Conducting History in the Digital Age.

With the introduction of the World Wide Web, individuals around the globe have experienced rapid changes in how they can access or distribute information. Historians – some grudgingly, others gleefully – have been a part of this transformation. Such changes have had major implications for all of those living in the twenty-first century (even individuals who do not have direct access to the Internet). Of course, since historians are human beings, they too are affected by the digital age. For one thing, as Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig delineate in “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” the internet and other digital media contain a set of intrinsic qualities that both potentially allow historians to do things better and may pose as dangers or hazards on the “information superhighway.” According to these authors, among the seven qualities that may benefit historians are accessibility, diversity, and interactivity. On the other hand, the five dangers include quality, passivity and inaccessibility.

While I agree with Cohen and Rosenzweig that the digital age is a net positive, it changes the practice of doing history in several ways. For instance, historians have access to databases and online archives that are keyword searchable. Generations of young scholars are coming of age in a time when it is possible to conduct quality historical research without going to a physical archive. Additionally, with the proliferation of digital archives, historians are arguably better able to preserve, compile, and share sources. Non-written and non-traditional sources benefit from historians’ widespread use of digital media. Furthermore, due the growth of the Internet, databases, and other multimedia, historians have found new platforms to reach new audiences. Specifically, in the realm of public history and museums, online exhibitions and websites provide new venues to engage the public in matters of the past.

At the same time, while there are undeniable changes to the ways in which historians conduct research and share historical information with colleagues and the public, the historical process remains relatively unchanged. Historians must still use a combination of primary and secondary sources to bolster their arguments about the past. Admittedly, hypertextuality (the use of links) might affect how historians read an article, yet those articles still need to cite their sources to be credible. Additionally, it may be easier to use and interpret multimedia sources in the digital age, but this does not mean that all historians ignored such sources in the past, or that all historians consider such sources equally valid to the written word today. For public historians, creating exhibits or educational programs that engage people in tough questions about the past should be a priority, whether those exhibits or resources are physical or virtual. As far as the challenges historians and other history-minded individuals face in the digital age, such as the impermanence of sources or certain databases being relatively inaccessible, many of them existed before the Internet came into being. Ultimately, while historians might conduct historical research a bit differently, or share that information in new ways, digital history and history in the digital age are qualitatively the same as history before the Internet.

What do you think? How has the Internet changed the way historians do their “thing”? Is digital history something completely different? Please comment below.

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My History. Your History. Our History.

Hello and welcome to my History Homepage! My name is Gabriel Benjamin and I am a graduate student at CCSU in New Britain, Connecticut, pursuing a master’s in public history. As part of that program, I am enrolled in a digital history course. That course has inspired me to start a history blog. Actually, truth be told, it’s a requirement for the course. Nonetheless, I sincerely hope to maintain this blog after I have completed the course, and there are several reasons why. Before I get to those reasons, here’s a little history about myself (see what I did there?).

My History

From a young age, I have been interested in history, science, and the world around us. I have always been a person who likes to ask questions and have come to realize that some of the best questions do not have easy answers. That being said, I have not always been interested in the same historical questions, nor have I always asked the same questions that I do now. When I was younger, I was more interested in biographical, and Presidential history, as well as the history of the American Civil War. I mean no disrespect to academics or fellow history buffs who are drawn to those topics. I still find them interesting myself. Nonetheless, at the time, my questions tended to be along the lines of “who?,” “what?,” and “when?,” rather than “why?” and “how?.” Also, I came to find out that there were many topics in history that I had been missing out on.

This began to change as the result of an internship I completed as an undergrad. Yale Indian Papers Project (also known as YIPP), transcribes, digitizes, and annotates documents related to Native American history in New England. It is a wonderful resource for both academic historians and the general public, including people of indigenous descent who may  wish to trace their genealogy or their tribe’s history. As I was reading through and making sense of 300 to 400 year old documents, I had two Eureka moments (no, I was not in a bath tub!). First of all, being a historian can at times be a bit like being a detective (or at least what I imagine detective work to be like). Second, and arguably more important, history is so much richer than I had imagined. History is comprised of complex individuals who were themselves trying to make sense of and survive in complex societies, wether they were relatively powerful or relatively powerless.

New Questions, New Topics

As a result of this experience, I began to ask harder questions of history. For example:

  • “Who has the ability to change the course of history?”
  • “What makes something an historical event?”
  • “When have individuals and societies experienced major changes?”
  • “Why are certain aspects of history remembered or forgotten?”
  • “How can marginalized histories be better preserved?”

I also became interested in other historical topics, particularly those revolving around individuals whose history may have been forgotten or marginalized. Of particular interest to me in recent years has been Native American history, a term itself which I use with some reservation, since the indigenous inhabitants of the American continents have had and continue to have experiences as diverse as any other group. Indeed, in the United States alone, there are more than 500 recognized Native American tribes, each with a unique history. Nonetheless, I have had to actively seek out information about these groups, since I learned very little in elementary school, high school, or even in general history courses in college.

I have begun to satisfy this appetite by being a museum educator at the Institute for American Indian Studies (or IAIS) in Washington, Connecticut. I love my job as a museum educator because I get to work with people of all ages and from diverse backgrounds, while using creativity to explore new ways of bringing complex concepts to the public. Even better, I get to learn new things every week, often from visitors, volunteers, and colleagues (and I get paid to do it!).

My Digital History Experience

It is my firm belief that now more than ever it is important to make history accessible to everyone, and to make everyones’ history accessible. The technology of the 21st century can help to make that possible. At the same time, if we are not careful, these very same tools can be used for misinformation and to further erase or marginalize the experiences of others. Thus, I have been reluctant until now to use social media and digital platforms for the purpose of spreading historical information. I have had a Facebook page for years and I will share, post or like things that I think my friends should see. Yet that has pretty much been it. From the course I am currently enrolled in, I am hoping to learn new ways of compiling and sharing historical information, particularly about topics, individuals, events, and groups that are not necessarily part of the mainstream historical narrative.

As for this blog, in addition to posts related to the course I am currently enrolled in, I will use it to discuss a whole host of historical topics. I will write posts about marginalized groups, events, or individuals in history. From time to time, I will also review resources, from books to websites to museum exhibits, that focus on a range of historical topics. A digital platform will also allow me to include more pictures and multimedia related to historical events or individuals. In so doing, I will be careful to cite where my information and any content that is not my own is coming from. Finally, while this blog might touch upon some serious or mundane topics, I will also include humorous topics and insights.

To conclude, I welcome your feedback on posts and suggestions for topics that you think should be covered. In future posts I plan to be more concise, but I hope this helps you learn a little bit about me. Onward to the past!