More thoughts on digital history as interactive narrative

Posted on February 23, 2008 by

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With an ever-pressing desire to explore new ways of presenting history, IGeorge P. Landow's Hypertext 3.0 find it difficult reading through George P. Landow’s Hypertext 3.0 without continually trying to figure out how the theories and applications can work within the practice of digital history. This is especially the case when considering that relatively few digital history sites have gone beyond being simple platforms upon which authors do little more than place text on a page and include hypertext links to sites that are equally as basic. 

Writing on the lack of the use of hypertext in digital history, Dr. Stephen Robertson of the University of Sydney, noted that many academians at the forefront of encouraging the use of the Web in delivering historical content, have only “conceptualized a hypertextual history,” and have “largely failed to incorporate the full properties of hyperlinks.” Furthermore, sites have taken on little more than “encyclopedic properties of digital environments” (par. 6 – an excellent article, I might add). Even when the president of the American Historical Association, Robert Darnton, issued a call in 1999 for more historians to take advantage of the benefits of digital media, he had no sooner encouraged its use before he began limiting how it could be used. “I am not advocating the sheer accumulation of data, or arguing for links to databanks – so-called hyperlinks,” wrote Darnton, “…can amount to little more than an elaborate form of footnoting” (par. 31). Indeed, if such perceptions of the potential of hypertext in history are so limiting, then how would he perceive the value of such features as mouse-overs, popups or even stretchtext

Instead of “bloating the electronic book,” Darnton proposed creating books, online, in layers. 

The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation… A fourth layer might be historiographical… A fifth layer could be pedagogic… And a sixth layer could contain readers’ reports, exchanges between author and editor, and letters from readers…

With the full potential of hypertext yet untapped in the practice of digital history, the proverbial “digital door” remains wide open for the creation of websites that could be pioneering and truly dynamic.

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Posted in: Digital History