Notes on Approaching Digital History

conclusions from a methods course.

Last day dig history seminar boardClick for larger picture of the whiteboard.

For the last meeting of my Approaching Digital History methods seminar at Northwestern University (syllabus also available here), my wonderful students and I tried to list out our findings from a term of engaging with the state of this developing field. Below are tentative conclusions about digital history in 2014. Overall, we were struck by the promise of the field, but also by how much work is left to do to figure out how to use the digital successfully in service of historical understanding and meaning-making.

One major discovery we made was that the challenges of developing digital history converge at the intersection of method and medium, of approaches to historical practice in the digital age and how we conceptualize and use the digital as a new medium for thinking historically. These challenges appear on both the research side of historical practice and the presentation side.

On the research side, the digital offers enormous opportunities for thinking about history at new scales, from the extremely large to the microscopic. It also, as a medium of remediation and extended mutability and flexibility, provides the chance to pursue an enhanced range of perspectives and strategies for perceiving patterns in our sources. We can get “into” our materials in new ways in the malleable design structures of the digital even as they demand new kinds of conforming rigidities as binary code and machine-readable data. Projects have only begun, slowly, to make use of these possibilities. And we struggle to adjust our assumptions about correlation and causality, about authority of interpretation and openness of meaning in the new medium of the digital as we pursue new modes of analysis.

On the presentation side, our forms for communicating historical findings have been fairly stable for decades—the book, the journal article, the op-ed piece, the lecture, the seminar, perhaps occasionally the exhibition or documentary film. These have been the standardized vessels for communicating historical findings. The shift to the digital medium demands greater attention to form as well as content. Design becomes key here as a new mechanism for communicating historical meaning. Design is not neutral, and their is a vastly expanded repertoire of design options and choices in the digital domain that far exceed what historians have published in the past through primarily paper and text based modes of analysis and narrative.

Here is a reframing of the notes we took for the whiteboard during our last seminar. Comments, responses, ideas, and questions are welcome as I continue to develop this methods seminar in digital history.


Digital History is at once new methods and a new medium.

DH methods connected to goals and objectives:

-Analysis, new findings


-Organizing “access” to data

-Presentation and (Re)presentation and conscious, careful playing with representation

-Interaction, “networked” knowledge, participatory historical meaning-making

-Questions, as a means to frame and ask new questions

DH as new medium:

-What happens when we shift from paper, books, journals, classrooms to the digital domain? How do we think historically in this new medium?

So much DH method and medium hinge on the relationship between

1. machine-readable and 2. human-readable data,

between database forms and narrative forms.

How we pivot between the two forms of data is the crucial question.

Design becomes far more important in the digital medium, and hence in digital historical methods.

What kinds of design?:

-argument based (trying to make a point through digital design as well as content)

-exploratory based (creating spaces for historical engagement without definitive findings)

-tool based (creating tools for others to use in service of historical learning and meaning making)

-informationally based (archive, attempting to be more “neutral”)

-aesthetically driven (making history beautiful within the digital medium)

-experiential (encouraging new modes of historical meaning making that are ironically more absorbing by being remediated through digital re-representation)

Some things that seem at stake in DH methods and medium:

-what kind of historical “reality” are we pursuing her?

Virtual (gaming, simulation, cyberspace, away from reality to see it from new angles)

Augmented (intersecting digital and “real,” mobile apps, extensions of archival objects)

-questions of scale become crucial in DH methods

macroscopic “big data” approaches vs. microscopic zooms

an enhanced flexibility of movement among scales

-the perceptual, sensorial, perspectival via digital remediation, these become possible arenas of extending historical scholarship: phenomenological moves in service of epistemological elaborations, the digital as a mediating force between what we sense/perceive (see, hear, touch, make) and what we know about the past.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Approaching Digital History

  1. Super cool. I tried a similar exercise toward the beginning of my class. I definitely noticed a shared concern with authority. It was generally agreed that DH projects with heavy-handed arguments would not be successful.

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