Historical Narratives in a Sea of Digital Choices

In a previous post, I attempted to tease out the AHA’s stance on teaching and the undergraduate classroom as articulated by William Cronon – former President of the AHA – and the organization’s journal, Perspectives. As I combed through presidential addresses, blog posts, and journal articles, I happily stumbled upon an ongoing conversation amongst AHA leaders that was paying particular attention to the undergraduate classroom and attempting to find solutions to the myriad issues facing educators and teachers in the twenty-first century. Cronon, in particular, levels the charge that historians must continue to tell engaging stories – in any number of mediums – or else risk losing the audiences that we need to keep the profession afloat. That particular speech, along with his commitment to teaching and open-mindedness towards Wikipedia, has been tumbling around in my head ever since.

This week, as we set out on our own to explore any topic of pedagogical interest, I found myself returning to what I discovered in the previous post on the AHA — namely, the role of the narrative and storytelling in the historical profession. For this week, I added a bit of a twist – I decided to explore how the creation of historical narratives and the process of storytelling (as articulated by Cronon) factors into the world of digital history. In a world packed full of digital archives, online encyclopedias, and public history projects, does organizing this information into an analytic narrative – one of the historian’s oldest and most valued tools – allow us to make sense of the vast amount of material available to us as educators, researchers, and learners? Ultimately, is the historian’s task of analyzing sources, putting them in conversation with each other, and drawing meaning from them still of use in a world where anyone can see sources and draw conclusions?

If these questions seem daunting and possibly unanswerable, don’t worry, for the most part, they are. After a few days of research, I quickly discovered these questions would take substantial amounts of time, thought power, and determination to answer (hence the purpose of semester-long class, I suppose). With that said, consider this post a toe-dipping exercise into the vast waters of history in the digital age. What I report in this post might seem disjointed and unrelated, but bear with me as I offer you some thinkers that are attempting to tackle these huge questions in manageable ways.

I began with the co-authored book by Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Rosenzweig, founder of The Center for History and New Media, wrote prolifically on the digital transition before his untimely death a few years back. Cohen, his successor at the CHNM and now director of the “Digital Public Library of America” project, has also served as a guiding voice in the many conversations that continue to circulate about the relationship between history and the digital environment. In this particular book, Rosenzweig and Cohen set out to write a beginner’s guide that details how to present history online. Perhaps most importantly, the authors claims that historians should dedicate as much attention to their writing on the web as they do to the writing that will be disseminated to and judged by their peers. In fact, historians need not only produce high-quality prose for the web, but they also need to aggressively combat the idea that long-form text has no place online — only then can historians claim the medium as their own. They bring their book to a close by charging that historians “have a responsibility to ensure that the new digital history is a democratic history, one that… encourages everyone to participate in writing their own histories, and that reaches diverse and multiple audiences in the present and future.” Thus, according to Cohen and Rosenzweig, it would seem that the historian’s task is alive and well, though it now faces new battles that might possibly devalue the detailed and lengthy analyses that have served as the touchstones of the historical profession. If historians can make a name and face for themselves in the online world and embrace the changes that accompany such a shift, their long-form narratives can continue shaping the public understanding of history in important ways.

One such way to influence the sphere of public historical knowledge – one that has caused quite a stir amongst scholars – is that ever-increasing, crowdsourced online encyclopedia that first showed up on monitors in 2001. Since then, Wikipedia has increased exponentially and inspired an ongoing conversation about the changing nature of scholarly authority – one that Cronon and Rosenzweig have both weighed in on. In a collection of essays started by Rosenzweig and continued by his colleagues after his death, Rosenzweig finds that Wikipedia must be understood as a powerful and wide-reaching knowledge tool that scholars can’t possibly ignore. Rosenzweig spends most of the essay comparing entries on Wikipdea to print-based encyclopedias and finds that much of the information on Wikipedia is not only accurate, but engages the subject matter in a much richer way than traditional reference books. According to Rosenzweig, perhaps the scholarly world could learn a thing or two about collaboration and open knowledge by understanding, exploring, and mining the depths of Wikipedia. Cronon, in a column in 2012 issue of Perspectives, takes this a step further by arguing that historians have a responsibility to contribute to Wikipedia in their various fields of expertise since scholars can no longer maintain “intellectual monopolies” at the university level. Taken together, these two authors are encouraging historians to contribute their knowledge to an open-access forum where information is democratized and made available free of charge. Taking these arguments to a logical conclusion, then, the historians narrative has the ability to mediate the information glut by presenting expertise in a wide-reaching medium that – at the very least – would provide a factual basis of knowledge for the common user and – at best – might encourage deeper engagement with a subject in the long-form narrative style valued by professional historians.

What I’ve covered here barely scratches the surface of the questions I posed at the beginning of this post. However, through the work of Rosenzweig, Cohen, and Cronon, we’re provided with an intellectual framework to start thinking about the way we’ve conducted our work in the past, how it’s changed over the last few decades, and the places where we could continue to innovate our methods to meet the needs of a twenty-first century classroom.

For more information on this body of work, see:

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