What makes an historian a “digital historian?”

Posted on April 22, 2008 by

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Just some passing thoughts today. I say passing because I’m more preoccupied with completing three final projects for the semester. One more week to go and the spring semester of ’08 is history!

Nevertheless, in the past few days, I’ve been thinking about digital history as a practice. Is it really ok to say that by virtue of being a recognized historian, and having created a webpage, does this make one a digital historian? The more I think about it and the more I delve into the entire process behind webpage design, I have to say… I don’t really think so.

Let’s take the example of the book. Academia has pronounced the manner in which a (or “an” – yes, I’ve seen it as being acceptable both ways) historian should go about compiling research and writing. If you don’t meet a certain level of expectations, you don’t get published. However, there are publishers outside the academy who aren’t as discriminate (a good thing and a bad thing, in my opinion, but that’s content for another post on another day). We realize that a certain level of historiography is expected, proper footnotes and the ability to express oneself clearly… it’s all a part of the expectations. The objective of writing an article or a book is to convey one’s perspective.

So, why is it any different when it comes time for a historian to create a webpage? Let’s think about this a little. As I said above, in writing an article or a book, the point is to convey one’s perspective through the work. However, putting something on the Web is not simply a matter of historiography, wordsmithing, and footnotes. There is a lot more to it than that, and, in that sense, I think that some may be missing the point of the ability of the Web when it comes to using it as a vessel for relating history. If the Web is a more effective medium than a book (and I argue that it can be and, in fact is, in some well-designed works), then to be a digital historian entails a lot more than just understanding historiography and the ability to write academically. I argue that to be an effective digital historian, one must be well-grounded in history (an understanding of historiography being a critical element), but have a very good understanding of a great deal more when it comes down to creating a webpage. In consulting or collaborating with a Web professional, I think that some perspective (if not a lot), is or can be lost in the final product. It might be an upgrade from print media, but does it take full advantage of the power of the Web? I don’t think it does. I think that being an effective (key word being “effective”) digital historian, one must understand some very basic principles of webdesign and some complex principles as well. Some of these principles include an understanding of design theory (including color and typography) and an understanding of cognitive psychology (the Human-Computer Interactive/HCI process, User experience/Ux, and so on). Yet, I’m only naming a little of what it takes to make a truly dynamic website that does justice to both the medium and the content.

Again, the point here is to convey one’s perspective.

Articles and books captured one small area of this aspect, while the potential for the Web in conveying perspective entails much more.

This is just a quick reflection, but I will expand on it further… perhaps in an academic article for a print publication.

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Posted in: Digital History