What is formal and informal digital history?

Posted on November 16, 2008 by

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I find this post interesting just for the nature of the post. As some are aware, I, along with others, have been involved in developing a wiki, and some of us have been copying some of our posts to the wiki to carry over discussion to that “outlet.” However, in this post, I’m carrying over something I wrote on the wiki to this blog. Some might be critical of such a practice as some may think that the result will be thoughts scattered across two outlets, but considering the nature of hypertext, why not? Why can’t the exchange of thoughts be carried over in two different environments? But to the point of why I am posting today…

What IS formal digital history and what IS informal digital history… and is blogging really informal if there is intent behind posting?

It’s just my opinion, but I don’t think “formal digital history” has to be defined as a completed website ready for consumption by readers. I think the practice of digital history (blogging being part of that) is more complex. The key word in the phrase is “digital;” or, more importantly, what is behind that one word when considering the environment of the Web. When considering the theory behind hypertext and various other features of the Web environment, this is where the historian should want to modify his/her practice for that environment. Continuing in the traditional style by placing materials that might otherwise be found in a book is simply doing the same thing as before, but putting it in a new medium. It might make the information available to a larger (or different) audience, but is not the historian who does this missing major opportunities for more efficient delivery of the content (or more importantly, a more effective way for helping others understand content or concepts behind the content)? [Making a note to myself here, but this might be where using a blog format makes the delivery of content unique].

Blogging is informal, but perhaps the informality has just as much potential as a formally structured website. In the act of “doing” digital history, is the act of educating others (I use “educating” here more as a word to express the intent of making other people think AND consider many possibilities as opposed to one alone… thus, multi-linear paths) not at the very core of why we practice digital history?

I think, in various blogs, there are instances in which the historian is thinking and the reader has the opportunity to “virtually” look over the historian’s shoulder. This, I believe, presents significant possibilities in conveying historical concepts. It’s informal, but considering the fact that the historian is opening up his/her thoughts for public consideration, it’s quite personal (which might lead to another topic regarding the personalization of history). I think this holds greater appeal to a broader audience specifically because it IS personal. As for presentation of material, I can see a difference in formal and informal work, but the very practice of digital history should not be held to the limited confines of traditional presentation of history (I really can’t place enough emphasis on this).

Maybe I’m rambling (after all, I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet), but I think there is something to it. I just believe that the environment of the Web needs to be appreciated for what it really is. Are we forcing too many of our ideas of formality and informality from practice with the print medium to the practice on the Web?

On a sidenote, note that in the last hyperlink above, I used the hyperlink feature of WordPress.com to create a mouseover popup. I just left the link URL blank, set the target to “new window” and placed my comment in the “Title” box. Think of how, without blatantly interjecting your thoughts [in brackets for example] in an historical document that you are transcribing, how you can still interject your thoughts about specific passages. The fact that the reader is likely drawn to the blue hyperlinked words is a part of interaction between the reader and the transcriber/author. The act of hovering over the hyperlink and the result of hovering being the popup is another means of interactive design. Think of the possibilities of such dynamic features in works of digital history… this example is but one.

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Posted in: Digital History