Digital History


What does it mean to practice history in the digital age? 

This question hums in the back of my mind each day as I work, sifting through archival records, studying maps, grading student assignments, and trying to keep tabs on the welter of important projects pursued by my colleagues here at Harvard and across the broader academic community. Whenever I confront it, it splinters into an array of equally vexing parallel and derivative questions. How is the digital turn shaping the way we conceptualize the past, design and conduct historical research, and communicate our findings to audiences old and new? How does the process of digitization – the transformation of a document from a tangible into a digital object – change the way in which we interrogate and contextualize historical material? Does the democratization of access to archives, together with the proliferation of the blogosphere, threaten the relevance of the historical profession? What does digital history offer in terms of innovative and substantive new ways of understanding the past? Does it inevitably privilege quantitative over qualitative, social scientific over humanistic methods? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of collaborative research, crowdsourcing, and web-based, open-access publishing?

No matter where one comes down on any of these questions, it is hard to deny that this is an incredibly exciting time to be a historian. It is certainly an exciting time to be a historian of Russia and Eurasia. Once upon a time, one had to cross oceans and continents and endure all sorts of bureaucratic wranglings in order to enjoy the privilege of leafing through opisi (registers of archival documents). Now, one simply logs onto the archive's website. (Once upon a time the Russian Imperial History Archive was located on the Neva embankment and prided itself on denying heat, electricity, and food sources to researchers, but don't get me started on that.) Once upon a time, one had to trek across campus to the Law Library, ensconce oneself in the lonely microfilm reading room, and scroll through reel after reel of film in order to mine the collection of Russian laws. Now, one simply runs a keyword search of the fully digitized collection provided by the Russian National Library. Once upon a time, grad students had to rely on a random assortment of maps printed in monographs and outdated atlases in order to locate rivers and towns. Now, one simply runs a Google search. 

Well, that last bit isn't quite accurate. Modern basemaps do a magnificent job of visualizing political boundaries, roads, and cities and towns. Satellite-based maps give us an absurdly accurate picture of topography and land cover. But Google Maps has a curiously difficult time handling requests to display rivers (go ahead, search for the Dnieper or Lena) or mountain ranges. And modern basemaps are not equipped to locate the boundaries of fallen empires or identify the whereabouts of cities and villages that no longer exist. 

For the sake of brevity, let's take that observation as shorthand proof that the digital world needs historians. It needs the knowledge we have long produced about human action and thought; it needs the knowledge we have long produced about the social and cultural, but also the geographical and spatial, contexts of the human past. In return for sharing the fruits of our labor, the digital world offers a tantalizing array of powerful tools for storing, classifying, analyzing, visualizing, preserving, and changing what we know about the past. It offers everything from 3D simulation of ancient tombs and fine-grained filtering of whole corpora of texts to wildly efficient (if less thrill-inducing) bibliographic software. But it is a demanding environment, and one that is not always tolerant of those who lack what we might call digital fluency.

In my experience, the intolerance of the digital world stems from a driving impatience to move ahead rather than from a desire to exclude. This is important. Recognizing this gave me the confidence to take my first tentative steps into the digital world, and now I find myself a hybrid creature, at home in my own familiar disciplinary sea to be sure, but drawn to inhabit the strange landscape of databases, scripting languages, and new media. I suppose that digital history is, in its minimalist form, the practice of integrating such tools into the repertoire of accepted methods of studying the human past.

However, the program maximum - digital history in its ideal form - is far more ambitious. It is not about turning historians into computer scientists; that would almost be too easy. Instead, it depends on a full embrace of the principles of openness, adaptability, and collaboration. It is the art of cultivating a productive dialogue between forms of knowledge and ways of thinking that are grounded in radically different ideas of how to define significance and meaning. 

The materials gathered in the table of contents on this page are meant to provide a thumbnail sketch of what this looks like in practice.