Is (Digital) History More Than an Argument about the Past? (Fall 2011 version)
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 6 The well-dug trench of long-form historical argument embedded in the university-press monograph fits poorly with the range of constructions that are well-used digital history projects. Embedded in successful digital history projects is always (the possibility of) a rich historical argument, but historical argumentation is not always the intended central purpose or the way users find the most value. Existing (successful) individual digital history projects suggest a common template that we can use in understanding and evaluating digital historical works beyond the long-form argument.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Are professional historians and other scholars in related areas worrying about more than we are learning from the digital projects we admire? The online world appears to be infecting humanities scholars in the U.S. with status anxiety.1 Many new scholars worry about what “counts” as scholarship in an online universe, fearing that their senior colleagues will not respect anything other than monographs published by university presses. More experienced scholars find themselves worrying about the nature of peer review online, or maybe the future of the codex and university press publishing as an infrastructure for scholarship.2 There are some important practical issues to address with online scholarship, but the status anxiety is misplaced or at least poorly focused, for two reasons. One is that we, our students, and others interested in the humanities need to see the threats to scholarship more accurately. Fundamentally, threats to humanities scholarship have their roots far from the influence of technological change on the mechanics of scholarship and the routines we use to certify quality within our fields. Long before the internet and Amazon.com came declining state support for public universities, vocational rhetoric surrounding the politics of higher education, the growing use of contingent academic labor, and increased pressures for scholarship at institutions that had focused on teaching only a few short years before.3
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But a second reason to avoid reasoning about scholarship from a status-anxiety framework is that it distracts us from an opportunity to understand our field in a richer way. The need for this is both pragmatic and philosophical. In one pragmatic sense, scholars whose work goes beyond the long-form argument need a way to help peers and administrators understand their work. Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered is a general way of communicating but not sufficiently specific for each discipline.4 Public historians have often struggled to communicate the meaning of their scholarship in research-oriented institutions, and the development of disciplinary support for their work and appropriate tenure and promotion standards has been relatively recent.5
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 In a second pragmatic sense, we need a better way to teach historical scholarship for undergraduates, not only for the ordinary reasons why college and university history departments should be concerned about an undergraduate education (which we often focus on history majors) but also because for the next generation of elementary and middle-school teachers in the States, the majority of the future teaching pool comprises the undergraduates that colleges and universities in the U.S. have for one or two classes as part of their general education requirements. Often, the second-to-last history class elementary-school teachers take is in high school, leaving just one or two classes in college for them to understand history as a discipline. College history classes have little room for error in educating future teachers about what history is and can be.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 But the opportunity to use digital history projects to explore the nature of historical scholarship stretches beyond the practical issues of tenure, promotion, and exposing future teachers to our disciplinary conventions and understandings. In addition to these worthy aims, we can use the best of digital history work to reimagine the discipline. In attempting to battle the perception of history as a set of dates and names, or “just one damned thing after another,” as Toynbee and Somervell put it, historians have perhaps gone overboard in arguing that history is “an argument about the past,” as a poster available to schoolteachers puts it.6 The irony of the poster is that it is produced by the National History Education Clearinghouse, whose work fits squarely within Boyer’s “scholarship of teaching” rather than the monograph’s scholarship of discovery or integration/synthesis. A further irony is that the National History Education Clearinghouse site is hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, whose well-used work often is far from arguments, instead often managing either the development of tools or the type of project (such as the Clearinghouse) that otherwise supports scholarship and teaching.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 The development of digital history has not marginalized these diverse types of projects, and that diversity of digital projects has developed for several reasons: funders have had a range of interests, a few senior historians such as Roy Rosenzweig and Edward Ayers have used funding to develop diverse projects, and the development of digitization technology far in advance of electronic book publication and sales created a first-mover advantage. This first-mover advantage for CD-ROM and then web projects leveraged interest in digitizing a range of sources at a time when it was neither realistic nor professional advantageous to try to publish long-form arguments online. Into that gap stepped funders, institutions, and individual academics and teams of scholars who had different priorities. At the same time, two developments at a national level in the U.S. created educational audiences as well as funding streams for a range of projects. First, education reform politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s created a push for state-level standards in traditional K-12 academic subjects, including history.7 While the effort to create national history standards faltered because of political pressures by Lynne Cheney and others, states pushed.8 In addition, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (WV) and former President George W. Bush championed a dedicated funding stream in the Teaching American History grants, leading to a range of districts and partners needing curriculum material and trying to spread a more sophisticated understanding of history among K-12 teachers.9
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This heterodox development is an opportunity to think about historical scholarship beyond the long-form argument, in ways for historians more specific than Boyer’s rough classification.10 This is consistent with historians’ more general craft orientation to disciplinary quality, what retired New York University historian Paul Mattingly once told me was his strong sense that historians were most comfortable with “mid-level generalizations” about specific times and places.11 So let us go about making some mid-level generalizations based on the diversity of digital history projects.
