Thursday, November 4, 2010

Digital History at Conferences

I want to comment on Dan Cohen's recent blog post on the lack of digitally-oriented presentations and panels at this year's American Historical Association annual meeting. See for that.

He writes: "Evidently we historians will just keep on doing what we’re doing how we’re doing it until it seems truly anachronistic. Just one of the main AHA panels, out of nearly three hundred, covers digital matters; perhaps another will touch on digital methods. By my count there are another six digital sessions overall, but these other sessions are put on by affiliate societies or were added by the program committee during lunches or other break times (that is, there were almost no digital panels proposed by historians attending the meeting). Incredibly, there are actually fewer digital sessions at the 2011 annual meeting than in prior years. Because clearly this digital thing is a flash in the pan."

I can add a personal story here. At the 2008 OAH I organized a panel on "New Directions in Digital History," and also made a presentation. When I arrived at the appointed room thirty minutes before the panel began, I found that the hotel had not provided Internet access for our use, as I had specifically requested. Hotel staffers said that the conference organizers had not mentioned it. When I pursued the matter with the conference organizer, she replied, in part, that they were thinking of setting a policy whereby Internet access was no longer an option for presenters. Fortunately, I was able to work from a presentation I had stored on my laptop hard drive, but I would have liked to have been able to offer a live demonstration of my site as well. The panel as a whole was severely compromised by the oversight.

The moral here is this: Dan Cohen is right in that digital history seems to be utterly peripheral to the discipline as it is presently organized. Not only are there very few digital history panels and presentations at major meetings; in my experience, the scholarly societies themselves discourage it. In my case, the OAH saw Internet access as "something extra" that they have to provide.

I think that the rise of wireless technology will largely make this problem moot in the future, depending on where a conference is held and a hotel's level of service. But, for the moment, it does serve to illustrate how digital history remains in many ways the red-headed stepchild of the field. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cultural Tourism and Digital History

This fall I am working with several collaborators and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site ( in Springfield, Illinois on the development of digital cultural tourism materials to be used with smart phones and other hand- held devices. This type of resource represents a significant opportunity to make the intellectual capital represented in historians' works, as well as primary source materials, available and accessible to a segment of the general public likely to be receptive to them: individuals and groups visiting historic sites.

For this work we have assembled a diverse team of collaborators, including my colleague Stacey Erdman, Technical Coordinator for Digital Initiatives at Northern Illinois University Libraries (, Dr. Jeffrey Smith of Lindenwood University (, Ashley Michels, an NIU student, and Mike Taylor of our university's Digital Convergence Lab ( .

Dr. Smith  is a history professor who has also worked as public historian in various capacities. He is responsible for writing concise (300-350 words) tour scripts weaving historians' interpretations of major themes in antebellum American history together with stories associated with each location. Ashley Michels in a senior at Northern Illinois University studying Broadcast Journalism. She will serve as the on-camera presenter of Dr. Smith's scripts. Mike Taylor is a media developer employed at Northern Illinois University's Digital Convergence Lab. He is responsible for bringing together the various digital objects produced by collaborators into a coherent, web-based unit.

Users will access project tours by using a smart phone's camera function to photograph a bar code displayed at each of the ten locations discussed, at which time their device will open a browser to a web page (optimized for use with mobile devices) displaying project materials. Mike Taylor has employed this technique, as opposed to the development of an App, in order to make project resources available to the broadest variety of devices possible.

The materials we are developing will add to the experience of Lincoln Home National Historic Site visitors by shedding light on the lives of Abraham Lincoln's neighbors. In recent decades the National Park Service has reconstructed Lincoln's neighborhood much as it stood in 1860 by restoring surviving structures on adjoining blocks. Park Service personnel presently offer guided tours through the home that the Lincoln family occupied in the years before their removal to Washington, D.C. in 1861, but are not able to devote similar attention to the nearby properties.

Our project tells some of the stories attached to these restored homes (and in several cases, now-vacant lots), bringing summaries of historians' findings together with selected primary source materials in order to explore the political and social context in which Lincoln and his neighbors lived. These discussions can in turn illuminate significant themes in antebellum American history.

After reviewing the history of each structure or lot with Lincoln Home National Historic Site Historian Tim Townsend, our project collaborators selected ten with the potential to illuminate significant aspects of the historical record. For example, we have chosen a lot on which the home of Jameson Jenkins, an African-American drayman, once stood. Dr. Smith's script for this portion of the project discusses Mr. Jenkins' role in the Underground Railroad, as well as its political and social context. Another script discussing the structure occupied by Harriet Dean and her family in 1860 describes the girls' school that Mrs. Dean led there, exploring the nineteenth-century notion of women's "separate sphere."

Each tour will consist of a video file featuring Ashley Michels presenting Dr. Smith's script, filmed on-site before each structure or lot. Period images, drawn from the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project's Lincoln/Net site (, as well as other sources, will also appear over Ashley's voice, a technique commonly used in documentary film.

In addition to a narrated video/audio tour, the project web site will present links to short readings, in an audio format, from primary source materials discussing the location or major themes under discussion, as well as several period images, as available.

