What is digital history?
The field of humanities has been struggling to answer this for approximately the last 15 years, and numerous answers have evolved from this question. From our Clio Wired class at GMU, we discussed this question and in my breakout group we came to the consensus that digital history is largely a field that bridges the technology of computer science with the research and inquisitiveness of understanding history. It is a methodology that studies digital sources, and also documents history through digitization. It uses modern technology to aggregate retrospective information in new informative ways. Digital history has the capability to “democratize” history in ways never before possible, as technology has evolved nearly infinite resources with which to digitize and record data.
In Ian Milligan’s 2019 book, History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research, Milligan takes us on a journey exploring the answer to the question of what is digital history and what does it mean to do history in the “age of information.” In particular, he examines the tension within the field of the new incredible access to more voices in history than ever before while at the same time not always having the appropriate tools and methods to parse the data into something useful. He remarks that in eras past, it simply would have been impossible to remember so much, and so our history is distilled to make sense of significant events and significant (most often elite) people. In the information age, we can remember far more about the common world than ever before.
However, Milligan also deftly points out the problems facing the field (and our culture) today – the overwhelming amount of information that can be manipulated, falsified, and often results in the loss of credibility for experts by those who feel they are “informed.” In eras past, there have been experts who served as information gatekeepers – usually for better but also occasionally for worse – and how will this play out on today’s internet? Milligan highlights the problems with search engines and biased results. How will the field evolve to address the sheer amount of data, to make sense of it, without losing minority voices of all kinds? And what are the privacy rights and implications of archived internet pages of long ago, before users were even prescient of its permanence? Perhaps rather than a question, digital humanities is in fact the answer to these questions.
Toward this end, as Chinese philospher Lao Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. In our training as students of digital humanities, our first step was creating our own piece of internet real estate, a professional personal site which would host this blog. As I have only previously used blogger before, and then only on occasion, it has been a challenge for this perfectionist. I find that wordpress, while clearly intended to be rational and user friendly, still falls short of the capabilities that I wish I could do with it. There are many simple things I wish to do – like changing the font – that I’m currently at a loss for. And, I literally could fiddle and refine the formatting indefinitely! It’s definitely a learning process but I’m looking forward to the new skills that I will gain.