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Digital History as Diverse Types of Scholarship
Digital history projects that have provided public resources on history span a broad range of quality and scope. This section provides brief descriptions of several such projects that were created by professional historians, public historians, and other scholars.12 The point of this section is not to identify either the most polished or the most famous digital history projects but rather to list and briefly describe a range of both polish and scope. This section begins with two projects originally distributed on CD-ROMs, though digital history projects for a decade have generally focused on publicly-accessible online distribution.13
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Who Built America? was an extension of a two-volume social-history textbook of the same name, with two CD-ROMs constructed and published in the 1990s.14 The CD-ROMs provided a digital expansion of the common textbook sidebar presentation of primary sources, including audio and video clips of speeches as well as photographs and text or facsimile primary documents. Creating such a compilation is a labor-intensive process in part because of extensive licensure issues involved in using media.15
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 The Valley of the Shadows was also an extension of a book project, in this case Edward L. Ayers’ comparison of lives in two counties (Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and Augusta County, Virginia) before, during, and after the Civil War.16 The project had an early online life that Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig described in 1997 as a guided exploration of primary sources: “It allows students to construct their own narratives of life in both towns in the years before the war, but it seems to encourage narratives that follow the framework of Ayers’s planned book.”17 In the years since, it has had various versions, including the transformation of the materials to a website that now serves as an official “archive” of the project.18
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The American Memory project (http://memory.loc.gov) is an explicit display of archival collections that highlights a large number of the notable and little-known primary sources, photographs, and other artifacts in the Library of Congress collections. Begun in the early 1990s with a pilot project and CD-ROMs, American Memory has continued as a sprawling online display of historical artifacts.19 Individual items in the collection are displayed with archival metadata and can often be reached either as part of an organized presentation or through search tools.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 The Papers of George Washington (http://gwpapers.virginia.edu) is a 43-year-old editing project that has produced more than 50 volumes of edited material (out of an anticipated 90). One digital version of the papers has public access (http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/GEWN). A more scholarly online version of the papers is available by individual or personal subscription as well as by purchase of individual printed volumes from the University of Virginia Press.20 The general-access version contains a number of entrees to the primary sources, including chronological back-forward buttons that are akin to page turns.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Hypercities (http://hypercities.com or http://hypercities.ats.ucla.edu/) is a geographic display platform for layered maps built on Google Maps and the ability to geocode pictures and maps. While other platforms built on Google Maps focus on current events (e.g., Ushahidi, originally created to map Kenyan election violence in early 2008), Hypercities focuses on the collection and curation of historical map information. It is the result of a 2008 MacArthur Foundation grant to Todd Presner of UCLA and Philip Ethington at the University of Southern California and has been used for a number of classes at various institutions as well as for scholarly research (such as Ethington’s work on the history of Los Angeles).
