Thoughts on Digital History

I found this weeks bout of readings to be incredibly interesting, especially as many of them dealt with both student and public interaction with digital history.  I was intrigued by the thought that digital history has spent a decade trading on the idea that you could do some really cool things with this program and that data and make some earth shattering argument – and yet, most digital history projects shy away from forming arguments.  I kept on trying to think of a site that refuted that idea.  I remembered one of my first experiences with the wonders of digital history.  I went to a lecture given by Don Debats who had created a really neat website called Voting Viva Voce which used census date and polling records to show how people in Alexandria and Newport voted in the 19th Century.  While the website allows you to see how bakers voted, or how Methodists voted, or how slave owners voted, or perhaps, how all slave owning Methodist bakers voted, the website does not appear to have a guiding thesis or argument.  I think I recalled that there was an argument simply because I also heard him deliver a lecture, in which he made an argument using the data provided by the website.
Dr. McClurken’s article discussed student trust or mistrust of online archives, and the ambiguity involved with online archives in which it’s not completely apparent where the sources really come from.  He also mentioned student frustration at not being able to access all possible sources, because perhaps they aren’t available on the web yet.  Having actually completed the assignment in question, in which students have to seek out a collection of primary sources to use for a paper, I can say that I was dissatisfied with the online archives.  Doing a paper on Lucretia Mott, I found that I mistrusted the online collections because the websites were a bit out of date.  Additionally, I was frustrated by the very small number of documents available in the online archive.  I quickly decided to scrap the web, and go straight for the published volumes of Mott’s collected letters and speeches, which luckily sat in our library.  However, I know not everyone was so lucky.
In Writing About History in the Digital Age, Sherman Dorn discussed the advent of digital history as an historiographical change.  While this is a very simple thought, and one probably shared by many, many people, it had never occurred to me.  I had never considered that I am going to school during a time of historiographical shift.  I suppose that’s a true statement for everyone in every age.  Subtle changes in the methodology of history occur constantly.  But it’s incredibly interesting to consider nonetheless.  It’s fascinating to think about how the expectations of this generation (digital archives being more common and freely available; digital access to all sorts of documents, artifacts, or secondary sources becoming the norm) my perhaps be normal in the future simply because it is the unrealized expectation of students now.

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