David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Diving into digital history

What is digital history, and how did it evolve? The readings for this week’s Clio Wired I addressed those issues in a broad way, providing a running start for the semester. Per the ethos of digital humanities, this week’s readings are available, ungated, to everyone–and also available in printed format.

Susan Hockey’s “History of Humanities Computing” does what its title says–lays out the longer-than-I-realized history of digital humanities. Coming into digital humanities, I thought the field dated from the advent of the World Wide Web. This perhaps reflects my a priori conception of digital humanities being largely about the dissemination of humanities knowledge, rather than the production thereof.

That preconception likely comes from my background. Off and on since 2000, I’ve worked largely in the dissemination of humanities knowledge. For me, the main promise of the digital–indeed, what initially attracted me to this field–has been its ability to disseminate knowledge easily to wide audiences.

What interested, and surprised, me the most from Hockey’s piece was learning how computers initially primarily impacted the production of knowledge, beginning with the recently-deceased Father Roberto Busa using punchcards to index the corpus of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1949. Computers first made an impact in textual studies, and later–with the advent of personal computers, CD-ROMs, and the Web–also made an impact in dissemination of humanities knowledge.

Perhaps my association of digital history’s promise with dissemination also exposes me as a product of my time–I have taken its use for production of knowledge for granted. Since I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis in 2001-02, I have used the increasing array of online sources in my own research.

Yet at times those uses have amazed me. As my academic career has evolved, so has the use of digital techniques for research:

  • For my senior thesis I used legal documents, Upstate New York newspapers, and the websites of the Oneida Nation and its opponents to research the Oneidas’ lawsuit against New York State, all without leaving Pittsburgh.
  • At an exhibition design firm I used online image repositories for several exhibitions (most notably the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy), not even having to visit the physical repositories. This experience also shows a peril of the digital, as I saw many of the same images used in other exhibitions. There are probably many undigitized, and thus underutilized, images that would have worked as well if not better.
  • For my own research on Antonio López de Santa Anna’s journey to Washington in 1836-37, I thought I would need to go to the Library of Congress Rare Books room to access a pamphlet refuting one written by Mexico’s ambassador to the United States in 1837. Instead I downloaded it from Google Books and read it on my iPhone.

The impact of digital technology in both production and dissemination of knowledge is the major concern of the other three readings: Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen’s Digital History, Rob Townsend’s “How is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?,” and the Journal of American History‘s 2008 forum, “The Promise of Digital History.”

As these readings note, the main transformation wrought by digital technology is in the dissemination of humanities knowledge. Digital technology is disruptive because it calls into question traditional ways of dissemination, and particularly gatekeeping. These questions remain unresolved, if today’s Twitter posts about a meeting on the future of peer review is any indication.

This may also explain why I mainly thought of digital technology’s impact on dissemination–its impact on production of humanities knowledge, particularly research, has fit into traditional paradigms. As the JAH forum notes, it de-privileges the text–but nonetheless expedites access to and searching of sources. Indeed, all of my aforementioned examples of using digital technology for research required no specialized training–I used the techniques I already was learning and applied them in a digital environment.

Using these technologies for research was taught in traditional history programs, whereas technology’s use in dissemination was not. Although I also hope to improve my digital research techniques, I am taking the Clio sequence, and chose GMU, in part to learn how to use of digital technology in dissemination. What about others in the class? Was that a prime consideration?


  1. I’m curious what you mean by dissemination, exactly. Are you talking about making the primary sources and raw materials available, or the end product, fully interpreted? Or everything in between?

    The digital history strength of GMU is definitely one of the reasons I applied. I think that digital technologies open doors in terms of collaboration, and I like databases to help capture vast quantities of information.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with the two key issues of dissemination and gatekeeping. Yes, there are many benefits to having information available. Also, as academics and historians we must also bear some responsibility for determining academic standards, maintaining levels of credibility, and formulating usable presentations. Here I think we require not only the academic approach, but also a sophisticated combination of artistic sensibilities, legal considerations, and technical expertise. I’m sure in your use of digital resources for educational and professional purposes, you appreciated the ease of accessibility as the first standard, but I’m curious based on your experiences, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, to cull out the “good” uses of digital technology from the less than credible? How does one tell the difference and who is responsible for the gatekeeping?

  3. Research has changed so much over the years! I remember the days of having to go to the library to look things up in the encyclopedia. Now, everything’s on the Internet. And even when I need information that isn’t on the Internet, I’m able to find librarians, etc., through online searches who can help point me in the direction of archival print media.

  4. The idea of gate-keeping has been one that I find is raised quite frequently by those working in digital history. During the 2009 Virginia Association of Museums (VAM) Conference in Richmond I attended a seminar on digital media and museums lead (in part) by Anne Marie Millar (Director of Education and Distance Learning Programs at The Mariners’ Museum). Anne Marie discussed the issues of gate-keeping and the digital world. Obviously her opinions were based less on academic research and more on the role of history museums in the digital world, but I believe that she raised some very good points. For her, and I have to agree, curators have to give up total control over what is produced in the digital arena. She described how the Mariner’s Museum started a forum asking for the community’s input on a warship and was presently surprised when the participants started sharing their experiences on warships in that same class during WWII. One participant, who lived in New York, shared a lot not just about his experiences but also details about the ship that the curators were unfamiliar with. (I hope I remembered the details correctly). She mentioned how the experience became a learning experience for the museum staff involved because she doubt they would have known as much about the ship if they hadn’t started the forum. If I remember correctly some of the information uncovered in forum actually made it into the exhibit. The lesson I drew from the story was that by opening up the curatorial process the museum not only involved the wider audience then the Mariner’s Museum normally reached (for those unfamiliar with the museum it is in Norfolk, VA), but it also engaged the public in a thoughtful and creative way. I think this goes back to some of the points raised in the JAH forum that interactivity (particularly in museums) is often a fancy word for games. Yet the digital world can actually allow historical professionals to open the historiographical process in meaningful, engaging, and intellectual modes.

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