I am hereby declaring that I have survived my first week of graduate school. Congratulations to me.
This week has been eye-opening and (mildly) overwhelming, but then again I didn’t really expect it to be otherwise. In fact, I did my best to come into this week with no expectations outside of “you’re going to work hard.” Honestly, I’m glad I did for a variety of reasons, but mostly because the realm of history is far less of a known quantity than I had previously thought.
Let me explain. My undergraduate career in history was pretty basic. Admittedly, I attended a very small branch campus of a larger university, so our on-campus resources weren’t exactly overabundance. So, consequently, the first couple of years of history classes were taught pretty basically. It was traditional history: solo primary source research based on existing documentation, usually conducted in the library. The only pretty modern thing about it was that I used a word processer on my computer in order to type my papers. I didn’t discover digital archives until maybe my junior year of undergrad, and even then the methods of research I was taught didn’t change—they just got easier. Flash forward to this past week (that sounds oxymoronic, doesn’t it?). I started not only this class, but my graduate research assistantship at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.
Turns out, there is a much more to studying history than I was previously led to believe.
Though I was given small glimpses of it during my undergrad, I can count this week as my first true introduction to digital history. And honestly, where better to start off than with the fundamental question: what is digital history? As the real kick-off to our class session on Wednesday, it is indeed a question that needed to be answered, especially when there is no single all-encompassing answer. My group discussed a plethora of aspects while never quite landing on a solid definition. Digital history, for us, went beyond traditional primary source documents that have simply been uploaded in PDF format, or what have you. It went beyond the history itself. We discussed accessibility as a key aspect of digital history, as well as digital history as a means of research. We touched on how digital history allows for a further democratization of the subject; open access to knowledge means that it isn’t restricted to “professional” historians and leads to more diverse interpretations of the past.
Our readings for this week echo many of the sentiments we as a class put forth on Wednesday night. Digital history could be described as a methodology for conducting research, as Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas define it, or as a mindset for approaching the discipline, as Ian Milligan urges for, or more. The fixed observation is that we are living in an increasingly digital world rife with technology. However, the consequent question proposed by scholars is why, then, are the methods of conducting history not seeing just as rapid an evolution? And, perhaps more importantly, what can we do to change it?
Seefeldt, Thomas, Milligan and our Wednesday night discussion group, regardless of our orientations on what it really is, agree that we must adapt to digital history as the future of conducting historical research in general. “We,” of course, not meaning just historians. Another piece of the definition of digital history is its interdisciplinarity. Just as more people have access to history in a digital format, more scholars across fields can jump into historical research. So maybe digital history could be, well, everything in the discipline in the modern world. Maybe it’s a methodology and a mindset. Maybe it’s even a movement.
Ian Milligan. “The Problem of History in the Age of Abundance.” Chronicle of Higher Education (December 11, 2016). https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Problem-of-History-in-the/238600.
Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas. “What is Digital History?” Perspectives on History (May 1, 2009). https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2009/what-is-digital-history.