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Europe, Interrupted (http://www.inventingeurope.eu/invent/exhibits/show/europeinterrupted) is an online exhibit of the Inventing Europe project sponsored by the European Science Foundation and the Foundation for the History of Technology. It presents a structured path through collection items using the “exhibit” metaphor for presentation. It is an example of the type of exhibit produced using the open-source Omeka museum collection presentation software that public historians can customize for specific exhibits.21
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 History Matters (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/) is a website originally created in the late 1990s by the same organizations that created Who Built America? (the American Social History Project at the City University of New York and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). The website supports survey courses in U.S. history at the high school and undergraduate levels (and is subtitled “The U.S. Survey Course on the Web”), with a range of materials from selected primary sources and historical links to sample syllabi, exemplary student work, and other resources for teachers.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Digital History (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu) is another collaborative teaching resource collection project headed by University of Houston historian Steven Mintz in the mid-2000s (and sponsored by a group including the University of Houston, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History). It has types of collections similar to those of History Matters, including both primary sources and lesson and other direct guidance for teachers.
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Digital History as PAELA: Tools for Presentation of Artifacts and Events, Learning, and Argumentation
The small collection of digital history described above includes several award-winning projects, and perhaps the most important starting point for learning from the projects is to acknowledge that digital history projects can win broad recognition of quality from peers who see them as professional, admirable, and enormously useful. And yet, of the collection listed here only Europe, Interrupted (and none of the award-winning projects) focuses on the type of argument that historians value in university-press monographs. Professional digital history projects can focus on the organization and presentation of primary sources from a specific range of time and place (The Valley of the Shadows), can be an online conversion of an archival collection (The Papers of George Washington), can be a teaching “portal” organized around instruction (such as History Matters), and can present a tool “modded” from open APIs such as Google Maps provides (Hypercities) as well as they can make an historical argument.22
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 3 Academic historians in the post-WW2 era have recognized some types of non-argument activities and functions as important if marginalized in higher education. Public history is valued in theory, if only a few history departments have faculty who engage in public history projects (and fewer who have earned tenure on that basis). Archivists are essential to the work of historians, but they are usually trained in library or information science schools.23 If this pattern extends to digital history, one should expect that only a few departments will devote significant resources to the formal training of digital history technicians, those who have programming skills and some disciplinary history background, and that departments will struggle to evaluate digital history projects except where professional awards clearly convey peer approval.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 But there need not be significant difficulty in understanding the contributions of digital history projects. As demonstrated in just the few projects described in this chapter, academic historians have little problem recognizing the value of outstanding digital history work. The question is how to articulate the contributions of digital history in a way that is conceptual rather than ad hoc. We may use the existing outstanding digital history scholarship to bootstrap those concepts, and the rest of this section catalogues an initial classification.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Using tools to present artifacts. There is already a range of recognized professional presentations of historical artifacts, generally primary sources but also multimedia files. The Library of Congress American Memory project is the most extensive in North America, but both the Papers of George Washington and The Valley of the Shadows organize primary sources for an audience. The scope is different in each case: the Library of Congress (or a research library’s special collections department) cares for and presents material from multiple collections in its custody), while an edited version of an individual’s papers or a thematic collection is much more narrow in purpose as well as scope. The critical traits of an archival resource for historians include custodianship and proper sourcing, and the critical traits of an online presentation of historical artifacts remains identical: care of the digital resource and clear provenance. One can see similar parallels with edited collections of primary sources (a Papers of… project), though in the case of the Papers of George Washington it is clear that while the editing quality is the same for the (identical) hard copy and online main text, the public digital version is missing critical traits of scholarly annotation that historians expect of scholarly edited collections of quality.24
