“Interchange: The Promise of Digital History” is a discussion among historians that took place online in winter of 2008 and was printed in the Journal of American History. In the grand scheme of things, 2008 was not that long ago, but in the context of digital history, much has changed. This “Interchange” was most interesting to me as a way to compare what historians thought was going to happen in digital history with the field as it now stands. How has it measured up to both their fears and expectations?
According to Steven Mintz, “Digital history has evolved through a series of overlapping stages”:
- Stage 1.0: Communication and course-management tools like e-mail and Blackboard; content-rich web sites like History Matters that made available primary sources
- Stage 2.0: Hands-on, problem-based projects where students can “do” history
- Stage 3.0: Emphasizing active learning, collaboration, and sharing; blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networking (Mintz identifies this as the current stage in 2008)
- Stage 4.0: 3D virtual reality to allow students to investigate now-lost historical settings, like Lisa M. Snyder’s reconstruction of the 1893 World’s Fair (Mintz explains that this stage “lurks just beyond the horizon”)
While virtual reality headsets may be one of this year’s top holiday gifts, digital history has not quite entered Mintz’s Stage 4.0. And as far as I can tell, the reconstruction of the 1893 World’s Fair cited by Mintz was never completed. While there is some interest in historical games and immersive environments, this doesn’t seem to be the trajectory that digital history as taken. There is still very much a Stage 3.0 mentality, especially in public history projects; there is an increasing drive for ways to facilitate community stewardship over history through projects such as Documenting the Now and A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland. If we have moved into a Stage 4.0, it would probably have something to do with the proliferation of digital methodology: text mining, topic modeling, network analysis, mapping, etc. The term “text mining” comes up only once in the discussion, which would certainly not be the case if another “Interchange” on digital history were to take place today.
One quote that caught my attention was William G. Thomas III’s comment that, “Digital history should embrace the impermanence of the medium, use it to convey the changing nature of the past and of how we understand it.” He explains that, unlike with print media, “Scholars working on digital projects often cannot seem to stop editing, adding, annotating, and refining.” He also points out the tendency to produce archive-based projects and the struggle for historians to answer the question: “Where does interpretation go in these online projects?” He also asks if the digital medium is even suited to historical scholarship or only “pedagogical tool building.” At the time that the “Interchange” discussion was taking place, Omeka and Scalar had not yet been released to the public; the “Interchange” historians could not have foreseen the ease with which future scholars could adopt these platforms for presenting scholarship. However, I think Thomas’ questions are still important to ask in this new context. I also think it would be interesting to think of ways that digital media can be used to present how interpretations of the past are always changing. This is certainly central to the historical profession and yet is so often not recognized by the general public. At the same time, though, I agree with Michael Frisch’s argument that, “Sooner or later, doing history involves telling a story, making an argument, identifying a theme or concern, coming to a conclusion. It’s not enough to endlessly celebrate the open-endedness of process, the multiplicity of sources, and the unlimited questions and answers these can support.” I see reconciling these opposing pressures as a continuing issue for digital history.