What is digital history?

Last semester, our public history seminar group thoroughly debated the meaning of the term “public history.” After weeks of reading, discussion, and reflection, I came up with the following definition.

Public historians are public servants and storytellers that collaboratively and critically interpret diverse histories with the public(s), inside and outside of the classroom.

It may not be the world’s most concise definition, but at least it gives me a place to start when I face the inevitable question: “You’re a public historian–what the heck is that?”

New semester, new challenge. My history and new media class will be debating the meaning and importance of digital history. Like public history, the term “digital history” is deceptively simple. What is digital history? Is it merely a meeting point of history and technology? Is digital history a computer program that researchers use to analyze data? Is it a PDF copy of a history book?  Or a Facebook message from Grandma? Is it any of these? Is it all of these? What makes digital history its own unique field? Why should public historians care?

In the Journal of American History, William G. Thomas III provides an appealing starting point for a definition. He argues that digital history is a methodological approach. “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.”

This definition makes two very important points. First, digital history allows users to “experience” history in an interactive and possibly even collaborative manner. Second, the use of technology is absolutely fundamental to the historical argument. This definition is compelling to me because it places technology and user-participation at the very core of the field.

It also demonstrates why public historians should get excited about the field of digital history. New media allows public historians unprecedented ways to connect, engage, and collaborate with their audiences.

This definition is by no means exhaustive. I will keep this blog updated over the course of the semester as I think (and rethink) the meaning and importance of digital history.

 

 

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One thought on “What is digital history?

  1. Julie,

    I think framing the definition of “digital history” through the lens of public history, as you’ve done here, is a great way of looking at it. To me, they’re completely interrelated. In fact, I’d go a step further. By allowing users to “experience” history, digital history is very much itself an example of public history, especially if the digital resource is open-access. If the “very core of the field” involves user-participation, then doesn’t this allow the public to “collaboratively and critically interpret diverse histories,” as you mention in your public history definition?

    -Zach

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