Digital History Duet

classifying two kinds of digital history.

As the Making History in a Virtual Archive: The Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project slowly moves forward and I continue to think about my upcoming undergraduate research seminar, Digitizing Folk Music History, the question of where the digital and the study of history meet keeps reappearing.

I have increasingly conceptualized two ways by which the digital gets inserted into historical practice: application and communication. The key, however, is to continue to think about how these two areas of digital historical work intersect.

Application. Among the most exciting work in digital history is the effort to utilize digital techniques to yield new patterns, insights, and revelations that the “naked eye” might not be able to see in source materials. I think of this as the application of the digital to historical sources. It’s the use of tools not necessarily for the viewer or reader to then use, but rather as the stuff of research that goes into a publication. To apply a particular search algorithm to a mass of sources, to compile an effective research database, to use facial recognition software or sound recognition software to probe materials for new connections or comparisons—these all seem to me to be the application of digital tools. They are activities of the workshop, of the behind-the-scenes progress toward final historical product. They are the “hands-on” probings of historical evidence.

Communication. By contrast, the digital also gets inserted at the point of communicating historical findings. This can be a quite different use of the digital than application, for it is not so much concerned with discovering new interpretations as expressing findings of which one is already certain. The use of multimedia, effective spatialization and mapping of networks and patterns, different kinds of textual, design and interface arrangements, information on multiple platforms and devices, new modes of interactivity with readers and users—these all seem to be more about communicating confirmed findings rather than applying tools to sources to discover new insights. The digital operates here not so much as a research aid as a communication and publishing mode.

Application and communication are both, I would argue, important aspects of digital history. What is most intriguing is that they are not only distinctive, but also may also blur into each other. The research process rises up to the surface of publication and communication in many projects—process becomes, in some sense, part of the final project as authors and readers enter the flow of historical meaning through the electric currents of the Internet. At the same time, publishing research in an innovative digital mode of communication can suddenly, through new forms and arrangements and through the shared authority of digital interactivity, yield unexpected insights.

The process of application becomes part of what gets communicated, while communication becomes a new kind of application, potentially producing surprising conclusions just when an author thought the work was done.

Application and communication—it’s worth distinguishing them as two distinctive kinds of digital historical practice. Then it’s worth letting them blend.

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