What “parts” are needed to build the effective digital historian?

Posted on October 30, 2008 by

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Thanks to Craig’s comments on my digital history-related post from the other day, I’m starting to mull over a great deal regarding the needs of digital historians. But first, ya gotta love the title of this post… after all, it is Halloween week! Get it, my digital historian/Frankenstein’s monster metaphor?! Ahh, come on… anyway…

We’re still on the edge of this “new frontier” of digital history, so, to a point, I can see that in some practitioners of history on the Web, there might be no great need to “get one’s hands dirty learning html.” However, I take that only to a point. If someone wants to use the Web as an archival database, they can either hire someone to upload their info or learn to do it. For this, “doing is learning” works just fine.

That said, for those who want to communicate historical concepts and the like and make their communications on the Web effective pieces, that particular level of digital historian needs to step it up considerably. After all, aren’t those who accomplish a certain level of education in history (let’s say, for example, an M.A. in history) guided to write a certain way to match expectations in scholarly articles and books? (I have to interject here, that I think there is a flaw in this system, but that’s another subject that I’ll touch on briefly in the next paragraph). So, if these graduate level academians are taught to write/present for the article or the book, why shouldn’t the same historians who want to go into digital history be taught to present for the Web… and maybe it shouldn’t necessarily be at the hands of other historians, but actually those who know the theories behind Web development and those who understand HCI, etc.? (again, my question, why can’t history degrees come with the “S” on the end, such as B.S. and M.S.?)

Now, back to the writing for the book thing (sorry for jumping around, but call it a weakness since my hypertext theory course… I’ll never be the same again)… I think this is where, to some degree, the academy has missed the boat. I think that the academy has focused too much on writing from the academy to the academy and is missing out on effective communication to/with the largest possible audience (oh, gosh, and with that… here comes my user-centered design philosphy stuff again). Scholarly books and articles are read by more than those in the academy, sure, but I think an opportunity is missed and we end up in what some perceive as some rather intimidating or even elitist verbage used in scholarly works. To that, I wonder if there Isn’t there a happy medium somewhere.

But, I stray from the Web stuff (and I’ll probably do it again… you know, the hypertextual thought stuff again).

I think, to be an effective communicator on the Web, the historian (in one housing of the brain) needs to become familiar with presentation skills (perhaps in another brain housing) that go beyond verbage. If someone wants to data-dump archive on the Web, that’s one story (and there is nothing wrong with archiving because it is an integral part of digital history). Yet, for those who want to be effective communicators of their analysis (and I’m not talking academic historian lingo uploaded from the medium of the book to the medium of the Web), then they need to step it up considerably. Why shouldn’t upper tiered digital historians (my terminology) become familiar with not only html but with the science and many theories behind effective Web presentation?

Now, there might be the metaphor of the atom here, so hold on… but if a digital historian is well-prepared, not only with the historical knowledge, but also with the knowledge of effective presentation on the Web, is he/she not a more effective communicator of his/her concepts and ideas? Do historians not desire that what they write can make a positive impact on another person’s understanding of history? Now, I give the metaphor of atom because I do think that, if a digital historian does master the art of instructional design for the Web, there is that possibility that someone is going to abuse it (e.g., not to convey the point that there are multiple ways to look at the proverbial cube, but to influence others that there is one way and it is the only way and that it is the absolute right way).

So, does that make sense? If he/she wants to be a strong communicator of concepts, why shouldn’t the this type of digital historian come into the environment of the Web loaded with all of the necessary tools including the historical knowledge… and the ability to understand user-centric design and usability testing? Don’t “writing historians” want to be effective historians? Why shouldn’t those historians who want to write concepts for the Web want to use the medium effectively to reach the widest possible audience? Are we hear to “preach to the choir” or do we want a larger audience? Do we want our theories to be more widely understood (and possibly help clear that “dilution and distortion” that Ed Ayers mentioned)?

Note: Though, in casual conversation, I use it in almost”slang-like” reference to my Southern Unionists Chronicles site, I removed the phrase “data-dump” because it can be taken negatively. Archive sites on the Web are an important part of digital history and are an excellent tool for historians at all levels. I use many archive sites and feel almost an inherent need to develop such sites as a part of my practice of digital history.

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Posted in: Digital History