How exactly do you define “Digital History?” 3

I cannot count how many times I have been asked to define what exactly I am working on in school. There is always this lingering question for me to define digital history.  As hard as I try I am often met with blank looks and confusion.  Those on the inside of the academic world and, in most cases the history field, it is a look of doubt. Historians deal in hard facts, books and solid stable materials. Things which are not dynamic like websites or twitter. Digital and history are two words that do not go together. For those completely on the outside, the people I seem to encounter the most, they assume this is a fancy way for me to say “I use Wikipedia- a lot.” I have yet to come up with a concise answer for either group, and it turns out, building a rubric has proven just as difficult for me.

When reviewing digital work, many of the criteria applied to traditional sources should be considered:

  • Who has created the content? Is it a reputable source and can you prove their credentials?
  • Is there a works cited page? Footnotes? Has the creator provided a place to go back and review his/her work?
  • When was it created and how often is it edited? When checking a Wikipedia page it is useful to see the last edits. If new information is available has that been published?
  • Is it open source or does it allow comments? Open source history has both positives and negatives but it needs to be known to the research that the content could be edited by someone other than the creator. Comments are also useful for deeper discussion of a topic and at times can be historical content of their own.

I would like my work in this class to help define “good” digital repository characteristics. This is based on a paper proposal I did as an undergraduate. For me the idea repository is the FDR Library Digital Collection. Not only is it extremely search friendly, it has been scanned to look exactly as if the researcher is there flipping through each folder.

As an example, I searched the term “FALA” the name of FDR’s dog and it took me to this archive folder to search and read:

Because of the way it was scanned, I can look through and notice the details that may not be important to other researchers. If I were researching presidential dogs the folder would have one meaning, but if I were researching children’s letters to the president, they could have another.

This relates back to something in the readings, “Professional archivists complain that many archival websites are not archives at all because they lack ‘provenance’ that is, a firm history of the custody of a coherent body of materials since their origin.” (Cohen and Rosenzwig) If there were even an argument for an archive that has provenance, I believe the FDR Library is it. There are so many archives that lack   authenticity, or disconnect the researcher from the experience via transcriptions, when gems like this are found they should be praised, awarded and shared. Personally I have had more than one experience of reading transcribed archives, only to find myself weeks later regretting the decision and scrolling through microfilm to find the exact copy with hand written notes, or something crossed off that the transcription did not offer.  While the transcribed work is easier to read, it lacks something a scan of the document can offer.

3 thoughts on “How exactly do you define “Digital History?”

  • Jenna Scholz

    Hi Danielle,
    First off, great website name! Secondly, I often find myself in the exact same situation and at a loss for how to nicely sum up what I study. Much like the reading notes of archives, the museum world too is made on provenance. Rarely is an object displayed without knowing certain facts about it. The individual stories attached to objects is what makes them important. I had not thought to include that in the rubric, but that is an extremely important part of research. Great Post, Jenna

  • Amy Benjamin

    The beginning of your entry made me laugh. No matter how many times I explain to my mom what digital history is, she still has no idea.

    I really agree with the point you made about scanning items to look as if you were looking at the document in person. The one problem I have with some digital projects is that many are pre-curated; someone is choosing for me which documents and artifacts I’m looking at. I certainly recognize that this depends on the scope and purpose of the project. Exhibit-like projects cannot show everything but sites that act as depositories should be mindful of how they present the documents or objects.

    I also enjoyed looking through the FDR digital library. Great resource!

  • Dale Dunn

    Hi Danielle,
    Nice site; I’m glad I could finally get to it, although I still could not link directly from the class list of blogs (I had to enter your URL).

    Keeping with your Fala theme, thanks for the article on the WWII war dogs. The budding historian who wrote it did a nice job. There were many things in there I did not know.

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