Week 2 Reflection

Digital history most assuredly will be an advancment in the creation of a history more accessible to the masses.  Cohen and Rosenzweig explain the history behind digital history as well as present a number of issues that continue to trouble historians as they create and display public digital history projects.  Of the qualities of digital history presented on page 3 of the introduction, two appear most troublesome.  Accessibility or inaccessibility to historical websites and the accountability of those who created them appear as both pros and cons of digital history.  In the digital era, the internet has opened doors for historical research that the historian can perform from the ease of his computer chair rather than an archive across the country.  While this is positive, there are limitations to access as well.  Many archival sites charge expensive membership fees, which limit the ability of many to get their hands on primary sources.  Additionally, the digitization of primary source documents require vast resources both economic and in labor that companies assume as an investment.  As in any other business, the investment of these resources by companies are protected by copyright and serve as limitations to the sharing of information.  I’ve been burdened not by material but the legal restricitions of using information that are copyrighted by companies that led to delays in projects.  This could also lead to an incomplete presentation of a digital project as a result of a legal barrier, or even a scrapped project completely.  Legal issues are the foremost problems that historians will have to work around as they construct digital history archives and projects.

Another problem we face is the issue of organization and credibility.  Due to the plethora of different digital history sites we lack a coherent way to categorize them.  History projects are all thrown together in a search engine.  Additionally there is no way, without looking at them individually, to differentiate the types of projects from each other.  As Cohen and Rosenzweig point out, traditional methods of organization (subject, area, time) are not as well defined for digital history projects which tend to be very narrow, topic oriented.  New categories, perhaps that define the nature of the digital history project, need to be devised to be utilized more effectively by researchers, historians, and amateurs alike.  We need to focus on the intent of the creators of the digital history projects and create several different ways to categorize the mass of projects that already exist.  In short, a 21st Century, digital Dewey Decimal System.

Because of the open ended environment of the internet, anyone can create any history website whether they are students, teachers, enthusiasts or professional researchers.  This leads to two concerns, first, is the information provided on this website or computer program credible?  Second, how can we differentiate the “professional” historian works from the “amateur”?  While this open forum between scholars and the average person is excellent in terms of accessibility, all users involved need to keep in mind who is creating these projects and bear in mind that some may be more credible than others.  Just as I wouldn’t take car repair advice from somebody working the fry line at McDonald’s.  Not to say there aren’t intelligent people that exist outside academia, but amateurs, as Cohen and Rosenzweig present, or even some professionals may be unfamiliar with arguments and evidence once presented years in the past and are bringing outdated ideas again to historical discussion.

A number of things we must keep in mind when analyzing digital history projects as we investigate them and as we create them.  Similar to writing papers or books we need to consider the audience, our purpose in telling the history through the projects we devise, what it can bring to the historical discussion that simply words and paper cannot and also how to make the history we present engaging, interesting, and accessible to the general public.

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