Historians Plod Forward with Digital Media

I will never forget the time I first received an email from my dad.  HIS FIRST MESSAGE WAS SENT TO ME IN ALL CAPS.  While he did not yet know the conventions of email (he didn’t realize he was YELLING, for example), it was a miracle to me that I even got this message.  Here is a brilliant man who has a Masters in English and a PhD in Hebrew Scriptures and has been in academia his whole life.  Yet, as a teenager, I remember very vexing tutoring sessions where I would launch into a schpeel about how to use a computer program.  He would take out his pen and paper and ask if we could go back and start with precisely how to turn the machine on.

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If my dad was surveyed by the AHA in 2010 (and if he was a historian), he probably would have been categorized as a “passive user” of digital media in his academic work.  As a kid, I would have guessed he would have been categorized as an “avoider” – the lowest level of engagement of the four possible categories.  He certainly would not be considered in the top two categories: “power user” or “active user.”  That only 2.4% of historians got put in the “avoider” category makes me think of my dad.  It seems that digital media is far too ubiquitous today for many people to exist in the “avoider” category, not even my dad who looked at me as though I were speaking an unintelligible language in the days when he was just learning how to boot up a computer.

I think it’s great news that the overwhelming majority of historians are active or power users, because it means that the profession is not as behind as I would have imagined in using digital media.  It seems from the survey that even greater institutional support is needed to move more scholars up the digital use scale.  This goes for both training and support of work published in digital realms.  Interestingly, many like that digital media can help reach wider audiences outside the ivory tower.

It seems that there may not be a high need to convince folks of the advantages of digital media and history, though there is still concern about the prestige and quality of online forms compared with traditional print forms.  What also is the case, though, is that the profession is still in an infancy stage with regard to using digital media to do more than access materials that used to only be in print or to produce the standard article or monograph for an electronic vehicle.  Institutions will have do a lot more to educate, train, inspire, support and reward creative uses of digital media in history scholarship to shift this reality.

Right now, I would guess that someone like my dad would be open to working with a team that would create something like a website that reproduced a historical experience.  He certainly has the brain power, encyclopedic knowledge of his field (and many others!), imagination and creativity to contribute.  But he is probably not alone as an older academic who has been underexposed to the possibilities of such innovation.  To get there, he would need serious support to move him beyond his comfort zone and boost his confidence to put his mind to work in that new realm.  I cannot see him ever coding such a project, but I have no doubt he could be an MVP in a project team.

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