Why Study Digital History?

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on August 31, 2012

This academic year I am leading a Rice University masterclass on digital history. This essay is cross-posted on our course blog, along with a comment box.

In our first meeting of Digital History at Rice, we each shared our reasons for wanting to study this subject. Here I want to elaborate a little bit on mine. My graduate program in history did not offer any training in digital history methods, but in the last ten years, I’ve had a series of realizations that make me want to learn more about them.

1. I realized I was already doing digital history, whether I wanted to or not.

Since the 1990s, primary sources in my field—nineteenth-century American history—have been digitized at an incredible rate, by Google Books, the Internet Archive, Making of America, and many others. When I began my dissertation, I spent much of my time looking through microfilm of the antislavery newspaper the Liberator. By the time I finished, there were multiple digitized copies of the paper available from at least three private companies.

It would be foolish not to make use of these resources, so I do—all the time. But the more I started to notice the differences among databases and search engines, the more I began to realize that by using them, I was already engaging in a collaborative enterprise with software engineers. To be sure, this is a collaboration with strangers whose names I seldom learn, but the decisions that they make about how to program search engines, how to structure databases, and what formats to make available to me now have a direct bearing on the work that I do as an historian of the nineteenth century. That made me realize that even if I never make a web scraper, scan an archive, or encode a document myself, I needed to understand something about the way these things are done if I want to use these tools effectively and intelligently. Indeed, it’s now as important to know something about these things as it is to know how to read a book or write a book review.

The more I began to think about this issue, the more I realized how ubiquitous these invisible collaborations were in my day-to-day work; every time I entered a query into Google, or fired up Microsoft Excel, I was, if not programming, at least being programmed and relying on the programming others had done. Paying attention to digital history slowly made me start to realize how much I don’t know about things like database design, but reading blog posts like that one and following digital historians through social media means I now know a lot more than I once did. That means that (at the very least) I can now make more informed decisions about the tools I use.

So far I’ve related these points to my research, but my experiences teaching were also a big part of coming to the realization that I needed to study digital history. In the very first course I taught, I used a blog, and I have been teaching with blogs or online forums ever since. But that experience also confronted me with the sometimes frustrating limitations of different platforms, ranging from Blogger to Wordpress to Blackboard—all of which has forced me to pay more attention to what is going on under the hood of the digital tools I use.

2. I realized other people in my field were going to do digital history, whether I did or not.

Even if, by some miracle of time travel, I were now able to do my work without computers at all, other historians who write about things I care about are going to be doing digital history. In one of the journals I read regularly, articles citing digital databases now appear all the time.

That means I need to know something about digital history if I want to be able to assess my peers’ work fairly and teach it to my students. This is a responsibility I owe to the general public, as well as to my students and colleagues. As Ted Underwood notes, journalists and academics in a variety of fields aren’t going to stop using digital tools to draw sweeping generalizations about history even if I choose not to. Historians and humanists “need to step up our game,” as Underwood puts it, if we want to counteract misleading impressions drawn from casual use of tools like Google’s ngram. At the same time, if I’m going to be a responsible member of the academy, I need to be able to think and speak critically about bad uses of digital history without dismissing out of hand more careful and sophisticated work.

3. I realized that digital history might have uses for me in my future work, whether or not I could foresee them in the present.

Back in 2005 and 2006, while writing one of the chapters of my dissertation, I spent quite a bit of time tracking the movements of American abolitionist Henry Clarke Wright during his lengthy European tour. I had his journal entries and dozens of dispatches written by Wright to the Liberator from places like Basel, Lintz, Innsbruck, Mannheim, and other locations that were not always easy to find on a contemporary map. So to organize the trip in my mind, I located an old map of Europe on the David Rumsey Map Collection, printed it out, and drew on it to produce this:

Henry Clarke Wright’s European Journey

Henry Clarke Wright’s European Journey

Not long after that, while making campus job visits in 2006, I also decided that I wanted a handout that would give audience members a quick sense of where the main characters in my dissertation lived and which countries were central to my study of transatlantic abolitionism. Though it pains me to say it now, I actually used Microsoft Word to make a very simple image that looked like this:

Selected Members of Garrisonian Networks

Selected Members of Garrisonian Networks

I wince to look at how simple these maps are now, given what I know about the capabilities of even the least powerful GIS software and basic principles of network analysis. But at the time I didn’t really know how to make these images any other way. A trip down memory lane in my bookmarks shows that I saved this how-to post in my Delicious account in May 2006. In truth, however, that was not the time—while finishing my dissertation and preparing job talks—to learn how to make multimedia maps or use GIS software. Other things rightly took priority.

If I had known something about these tools before it was urgent to use them, however, they may well have made a difference in my analysis and presentation. That realization is what makes me interested in studying digital history progressively over time, even before I know clearly how I might use its methods. Of course, now—as then—it would be unwise to spend all my time learning complicated tools before the return on the investment is clear. But waiting until the very moment when I need a tool or method to learn anything about it will, almost always, mean waiting too long.

I’m grateful that I have had some professors along the way who taught with that principle in mind. My first exposure to HTML was actually in an honors horticulture class, in which we were required to code a basic webpage. It wasn’t immediately clear how that would help me do horticulture, but I learned to be willing to learn something even before its utility was immediately clear.

4. I realized studying digital history is fun.

All of the points I’ve made so far make a good case, in my mind, for learning about digital history even if (a) computers aren’t your thing; and (b) you don’t plan to do something like topic modeling anytime soon. But in my case, I can add to these reasons a very important consideration: I think computers are fun.

This is, of course, the most personal and idiosyncratic realization I’ve mentioned so far. But there’s no use avoiding the fact. I like to hack around and always have, from the days when I built a really embarrassing checklist program using Visual Basic on my dad’s PC to my undergraduate years, when structured procrastination led me to start and design a now defunct online undergraduate journal. What can I say? I’m a nerd. These are my people.

In academia, the value of pursuing something that you think is fun should not be underrated. As Stephen Ramsay writes, there is plenty of anxiety and stress in academic life to go around. But it’s possible to mitigate them, at least slightly, by finding ways to “follow your own bliss,” as he puts it—not because that will necessarily lead you to the next “hot thing,” but because it will be fun.