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History as Digital Practice


January 20, 2015 by Alexandra Troxell

I had many insights and takeaways from this weeks readings on research in the digital age, but one title sums it up pretty well for me. Chapter Four of History in the Digital Age is called “Doing and Making: History as Digital Practice.” This succinct title encompasses so much for me.

Some essays, like “Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies,” focus on navigating the new sources the internet provides. Amanda Seligman compares the newer digital resource with its analog predecessors to help her students and readers understand “how to critically evaluate the sources they encounter—wherever they find them.” She shows that primary, secondary, and tertiary sources all have their merits, and that analog or digital, good scholarship included careful evaluation and comparison of sources.

Others, such as “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,”  focus more on the new means of ‘publishing’ that the digital era has created.

Several, though, including Chapter Three of History in the Digital Age, “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive,” discuss the entire process of researching and creating histories in the digital realm. This gets closest to what the aforementioned title elicits in my mind.

A Digital Practice is not simply switching in digital resources or tools into more traditional methods of scholarship. Nor is it taking non-digital research and publishing it using digital means. A truly digital practice is studying and researching history with the digital format in mind all the way through the process. How can digital tools such as those discussed in the Dirt Digital Resource Tools be utilized to their fullest in new and innovative ways? How can digital resources lead to new ideas and arguments? How can digital platforms be used not just as a substitute for paper publishing, but with all the unique opportunities they provide?

Jim Mussell begins to describe in his “Digital Practice” chapter the differences between using digital forms as stand-in or mere replicas of analog materials and the intentional use and creation of born digital materials, digital objects in their own right. To truly embrace the digital era is to embrace this distinction. As William Turkel, Kevin Kee, and Spencer Roberts discuss in “Navigating the Infinite Archive,” it is increasingly important for historians to be “more mindful about their methods.” Similarly, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and Sarah Manekin conclude their essay suggesting not that everyone embrace every aspect of their method or even all of digital scholarship practices, but instead that everyone should embrace as much digital method as works for their personal practice. Each scholar must figure out their own methods- and for some, this means inventing and reinventing new digital methods.

Digital History Practices can benefit historians and students of today in so many ways- allowing streamlined searching, cataloging, database management while simultaneously allowing scholars to spend less time on these tedious tasks and more time answering questions, drawing conclusions, and forming arguments. Computers can now do in mere moments tedious tasks that would have taken researchers hours of searching and comparing- not to mention in would have to be done in person at who knows how many libraries, whereas searching and comparing can now take place almost anywhere with access to the internet. With all these advantages and possibilities, it would be foolish for historians, who have long accepted that the narrative of history is constantly changing, to be unwilling to change their methods for such an array of benefits.


  1. kdaly3 says:

    While one must err on the side of caution, I agree that digital materials help historians to produce more, rather than having to spend their time working out the kinks of aspects of editing, publishing, and finding resources. History, and in general, is slowly shifting towards utilizing digital materials more prominently in their work, though I do not think anyone should rely on just digital materials; they must be used in tandem with other formats. So while we must consider the fallbacks, I agree that digital resources must be incorporated into historical practice or those who don’t will fall significantly behind in the ability to produce valid digital information in a timely manner.

  2. Susan Prillaman says:

    In my comment to Julie Renner’s “Well, There are Some Big Problems” post, I noted some authors’ disparagement of historians who continue to use traditional methods to research in their areas of interest. Recognizing that many benefits can be realized from using software to organize research, analyze data, collaborate and publish history, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that these same methodologies can affect the interpretative process in ways not yet perfectly understood. In his essay, “Doing and making: history as digital practice,” Jim Mussel argues that “our cultural heritage, as it survives, is already abstract, separated from the historical culture within which it was produced and had significance. What digital technologies allow scholars to do is provide new contexts which this material can function.” If this is the direction digital history is taking, it goes well beyond simply providing tools to aid one’s process and gives historians even more reason to provide transparency into their research practices.

  3. nsakas1 says:

    I think you bring up a good point Alex. It seems that most of the readings and discussion of the readings this week have focused on the scholarship of digital sources, who has the authority to produce them, and are they credible for inclusion in a research project. These are all discussions that need to take place, but there are other aspects of practicing history in the digital age that seem to need no question as to their benefit. We now have software that can organize our research in seconds where traditional methods might have taken days or hours. Another cool aspect of digital tools is that they allow researchers to look at data in different ways. As you say Alex before rrsearchers may have had to travel to several places to compare sets of data where now computers allow the same data to be present on the same screen. Digital scholarship certainly will be debated for years to come, but the advantages of using digital tools in research needs no argument.

  4. Adina Langer says:

    Alexandra, I’m glad that you found a useful unifying theme for this week’s readings in the idea of digital historical practice. Practice involves tools both for location and organization of information and for production and dissemination of scholarship. What do you see as the relationship between the practice of doing research in the digital age and the creation and distribution of new knowledge? Do you think that it’s best to pick and choose among available tools for data gathering, organization, and publication? Or can you imagine a single tool for all aspects of historical practice? How do you think historians should adapt to new technologies as they come online?

  5. jjackson39 says:

    It’s interesting that you note how historians would be foolish to not use all tools available to them for research purposes, but unfortunately this has been true up until recently for many in the field. The careful research and analyzation that many in the field developed over several decades or more did not appear to incentivize the use of new technologies when the reality was very different. More focus on the how and why concerning a research practice can only be beneficial in the end.

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