Digital history is an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems. On one level, digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collections. On another, it is a methodological approach framed by the hypertextual power of these technologies to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past. To do digital history, then, is to create a framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem.
Digital history scholarship also encourages readers to investigate and form interpretive associations of their own. That might be the defining characteristic of the genre. Readers are not presented with an exhibit, or an article with appendices, or any other analog form simply reprocessed into the Web format....Instead, they are presented with a suite of interpretive elements, ways to gain leverage on the problem under investigation.
Digital history possesses a crucial set of common components—the capacity for play, manipulation, participation, and investigation by the reader. Dissemination in digital form makes the work of the scholar available for verification and examination; it also offers the reader the opportunity to experiment. He or she can test the interpretations of others, formulate new views, and mine the materials of the past for overlooked items and clues. The reader can immerse him/herself in the past, surrounded with the evidence, and make new associations. The goal of digital history might be to build environments that pull readers in less by the force of a linear argument than by the experience of total immersion and the curiosity to build connections. (Versus the narrative anticipation of what comes next, this is a curiosity about what could be related to what and why.)
Steven Mintz, Columbia, adds:
We have now entered Stage 3.0, in which the emphasis is on active learning, collaboration, and enhanced interaction. Wikis, blogs, mash-ups, podcasts, tags, and social networking are the buzz words. These technological innovations offer opportunities to students to share resources and create collaborative projects.
Stage 4.0 lurks just beyond the horizon. It includes three-dimensional virtual reality environments, which allow students to navigate and annotate now-lost historical settings. A stunning example is Lisa M. Snyder’s reconstruction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Stage 4.0 is informed by a “constructivist” understanding of learning, in which students devise their own conceptual models for understanding our collective past. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a colleague in instructional technology, Sara McNeil, and I, are completing MyHistory, which will allow students to create online history portfolios, in which they can develop multimedia projects, and construct timelines, annotate images, and keep notes.
Other participants in this roundtable include Daniel J. Cohen, George Mason University; Michael Frisch, University at Buffalo, State University of New York; Patrick Gallagher, Gallagher & Associates; Kirsten Sword, Indiana University; Amy Murrell Taylor, State University of New York–Albany; and William J. Turkel, University of Western Ontario.
The discussion takes up the impact of digital history on teaching, research, publication, and the field as a whole. Sword sums it up this way: "The new media are profoundly changing the ways most historians work, whether or not we are self-conscious about how we are becoming digital."
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