The concept of today’s students as “digital natives” provides the major theme of this week’s readings. This concept, essentially that the younger generation has grown up immersed in technology and is inherently comfortable using it, has proved surprisingly resilient, especially among those who are members of an older generation and learned how to use various digital technologies later in life (“digital immigrants”). Nor is this concept confined to the educational profession; in the military senior officers frequently talk about how young soldiers “grew up on video games” and are those comfortable using advanced military technologies such as drones and remote controlled bomb robots.

Yet, as explored in many of this week’s articles, this concept conceals some important caveats and issues. Danah Boyd engages with these issues most directly, but criticisms of this concept are present, implicitly or explicitly, in almost every article we read this week. Boyd’s criticisms rest on two different but related levels. First, Boyd argues that teens will not become critical contributors to the digital world simply because of the date of their birth and that the ability to navigate facebook and twitter do not imply a mastery of more complex digital tools. Teens will need to be educated to achieve media literacy and technical skills. Furthermore, these two attributes must be accompanied by access, which leads to Boyd’s second criticism. Boyd (and many others) argue that the concept of “digital natives” conceals significant amounts of digital inequality within the younger generation, tied largely to access, which is in itself largely tied to socioeconomic status.

Adam Rabinowitz, in his review of his experience teaching an undergrad course heavily focused on digital tools, likewise criticizes the universality of the digital native concept, pointing out that “students can be avid users of facebook and consumers of Youtube videos and still find it very difficult to use new, often complex or non-intuitive digital tools in a classroom setting” and that students largely prefer their digital content in smaller, manageable doses than is often assumed by educators. Allison Marsh also agrees with this assessment of student skills and interests, claiming that students are not yet convinced by digital humanities and many simply want to be “regular historians.” Mills Kelly, while generally more positive on the digital skills and engagement of students, does agree with Boyd that the profession needs to take a more forward approach to teaching students how to use digital tools.

While these readings do not all completely agree on their assessment of teaching in a digital world and the concept of “digital natives” it seems clear that a more nuanced understanding of the access, media savvy and technical skills of students is critical to the proper teaching of, and with, digital tools. Educators must recognize both the variance within the generation as well as the fact that the prevalence of technology and the use of social media such as facebook and twitter does not necessarily equate to an automatic or intuitive understanding of either the conceptual possibilities or nuts and bolts working of academic digital tools. In order for students to properly understand and implement these digital tools they must still be taught their use, just as we currently teach more traditional historical skill sets such as engaging with historiography and structuring an argument (and writing the papers that Mills Kelly is so critical of).

This weeks readings engage directly with many of the issues that have been implicitly raised in previous weeks. While covering various different topics and with significantly differing interpretations, all of this weeks articles are primarily concerned with how to do scholarship on the web, and more fundamentally, whether these new digital tools and mediums alter the basics of scholarship. Broadly, and perhaps overly simplistically, speaking, these articles, and many of those we have read in earlier weeks, attempt to reconcile digital methods and scholarships in one of two opposing ways. Some authors argue that digital media are capable of producing serious scholarship that is different from, but serves similar purposes as that of traditional scholarship. Thus, William Thomas presents digital scholarship as translating “the fundamental components of professional scholarship—evidence, engagement with prior scholarship, and a scholarly argument—into forms that took advantage of the possibilities of electronic media.” This views digital scholarship as analogous to more traditional monograph-based scholarship, but providing additional ways and forms of presenting this scholarship in digital ways that traditional books are incapable of doing. Digital scholarship thus provides a fusion of form and content that is new, but with the same fundamental elements and purpose as earlier scholarship.

A more radical view of digital scholarship argues that traditional definitions of scholarship or “serious history” are constructed around the strengths and weaknesses of the book (“monograph culture” as Edward Ayers terms it), and as such are not a valid universal set of definitions and practices. Thus the rise of digital scholarship presents a fundamentally new way to approach history and scholarship, invalidating or at least questioning definitions of what constitutes scholarship that are based on a single medium (the scholarly monograph). Digital scholarship, instead, freeing historians from the “fascist authority of the format” in the inflammatory words of Tim Hitchcock.

While vastly different in their approach and assumptions, both of these schools of thought argue for the validity of digital scholarship as intellectually credible and valuable history. However, neither of these views of digital scholarship has fully convinced the academy, which remains largely grounded in the traditional “monograph culture.” This, as pointed out by Alex Galarza, Jason Heppler, and Douglas Seefeldt presents significant risks to those who choose to study and produce digital scholarship, as it is largely discredited in the hiring and tenure decisions of many institutions that still hold the written dissertation/monograph as the sole acceptable scholarly product. Until the larger academy reforms it view of digital scholarship and translates that into a wider acceptance of digital scholarship in hiring and tenure decisions, neither of the above arguments will likely gain much traction.

