Diving In

Greetings! Today I’ll be giving some reactions to a few digital history sites and finishing off with some thoughts on what these sites, along with some other readings, say about digital history as it stands today.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) – George Mason University

The portal of all portals, this site and its corresponding institution is the locus of many aspects of the current digital history landscape. Many of the assigned portions of this course relate back to the RRCHNM, from the Digital Campus podcasts which we will be listening to throughout the semester, to the articles and resources from Dan Cohen, Stephen Robertson, and Mills Kelly we have been/will be reading.

The RRCHNM site features three primary sections of information: Teaching + Learning; Research + Tools; and Collecting + Exhibiting. Each category has a certain amount of overlap, but the categorizations are still useful. Within these sections, visitors will find links to other portals of specific historical interest, tools useful for scholars at every level (like the popular Omeka and Zotero, which were created at the RRCHNM), and examples of how these various tools can be used to create digital collections and interactive digital learning. The RRCHNM main site also features the center’s blog which addresses digital history related events, news, and announcements.

I was struck particularly by the text box located towards the bottom of the page.

(Source: Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, front page, 23 August 2014)

It is helpful, of course, to see the agreed upon definition of digital history from one of the forerunners of the movement. However, I think the necessity of having a definition prominently displayed here also says a lot about the amount of misunderstandings or simple ignorance in regards to the realm of digital history as it stands today and the role of the RRCHNM in educating the academe and the population at large about the subject.

Digital History: Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Researching – University of Houston

Unlike the RRCHNM site which is a meta portal focused primarily on doing digital history, Digital History is a portal for doing United States history. How’s that for confusing? Visitors can navigate through different eras of US history and find resources such as textbooks, primary sources, activities, and more for each era.

Different era’s resources can be reached via an interactive tool on the homepage which allows users to slide across a time line of history and navigate to different types of resources for each chronological period.

Screen shot 2014-08-23 at 6.21.40 PM

Here I have the slider set at 1791, designated as part of the Early National Period, and from here I could choose to look at related Teaching tools, Textbooks, Documents, or Media. (Source: Digital History: Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Researching front page, 22 August 2014)

Users can also navigate based on topic, go straight to primary sources, access secondary information, or view specific exhibitions.

Virginia Center for Digital History – University of Virginia

I haven’t discussed much about the actual design of the above websites, but the simplistic design of the VCDH is one of the first things that jumps out at me about this site. The sidebar of the homepage informs the viewer of the center’s mission straight away. The VCDH itself seems, like the RRCHNM, is focused on both teaching the practice of doing digital history and on producing/presenting historical archives and information in a digital form. The site, on its own, offers more in the way of historical information than information on doing digital history. The projects included on the site are timeless repositories of information on specific historical topics, many related to Virginia history. The front page of the site, however, is not nearly as timeless; in fact, the latest press release featured there is from 2009 and the “News” tab reveals nothing more than an SQL error. A Google search reveals no alternate sites with more up to date information on the center, either (not even a Twitter, gasp!). This certainly doesn’t affect the timeless nature of the projects, but it does leave one with a somewhat disarming feeling about the fate of the center. What happened to the center?

Should we go with the History Channel answer? (click image for source)

Actually, (sorry to disappoint you, Giorgio) it appears that the VCDH may have been integrated into the “Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities,” also based at the UoV. The IATH appears to host the VCDH projects, which are primarily related to Virginia history, alongside a much wider chronological, geographical, and topical breadth of projects. The IATH also has a much cleaner, more modern, and more up-to-date site. I’m sure this sort of things happens quite often; the swiftness with which technology progresses and the increasing integration of digital work throughout the humanities probably means that what started as individual department/student/center projects soon become part of much larger portals directing interested parties to a wider and wider range of information.

**Note** Returning to the University of Houston’s Digital History site, this full site seems timeless. There aren’t any immediate dates visible to show when the project was last updated, but the look and feel of the site let you know that it was recently enough not to seem dated. The RRCHNM site, on the other hand, feels extremely modern and gives the impression that it is updated on a very regular basis.

Digital History Project – University of Nevada at Lincoln

Like the VDHC, the Digital History Project at UoNL site feels quite dated. Immediately the viewer is greeted with links to articles from 2012 and 2011,  the site shows student projects from no later than 2011, there are only five reviews of digital history tools, and similarly, no syllabi from later than 2011. Again, I believe the focus shifted within this department, this time to  The History Harvest project. I get the feeling from this sampling of sites that a smallish group of websites and centers have become the go-to locations for information on doing digital history (along with an array of personal/professional blogs), while more departmental/single university based sites have moved on to larger and somewhat more archival-based projects.

Thoughts

From these four sites, in addition to our readings from this and the past week, it is clear that the digital landscape is vast; there are many different iterations of digital history as many different types of technology are utilized. Through these sites I noticed the strongest emphasis on presenting information relevant for students who are researching various topics, some information for teachers teaching on those same topics, and, less commonly, tools and resources for professors to use within their own research and teaching. I think this speaks to the still minimal engagement of history faculty at large in doing and using digital history, as Dan Cohen discusses in the introduction of his book “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft].

Unsurprisingly, the RRCHNM seems to be the hub for academics looking to find information to share with their students, tools to use in their own research, and different ways of doing digital history. I don’t think this centralization is bad thing either, the web can be vast, intimidating, and frustrating at times. Plus, as some of these sites illustrate, the digital world is in a constant state of evolution and perhaps it is logical that energy and resources be put largely into keeping one central location up-to-date and accurate in regards to what’s available.

I think that all of these sites do offer a counter argument to Nicholas Carr’s concerns in his piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains.” I can completely see the way that many commercials websites increasingly encourage their readers to quickly flit from one grain of information to the next (I especially loathe the trend toward slow-loading, time-consuming, revenue-generating slideshow lists). My brain too is becoming acclimated to quickly scrolling through my Facebook feed or finding entertainment in speedily clicking through funny images and thoughts on Reddit. On the other hand, however, there are still many personal and academic blogs (and Carr’s own post, after all) that offer a longer-term engagement of the little gray cells. The four sites above also engage readers in a more meaningful way than click-bait advertisement splashed sites; they offer full collections that one can leisurely explore, collections that are connected enough to keep your mind on a particular topic while still offering the variety we so voraciously crave these days. If more academics heed Dan Cohen’s call (in 2006’s “Professors, Start Your Blogs”) and Marshall Poe’s plea to create reliable and accurate islands of historical knowledge (in 2009’s “Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now “), then there will still be places where one can go on the internet to engage our deeper thinking, along with satisfying our interest in the visual, audio, and interactive media the internet makes possible.

Well, I hope you were able to follow some of these first rambling thoughts on the world of digital history. See you next round!

Cheers,

KHM

 

 

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