It makes me sad to say that this is my last blog post for Clio Wired I. I have learned a great deal, and really enjoyed learning both the bigger picture of digital history, and some hands-on skills with it.
So, we come to the final post for class. What difference does new media make to doing history? The short answer: a great deal.
As I reflected in my first blog post, written at Charlotte airport on a hot day as I came back from an unexpected trip to Texas (and was stewing over my Steelers’ opening-day loss), coming into the class I thought that the main difference new media made to history was in its dissemination. New media makes it possible to reach broader audiences with the results of one’s historical research.
Now, as I sit under a blanket by my newly-decorated Christmas tree and the TV flashes NFL playoff scenarios (thankfully including the Steelers), I know that new media makes all the more difference to doing history. As Lev Manovich argued in The Language of New Media, new media, unlike previous technological advances, changes everything.
In the dissemination realm – the realm that previously concerned me more as a public historian – new media allows us to reach broader audiences. But the nature of the digital medium also forces us to conceive how we reach those audiences differently. As Sheri eloquently states in her post for this week, “Learning how to think in multiple formats and to structure information so viewers can navigate through information forwards, backwards, sideways, and otherways requires vision and planning similar, but also quite unlike the standard two-dimensional outline.”
For public historians perhaps that isn’t so much of a leap, since we already need to think of structuring information differently if we are presenting it in an exhibition, walking tour, brochure, lecture, film, interview, podcast, article, or book. Yet, as we discovered in week 9, all but two those types of products don’t often get one tenure in the academic world. Many of those outputs don’t leave much room for long-form argument or in-depth analysis. New media does, but just structured in a different way. What that way is, as we learned, is yet to be determined.
So, the main difference that new media makes for historians of all stripes output-wise is learning to think in different ways about how we structure our work. An exhibit is not a book, and a digital history project is neither.
For me, the most enlightening part of this semester has been learning more how digital media changes the process of producing history – not just the quantity of primary source material now available, but the means we have of approaching that material. As I mentioned in my post for week 10, we still need to rely on the oldest tool in our arsenal, the human brain, to come up with our questions and make sense of what the tools tell us. Yet, various tools and technologies allow us to ask and answer different questions than we could before.
As someone who has long desired to keep one foot in the academic history door and one foot in the public history door, but has been more in the public history realm the last several years, this class has been a great start to my Ph.D. Indeed, as this semester concludes, I find the main appeal of the digital for me is that it helps me straddle the (unfortunate) divide between academic and public history. It has helped me bridge the divide I was feeling between my academic and public history interests, particularly in the structuring of my career.
At this point I’m not sure if I will try for a digital dissertation, but I am more open to the idea than I was previously. At the very least, I plan to have an online archive to accompany my written dissertation – an archive I have begun for my final project in this class. I will look forward to learning more hands-on technological skills – many of which I lack beyond a rudimentary level (and some not even that advanced) – in Clio 2. In the meanwhile, I am thankful to Sharon and my classmates for great discussions and the new things I have learned, and the new tools and ways of thinking now in my arsenal as I proceed in my historical career.