The central tension in crowdsourcing history, apparent in almost all of this week’s readings, is the issue of access and authority. This tension is not limited to digital history, as the pre-digital practice of oral history has long noted the importance of anonymity in collecting people’s stories. While the historians always prefer to know as much as possible about the contributor of their sources in order to facilitate analysis (a interview with a labor union leader will be read and evaluated much differently than that of a factory manager or a average laborer), many contributor to both oral history or digitally collected history are less willing to participate or be fully honest if their name and identifying info is attached to their interview or contribution. If anything this is even more true for digital history, as most internet users have a higher expectation of privacy and anonymity than the participants in an oral history project. To this is added the convenience factor, the more data or effort required to submit a contribution will have a direct effect on the number of visitors willing to contribute. Digital historians, like oral historians, must therefore balance their desire for metadata with their desire for a higher level of contributions.

The question of access goes beyond this debate between data and anonymity, however, as many crowdsourced digital history projects involve the every day user not just in the contribution but also in the editing and writing of history. The most prominent example of this is Wikipedia, but it can also be found in projects such as the Transcribe Bentham project which allows all comers to help transcribe and digitize the works of Jeremey Bentham. Wikipedia especially has been contentious for historians, as it values consensus over expertise and suffers from many faults in coverage, as its content is mainly driven by what people are interested in rather than a balanced coverage of history, and bias, despite its avowal of a neutral point of view. Despite the issues raised by allowing all comers to contribute and edit articles, it is impossible to argue that it has provided a much more massive corpus of openly available work than would be possible with a more rigorous expertise focused approach (see the relative failure of Nupedia detailed by Roy Rosenzweig).

Another issue with Wikipedia, pointed out by Leslie Madsen-Banks, is the unrepresentative nature of its contributors, who are dominated by male, internet-savvy, and English-speaking individuals. Thus, even while Wikipedia’s format and process arguably allow for more varied viewpoints than traditional history, it is a potential that has been stymied by the biases of the contributing population. This reflects a second issue of access: even when completely open access is allowed, it is shaped largely by the project’s (all projects, not just Wikipedia)  ability to attract contributors. This is a critical part of any digital collection project, and requires what Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen have described as “magnet content” to bring contributors to the site and convince them to participate. Perhaps the greatest magnet content is other contributions, but this can be supplemented by direct contact thru email, media coverage and marketing, or social networking. As Shelia A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly have pointed out, this can also involve outreach to relevant groups in the “analog world” offline, and special attention should be paid to providing avenues for individuals without internet access or skills to contribute (the Hurricane Digital Media Bank used both voicemail and mail in reply cards).

The issue of access and authority will thus overlay many of the decisions made by digital historians seeking to crowdsource history, and indeed this tension is a central theme in debate over almost all aspects of the “democratizing” influence of digital history. However, as access is one of the central benefits offered by the digital humanities, limiting it in the interest of greater academic authority must be a seriously considered decision.

While not as explicitly made as in the readings on text mining last week, an important theme of this weeks’ articles on visualization and networks is the dual role of these tools. While these tools are usually used to provide a visualization of data, they can also be used in an exploratory mode to reveal connections not normal apparent, and thus serve as a starting point for inquiry rather than merely as evidence for an argument or a conclusion. Like many of the other tools we have learned about, they also have their flaws that must be accounted for if they are not to lead the novice digital historian astray.

To start with the traditional use of networks, I think David Staley’s two element definition of visuals images, quoted by John Theibault in his article on “Visualization and Historical Argument,” is an extremely simple and useful way to think about the use of these networked images. Visual images can be a stand-alone organization of meaningful information, much as the digital history projects on the Houston Daily Post and Kissinger’s memcoms and telecoms, or this week’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” Alternatively, and perhaps how we as historians are most familiar with their use, is when they are employed as a supplement to written accounts to further bolster textual arguments or provide additional evidence. Both of these uses are primarily for the purpose of displaying data, but while the standalone visualizations in our readings have been finished projects, it is easy to imagine how they could also be used to expose new questions and paths of inquiry.

