Diving into Digital: Historians Online

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Digital media is here to stay.  Historians are being lapped by amateurs in their own subject in cyberspace, especially via Wikipedia.  The “History Web” is growing, fortunately, but the potential has not yet been touched.  Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen are digital optimists with a vision for how professional historians can tap into the best of the online world, while keeping a critical eye on the inherent challenges to traditional historical work.  Access to tons of historical materials on the world’s information superhighway is perhaps the most obvious benefit of digital technology, allowing historians not to have to travel to remote dusty archives for their research.  The internet also presents a tremendous opportunity for historians to connect with larger, popular audiences; however, it may be too early to judge whether digital approaches, like “open source,” can produce solid scholarly work.

Catching Up

Rosenzweig and Cohen’s Digital History is a noble effort to bring historians into the current millennium.  It is somewhat ironic that the two historians chose to write a book to encourage historians to get their noses out of books and onto the internet.  However, it demonstrates that they understanding their paper-comfortable audience well.  Here, the two established historians, properly credited for their work, using footnotes and the “whole nine,” present a very digestible how-to guide.  Of course, just six years after its publishing, the book is already a little out of date and cannot be updated like a website.  Fortunately, their macro-level advice has a longer shelf-life than their technical-level advice (e.g. references to software that is no longer popular).  The authors do a good job of showing what the “History Web” (what they call all things history on the internet) is, how it works and how to approach creating a new digital project.  The sense of possibility with the digitizing of historical sources and the ability to collect new historical sources as events unfold (e.g. the attacks of September 11) is truly exciting.

Popularizing History

What I find most exciting about the internet is the possibilities it presents for engaging more people with history.  I think history matters (as previously noted) and I want it to be more accessible and attractive.  The internet is forcing us (historians) to think about things like design and readability.  Discussions about good prose is not new, though there are plenty of historical monographs that are difficult to plow through, making me think that good writing could use a stronger emphasis in our field.  Books don’t get very fancy, with the cover being the most significant item where design comes in.  But digital media is very visual these days.  Audio and visual!  Rosenzweig and Cohen encourage historians to think of themselves as architects rather than computer programmers.  Many historians may need help from designer colleagues to produce attractive, enticing digital work.  I’m not talking about focusing on aesthetics to the detriment of content, but paying it enough attention to increase the use of our work so that it has strong impact.  Rosenzweig interviewed an Ivy League PhD student who contributes to Wikipedia as a way to practice clear, publicly-useable writing.  This illustrates one of the benefits of digital media for our craft – stretching us in a different way.

Joining In, Unleashing the Profession’s Power

While teachers cringe when they see students citing Wikipedia in papers, Rosenzweig says we have to somehow embrace Wikipedia.  We don’t have to be uncritical of it and we don’t have to allow it as a scholarly historical source in student assignments, but we ought to recognize that it is being used far more than any other historical source.  Millions of people turn to it for historical knowledge, whether we like it or not.  Rosenzweig imagines what it would be like if all of the members of the Organization of American Historians were to dedicate just one day to improving historical entries on Wikipedia.  That could be truly powerful.  However, he also describes some of the tensions that professional historians face working with the mostly amateur writing crew for Wikipedia.  This includes the proclivity seen in Wikipedia for facts and lists, even when these items may be obscure or sensational elements in history.  Also, because Wikipedia takes a “Neutral Point of View” approach, writers steer clear of controversies and conflicting interpretations, which is welcomed as useful in the academic world.  Another option Rosenzweig presents is for historians to generate their own on-line projects or to make existing projects like the American National Biography Online free.  As with the Ames Clickworker project organized by NASA where two million entries were generated in six months by volunteers pouring over images of craters on Mars, Rosenzweig sees an endless set of possibilities with the power of volunteers to build the History Web.

Scholarly Work on New Terms

“Can history be open source?” asks Rosenzweig.  I would really like to be able to answer, “Yes!”  However, I am more skeptical than I’d like to be.  I’d like to be more optimistic and say that creative and intellectual powers through the magic of altruistic collaboration will create unlimited brilliant works of history.  I am familiar with the notion of the “wisdom of crowds” and am impressed by the amazing corrective powers within Wikipedia of tens of thousands of volunteers who are constantly fixing errors in articles on the site.  Perhaps what I am most concerned about is the notion of amateurs having equal power with historians, even though they may be far less knowledgeable and skilled.  I think professional’s interest in historical significance separates history from meaningless lists of data or exciting pulp fiction.  Wikipedia is a great place to start when one wants to know about something historical, but it is an encyclopedia.  Just like the old print encyclopedia’s one wouldn’t cite it as a source.  Additionally, it’s not dependable as truly scholarly work upon which one can rely, even though scholars are not infallible.

What I like about conventional history is not that a person gets credit for his or her work, but a person is supremely accountable for their work.  A historian’s professional reputation is on the line when his or her work is published.  The facts must check out, the analysis must be sound and the buck has to stop with them if harmful, biases come through.  How do you hold a mass of contributors accountable?  They are not known quantities.  Their livelihoods and vocations are not on the line.  What is on the line for them that would keep them in check?  It seems Wikipedia has gotten more serious about these ethical issues, but it is still far more lax than the academy.

I don’t want to sound elitist, because amateurs are capable of producing some useful history.  Perhaps some modification of open source could be devised, like a historians’ digital collective that functions like Wikipedia but with stronger professional guidelines and membership requirements (e.g. experience with professional writing and minimum levels of training or degrees obtained).  I would love to see a historians’ version of Wikipedia where conflicting perspectives on given historical events are presented, getting away from the encyclopedia style that suggests an “omniscient narrator” and that there is one version of the past.

Conclusion

The History Web is a truly exciting place where historians can bring their work out of obscurity into popular consciousness and use.  The act of joining in will help us improve our craft in ways that the academy has not worried about before, e.g. design and readability improvements.  This is a time for historians to become imaginative and visionary, as was Roy Rosenzweig, to consider the power digital media brings: ease of use, speed, accessibility of enormous amounts of primary sources and multiple accounts and interpretations, opportunities for collaboration and so forth.  Perhaps the effect of adopting such approaches as open source to write history may be difficult to predict.  We may learn best by doing.  Regardless of the critiques of various approaches, I wholeheartedly support historians joining in and experimenting for the benefit of our craft and its benefits for the world.

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2 responses to “Diving into Digital: Historians Online

  1. Pingback: Post#3. “Be a digital historian: Contributing to humankind’s knowledge using Wikipedia” | Digital Oxymoron·

  2. I think there’s a middle ground that’s always ignored when i propose crowd sourcing to my colleagues. We alwasy want to imagine a very large audience for our writing but honestly for the vast majority of us it’s quite small, and that’s entirely reasonable–it’s written by specialists for specialists. So there’s no reason “peer” or “crowd” could be expanded to mean not six people but 24. It’s only people who really care that would comment, and those are the people you want

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