What is Digital History?

Over the past three month digital history has been the focus of my blogs, from gathering, to designing, to different tools to present and convey information with, to issues related to privacy and copyright. I have looked at basically technology and humanities from different angles. I would define Digital History as an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems.

There is no doubt that technology have changed our lives for good and it still continues to do so. From the early 90s when the first web browser was released to be used by the general public, the internet became a platform on which anyone could publish materials without the need for an editor or a publisher. Not only did the internet transform the future of the academic publishing, it also transformed the ways in which we record, share and edit knowledge.

Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, reflect on the consequences of the internet on the discipline of history. This book is more than a how-to guide for historians interested in in web design and digitization. In fact, the authors argue that their goal is not so much to teach how to build a history website, but rather to understand why one want to build such a site. At the most basic level, they are trying to answer this question that, “In what ways can digital media and digital networks allows us to do our work as historians better?”

As Cohen and Rosenzweig see it, the digital world has seven key qualities that advance the study of history: capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulatively, interactivity, and hypertextuality.

Some of the examples of these advantages are:

  • The power of the web to distribute knowledge, in some cases for zero cost, thus eliminating the financial barriers that prevent people from having access to traditionally published journals and books. (accessibility)
  • The ability of anyone to contribute to the historical narratives created on the web. Tools such as Wikipedia enable authors from around the world to edit entries. (accessibility and diversity)

However, such crowd-sourcing as Wikipedia raises key questions not only about access to collective knowledge, but also about issues of effective participation and representation. Which brings up the fact that the internet also has its downsides. Cohen and Rosenzweig identify five dangers of the digital world: quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. But rather than bogging themselves down in the potential threat of the internet, they optimistically look to the future. They convincingly argue throughout the book that the only way to deal with the uncertainty of history in the digital world is to sit at one’s computer and “get to work.” So there is no escape from the technology going forward. Therefore, incorporating technology into history is inevitable. However, these tools can allow scholars to approach familiar subjects in exciting new ways!

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