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.