HIST 305 -Sp’16
I signed up for this class because when I got the email and saw the flyer I was really excited about learning a lot of the concepts presented, especially the topics about digital archives. Throughout this course, I have learned a lot more about history and the ways it can be presented to the world. Up until now I had thought that history can be shared in two ways, in a class lecture or scholarly peer edited articles and books. I was always told that if the information was on the web, it was wrong or not scholarly enough to be of any use. However, I now believe that as long as you are aware of the author and their biases, and are aware of the argument and how the information is presented and what might be left out, and the source of the information is identified, I feel that there are many valuable resources on the internet for historians. I have also come to think that looking at numbers is a really interesting way to look at history. One of my favorite digital history projects that I’ve seen so far is just an animation of thousands of numbers. It is called the “Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes” and it is at first glance a world map with little flying dots going from Africa to the Americas. However, once you realize that those black dots all represent a single ship with hundreds of people on board, and the different size dots means more or fewer people, it becomes a very impactful animation. It is one thing to read that there were thousands of ships full of slaves that came over from Africa, but it is an entirely different experience to see those ships move. One short animation can tell the user about 20,000 ships how many slaves were on them, where they came from, and where they went over 300 years when it could take them hours to read about the same information.
Digital history is important because it allows for information to be more freely accessed and it allows for preservation of both really old sources of information, and the newer types of sources like videos. It also allows for an easier and quicker way to understand difficult historical eras, and events. There are of course some drawbacks to digitizing, such as who’s going to maintain it, what if it gets taken down, is there a 3rd party hosting it that is going to go out of business, who can edit the information, who can see the information, is it easily accessible to everyone, how much money is needed to maintain it, and is it possible to produce digitally. There are so many drawbacks, yet access to historical sources of information, especially primary sources, right at your fingertips is such a huge draw to me that, it is hard to believe that there is not more archives or projects utilizing the internet and visualizations available.
Archives and history projects are much more like to be seen and used if they are available to more people. Putting them on the internet increases the chance that they will be used by a lot, and more use means more people who are a little more knowledgeable about that topic. I think that digital history projects would especially be useful for teaching history in classrooms K-12 as it is much more fun, engaging and interactive than reading a paper, or being lectured at is. Digital Archives are a way for the world, not just top scholars, to see works that are falling apart because of age and materials, as well as a way of preserving them.
The tools we have learned about in this class, as well as all of the ways they can be applied to history, were quite interesting. My favorites were the maps, probably because I am very visual and like to see where everything is taking place in relation to everything else. I find that when doing research for a traditional history paper and I’m looking at a source that is taking about a journey and the number of people, wagons, horses, supplies, and the route, I find myself wishing there were a different way to view it, as it is much more difficult to understand written out in paragraphs when it could be on tables, or on a map or maybe in a computer game like “Organ Trail.” After taking this class, I have really changed in the way that I look at sources and the ways that I wish I could look at sources.
In doing my final project for this class, I caught myself wondering why there was not a digital archive for the sources that are constantly being cited by other historians looking at the Trail of Tears. Most of the sources are on microfilm somewhere in D.C. or in smaller archives and museums in the southeast, where barely anyone can get at them. When researching for this project, I realized that traditional sources have their limits, especially when it comes to specific numbers and locations, they are just not included they take up to much space, yet they are alluded too. For example, I had one source that was written by a doctor to a major general about the detachment they were with during the trail of tears, he gives an overview of the whole journey and says at the end, that he is including an abstract of the number of deaths. Despite it being mentioned by the source and by the editor, it is not included; the editor just summarizes it. When I went to look for it, I found that it is on microfilm in a box somewhere in National Archives. I believe that I have changed my outlook towards history as a whole and especially towards sources and what counts as sources, it is still hard to believe that video games count as digital history, and whether or not sources should be digitized.
I think that I need further development in digital history in a few areas. Including making sure that a digital history project is fully a digital history project and not just a traditional project put on the internet with one attachment that is digital for visualization. I think that my project could have had a little less written on the first page and a little more emphasis put on the map, but I do think that it was a good start for someone who has done much more traditional history. Another area I believe that I need some improvement in is identifying the differences between the digital and the traditional once both are online. I came upon a couple of sources while doing research that seemed like they were written for the digital, but came off more as a traditional paper just put online. I would have liked to have done more coding so that creating visualizations like the Atlantic Slave Trade was possible, yet I realize that visualizations like that require more than a few weeks of coding. I also would have liked to have done more with digital archiving and maybe learned how to scan and what the proper procedures and standards are, but I did have fun finding and entering information about the sources that we did have. However, over the course of the class and my project, I have become much more comfortable using digital tools and digital sources. I am defiantly glad that I took this class, I learned a lot about tools of the internet and about history and ways to approach it, even if we were all quiet and didn’t collaborate as much as we could have.