Thiebault does a valuable job of exploring the possibilities opened up for further visualization by the increased use of digital tools, but one point he made struck me as especially surprising as well as illustrating the radically expansive possibilities and democratization made possible by new media. This was the simple point that you can use color extensively in digital history, while it is prohibitively expensive in print media. This seems like a minor point, but when one considers how important it is in visual images, it clearly illustrates how even such small factors create large changes in the new world of digital media.

This does not mean, however, that visual networks and other visual tools are without their pitfalls. As Johanna Drucker argues persuasively, we have an innate tendency to accept these images as substantiated fact with their own intrinsic proof in a way we would never do for a textual argument. Instead, we must consider visual images like we do interpretive arguments…by evaluating the evidence and methodology that underlie them to make our own determination if the end result is supported and convincing. To this danger, Scott Weingart adds several additional criticisms. For Weingart, “network structures are deceitful.” The must be evaluated closely to ensure that what the historian is attempting to show by applying his data to a network structure matches the network structure used. Central to this is networks lack of memory (ie they can only show connections, not how those connections were used) and difficulty showing multimodality. Weingarts final call is for historians to ensure these visual networks are employed only when appropriate, going back to Staley’s second definition of using visual images to supplement written arguments.

While these criticisms must be considered, none of these historians is calling for the abandonment of the use of visual networks. Rather, like the other tools we have learned about, they must be approached with a complete understanding of their methodology and implications in order to be properly applied. One component of this, not as explicitly covered in the readings, is the ability to use these visualizations as a research tool rather than simply as evidence or a final product.

This weeks readings were useful in describing the tools available in text mining and topic modeling and also some of the important considerations in their use. These tools are closely related to the keyword searches we looked at last week, but a little but more advance. Like our readings on keyword searches, so of the most valuable elements of this weeks readings were less then nuts and bolts of the tools than some of the issues in their use and the discussion of the need for a proper understanding of their implications and methodology.

As Ted Underwood points out in his article, “Theorizing Research Practices We  Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago,” it is important to consider searches and text mining as a “philosophical discourse” rather than just as tools. This means seriously considering how we approach their use, and understanding the implications of their use rather than just using them as a faster route to the same results we would seek with more traditional research methods. A large element of this is, as Underwood points out, that we need to understand how the algorithm behind the search engine is producing results (ie, what does it define as relevant). Without this understanding, it is very easy to conduct searches that will never produce alternate theses, or keep trying new searches until ANY thesis eventually produces enough results to be judged “supported.”

Corollary to this is a methodological approach recommended both by Underwood and Frederick Gibbs and Daniel Cohen: rather than using text mining to provide evidence for a defined thesis, it can be used instead as an open ended investigation. By the use of text mining and “distant reading,” a volume of sources that would be impossible to compare using traditional methods can be studied in a way to reveal patterns otherwise undetectable. This, in Gibbs and Cohen’s words, this method can provide “signposts toward further explanation rather than conclusive evidence.” According to Robert Nelson, the same results can be achieved from topic modeling, which allows digital historians to “detect patterns within not a sampling but the entirety of an archive.”

Finally, the articles (or more properly digital projects) of Cameron Blevins and Miki Kaufman demonstrate the ability of text mining and topic modeling, in combination with other digital tools, to provide a visual demonstration of patterns and coherence drawn from a huge amount of data that would be difficult to research or comprehend using more traditional methods.

While my reaction to last week’s readings was to focus on some of the negative aspects of digitization, this week’s readings opened up some benefits of digitization and new media that I had not previously considered. The use of new media has often been recognized as, at least to some extent, democratizing history by allowing a wider audience access and the ability to interact with history, not the least of this being thorough the widespread digitization of primary sources. Several of this week’s readings, however, highlight other ways in which the use of digitization, databases, and keyword searches have broken down barriers in research practices.

In his article on the role of digital history in re-formatting historical knowledge, Timothy Hitchcock points out the role of digitization and key word searches in decreasing the hard lines between disciplines with the result that “historical conferences are becoming more literary, and literature conferences are becoming significantly more historical.” As Hitchcock points out, the ease of keyword searches makes it possible for historians and other scholars to quickly and profitably engage with the corpus of work available digitally in other disciplines that is related to their work. This provides increased context on all sides without requiring significant additional inputs of time and research, greatly improving the end product through tangential research that would have been prohibitive in the analog age.