Users may also consult the above project resources on a web site, attached to the larger Lincoln/Net site, which has been optimized for use with desktop and laptop computers. This site will also feature additional resources, including additional images unsuited to display on mobile devices' small screens and complete versions of the primary texts from which readings have been drawn.

This project represents a new aspect of the approach to digital history first explored with the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project's Lincoln/Net site, in which I have attempted to bring together primary source materials with original interpretive resources in order to encourage members of the general public to take up what history teachers would call active learning. The advent of digital technology and the Internet made Lincoln/Net possible. The rise of wireless technology and hand-held devices like smart phones now make it possible to put a significant amount of each of these resources (primary sources and interpretations) before a user while they explore an historic site, literally in the palm of their hand. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010


In the Journal of American History's recent (September, 2008)  "The Promise of Digital History," round-table participants discussed the resources necessary to produce digital history materials at a university. William G. Thomas, III of the University of Nebraska called for "a commitment by research universities to support digital humanities or digital history ... at the department level" or in the form of a center specifically dedicated to the task (465). He lists "faculty lines in the tenure track in departments and sustained commitment to library, information technology, new media, and academic computing resources" as indispensable for the work of producing digital history and humanities materials. Daniel Cohen of George Mason University points out that "a digital history center... is expensive to set up and maintain.... But if an institution wants to do cutting-edge research, staff is critical." (466)

In this post I will discuss another means of producing digital history materials, one that I have employed at an institution that, while it enrolls 25,000 students, does not boast all of the resources of a major research university. I call it scavenging.

Let me begin to say that we are fortunate here at Northern Illinois University Libraries to have in place a core of information technology resources and support adequate to support our work. We employ a full-time programmer and a digital projects librarian, as well as a jack-of-all trades familiar with many elements of digital object production. But we have found ourselves obliged to look around on campus for the other talented individuals necessary to make our projects happen.

These include full-time faculty and staff members currently employed doing something else. Every campus contains individuals with talents and skills that do not find full expression in their job. We have been fortunate to benefit from the talents of our library's Art librarian, who is also a talented graphic artist.  He has produced the graphics used in each of our digital history web sites (see

We have also made use of talented musicians on campus, including those employed in positions outside the College of Visual and Performing Arts itself.  They have worked with NIU music students eager to place their performances on the web in our recording of nineteenth-century sheet music. These recordings provide several of our web sites with rich multimedia content that, while it does not fit the definition of primary source material, sheds new light on the periods under consideration. See, for example.

Other students have also taken advantage of the opportunity to bring their talents to the attention of web users through our projects. These include a broadcast journalism student who has served as a presenter in video components of cultural tourism modules developed in conjunction with the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. These materials are still in development. I will discuss them at greater length, and provide a link to the web site where they will reside, upon their completion.

Our on-campus collaborators have also included student programmers who allowed our Lincoln/Net and Mark Twain’s Mississippi projects to explore the early potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology. GIS has proven to be a very expensive technology in the long run, and we have backed away from the development of new GIS projects, but our student-coded materials remain online, providing users with another type of digital material useful in learning about the past. See and for examples.

Finally, we have made use of digital materials originally developed for another purpose. Our Lincoln/Net site features a significant amount of video materials in which historians such as Eric Foner, Ed Ayers, James O. Horton, and Kathryn Kish Sklar discuss themes and episodes pertaining to the site’s subject matter: Lincoln’s life and times in antebellum America. We originally shot this video as part of the production of a documentary film exploring Lincoln’s life before the presidency (which eventually became a film exploring his participating in the Black Hawk War of 1832). In the production of a fifty-minute film the director and I shot over twenty hours of discussions with historians, integrating some twenty-five minutes into the final production itself. Rather than discarding the remainder of the footage, I reviewed it and selected several hours’ worth of additional footage for use on our web site. Members of our digital project staff edited the film and presented it online, where it has proved popular with users.

This post does not address Thomas and Cohen’s discussion about the production of digital history materials at major research institutions. Nor does it shed light on the practice of digital history as research or scholarship. Rather it pertains to the production of digital materials aimed, at least in part, at a public audience, with the resources available at a mid-sized university. Practitioners at institutions not organized for the production of digital history materials may benefit from the tactics I have discussed here. As government funding for universities deteriorates, digital historians at state-flagship and other large, public research institutions may find them to be of interest as well.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Digital History is Public History

In this blog I will discuss various aspects of the practice of digital history. Work in this medium often focuses on the digitization and online presentation of primary source materials. Digital history activities also can include devising  software tools facilitating new forms of research, and creating of new ways to present historical arguments and evidence,. Others have produced online teaching modules and other materials helpful in pedagogy.

Much of the work digitizing and presenting primary source materials has taken place in libraries, and many academic historians interested in what one recent discussion has termed "the promise of digital history" (Journal of American History, September, 2008, 452-491) have set their sights on creating new forms of research and scholarship.William G. Thomas, III of the University of Nebraska has argued that "Producing `scholarship that matters' will be the driving criterion in judging digital history" ("The Promise of Digital History," 477). This in many ways mirrors developments in in other humanities, where scholars making use of new technology have principally devoted their attention to realizing its potential for adding to scholarly discourse. While I recognize that new technologies can and should inform a new scholarship, I believe that an approach to digital history devoting the vast majority of its energies to scholarship largely ignores the fact that the web and its attendant technologies provide members of the discipline with an unprecedented opportunity to share their ideas with the vast web-using public. An narrow emphasis on the development of research tools and new types of scholarship threatens to squander this significant portion of digital history's immense promise.

