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Why Study Digital History?

By W. Caleb McDaniel | September 3, 2012

This academic year I am leading a Rice University masterclass on digital history. This essay is cross-posted on our course blog, along with a comment box.
In our first meeting of Digital History at Rice, we each shared our reasons for wanting to study this subject. Here I want to elaborate a little bit on mine. My graduate program in history did not offer any training in digital history methods, but in the last ten years, I’ve had a series of realizations that make me want to learn more about them.

1. I realized I was already doing digital history, whether I wanted to or not.

Since the 1990s, primary sources in my field—nineteenth-century American history—have been digitized at an incredible rate, by Google Books, the Internet Archive, Making of America, and many others. When I began my dissertation, I spent much of my time looking through microfilm of the antislavery newspaper the Liberator. By the time I finished, there were multiple digitized copies of the paper available from at least three private companies.

It would be foolish not to make use of these resources, so I do—all the time. But the more I started to notice the differences among databases and search engines, the more I began to realize that by using them, I was already engaging in a collaborative enterprise with software engineers. To be sure, this is a collaboration with strangers whose names I seldom learn, but the decisions that they make about how to program search engines, how to structure databases, and what formats to make available to me now have a direct bearing on the work that I do as an historian of the nineteenth century. That made me realize that even if I never make a web scraper, scan an archive, or encode a document myself, I needed to understand something about the way these things are done if I want to use these tools effectively and intelligently. Indeed, it’s now as important to know something about these things as it is to know how to read a book or write a book review.

The more I began to think about this issue, the more I realized how ubiquitous these invisible collaborations were in my day-to-day work; every time I entered a query into Google, or fired up Microsoft Excel, I was, if not programming, at least being programmed and relying on the programming others had done. Paying attention to digital history slowly made me start to realize how much I don’t know about things like database design, but reading blog posts like that one and following digital historians through social media means I now know a lot more than I once did. That means that (at the very least) I can now make more informed decisions about the tools I use.

Read full post here. (Originally posted August 31, 2012)