Is your digital history effective?

Posted on July 24, 2010 by


When we see websites like The Valley of the Shadow, I think it’s clear that they provide us with some great material… available to us in a very convenient state online. Without the site, it would take us a great deal of work to access the various materials at various sites… in other words, back to the true legwork (literally) of driving to a library, museum, or wherever, sifting through the material, transcribing, scanning, etc. to eventually put it into a presentable package for use, either by ourselves or someone else (in a book, for example). So, essentially, it appears that this project has accomplished what it originally set out to do… and continues to provide many with some great material with which to work. They have done the online surfing historians, buffs, and casual online readers in general, a great service.

Then we have other online sites that are presented to convince us of something… and of course, I’m speaking about history-related sites. Think about how many sites (blogs, stand-alone Web 1.0 sites, etc.) are out there… aww, go I’ll just go ahead and say it… that have to do with the American Civil War… that have been created to convince the reader of something, whether it be their opinion of something or someone in that part of history, or their vision of “how things really were” (at least according to the way they see things). Are they really effective? I would argue that it depends… on a number of things.

For starters, I think one needs to think about “audience”. Are you developing a site focused on those you believe will think in harmony with your ideas? Are you developing it hoping to gain “support” from those who you believe may be misinformed? While gathering a pool of like-minded individuals might be nice, I think there is more truth to the second point… looking to target those who may be misinformed or haven’t been fully exposed to the history that fits rather well with your particular views on history. Nonetheless, are you really writing to the greatest possible audience or are you writing in a way that will have limited impact on what truly amounts to a rather narrow audience? For example, do you think the only people who read your blog posts (for instance) are interested in history? How many more outside that field of interest might be happening upon your site? Is the second group actually larger than the first? How can you be sure that what you write is reaching a large audience and that you have accomplished what you sought to do? Are you sure?

At this point, this blog post could go in a number of directions, but I’m going to focus on how we write, and its effectiveness… taking the fourth (or, maybe the fifth) tine in the fork in the road, if you will.

I think many, if not most… or even all, of these sites have been created based on a knowledge of preparing materials for print, whether it be based on experience presenting a handwritten report for a grade school class or even experience preparing a graduate thesis. No matter the level, the foundation of presentation lies in the methodology of print media (coupled, sometimes with additional theories that we find relating to advanced levels of historiography). Now, throw in a few hyperlinks… and you have digital history, right? Maybe to a degree, yes, but it isn’t the full-blown digital history that is possible. In fact, and I think I’ve said this before, we may only be in what amounts to something close to Digital History 1.9… perhaps. I think the potential of digital history is far greater than what I have read, even in books written by some academians on the subject. That’s not saying that they are to fault for missing the greater theory, it’s simply that it appears they haven’t thought outside of the box just yet, or maybe they have, but just haven’t put it into print just yet.

Still, is writing for print not serving an audience that is more attuned (still) to reading for print? Is this discussion actually an effort in futility? I mean, if the majority of the readers online are still reading as if they were reading something in print media (with the exception of hyperlinks online, of course), then why not continue to write online as if we were writing for print media? Well, this actually ties back into my last post, when I briefly discussed The Shallows. If the Web is changing the way we read (and think, at least according to Carr), then at what point do we begin to write for the new way that we read? This isn’t something new, by the way. After all, many of those who are in marketing on the Web, are thinking about this continually. After all, they want your support (albeit, your dollars are at the core of that support).

… and just what are they doing to get your support online? I’ll give this some time in my next digital history-focuses post (while, somewhere in between, I hope to continue with the next installment of David Hunter Strother’s “Personal Recollections of the Civil War”).