Digital History Beyond Bells and Whistles

interpreting interpretive digital history.

In my class this term—Digitizing Folk Music History: The Berkeley Folk Festival—I have increasingly noticed how easy it is to perceive of the digital merely as “bells and whistles” and lose sight of what to me is the key question in the emerging field of digital history: how do digital tools, design, interactive components, and other capabilities allow us to interpret the past in freshly productive ways?

This slippage toward what we might call the “wow factor” is fine in one sense, for bells and whistles sometimes start out merely as decorative adornment or clanging attention-getters or just a lot of hot air, but then they turn out to reverberate far longer, and lead toward breakthroughs in interpretive historical meaning-making. What starts out as a gimmick sometimes becomes a key insight, or at least a tool for clarifying a historical question or issue. But sometimes a gimmick remains just a gimmick. Which makes me wonder it there is something odd about the digital: it shifts us so quickly toward form and format, toward technical issues and complexities, that we can quickly forget the ways that digital history is still history, still devoted to the discipline’s difficult but essential task of using evidence as a springboard to develop interpretations and meanings out of the past in conversation with existing theories and arguments that are themselves grounded in explications of evidence.

Did books have this same quality back in the day? Were book makers and readers so taken by the Gutenberg press that they turned from the information in the books to a kind of superficial (or maybe even a deep) obsession with the form and technical capacities of print? I’m guessing they did. Certainly other communications media—radio, television, film—have done this. Form and content are never unrelated to each other.

So, we can draw upon a deeper history of technologies of communication and publication to make sense of our own moment. But so too, we can just simply keep our eye on the ball of interpretation, as it were, in addition to the bells and whistles of digitalness fancifulness. If the digital pulls us toward aspects of history-making that can, at times, turn out to be superficial, we must right ourselves. For the purposes of digital history, even if you can’t get the video file to load correctly right away, even if the technical problems persist,  you can—we must—still think about what’s of use in putting the video file there in the first place. What’s the point of the digital for interpretive work? And, wait a minute, what in the first place is historical interpretation?

In the case of my course, the digital is only worth the effort to make it sing if it does so in duet with these core questions. Without interpretation as the central issue, all there is in digital history, it seems to me, is a dull thud or a shrill whine. Bells and whistles alone only make shallow sounds—no resonance. But the digital can, if we approach it effectively, inspire a far more robust engagement with the nature of historical inquiry itself.

This central issue of interpretation has, in fact, appeared so many times during the first weeks of my class that I have taken to always referring to the final assignments that students must complete as “Interpretive Digital History Projects” rather than just “Digital History Projects.” This forces students (and me!) to keep reminding ourselves that we are seeking to explore the digital’s potential to illuminate interpretation—whether about the history of the American folk music revival or the United States during the twentieth century or the archival materials in the Berkeley Folk Festival collection or some other relevant topic—rather than obsess over how to get all the bells dinging and the whistles tweeting.

Sure, we ultimately want flash and plugins and apps and embeds and links, we want to wow ourselves with digital derring-do and technical savoir faire, but only if our amazement serves our deeper quest to interpret the past more profoundly.

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