In all fairness, a number of participants in "The Promise of Digital History" round table mentioned the medium's potential for building new bridges to the public. But the discussion did not seem to get beyond raising the issue of public engagement, while participants engaged more fruitfully with the subjects of research tools and scholarship. I fear that professional inertia and powerful institutional factors, like the criteria for tenure and promotion, have and will inexorably push the development of digital history toward scholarly endeavors.

Broader dissemination of existing scholarship alone will not engage a public audience. Discussions of the crisis in scholarly communication have emphasized how mass-digitization projects like Google Books, as well as the use of open-source journals and institutional repositories, can allow scholars to disseminate the texts that they write to a far larger pool of readers. I would argue that this work only takes advantage of a small portion of the available technology's promise for reaching a larger audience and addressing what Thomas Bender has called professional historians' increasing isolation from the public ("'Venturesome and Cautious’: American History in the 1990s." Journal of American History 81:3 December 1994, 997). Although historians' books and articles can now reach more readers, they remain texts written with an audience of fellow scholars in mind, assuming a level of background knowledge that often renders the discussion largely meaningless to, and can serve to intimidate, the uninitiated. New forms of digital scholarship, by virtue of their status as communications written for fellow specialists, threaten to do the same.

I believe that digital history is, unavoidably, public history.  Materials available on the free-use web, unlike materials published in scholarly journals or databases requiring subscriptions, cannot help but come to the attention of users beyond the profession, especially through the use of Google and other search engines. Historians can take advantage of this situation to address what Steven Mintz has called "issues facing our society (which) have a fundamental, if largely unrecognized, historical dimension," effectively "combat(ing) historical illiteracy" ("The Promise of Digital History," 487), using new technologies to share their ideas and work with the non-specialist public. This can begin with practices as simple as videotaping a public lecture and posting it to a web site. In speaking to such audiences scholars routinely recast their findings in terms more likely to resonate with an audience that is, by definition, popular.

Historians can use the web to do more than make members of the public familiar with their findings, however. Several practitioners taking part in the Journal of American History's recent discussion of the promise of digital history mentioned the fact that the medium can furnish an opportunity for members of the general public to experience what Thomas called "total immersion" in historical sources, taking part in what educators would call active learning by beginning, in Thomas' words, to "build connections" for themselves and "form(ing) interpretive associations of their own" (Promise of Digital History, 454). I agree with this contention emphatically, but would argue that the provision of primary source materials in an online environment alone hardly stands to precipitate this type of use among individuals not pursuing advanced scholarship or taking part in an organized course of study.

In my work at Northern Illinois University Libraries, I have tried to take steps to help web users to experience the stimulation and challenge of  "doing history" for themselves. We have developed a number of online resource exploring topics that figure prominently in many users' historical memories, including Abraham Lincoln's life before the presidency and the Mississippi Valley that Mark Twain remembered and imagined in his best-known works of literature.

In addition to providing its users with a large digital library of primary source materials documenting Lincoln's life before the presidency and his historical context, the Lincoln/Net site ( ( that we have developed provides its users with a basic narrative of Lincoln's life before the presidency, linking his experiences to major events in American society and politics in that period. It also furnishes short discussions of eight major historical themes pertaining to his experience and context (in text and video formats). On this site members of the educated public can find historians' narratives and interpretations presented in a concise form largely free of the finer points of historiographical debate.

This approach can help members of the general public to understand and learn from the primary sources contained in our web sites' digital libraries. Lincoln/Net's interpretive materials provide users with a  sense of what the historical literature has to say about the sources at hand, as well as a basic grasp of the events and individuals that figured prominently in them. Graduate students training for the historical profession delve deeply into the literature before they begin primary research, and continue to read new interpretations as their research leads them to ask new questions. Students enrolled in history classes benefit from scholars' discussion of chronology and interpretations, be it in the form of textbooks or selected monographic works. With Lincoln/Net I have tried to juxtapose historians' interpretations and  narratives, expressed in terms similar to those employed for a public lecture, with large collections of primary source materials, with an eye toward letting users readily move back and forth between both sets of data, learning from each as they explore the past.

In realizing that digital history is public history, I would urge the historical profession to produce a series of web sites providing the Google-using public with, at the very least, ready access to concise summaries of scholars' interpretations of major historical questions, themes, and periods, pitched at the level of a public lecture. Ideally, these sites would also include collections of primary source materials enabling their users to explore the historical record for themselves. While I do not object to the development of research tools using new technology, or the creation of a new form of digital scholarship,  I believe that if we allow these pursuits to obscure dialogue with individuals outside the profession, they will serve to isolate academic historians from the public still further, and squander an unprecedented opportunity that this technology affords us.