mention in “A method for navigating the infinite archive,” reminded me of a July 2014 Smithsonian article, “How Scientists Are Using Games to Unlock the Body’s Mysteries.” Written by Sharon Begley, the piece illustrates the power ARGs can bring to bear on complex biomedical research problems. In it, Begley describes several online games being used, for instance, to understand how the retina works and to determine the shape of proteins. Lines of inquiry are not limited to scientific disciplines, however. “Games can effectively address social and even personal challenges from crafting better immigration policy to encouraging safe sex to strengthening emotional resilience.”
Turkel, et al. acknowledge that the use of ARGs in historical research is limited but point to their colleague, Rob MacDougall, as an early adopter in community collaboration. MacDougall’s Tecumseh Lies Here is an educational ARG that incorporates role-playing, a scavenger hunt, and historical research. Originally developed for university students, the game was redesigned in 2013 for sixth, seventh and eighth grade students. Similar in concept to The Lost Museum but taking place in non-virtual spaces, MacDougall’s ARG sends players to libraries and archives, heritage and historical sites to find “traces of the past in the world around them.” A pedagogic exercise, it nonetheless begins to set the stage for one new avenue of investigation, analysis and collaboration in the digital humanities. One surely destined to give traditional historians a case of Alvin Toffler’s “future shock.”
If so, I recommend they consider Edith Wharton’s advice. “One can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”