New Powers, New Responsibilities

William Thomas III’s article,“Writing a Digital History Journal Article from Scratch” is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at digital scholarship. In 2001, Thomas was asked to contribute a digital article to the American Historical Review. After great thought and much tweaking, the final project became, “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities.”

The project was a success in many ways, but like so many other things in life, you can learn just as much from its failures. Luckily, Thomas is very open about the numerous problems he faced when pioneering this type of digital scholarship. One of the biggest stumbling blocks came from the scholarly community. While Thomas and his collaborators were trying to build a dynamic resource guided by user navigation, the AHR readers were uncomfortable with this unguided narrative style.

“The new format has advantages but also served as a way for the authors to abdicate the historian’s responsibility to make sense of incomplete and disparate information.”

-American Historical Review Reader

As a public historian, I found this challenge intriguing. Is it truly abdicating responsibility to open up your scholarship, to share sources, to expect users to engage with evidence to build their own argument? Rather than “abdicating responsibility,” I believe that these methods are a new and vital part of a historian’s responsibilities. New media and open access allow historians to share authority with the public and add new voices and interpretations to history.

Thomas predicts that these challenges will only be resolved through further experimentation with digital scholarship. Yet, “The Differences Slavery Made” was published in 2003. This was before XML was the standard markup language on the internet, before Google even indexed XML. To put it in other terms, this is from a time before Twitter. Where are the more recent works of new media historical scholarship? The internet has evolved, but has digital scholarship?

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2 thoughts on “New Powers, New Responsibilities

  1. ep3973a says:

    I think digital scholarship is slowly catching up. Regarding the concern about narrative, it is important to consider that the past itself is not a narrative. The work discussed in “The Difference Slavery Made” reveals the incredibly complex culture of the US on the eve of the Civil War and shows just how difficult it is for historians to present a concise narrative of those times, if it is even possible. But to get back on subject about technology, check out the site, http://www.civilwardc.org. Their maps interactive is a wonderful tool for visitor to explore not only Civil War Washington, but also to see how the city has changed in 150 with the use of overlaying maps. With more initiatives such as this, digital scholarship can make full use of recent technological changes in the digital realm.

  2. drdankerr says:

    It is amazing how slowly digital scholarship has evolved and how these concerns about interpretive authority can still be seen with the AHA’s own statement of digital scholarship. I do feel we are entering a new age where things are beginning to more dramatically move forward among professional historians.

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