I took Kirsten Sword's History and the New Media course last year and have been "listening in" on the conversation about digital history at the JAH, as a way to re-engage with many of the questions we covered in class and prepare for my comprehensive exams. Reading all the contributors' posts, however, has done more than that -- it has reminded me of how excited I was last year when we started to explore the potential of digital history, which up that point had simply not been on my radar as an academic historian, particularly as a historian of Latin America, where the digital archive has yet to become infinite, to say the least.
What is digital history anyway? Given the range of new media, it can refer to audio or video archives of interviews, databases, video games with historical content, as well as carefully framed websites about a given historical topic. The conversation at the JAH has produced a number of approaches to the definition of digital history. Dan Cohen brings up Roy Rosenzweig's article, "Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era" and concludes that, today, it turns out that one of the main challenges of digital historians is dealing with the unprecedented abundance of historical sources. Digital history is, then, the "theory and practice of bringing to bear technology to address the abundance that we now confront."
Will Thomas adds that the medium through which digital history is practiced is continually in flux: unlike a book that is finally pried from a historian's hands and sent to the press in one final form or other, digital projects invite revision, critique, conversation. Thomas argues that we should "embrace the impermanence of the medium, use it to convey the changing nature of the past and how we understand it. I consider these projects "open research platforms" for scholars to build interpretive models." Bill Turkel agrees that these are perfect platforms for students to understand that "history that isn't undergoing revision is basically dead," since revision is almost intrinsic to the medium.
The conversation in "Digital History 101" inches toward a practical definition of digital history by discussing its place within the discipline of history. While everyone seems to agree that technical know-how is not the greatest priority in digital history, some consider basic technical literacy to be necessary in order to get what you want out of a project. Cohen writes, "This is much like the advanced language training that classicists or medievalists must have to do sophisticated, thorough work in their fields." He reminds us, however, that the tools needed to practice digital history continue to become increasingly accessible. When Kirsten Sword wonders whether Digital History should be considered a field or a method, Dan Cohen seems to be leaning on the side of method -- everyone should acquire some kind of literacy in the method, which will become easier as time goes on. If we consider it a field, it might end up breaking off from the discipline. (I can't help but wonder, though: if it is not made a concentration in its own right, won't it always be considered something that people should do "on their own time"? There should be, as mentioned in the threads, some sort of incentive to carry out these projects).
While "medium" is offered as an alternative term to the question of field/method, Kirsten Sword still thinks that "field" more clearly captures what the debate in some institutions eventually boils down to: resources. In most cases, successfully carrying out a digital project will involve some kind of institutional collaboration, a pooling of resources. Will Thomas reminds us that the most successful digital projects have "been perceived as large scale work, grant funded research, requiring access to technical services and equipment. It has required at nearly every stage an intense level of collaboration among librarians, technology professionals, programmers, information designers, and historians."
From the perspective of Latin America, this is both daunting and encouraging. The digital abundance that Dan Cohen mentions in the very first thread is only starting to trickle down to historical materials relative to Latin America. The first large-scale efforts at digitizing Latin American newspapers only started in 2007. The large amounts of money needed to carry out (and maintain) a large-scale digital project such as those mentioned in the Interchange is out of reach for many Latin American institutions.
There is a productive future, however, in collaborations between U.S. and Latin American institutions. Jeffrey Gould, for example, worked with institutions in Central America and Mexico, as well as with programmers and librarians from IU, to create CAMVA
(Central American and Mexican Video Archive), which will digitize hundreds of videos and film reels taken during the revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s -- the originals of which had been stored in less than ideal circumstances for many years, and which could only be accessed during a visit to these institutions. Because the project involved so many people with specialized knowledge, Gould did not necessarily need to be very skilled in the newest technology to carry out the project; instead, he worked with the directors of the other institutions to design the larger contours of the project. Much of the labor of actually digitizing the videos will be carried out in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico. When the project is completed, thousands of hours of video archives will be freely available to students all over the Americas.
But where does that leave the individual researcher (or the graduate student struggling to keep up with the traditional requirements of the discipline) interested in digital history? Are large, collaborative projects the only way to enter into the digital world creatively as academic historians? As Dan Cohen notes, the tools for engaging in digital history are becoming increasingly accessible and I think that, at the very least, students should be encouraged to take advantage of the resources that already exist. In the case of Latin America, Wikipedia remains wide open. While no original research is to be published in Wikipedia, it offers a way to put issues and events in Latin American history out in the public for discussion -- in both English and Spanish. Interesting things can be done with Google maps, such as tracing historical journeys. Editing video content has become much easier and cheaper in the past few years and can reach anyone on the globe with internet access through YouTube. And of course, websites are becoming easier and easier to make. These things, however, take time - and perhaps it is better to not go at them alone. I just think it's interesting that many historians - grad students included - don't take sites like Wikipedia too seriously, even though that is where most of their undergraduate students will go for quick reference.