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. 

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