The first article I read about the impact of digital history on the field of history was by none other than our very own Dr. McClurken. The first thing that struck me from this article was how much digital history, and digitization in general, has changed classroom teaching. Without the perspective of more than 21 years, all I have ever known in conducting serious archival research is having many materials available online, searchable catalogues, and occasionally photocopies or reproductions. I kid you not, my mouth dropped to the floor when I read that he used transparencies to show students nineteenth-century handwriting. Transparencies!!! That just boggles my mind, and I think really highlights how much digital history has changed the classroom. I also didn’t realize how much a dependency on digital history and its materials can cripple a class, if user interfaces, urls, or accessibility change. I definitely have to agree with Dr. McClurken that the relationship between the college classroom, and I would even say academia in general, and archives is mostly Web 1.0. From what I have seen with the digitization projects I’ve worked on, right now it’s all about actually just getting everything digitized and putting it up online, making it accessible. Oftentimes, little to no thought is given to how the accessibility of these great collections will be promoted. However, I would say that some institutions are definitely taking the dive into the ocean of social media and handling it pretty well! I am most familiar with the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and I know that SIA has a pretty active Facebook page, which can be found here. SIA makes at least one post a day, that highlights an item or items in its collections, and they usually try to make it relevant to current events. SIA’s blog, The Bigger Picture, also updates at least once a day with relevant content–right now SIA is posting a lot of content about collections related to women in science, in honor of Women’s History Month. Beyond Facebook, though, SIA isn’t really present on other social media platforms, and I hope that this fact will soon change. As much as some people look down on social media, there is no denying that Facebook, Twitter, etc. reach an incredible number of people, and institutions could reach a much wider audience if they embraced social media more. (I do realize that the issue is not that simple–there are many other things to consider when getting involved in social media, like Who tweets? Do they have to be approved by someone? Do you follow back people? Are you endorsing the people who follow you? Etc.) Part of Dr. McClurken’s point, though, is that this relationship is between the classroom/academia and the archives, and as we all (hopefully) know, a healthy relationship is a two-way street. So it can’t just be the archives who are embracing the social media and putting themselves out there. The classroom and academia must also embrace these social media platforms, which I think is part of the problem, particularly for the older, more “traditional” members of this field. Some historians cannot see past the social “mob” aspect of social media and cannot grant the platforms value. My own advisor seemed incredulous to discover that students use Twitter for classes. For a young person like myself, social media makes sense as a vehicle for establishing a relationship between archives and classrooms, but for someone who didn’t grow up with social media, I can understand how it can be overlooked.
Dr. McClurken also mentioned crowdsourcing, which I won’t go into detail explaining–rather, I will link to a current example of a digital history crowdsourcing project: the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Many of the SI museums/archives have contributed digitized materials to this project for the general public to transcribe. You can browse by theme or museum. (Dr. McClurken, there is a Civil War diary in there if you haven’t seen it yet! I haven’t looked at it, but I know it is a popular project.)
The second article I read was from the crowsourcing chapter in Writing History in the Digital Age (2011), and it is about digital history and black Confederate soldiers. I really like the article’s emphasis on using digital history to help democratize the discipline, without sacrificing accuracy. For many people history is an almost esoteric discipline–they can’t grasp its functions and advantages, how it works, what is “true,” etc. (For the record, I believe there is no such thing as historical truth.) I think using the internet for displaying historical materials and research is a great step towards involving more people in history and expanding historical knowledge. And, like all good historians, Madsen-Brooks emphasizes that we still have to be critical of the information we find online. She delves into a discussion about “historians” and who historians are, which I think is an interesting consideration but somewhat of a moot point. Just because you aren’t a certified, PhD in history doesn’t mean you can’t make a valuable contribution of knowledge to the field. History isn’t limited to one discipline–it is interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary at its best. Anyways, Madsen-Brooks’ cautionary tale against content on the internet is great, because it truly is something that we have to take into careful consideration–and the same goes for print sources as well. I think her analogy at the end of the article is a nice description of where the digital history field should go/is going: historians are the “guide[s] on the side,” helping to guide others engaging in history, teaching them how to think critically about their sources and analyze their information.1 Nevertheless, I see no problem with historians also taking center stage and making their own significant contributions, which can help guide and further inspire those engaging in history. The lesson for me from this article was that “the masses” are slowly infiltrating the field of history–which I don’t think is a bad thing–and that now more than ever, we need to be critical of our sources and information. The crowd can make valuable contributions to history. Maybe they can do simple things like transcribing, or maybe they can do analysis, who knows. Even if the analysis is inaccurate, we can still learn valuable lessons from them. For example, the Confederate records that Madsen-Brooks discusses highlight the difficulty of interpreting some primary sources and the different definitions of “soldier” that people hold today and held during the Civil War. Inaccuracies may bring to light new angles of a topic to consider. I’m not trying to say we should all go out and write wildly inaccurate pieces about history with reckless abandon–I am simply stating that there is a silver lining to this dark cloud of inaccuracies in democratized history that seems to be looming over some historians’ heads.
Also, here is a paragraph about the value of crowdsource projects like Wikipedia from my other digital history blog: “I also have another comment to add to our conversation about Wiki and its validity/usefulness. Because Wiki is such a high-traffic site, the Smithsonian museums are making an effort to contribute to Wikipedia, by editing pages related to Smithsonian museums and collections, or creating the pages, adding links that will direct visitors to the appropriate SI site, thus increasing traffic to their own websites. I attended an SI meeting that talked extensively about this process, and I found it fascinating! It really is a great way to increase site traffic, because Wikipedia is such a popular site, and it’s also just a great way to get the word out about things and contribute to public knowledge. It’s also really cool, because I think it shows how the perception of Wikipedia has evolved over time, and people are slowly beginning to realize that maybe it isn’t so bad after all. It can be a source of valuable information, if the “right” people are creating and editing the pages. A leading research and museum institution, the Smithsonian, hires what they call Wikipedians-in-Residence to create and improve SI-related content! The Wikipedians-in-Residence and their associated SI units also occasionally host edit-a-thons, where they marathon-edit pages on a given subject to improve content and link to SI sites/collections. Really cool concept! You can read more about one specific WIR here!”
Disclaimer: The featured image from this blog post is from Virginia Tech’s Digital History Reader, which can be found here.
1. Leslie Madsen-Brooks, “‘I nevertheless am a historian': Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers” in Writing History in the Digital Age: A Born-Digital, Open Review Volume, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/madsen-brooks-2012-spring/ (accessed March 5, 2014).