Digital History

I’ve been doing some reading lately on digital history.  Of particular interest has been:

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rozenzweig Digital History A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web PENN, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2006

In this book Cohen and Rozenzwieg explore how “new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past.” (2)

The book is designed essentially to be a practical handbook on how to create digital history. In the introduction they stress that “we need to critically and soberly assess where computers, networks, and digital media are and aren’t useful for historians” “In what ways can digital media and digital networks allow us to do our work as historians better?” (3)

In answering this question they identify 7 qualities and 5 dangers or hazards to doing digital history.

7 qualities of digital media and networks that allow us to do things better:

  • • Capacity
  • • Accessibility
  • • Flexibility
  • • Diversity
  • • Manipulability
  • • Interactivity
  • • Hypertextuality (or nonlinearity)

5 dangers or hazards on the information superhighway:

  • • Quality
  • • Durability
  • • Readability
  • • Passivity
  • • Balance

They conclude that “this scorecard of possibilities and problems seems, on balance, to suggest a digital future worth pursuing.” (3)

However they stress that historians must play an active role in ensuring that the balance remains on the side of the positive.

“Historians need to confront these issues of quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility rather than leave them to the technologists, legislators, and media companies, or even just to our colleagues in libraries and archives. We should put our energies into maintaining and enlarging the astonishingly rich public historical web that has emerged in the past decade. ” (13)

“Just as “open source” software has been the rallying cry of academic computer scientists, “open source” should be the slogan of academic and popular historians. Academics and enthusiasts created the web; we should not quickly or quietly cede it to giant corporations and their pricy, gated materials. The most important weapon for building the digital future we want is to take an active hand in creating digital history in the present.” (13)

Some food for thought here for those of us interested in the whole area of digital history.

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