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.