New Media provides historians – enthusiasts and academics alike – with the ability to track, interpret, and present information using increasingly sophisticated, yet highly accessible technologies. The wealth of digital resources available today, especially open source formats, means the ceiling of knowledge required to participate is not tremendously high. Some projects, like Small Town Noir, utilize (mostly) free resources like WordPress to present historical anecdotes with minimal interaction and limited aesthetic ambition. However, depending on the skills of the designer, these projects can become extremely complicated (National Archives Digital Vaults) resulting in visually dazzling, interactive digital stories. The degree of sophistication used to tell a digital story is not indicative of its effectiveness or historical value. In fact, extremely flashy sites like Welcome to Pine Point can wind up offering hyper-specific detail without providing context, thereby failing to do much in the way of advancing the historical field. This is not to say that something like Pine Point is without value, but rather it is an illustration of how form can dwarf function. If digital storytellers want to be taken seriously by traditional scholars they will need to focus on interpretation as much, if not more, than presentation. Unless new media is used to interrogate and question information it will likely remain a complementary tool, but unable to stand independent from more traditional written sources.
For the average historian, creating a site as with the technical refinement of The Hollow is not possible. However, this does not preclude members of the academic community from participating in these twenty-first century projects. As Daniel Cohen points out, blogs allow academics with extremely limited technical skills to expand their reach and ability to collaborate. Despite the stigma still attached to new media formats, Robert Townsend’s research shows that the academy is growing increasingly receptive to the idea that serious scholarship can take place digitally.
My final project will expand my original Omeka site. The initial Omeka assignment will digitize select items from the Harold Saunders collection housed at the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum in Horsham, Pennsylvania. The final project will expand the exhibit to include additional pieces of the Saunders collection, approximately 50 artifacts. The collection contains objects from Saunders’ personal life and military service during World War II including letters, maps, and aeronautical navigation tools. Though the Saunders collection is not comprehensive, the site will utilize the available materials to examine parts of his life with special emphasis on Saunders’ draft and time in the Army Air Force. Omeka will serve as the primary tool for developing the site with Gimp functioning as an image manipulator when required. Other sites like Timeline JS and Mapbox might be used as well. By creating timelines and maps, users’ ability to interact with the exhibit will expand providing more accessible and streamlined information. Ideally, the site will help the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum increase its digital footprint both online and in the museum. The site will be designed to serve multiple learners including school groups, aviation enthusiasts, and historians.
Creating a definition of digital history is a task unlikely to ever be completed. The term is so flexible that attempting to identify specific and widely accepted parameters is an exercise in futility. There is good digital history and bad digital history, but trying to set hard boundaries is useless. A more productive – and necessary – use of time is for each individual historian to sketch their own outline of what digital history means. Writing a personal definition of digital history gives the historian a target to shoot at during the interpretive process, even if it that target lacks universal acceptance. The volume of articles emerging from the digital humanities community, as discussed by Matthew Kirschenbaum, indicates that the process of defining remains a vibrant topic of conversation.
My definition of digital history is heavily influenced by Daniel Cohen, Roy Rosenzweig, and Lisa Spiro. While Cohen and Rosenzweig’s qualities of digital media exemplify the benefits of technology based approaches to historical inquiry, these same qualities also highlight what I believe to be the distinguishing features of digital history. The flexibility to combine mediums, the diversity of participants, the ability to penetrate dense material, unprecedented levels of interaction between historians, and the decentralization of process are all hallmarks of digital history. Finally, Spiro’s idea that “information is not a commodity to be controlled but a social good to be shared and reused,” emphasizes the democratic impulse driving not just digital history, but digital studies in general.
I would also argue, however, that in order for something to qualify as digital history it does not need to meet every standard mentioned above. The variety of digital history projects available today means that applying rigid standards of evaluation will only result in intellectual tail chasing. The difference between passive and active projects demonstrates this point. The Wilson Center Digital Archive is one of the more engaging digital history projects I have encountered. It allows visitors to investigate Cold War foreign policy chronologically, geographically, and thematically. The site offers access to thousands of primary sources, provides relevant document information, and makes it easy to share specific documents. In stark contrast to the Wilson Center Digital Archive is the University of Wisconsin’s digitized collection of Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS). Wisconsin’s FRUS collection does not provide users with any interpretation or feedback. It is strictly a catalog of documents. The interface is not user friendly and the only function available is word searching within documents. Despite these problems, I would argue that the FRUS collection is still an example of good digital history. Could the site be improved? Undoubtedly. Does it look outdated? Most certainly. Does it condense a set of documents that would otherwise require multiple bookcases into one easily accessible location? Absolutely, and that is all it really needs to do. The site does not aspire to be anything other than a warehouse. In the end, the gap between the Wilson Center’s beautifully skinned page and UW’s clunky archive does not matter. Both sites achieve their desired goals and offer historians around the world the opportunity to engage materials previously confined to academic libraries.