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 1 Using tools to present events. A second general use of tools for digital history is the presentation of “events” or, more generally, specifics of history bounded by time and place. A number of tools exist for creating online timelines such as the SIMILE timeline tool that has been incorporated into Google Docs, or the EasyTimeline markup format in Mediawiki software. However, one does not need an online tool to create a timeline. On the other hand, complex time and space data require specialized tools for presentation. The construction of historical maps has been an art form for centuries, generally beyond the recognized skill set of academic historians.25 Hypercities has attracted considerable attention in a few years of its development, because it allows the presentation of data in a form that is attractive, thought-provoking, and conceptually simple, with successive layers representing change over time. One does not need to be an artist to use Hypercities, though the required digitization and geocoding tasks require time and attention to detail. One could also argue that statistical presentation is an equally important activity in presenting “events” if one considers a datum bounded by time and place, with presentation of statistical data a skill often neglected in history departments. Gapminder is currently the most generally-known infrastructure for presenting historical data series online in an attractive and conceptually-simple manner.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 Using tools for learning. The three class-focused digital history projects listed above come with different organizations: an “expanded textbook” and the “teaching portal” with a broad range of resources. The construction of any website around learning is more than the appending of “lesson plans” to an existing website; it is the deliberate composition of a range of resources that includes primary sources and support for activities teachers might design or facilitate for students.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Using tools for argumentation. Tools for constructing arguments have begun to catch up with the digital history projects that do not focus on argumentation. Blogs have been a tool for short-form argumentation that has made self-publishing of short commentary accessible to individual scholars for more than a decade, but long-form arguments or multimedia arguments have generally required specialized website construction until recently. Some blog tools such as WordPress plug-in digress.it now allow the publication of book-length projects with open commentary as the projects evolve (including the project which prompted this essay). Omeka is a tool for online public history exhibits discussed earlier. Some more adventuresome university presses such as the University of Michigan Press have also explored different definitions of the long-form argument as extending beyond the hard-copy book.
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Where Historians’ Boundaries Must Stretch: Infrastructure as Scholarship, Use and Collaboration as Criteria of Value
As I have suggested earlier, historians will probably recognize the value of digital history in presentations of artifacts and sets of events and event representations when they contain the recognizable elements of quality work in offline parallels: care in custodianship and curation, tracking of provenance, match of organization with purpose, and accessibility of presentation. Such digital history projects may be viewed as inferior to long-form arguments unless they are adjuncts to long-form argumentation that academic historians already recognize.26 But recognizing such projects as valuable scholarship does not require rethinking the fundamentals of historical work since it matches up well to the traits of existing “infrastructure” for historians. I hope my fellow historians are more ecumenical in recognizing this work than I expect them to be; anyone who wishes to take the “easier” path compared with the monograph, by creating a digital history project, is welcome to try!
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 1 What requires more deliberate effort is the evaluation of scholarly work in creating tools for presentation. Here, an important consideration in viewing digital tool-building as scholarship is the public visibility and use of the work. This is a pragmatic issue in terms of long-term impact as well as immediate value. Tools by themselves have little value as archived; because software quickly becomes outdated, a tool that is not used within a year or two will have no one providing feedback, no volunteers for further development, and no chance of support from potential funders. Yet to gain users, generally most tools require a team that gains users and builds a community as well as creating a software package.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 6 This requirement of effective team-building makes collaboration an essential part of tool-building, and this may be the most difficult evaluation criteria for historians to assimilate, more than use (which has a parallel to citations). Historical scholarship generally operates as solo projects or as the product of very small teams of scholars. In contrast with those small teams, a much larger community is required by the development, persistent use, and maintenance of software packages such as Omeka or Zotero. A history department at a research university may give tenure to an assistant professor who writes a single-authored book on an obscure topic published by a university press, where fewer than 200 copies are sold to libraries and placed on shelves without any evidence of who read the book other than the acquisition editor, a small number of reviewers, and the peers and external reviewers of the assistant professor. In the case of a university-press publication, the prospective valuation of the manuscript and post-publication review by a small number of senior scholars is sufficient. What about the assistant professor who worked as a graduate student on a software package and continues to do so as a new faculty member, where the software package is used extensively by museums and historical sites but where the tradeoff for the new faculty member is a few articles published before tenure rather than a book? I suspect many history departments would gladly value a scholar who headed such a project, but for someone who was a longtime contributor but not the lead, the value placed on such work would be far below the long-form argument, even if it were the software development contribution that had the greater contribution to the field.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 About the author: Sherman Dorn is a professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. In addition to various articles and books written about education history and policy, he has consistently written in his blog focused on education for more than a decade and is the former editor of the open-access, online Education Policy Analysis Archives.
- ¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0
- This essay focuses on both the professional dynamics in the U.S. and websites in English, but the argument is more general: we should see the diversity of successful digital projects as a way to talk about historical scholarship. ↩
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (NYU Press, 2011). ↩
- For a small sample of the recent literature on such changes, see Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace (Princeton University Press, 2004); David L. Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line (Harvard University Press, 2004); Martha C. Nussbaum, Not For Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010). ↩
- Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, 1st ed. (Jossey-Bass, 1997). ↩
- Kristin Ahlberg et al., Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian (Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship, June 2010). ↩
- Arnold Joseph Toynbee and D.C. Somervell, A Study of History (Dell, 1965), 295; National History Education Clearinghouse, “History Is an Argument about the Past” (poster), 2010, which can be requested at http://teachinghistory.org/poster-request. ↩
- Maris Vinovskis, From a Nation at Risk to No Child Left Behind (Teachers College Press, 2008). ↩
- Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn, History on Trial (Vintage, 2000). ↩
- Alex Stein, “The Teaching American History Program: An Introduction and Overview,” The History Teacher 36, no. 2 (2003): 178–185. ↩
- This essay does not address the influences of postmodernism or some of the political influences on scholarship that Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob; Hoffer; or Wiener have explored. My focus on the disciplinary construction should not be read as a claim that these other concerns are irrelevant; Joyce Oldham Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret C. Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (Norton, 1994); Peter Charles Hoffer, Past Imperfect (PublicAffairs, 2007); Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble (New Press, 2005). ↩
- Mattingly’s statement is itself a mid-level generalization consistent with Michéle Lamont’s argument about historians’ disciplinary temperament in How Professors Think (Harvard University Press, 2010). ↩
- There are also well-known digital history projects by amateurs, such as Phil Gyford’s presentation of Samuel Pepys’s diary as a blog; URL: http://www.pepysdiary.com. ↩
- The Papers of George Washington digital edition is available by subscription from the University of Virginia Press through the press’s Rotunda service, though a less scholarly version is available to the general public. The distinctions between public and subscription availability, as well as issues of ethics and business models, is beyond the scope of this essay. ↩
- Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier, and Joshua Brown, Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914 (Learning Technologies Interactive/Voyager, 1995); American Social History Productions, Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946 (Worth Publishers, 2000). ↩
- Daniel Jared Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), Chap. 7. ↩
- Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies (W. W. Norton, 2003). ↩
- Michael OʼMalley and Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web,” Journal of American History 84, no. 1 (1997): 145. ↩
- The implied meaning of “archive” for the site is a static entity that will not be revised, rather than a living, curated collection of materials. ↩
- Library of Congress, “Mission and History,” n.d., http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/about/index.html. ↩
- The project has received considerable support over the decades from the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. ↩
- Omeka was produced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and can be downloaded from http://www.omeka.org. ↩
- An online exhibit is a relatively straightforward translation of long-form historical arguments to a hyperlinked environment. ↩
- The Society of American Archivists lists seven archival degree programs located in history departments. ↩
- A separate issue is the organization of such artifacts, and I recognize that one could argue that an exhibit using Omeka is also presentation of artifacts. I classify Omeka as a tool for argumentation based on the structured nature of Omeka. ↩
- The classic is Charles Joseph Minard’s display of Napoleon’s march into and out of Moscow; see Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed. (Graphics Pr, 2001), 40-41. ↩
- The illustrations in Bernard Bailyn’s Voyagers to the West (Knopf, 1986) may have contributed to the multiple awards it won, though they were peripheral to the argument. ↩