Unit 8-The Promise and Perils of Digital History



In the video of KRON TV’s  “1981 Report on the Internet” the seeds of a digital newspaper are sprouting. Although the online paper was five dollars an hour, not much competition to a twenty cent print version, the  “prophecies of an optimistic digital future call out to you.” But there were skeptics. Marxist historian of technology David Noble warned  “a dismal new era of higher education has dawned.” Thankfully his doubts of a digital era were unfounded. And today, everything has its own website, even our very own Ronald Scheck.  (ronaldscheck.com )

In Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History, the authors examine  the ability to store data as well as to access it. They explain how “online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entrancee before.” Digital archives allow anyone from an elementary student to a serious academic to enter the former priviledged “inner sanctum.” Flexibility and diversity allow the web to “have given a much louder and more public voice to amateur historians.” The web offers connection and “interactivity” that “so far suggests how we might transform historical practice—the web becomes a place for new forms of collaboration, new modes of debate, and new modes of collecting evidence about the past.” Some critics believe the disadvantages of online history are “problems of quality and authenticity.” The fear of photo-editing rewriting history and the History Channel serving as the new authority exits.  But a more serious problem is the “real potential for inaccessibility and monopoly.”

And here is the key message of the book: “Historians need to confront these issues of quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility rather than leave them to the technologists, legislators, and media companies, or even just to our colleagues in libraries and archives.” The authors question why we should build a historical website. Historians need to be creative and not narrowly defined. Historians should wonder “how digital formats will survive into the future.”


Photograph courtesy of http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/


Cohen, “Is Google Good for History?” 

According to Dan Cohen, Google is good for history. Not only is it merely good, according to him, “Google is probably the most powerful tool in human history for doing just that,” which is sifting through evidence. Everyone with internet access also has Google Scholar, Google Books, and newspaper archives. One issue Cohen sees in Google is their metadata problems. Of course there will be errors and although “haste makes waste” Cohen understands that Google is trying to improve. Cohen believes that the internet has given historians new methods of research. He argues that the “existence of modern search technology should push us to improve historical research.” He also complains that Google makes it “difficult to download the OCRed text from multiple public domain books–what you would need for more sophisticated historical research.” In order to solve this, Cohen pushes historians to work side by side with Google.


Photograph courtesy of Business 2 Community http://www.business2community.com/social-media/what-about-google-0463714#moCgYmPFBj3UB4Tc.97

In the two communities of the civil war in Blevins’, “Valley of the Shadow and the Digital Database” the popular website has longevity, but is dated and “lacks is the kind of flexible, horizontal experience that has become a hallmark of today’s online user experience.” Blevins’ excitement about the possibilities of the site are innovative and collaborative. His critiques garner comments, some fair while others are defensive; “It wasn’t easy like you youngsters have it today.” As Larry Cebula pointed out the twenty-three rooms in the site’s portal, possibly to mimic the original archival research, he thinks it may not be the best way to teach history. After all, one great aspect of digital history is the accessibility. The site is very user friendly but definitely dated. Finding diaries and sources is easy but not fun.

Krause and Yakel’s “Interaction in Virtual Archives: The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections Next Generation Finding Aid,” examines online finding aids using a survey and interviews. Collections of American soldiers in Russia after WWI is documented using Web 2.0 technologies. User accessibility on this site includes a comment section, user profiles, and “allowing archival researchers to contribute.” (288) Incorporating a similar sheet style allows users to “foster a sense of place” while bookmarking the pages of interest gives the users a sense of ownership. (293) Much of the study was based off of user information. One user was a student while five others were the public. Some were researching family genealogy. Many people thought that browsing in particular was a very important aspect the site but the “sixty-five fully digitized collections are the most important feature of the site,” as well as social interaction (305). This site is drab.




One thought on “Unit 8-The Promise and Perils of Digital History

  1. I agree with what you noted as the key message of the online book, “Digital History.” Historians do need to get involved and take an active role in designing where history online will go. All historians, not just public historians, have a stake in providing quality content in an online environment.


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