13 Digital History

What Is Digital History?

Digital History is a sub-field within the academic discipline of history that is ever evolving. Although often lumped into the broader category of “Digital Humanities,” digital history is a way of practicing and producing history that utilizes digital tools and technologies that have been made available to historians over the past few decades. According to the American Historical Association, while on the one hand, “digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collection efforts,” on the other hand, it’s also a “methodological approach framed by the hypertextual power of these technologies to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past.” In other words, digital history is many things at once! Digital history not only involves the accumulation and dissemination of historical knowledge and facts using digital tools (think of databases, online syllabi, historical search engines, digitized archives, and the like), but it can also mean producing historical narratives that use or even rely on digital technology.

And so, there are many different ways that one can be a “digital historian.” While in the earliest days of digital history in the 1990s and early 2000s, being a digital historian might have meant something as simple as creating a history website or blog to disseminate a scholar’s own academic research, historians today are using digital technology to redefine the field of history and to tell stories set in the past in new and dynamic ways. This can include utilizing software and digital tools such Geographic Information Systems (or GIS) in their research or applying quantitative modelling programs such as R and Python to visualize and construct new links between historical topics and debates. The field, however, continues to evolve. As digital technologies change and as training in digital literacy has become much more broadly adopted within the broader field of history, historians have widened the scope of what constitutes “digital history.” Today, digitally minded historians deploy a range of digital tools and platforms in their research and teaching, from utilizing simple programs such as word clouds in the classroom to help visualize word usage in historical documents to applying much more advanced digital systems and mediums in their research, including through developing video games, Virtual Reality (VR) programs, or through using large-scale, open-source online mapping tools that are endlessly customizable.

These latter technologies – VR, video games, interactive mapping, and more – represent the future of digital history, but they also hint at some of the challenges that historians face in “being” or “becoming” digital historians in the twenty-first century. While today, many historians would agree that using digital technologies is becoming ever-more important and central to the historians’ craft in a new digital age, historians are rarely trained to use these digital tools in graduate school and beyond, particularly those that require a great deal of programming and computing knowledge. In addition, there is also the issue of scholarly “credit.” While research outputs – i.e., the publication of peer-reviewed books, articles, and more – are typically the most important factors in how a university “judges” a junior or early career scholar hoping to make a career in the field, digital publications are rarely peer-reviewed and are often seen as “extra” to the regular work that a historian completes, despite the immense amount of work that underwrites the development of digital projects. This means that while digital history is becoming increasingly central to the work that a historian does on a day-to-day basis, historians are rarely rewarded professionally or monetarily for their efforts to incorporate digital technologies into their research and teaching, which remains a significant obstacle for historians wanting to engage with digital history.

Nonetheless, and despite these challenges, digital history, to borrow a an oft-used cliché, is the “new frontier” of history as an academic discipline. As we move further into the 2020s and beyond, digital history and the use of digital technologies will only become more central to the craft of the historian, impacting all levels of the field – whether in research, teaching, or service – as it becomes increasingly inseparable to the daily tasks of historians and students of history. And yet, the boundaries of digital history remain relatively unknown. At the same time that digital technologies continue to evolve and change (seemingly by the hour), so too will the ways in which historians incorporate and engage with digital tools in their own research. All of which means that it’s a very exciting time to be a digitally engaged historian!




The American Historical Association’s Digital History Resources – https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/digital-history-resources

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media – https://rrchnm.org/

Programming Historian – http://programminghistorian.org/


Digital History Project Examples:

Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (various projects) – https://cesta.stanford.edu/research/projects

SlaveVoyages – https://www.slavevoyages.org/

The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

Histography – https://histography.io/

Virtual Angkor – https://www.virtualangkor.com/

The Great Exhibition Virtual Tour – https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/things-to-see-and-do/the-great-exhibition-virtual-tour

Mapping the Malayan Emergency – https://cotca.org/blog/the-malayan-emergency-digital-map/


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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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