“Has the digital revolution transformed how we write about the past?”, ask Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, editors of Writing History in the Digital Age. “Have new technologies changed our essential work-craft as scholars and the way in which we think, teach, author, and publish?” Their book itself exemplifies how digital technologies may reshape publishing: it employed “open peer review” and remains available for free online, while being sold in hardcover and paperback by the University of Michigan Press. But does the writing of history fundamentally change when it takes place, say, at a website or blog?
Since that’s the nature of our summer project, I’m glad that Fletcher and I have included Dougherty and Nawrotzki’s book in our early reading. One particularly helpful chapter comes from Sherman Dorn (Univ. of South Florida), who asks “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?” After reviewing some developments in the ongoing digitization of history, Dorn argues that
We can use the best of digital history work to redraw the discipline’s boundaries. In attempting to battle the perception of history as a set of dates and names, or “just one damned thing after another,” as Toynbee and Somervell put it, historians may have gone overboard in arguing that history is “an argument about the past,” as a poster available to schoolteachers puts it…. The heterodox developments of the last few decades provide an opportunity to rethink the definition of historical scholarship.
For Dorn, the sheer diversity of projects clustering under the heading of “digital history”
uncovers history as more than a polished argument about the past. Presentation of historical scholarship as an argument presumes a finished product. But most time spent on historical scholarship is messy, involving rooting through Hollinger boxes, begging someone for an oral history interview, coughing through a shelf of city reports or directories, rereading notes, drafting manuscripts, sorting through critical comments, revising, and so forth. A published work does not materialize from a vacuum, and all that preceded and underlays it is legitimately part of historical work. Public presentations of history in the digital age reveal the extent of that “preargument” work, often in an explicitly demonstrative fashion or allowing an audience to work with evidence that is less directly accessible in a fixed, bound presentation. Digital history thus undresses the historical argument, showing that all our professional garments are clothing, even those not usually seen in public.
This blog very much fits Dorn’s “preargument” theme. Before we’re ready to present anything like a polished product, Fletcher and I are using this forum to share first impressions of sources, to think aloud about questions as they emerge and develop, to keep a record of our research, and to invite participation by readers in the middle of the process.
Dorn does consider how digital history can reinvent more traditional scholarship (e.g., via the open peer review process), but he also wants academic historians to understand and properly value the ways that digital tools serve the purposes of “nonargument” scholarship: by presenting artifacts, by presenting events (e.g., through the Timeline widget developed by the SIMILE project), and by serving the purposes of teaching and learning.
All three might show up in our project. (And “argument” scholarship as well — we’ll come back to that…) We plan to incorporate documents, photographs, and other primary sources into our final website, and perhaps conduct a small oral history project on more recent events. But while we will present artifacts in that sense, that has become perhaps less important as we’ve talked more about the project. Originally, we were going to use Omeka to curate an online exhibit, but we opted for WordPress because it allows for a more attractive, interactive presentation. (We might develop a new collection for Bethel’s Digital Library, however, as we digitize new sources from Bethel’s archives.)
Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t (yet) include Timeline or similar products among its plug-ins. (We talked about perhaps hosting our own domain through WordPress.org, which allows virtually any plug-in, but that would have required one or both of us to develop a significantly higher level of technical ability at the same time that we were undertaking a rather ambitious research project.) But I suspect that Fletcher will develop a work-around that lets us offer a timeline as one way to organize information and tell stories — and to invite readers to explore.
At least for me, digital history as a tool for teaching and learning is most intriguing. I’ve already noted that I was drawn to the first half of our project’s timeline because I teach courses on World War I and World War II. As we design those elements of the website, I want to consider how I might eventually develop assignments and activities around them, giving Bethel students — most of them not history majors — a chance to use primary sources and think historically about a past that is both familiar and foreign.