Five Hypotheses for Digital History

This is an initial attempt, quickly written and subject to revision, at five hypotheses for digital history:

1) Digital history will ultimately be about far more than just the application of computational power to archival materials. While materials will be increasingly treated as data, analyzable on unimaginable scales quantitatively, this will not be enough to constitute a rewarding historical subfield. Qualitative analysis of an original and convincing sort will be needed to link digitally-produced findings to existing historiographic debates and discussions and offer new insights.

2) The move to the screen and future modes of receiving history will demand far greater attention to design, display, narrative, and storytelling than existing historical writing. This is both exciting and daunting. It asks historians to continue to imagine themselves as writers, but also to think of themselves as curators. It demands far more cooperative work on presentation of history. It will require us to push past formulaic article and monograph writing and think much more carefully about the range of narrative possibilities for relating interpretations of the past to others. The way history “looks” will change dramatically.

Digital History Tag Cloud

3) Digital interactivity poses new possibilities and demands for historians. The relationship between interactivity and interpretation, which many historians think about considerably in the classroom, now has a role to play in the scholarly presentation of findings online. Indeed, findings themselves may need to be far more contingent, and even may be produced through the design of interactive tools that allow visitors to manipulate materials. Existing definitions of the authorship of history itself come into question here as historians increasingly have the capacity to create not final texts, but rather environments for collective historical inquiry of materials and fellow (whether compatible or competing) interpretations.

4) As with the digital generally, digital history raises issues of copyright and intellectual property. Not just in terms of the question of authorship mentioned in hypothesis number three, but also in terms of the use of materials in the public realm for historical inquiry. How will we publish, share, and allow others to interact with materials without fundamentally altering existing copyright practices? What do we owe copyright holders as historians and what do copyright holders owe the public when it comes to historical inquiry?

5) Digital history is at once a continuation of long-running historical traditions and a break with certain practices and assumptions. As historians, we have the opportunity to consider digital history through our classic dual lens of change and continuity. The field is not a fundamental break with past modes and technologies of history-making, but it is something new, worth exploring even if it bangs up at times against professional and institutional  constraints.

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