Some Comments on Writing History in the Digital Age

I’ve really enjoyed cruising through the Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki open peer-review volume called Writing History in the Digital Age which is slated to be published by University of Michigan Press’s new Digital Humanities Series in their digitalculturebooks imprint.  I commented on many of the contributions and mined them all for references and ideas.  I’d encourage anyone interested or invested in the future of history in the digital age to check out the volume and to contribute to its open peer review.  Since I have read all the articles in the volume and have been thinking a bit about history in the digital era myself lately, I thought I might offer some overarching comments on the volume (as is my wont).

1. Coherence. One of the first things I noticed about the book is the wide range of contributions. These range from two recent Ph.D.s discussing how they used email to keep themselves motivated and sane while writing their dissertations to discussions on databases, GIS, visualization, and even non-linear digital editing.  Articles on the use of Wikipedia and Social media in the classroom stand alongside more theoretical or research oriented papers.  While such scope is commendable (and must reflect the “big tent” approach to digital humanities, in general), it caused me to wonder about the limits of a specific sub-field called “digital history”  and how we plan to organize and reflect on the intersection of digital tools and history as the discipline becomes invested in digital technologies. For example, there were no articles celebrating the contribution of the so-called “personal computer” or “word processor” in the volume. These basic technologies clearly fell outside of what the authors and editors regarded as the discourse of digital history (although one can argue that these technologies had as big an impact on our field as Wikipedia or Facebook).

Edited volumes always have ragged edges where the definitions and ideas of the contributors fail to line up precisely across the entire book or clash with those of the editors. This is part of the charm of the edited volume; it captures a snapshot of a particular topic in the minds of a group of scholars (as opposed to the carefully composed portrait that is a monograph). At the same time, recent discussions on the definition of the digital humanities might feature more prominently in a volume like this. Is there really enough theoretical, methodological, and topical coherence between all the papers here to justify their appearance in the same book?

2. Institutions. One of the more interesting aspect of the volume was the subtle but (almost) ubiquitous mention of institutional support for the various initiative detailed. In some cases, the support came from powerful national organizations like National Endowment for the Humanities. In other cases, on campus labs or centers like Arts eResearch at the University of Sydney or MATRIX at Michigan State, provided the infrastructure necessary for a project’s development. Some initiatives were far more modest in scope and extended only slightly beyond the classroom’s walls or an immediate community. Few of the articles in this volume, however, problematized their work in terms of a formal research question framed in response to a pre-existing body of scholarship. (Few began with the ubiquitous phrases: “Scholars have argued…”)

It appears, then, that the impetus for working in digital history derives as much from institutional pressures (and opportunities) as traditional appeals to the scholarly conversation.  While this is hardly surprising for a recent development in the discipline, it may foreshadow an interesting shift in the structure of humanities scholarship. The pressure to collaborate and innovate is pushing scholars in the humanities away from well-trod arguments and to the brink of a kind of rupture in the discourse (in a Foucauldian sense). The external pressure and resources deployed by on campus and national institutions have insisted that historians (and other scholars in the humanities) shift their arguments from the small-picture debates that have long shaped these disciplines, to big picture, transdisciplinary, collaborative thinking. This is manifest in (some, but not all of) the scholarship that these projects produced: Writing History in the Digital Age recognizes a different audience and a different set of discursive rules than writing traditional history.

3. Methods and Techniques. Traditional historical practice has been short on method. The so-called historical method is, in fact, a set of practices cobbled together from various other fields and epistemological systems. With the rise in digital history, however, a new interest in methods and practices has come to the fore and a number of the articles in Writing History in the Digital Age reflect this development. Digital historians are more willing to experiment with methods grounded in geography, the social sciences, media studies, and, even, computer programing and game studies.

At the same time, this methodological growth requires critical attention to new techniques. Archaeology for example, has developed a robust methodological discourse over the past 40 years as the disciple embraced a “methodological turn” that sought to critically examine the tools, practices, and assumptions that shaped archaeological knowledge. The essays in this volume, in contrast, showed very little in the way of genuine methodology.  Of course, some of the essays with a pedagogical bent, showed an awareness of and willingness to contribute to recent pedagogical developments, but few of the more research oriented pieces considered explicitly and critically the methodological assumptions of their use of digital tools.

The absence of methodology extends to some extent to the techniques (for lack of a better word) used to generate the kind of digital analysis that their contributions celebrate. While software, programing and markup languages, and hardware appeared regularly in the pages, we were rarely invited to look behind the curtain to see how these aspects of digital history influenced the ways in which history could be written. (The notable exceptions to this were the several essays that discussed Wikipedia, but even these essays focused on the social, rather than technological aspects of this forum. For example, several of the essays mention the automated “bots” that crawl Wikipedia and can change entries systematically, but few essays explain how these bots work and why historian-trained bots couldn’t do the same things.) My feeling is that the next step in the study of digital history will involve a much more critical approach to the methods and tools used by digital historians to produce new knowledge.

