On pioneering digital history

When I returned to the workplace in 2006, after several decades of being a housewife and free-lance copyeditor, I was struck by what was occurring to the written word. Never having had access to computers in my workplaces in London in the early 1980’s, words in digital media seemed to have other qualities than in the analogue world. As words on, and in, documents are fundamental to the historian, I began looking into the world of digital history.

My first port of call, was a book: Digital History by Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel J. Cohen. The late Roy Rosenzweig had founded this pioneering digital history centre , the Centre for History and New Media in 1994. Among the technical wonders created by the CHNM were the free software Zotero and Omeka. Today when reading through Daniel Cohen’s blog, begun in November 2005, one receives a brilliant overview of the very beginnings of digital humanitities and developments ever since.*

In the USA, the Valley of the Shadow by Edward Ayer’s team (begun in 1993) is one of the earliest and most fascinating history websites ever. Robert Darnton’s digital essay, “An Early Information Society” (2000) with links to all kinds of documentation is another pioneering venture, as is Philip Ethington’s “Los Angeles and the problem of urban historical knowledge” (2000);  and in the UK, the Old Bailey online (ca. 2000).

Today, the world is full of state-of-the-art digital projects that enhance our knowledge of the past. The success of the early pioneers, I believe, was due to several factors. First, a huge enthusiasm and sheer determination in the face of countless frustrations, not least, the scepticism of many colleagues who considered digital history, at best, as a niche operation. Another is that, it was due to teamwork, something historians who often work alone, found difficult to deal with.

A third was that at some point, these teams obtained the support of funding bodies, like the National Endowment for the Humanities  who funded not merely huge projects, but also a succession of small ones needing much smaller grants. I especially remember the emailed lists from the office of Brett Bobley, with descriptions of these small award-winning projects, wistfully wishing that funding agencies in our part of the world followed suit.

The questions that rose in my mind 10 years ago are still pertinent though: How do we study digital documents? How do we archive digital material? (see, e.g. Niels Brugger’s writings on the subject); what happens to time, space and memory in the digital world? How different is the praxis of history after the advent of digital history?

*The information above mostly stems from an unsuccessful Phd application I made in 2007, but for those interested in knowing more, I recommend chapter seven of Jeremy Popkin’s marvellous book, From Herodotus to H-net, the story of historiography (OUP, 2016), and Daniel Cohen’s publications accessible online.