Am I a Digital Historian?

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, April 7, 2012. Links likely outdated.

shrugI’m picking up here on some comments I made the other night at Lauren Wheeler, Can Enviro Rock?—in response to her reflection on ASEH and the digital history panel that concluded this year’s annual meeting in Madison.  What made the panel inspiring, and ultimately a little confounding, was the dramatic and impressive breadth of projects being presented under the rubric of Digital History, or Digital Humanities.  I would refer you back to Lauren’s post for the examples.

I suppose it’s the dual blessing and curse of every new subfield that while everyone rushes in to have a look and try their hand—incorporating, often prematurely, hastily, and irresponsibly the key tools, approaches and modes of analysis into their work—others try to coolly weigh this burgeoning canon of work to figure out what is and is not actually digital history.  Some might call this closed-minded turf protection while others would call it proper scholarly self-awareness.  I won’t take a side on that.  But while panels like the recent one aforementioned inspire us and argue quite effectively the power and utility of tools like video, ArcGIS, Twitter, digital indices, and web portals to both our research and the dissemination of our findings, they often leave us with a rather slippery, jello-like understanding of what digital history actually is—leading us to the inevitable question, am I a digital historian?

Ordinarily I’m perfectly happy to just go with the flow—coast along and see which way the wind blows.  But digital history has reached a level of popularity, despite its amorphousness, that every department who has funding for a faculty line and no digital historian seems to think they need one.  And wouldn’t it be a shock if upon forging a definition we discovered that three members of that department already were digital historians, they just didn’t know it!  Like the episode of The West Wing where they redefine the poverty line only to discover that they have 4 million new poor people in an election year!  It takes someone to actually point out that they were poor the whole time—and that we just started calling them that!  So while I’ve never self-identified as a digital historian I do write a blog whose readership has grown fivefold in the last week, marshal a Twitter network that, while still modest, has doubled in the same week, and I’m in the process of learning ArcGIS to ultimately reorganize how I catalog my research and ask questions of my notes.  And I have also taught courses online–something that I didn’t hear anything about in Madison.  Does that alter or enhance my relationship to digital history?


From Jess van Horssen’s graphic novel, still shot from

Panelists and audience members considered the notion that digital history tools were being manipulated to reach new demographics and broader audiences.  Jess van Horssen’s graphic digital novel adaptation of her dissertation about Asbestos, Quebec is perhaps the preeminent example.  But they were also being mobilized, as in the case of digital indices for newspapers and other document sets, to enable us to more quickly and efficiently find references, but also to begin to shape questions about the uses of language.  The business of discourse analysis is a completely different animal in the age of the digital index.  Does the fact that I’ve used stories from the Barnstable Patriot and Chatham Monitor, gleaned from online databases, and dabbled in the U.S. Serial Set index make me a digital historian?  The point being, when I look up from my footnotes to search some job ads, and find that the University of Greater Pocatello Polytechnic is looking for a digital historian, how am I supposed to interpret what UGPP might interpret that to mean?  If a department is seeking to hire someone in this new subfield, it’s likely an indication that they don’t believe they have coverage in it already.  Is it wise to expect that, as such, they’ve done the degree of soul searching required to determine what they deem digital history to be, and based on that what sort of digital historian they might be looking for?

At its core I don’t think a degree of shape-shifting is necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, I think a cursory glance at the first 40 years of environmental history is evidence enough of the degree to which great motive power can come from the marriage of great breadth and insightful self-analysis.  And when you think about it, when a search committee goes looking for an environmental historian, the variety they can potentially dredge up is astounding!

So while I’m perfectly comfortable existing somewhere inside, outside, nearby, or upside down betwixt emerging and/or competing definitions of digital history, I am also an early career professional in a wider discipline who might one day (soon!!) want a job.  So I wonder do we owe it to ourselves (or yourselves—however it works out) to articulate that definition both to help Greater Pocatello Poly and to prevent our (your) practitioners from being subject to whatever they might have to conjure up on their own when left to their own devices?

The other question that emerged from the panel’s proceedings dealt with how the discipline might incorporate the products of digital history and humanities into the badly rusted conventions of scholarly life.  And while no one seemed entirely comfortable with the phrasing, for lack of a better question we were forced to consider how our work would “count.”  Most seemed concerned about tenure reviews and how committees might equate a website, video, interactive map, or documentary to the more standard journal article or book.  I was, naturally, a bit more fixated on the search committee.  Will the search committee go looking for a digital historian, but, in a desperate job market with new PhD’s spinning their expertise every which way, wind up with the candidate sporting an intermittent blog and a collection of forthcoming journal articles about medieval basketry—and of course a nice institutional brand name on their degree?  And by doing so perpetuate definitions of digital history that more dedicated practitioners are not comfortable with?

I’ve seen via Twitter this week that an inaugural issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities is now a thing.  As someone who, as I’ve said, never self-identified, I’m left to wonder to what extent Digital History is developing on its own as a sub-field, and to what extent its actually developing quite distinctly within each of the existing subfields.  Is it contributing the same assets to each sub-field—enhanced spatial analysis, discourse analysis, and broader dissemination?  Or do our uses of these tools look dramatically different than those of diplomatic or popular culture historians?  In the little green box that addresses “What is Digital History” on the website of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason I don’t get a great deal of clarity on that question.  The first paragraph describes it as an approach unto itself, while the second offers it as a “complement” to existing ones.  It’s also interesting that the same site is divided into resources dedicated to “Teaching & Learning,” “Research & Tools” and “Collecting & Exhibiting.”  The website for the Digital History Project of the University of Nebraska refers to it as “an emerging and rapidly changing field.”  I’ve also detected a bit of buzz on Twitter in the last week or so about THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), but more specifically an environmental or environmental history version of THATCamp–which further begs the question: new field or new set of tools to empower existing ones?

As usual I conclude with more questions than answers, but supreme among them is: am I a digital historian?  Are you?  And is it appropriate to ask a search committee what exactly they believe digital history to be and clarify just what kind of user of new media it is they’re looking to hire?