4. The Future. One of the most significant gaps in this small book were essays with an eye toward the future. Writing the future is always a risky game, especially for historians who are so accustomed to “looking backward“.   At the same time, part of the writing digital history game is positioning history in a place not only to take advantage of digital tools created by other people, but also to shape how new technologies develop. I would have loved to hear how folks invested in digital history, as the contributors to this book clearly are, see the future of technology impacting our work as historians.

Developments like the massive growth of computing power available to mobile devices, enhanced and augmented reality, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), an endless stream of cloud services, the chaining notion of curation and the personal web, and the rapid mutation of social media communities, all offer new venues for presenting history, but also new spaces and tools for the analysis and interpretation of past events.

Writing History in the Digital Age represents a moment in time in the discipline’s embrace of digital tools.  At once it is possible to see ragged edge of the profession’s handling of digital media to communicate and interpret the past, as well as its growing confidence in embracing (if not fully engaging) new technologies.


  1. Another correction to my original comment (and then I’ll stop, I promise). We do of course use the term ‘digital history’ in paragraph 9 of our the introduction, as well. How curious that I overlooked (in fact, denied) our use of that term in my first comment! You can see that I am most focused on the writing theme, at any rate.

    May I propose a new, revised comment as a consolidation of the above? If so, here it is:

    Hi Bill. Thank you for these stimulating observations. One thing that struck me in particular is what you wrote about coherence. Jack and I quite consciously set out to produce a volume not exactly about “digital history”, but rather about the writing of history. (In fact, we use the term “digital history” 8 times in our introduction, the word “writing” 26 times, excluding references and our own volume’s title.) We emphasized to idea proposers (and later reiterated to essay authors) that their pieces should contribute to our understanding of the products and processes of historiographical writing in particular.

    Upon distributing our Call for Ideas and Essays, we had rather hoped we’d receive some proposals for essays about non-”digital-history” aspects of writing, including the use of word processors (or not) or even about off-line practices of collaborative writing. We did attempt to prompt some discussion of these, but they weren’t picked up in essays, as it turns out.

    I for one remain curious as to why. I suspect it was/is the “Digital” in our title, which for some was surely a draw (many of them probably read “digital history” into it and self-identified as digital humanists, or became curious about it) and for others, a turn-off (“I write history, sure, but I’m not a ‘digital historian’.”).

    I’d love to know what you think about the following: Has our volume on “writing history” become, a volume on “digital history” in general? If so, do you think it was a foregone conclusion (either because of “digital” in the title, or because all history is now digital history)? Or is it (still) about writing?


  2. Kristen,

    That’s a great question. I did notice your conscious decision not to use the “digital history” moniker, and I really like your emphasis on writing (or better still – considering the nature of some of the contributions – doing) history in the digital age. In fact, I love to tell my students that the days of “digital history” are numbered. We are all digital historians now. (And it’s impossible to go back to an age of “analogue history”, although I do keep an manual typewriter in my office as a charming reminder). In the future, there will be those who do “more sophisticated” and “less sophisticated” history and this will cut across analysis, interpretation, and various technical skills.

    As for the influence of the digital age in writing history, I see the impact of some of these discussions in my other field of archaeology where there are a real discussions about how we move from hardcore analogue practices like traditionally handwritten field notebooks to a digital equivalent. My field project, for example, insists in recording primary data in the field by hand, onto sheets of paper, without erasers (strike through only, please) which are in turn scanned and keyed in. Moreover our archive will include both paper and digital copies of our data. We do this because we believe (in a relatively uncritical way) that writing on paper encourages a kind of deliberate reflection that keying into a digital device does not and the permanence of ink and paper makes it easier to keep the process of archaeological thought visible.

    This kind of procedural discussion seems to be largely absent in history – although the discussion of using relational databases as a way to take notes does touch on these issues.

    I would imagine these discussion centering on some really basic practices among historians that we largely take for granted. For example, we could think about how the practice of including footnotes in our text as we write shapes our creative processes. (Something that would have occurred later in the creative process of an earlier generation). Or how being able to delete texts without a trace shapes the evidence for the production of historical knowledge. (There is a charming poem by Charles Bukowski about writing on his Macintosh IIsi). Or even how digital tools have transformed how we read and process secondary literature. How many times have we included a footnote to a buddy’s slightly related article with the idea that he or she will get some tiny bit of credit from that citation toward their professional advancement.

    I kept thinking about Bruno Latour and his Actor-Network Theory (especially in his Aramis, or the Love of Technology) which considered the co-dependence of the technology, various actors who relied upon it, created it, nurtured it, and the ethnographer who looked at why the technology failed. You probably know the book or the ideas.

    My point is that few of the papers necessary considered in a reflective sense what digital writing is specifically and how that has influenced how we actually produce the past. In large part this is because we have internalized certain digital practices (and the tendency of historians to cover up how we produce the past!).



  3. Ok Bill – let’s create an archaeological bot for Wikipedia. Where, how, do we start? 🙂 This could be a lot of fun, and quite interesting…


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