This idea is similar to the idea of “side-glances” as described by Lara Putnam in her article covering the intersection of transnationalism and digital history. For Putnam, the rise of digitized sources, and especially key word searches, has been instrumental in helping historians discover connections across national boundaries. What once would have been an impossible effort to chase down intriguing leads and scattered connections is now the matter of minutes of work at a computer. This digitization “makes whole new realms of connection possible,” with the end result of a sea change in the way historians, and especially transnational historians, do research.

A large part of this is digitization’s role in making what Putnam describes as “fishing expeditions” cost-reasonable. In the pre-digital age researchers were forced by the constraints of time and money to focus on archive visits to locations where they KNEW they could find usable material; with the digitization and searchability of increased numbers of archival sources these expeditions are now possible and even imperative.

The use of key word searches has also reduced the institutional bias that both Putnam and Hitchcock noted in the use of traditional archives. Archives, predominantly speaking, are the product of organizations and states, and have thus embedded into the sources most valued by historians a bias towards the perspectives of institutions and the organization of history around nation-state boundaries. The use of digitized key word searches allows historians to see past this by developing connections not visible in analog archives.

This is not to say that key word searches and database are without their pitfalls, as noted in many of both this week and last week’s readings. Some of these issues, as pointed out by Patrick Spedding, are not related to the failures of OCR or other technology, but to the nature of the sources themselves. Taking the example of his own research in 18th century references to condoms, Spedding points out the usefulness of peripheral text searches, using a combination of terms related to the original search topic to turn up sources unmarked by the original term. While Spedding used this mainly to get around the 18th century reticence in mentioning sex topics, this technique can also be applied to help alleviate some of the errors caused by OCR mistranslations, although at the risk of creating many more false positives while uncovering a small number of false negatives.

For all of the benefits deriving from the “digital turn” and the digitization and searchability of sources, it remains a tool for historians like all of their other research techniques. And like their other tools, historians must recognize the drawbacks and flaws inherent in the use of key word searches, while making the most of the new opportunities they provide.

The first thing that struck me about this weeks readings was just how wide and debated the concept (field? area? discipline?) of digital history is. There seems to be no universally accepted definition, and as Michael Frisch points out, it risks “meaning too much or too little.” This problem is not unique to digital history, as I have come across it in other aspects of my studies. The problem with lacking a definition is that your concept can quickly be stretch to the point where it loses any value as a category.

That said, digital history is both new enough and dynamic enough to make a single definition difficult if not impossible. Several of the articles we read this week, however, proposed useful ways of thinking about digital history. The most important I think, and certainly one of the most repeated, is the idea of thinking of digital history as both a field and a method. Thus, while digital history is distinct enough, and requires enough specialization among its practitioners to be rightfully considered its own field, it also provides an array of tools and methods that historians in other fields can apply singly or more systematically to their own studies. This mirrors, but is much more profound than Douglas Seerfeldt and William G. Thomas’ distinction between digitalization projects and true digital history products. More importantly perhaps, this recognition of digital history as simultaneously a field and a method highlights the need, raised by Anne Murrell Taylor, to avoid an over-focus on the tools of digital history to the extent that “mastering technology becomes the end rather than the means to a bigger end of producing innovative history.” Digital history as a field instead focuses on thinking about how we can create truly new history.

The second thing that struck me about this weeks reading was how little I knew about Digital History, despite being a full year into my graduate studies. Other than one rather tangential reference to the Valley of the Shadow project and a vague awareness of the existence of the Center for History and New Media, I’d managed to complete 27 credits of graduate history work with little connection to digital history, or at least the more advanced elements of it (I have used some digitalized sources in my research). This seems particularly amazing because some of the readings this week date from 10 or even 15 years ago when I was an undergrad. To me, this highlights another central issue of many of these readings: where digital history fits into the larger field of academic history. Despite the  possibility, and prediction in some cases, for digital history to completely change the entire academy, it seems to date that the mainstream of academic history has managed to remain relatively unchanged and ignorant of the role and uses of digital history. This seems, to me, less out of any inherent flaws in digital methods and practices (although Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig do an excellent job of summarizing these in their chapter on the “Promises and Perils of Digital History”) than from the successful stonewalling by traditional historians. This is likely the result out of a perhaps understandable concern over change, a concern made especially powerful by the fact that the senior and most influential scholars in the field are, by definition as senior, the product of the earlier traditional scholarship and thus have little motivation to alter the system. Until the role of digital scholarship in hiring and tenure decision is more firmly established, digital history will likely remain peripheral, and a valuable but risky route for scholars. It is important to note this is only true for students seeking traditional tenure track careers; digital history has already more than proven its worth in less traditional fields such as public history.