Digital History does not equal online print.

After reading the materials for this week, I am struck by new heightened expectations for digital scholarship and a feeling of intimidation/excitement as I look forward to creating the final project in this class.

Nearly every author we read this week noted that digital scholarship or digital history should be remarkably different from what is able to be produced in print. Therein, lies both the challenge and the vast potential of doing history in a digital environment. Edward Ayers notes that historians have not kept up with possibilities of digital technologies that would allow for innovative projects. Amy Murrell Taylor argues that the most difficult piece of digital history is “thinking in bold and creative ways about how this technology can serve the interests of history, thinking about how students can create a truly ‘new’ history as a result.”

In order to create a digital history project that fulfills academic history standards but moves away from simply recreating print on a screen, several digital historians advised thinking deeply about the project prior to creating it. Dan Cohen recommends asking similar questions that one might pose in a book review. What is the intent of the project? Who is the intended audience? What already exists in online and print formats that relates to your work? What type of digital resource do you imagine your project to be? These questions help focus the work and move historians away from traditional, linear formats.

Tim Sherrat’s blog post on his use of technology to create the Invisible Australians project was incredibly eye-opening. I was amazed by the idea to take a library australiaor archive’s collections and use a script to extract images from its files. Additionally, Sherrat’s use of web tools to create a website where photos are linked to Australia’s National Archives files is mind boggling to me. My only familiarity with facial detection software is limited to use on Facebook, Instagram, and crime databases (not one I’m personally familiar with, but there’s crime novels!). I had never considered using it for a history related purpose. Projects like Invisible Australians certainly dwarf simpler history projects that resemble wikipedia pages.

After reading about the perspectives of various historians engaged in digital projects, my rubric for reviewing a project looks like this:

Digital Projects should:

  • most importantly, use an innovative way to present work in a digital format. The final product should be something that cannot be produced on paper.
  • include pictures, video, and/or audio files
  • employ a clean and easy to navigate interface
  • contributes to the scholarship of its field (i.e. has a clear argument, digitizes primary sources, etc.)
  • preferably have the ability to be viewed easily as a mobile site
  • include proper citations that link to the source when available

As I think about my research and work, I tried to look for projects that are more than databases. I’m very interested in the Civil Rights movement and also what some historians are now calling the long Civil Rights movement that began in the 1920s/1930s and continued well into the 1970s. My primary research topic of the past year has been the Virginia Public Assemblages Act of 1926. The law came on the heels of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and Virginia was the only state to pass a law that mandated segregation in public spaces. Specifically, I looked into the white and black opposition of the law as it made its way through the Virginia legislature.

Below is a list with a few notes about digital projects that have helped me explore this topic as well as new ones I found while digging around on the Internet for this class. Most of these represent online depositories. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t find many projects that went beyond digitization efforts of things already in print or archives. However, the existence of these types of sites certainly makes research SO much easier!

  • Library of Virginia’s digitized newspaper databases like the one for the Norfolk Journal and Guide. (You have to have a library card to access these databases)
  • Virginia Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Virginia– acts as an in-depth Wikipedia for all topics and people in Virginia’s past
  • Virginia Historical Society’s Linking to Our Past– geared toward Virginia teachers especially to support content related to African-American history. However, its scope is very limited as the curators of the site have already chosen which objects and documents to highlight.
  • Documenting the American South– a database of oral histories and other primary sources. Many focus on civil rights issues. However, much of the geographic focus is on North Carolina or other states further south.
  • Library of Congress’s Voices of Civil Rights– This site is also limited for my topic in that it focuses on events from the Civil Rights movement that garnered national attention. A law passed in the 1920s in Virginia seems to be outside of its scope. This one is also curated by LOC staff.
  • Dynamics of Idealism– archive of questionnaires given to volunteers who helped with voter registration drives in 1965 and then a follow up study from 1982. Users must register in order to download the files. While the scope of the project is after my specific topic, this seems like an exciting trove of files for anyone studying the Civil Rights era.

Dynamic Projects

Some of these are not as related to my line of research, but I think they are incredible examples of the possibilities of digital history projects.

  • Freedom Now Project– uses Flickr photo sharing to digitize a collection of photos from protests in Prince Edward County, VA and asked the public to identify people they recognized in the pictures.
  • Transcribe– a project from the Library of Virginia that allows members of the public to transcribe historic documents. This enables librarians to make documents searchable and more accessible much faster than if they relied simply on library staff.
  • Visualizing Emancipation– a map layering project that combines a map of the US with Union Army locations and Emancipation events. Some events date from before the Civil War.
  • Television News of the Civil Rights Era– a project out of UVA that has compiled news reels related to Civil Rights from 1950-1970 in Virginia. The site includes not only video and oral histories but essays that interpret key events from around the commonwealth.
  • Race and Place– another project out of UVA that combines maps, oral histories, African-American newspapers, and political papers. A very useful component is a hyperlinked timeline that compares state political events with Charlottesville events. This site begins its scope in the 1880s and ends in the mid-1900s, providing a broader look than many Civil Rights related projects.

Additionally, these are some of the tools I am interested in using or at least think are very useful for digital historians.

  • Scripto– online transcription plug-in built (by GMU CHNM) to allow the public to help transcribe.
  • VisualEyes– a tool to weave together maps, charts, pictures and text
  • MyHistro– creates an interactive timeline with maps, pictures, etc.



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4 Responses to Digital History does not equal online print.

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post, you found some really great examples of digital history work.

  2. Danielle says:

    Two points of your rubric stood out to me: include pictures, video, and/or audio files, employ a clean and easy to navigate interface. I agree and disagree with both points. Yes pictures, videos and audio files are nice but I don’t know that they are always necessary. If digital history mirrors “regular” history, we don’t always include pictures in articles or books. The clean and easy to navigate interface however is a must, and something I hadn’t considered. I have given up looking for things on websites when I feel like I am in a clicking loop. I never thought of it from a creation stand point before. Now that we are learning to create content that is something that we should all remember.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comment, Danielle. I will have to respectfully disagree with your point about pictures. Websites are inherently visual and I think pictures are crucial to creating a dynamic project. I think the entire point of creating digital history is do something beyond mirroring “regular” history. Also, personally I can’t stand reading whole web pages of just text. Now to qualify my point, I don’t think there needs to be a ton of pictures especially if the topic doesn’t lend itself to that, but at least one or two is necessary.

  3. Lacey says:

    I completely agree with you on the fact that the reading was overwhelming with the possibilities and challenges offered for creating digital history. When I first read that digital work should go beyond what can be done in print, I was worried about how I will be able to accomplish that. However, it makes complete sense! Why bother if it can easily be a printed article?
    I enjoyed your resources list. I may be looking at a topic relating to the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia so I will definitely be checking a few of those sites out for my own research!

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