Today’s project is to assess the existing digital history of my research topic. My research interest is in 19th century American Military History, specifically the post-Civil War professionalization of the Army. That seems a little broad for an internet search, but Google’s fast so let’s see what it produces before I narrow it down to something more specific and searchable.

1st Google Search: “19th Century American Military History”

Perhaps unsurprisingly the first several entries are Wikipedia articles. There is a timeline of Military History from; it seems pretty simplistic and pretty Western-focused, but could be useful for general background information. There are also several book lists from barnes and nobles and similar sites. Further down in the results is the 19th Century page for Military History Online, which actually includes a reasonable set of what appear to be somewhat scholarly articles (at least they have footnotes), although they seem to be member contributions rather than peer-reviewed entries. None appear to be particularly related to my specific research interests, although several appear interesting. As the last link on the first page of the results page is the Early 19th Century Online Bookshelf of the U.S. Army Center of Military History. For the 19th Century this includes two digitalized general reference books, and on digitalized archival source: “the Regulation for the Uniform and Dress of the United States Army, 1839.” Searching through the Center of Military History also pulls up Online Bookshelves for the Late 19th Century (7 digitized secondary sources, 1 digitized archival source), the War with Spain (5 digitized secondary sources, and 7 digitized archival sources).

Let’s see what adding “digital” to the search does.

2nd Google Search: “19th Century Military Digital History”

This search is completely dominated by articles. (slogan: “using new technologies to enhance teaching and research.”). While the articles lack footnotes, the .edu address is a least moderately reassuring. Going to their homepage, it seems to be focused primarily on K-12, but they do have some digitized primary documents as well as some exhibits (although none are related to my area). They also, quite usefully, have a link for how to cite them.

So it seems there is a decent amount of 19th Century military history available digitally, but so far nothing specific to my research interests, so I will try a more focused search.

3rd Google Search: “Leavenworth School System”

Well that was not super useful, and probably to be predicted. The results were all links to current Leavenworth school districts.

4th Google Search: “Army Leavenworth Schools”

Strike 2. Results of this search are split between sponsored links of for-profit schools trying to sell online degrees to service members and the websites for the current Fort Leavenworth schools (Command and General Staff College, Combined Arms Center, etc.).

This topic may be a little too esoteric and have too much overlap with current institutions to return a useful google search result, so I’ll have look deeper into likely digital archival sources. The most logical place to start is the U.S. Army Military History Institute. All of the USAMHI’s finding aides are available online, as well as a catalog search for their secondary sources and articles. The USAMHI also has several digital collections, including digitized army regulations, field manuals, and general orders. They also have a selection of manuscripts and printed material that have been digitized. Finally, there are key word searchable databases for their non-digitized manuscript holdings. The digitized files are mostly more recent documents, but the finding aides are useful for planning visits, especially as they have been digitized in such a way as to be able to do a key word search and have it bring you to specific entries in each document.

A search through the Nationals Archives site reveals similar results: the digitized elements of the archives are not relevant to my research, but all the finding aides and other research planning tools are available to at least do a majority of the leg work in identifying archival sources before showing up to the physical archive.

Finally, while none have shown up during the course of these searches, I know from prior research that many of the printed materials from this period have been digitized by Google books and other sites such as Hathi Trust. So while researching if a printed source is referred to, a quick google search of its full title will often turn up a digitized copy. Unfortunately, since many of the documents I work with have titles like Report of the Board of officers appointed in pursuance of the act of Congress approved June 6, 1872, for the purpose of selecting a breech-system for the muskets and carbines of the military service, together with their report upon the subject of trowel-bayonets, they rarely turn up in more generic key word searches.

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.

The first practicum for my new CLIO wired class on digital history involved establishing a personal domain online (this website and blog). Using Reclaim Hosting and WordPress, the process was surprisingly simple and intuitive, although there is still so much to the site to explore and understand.

This site represents a relatively recent and limited foray into the online world for me…a current google search of my name reveals how limited that presence is…

Due to an unfortunate confluence of my last name and consumer products, the first result (as well as many of the subsequent ones) is for “Affordable Brand Name Furniture.” I am likewise absent from the image results, which are heavily dominated by Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Facebook pages for others sharing my name are the fourth result, but due to my privacy settings and the way I structured my profile name, my page does not appear. As I primarily use Facebook for social purposes and not professional connections, I’d like to keep it this way.

Finally, the sixth result leads to my LinkendIn profile, which I need to update with a photo. I should probably also update it to emphasize my current studies over my prior military service.

As it stands, my online presence is pretty sparse. Moving forward I need to update my LinkedIn, and will be adding a (professionally focused) Twitter account later today. I’ll be keeping my Facebook private and personal, so the focus there will be keeping that out of simple searches rather than integrating it with the rest of my online presence. Finally, I need to look at adding an profile, although will be more of a long term project as I build my CV. Next year when I begin work at the United States Military Academy I will also have a page through the History Department there as well. This website will also continue to grow, and hopefully eventually become the “home base” of my online presence as I learn more about how to use it.