Digital history

Digital history

Digital history is the use of digital media and tools for historical practice, presentation, analysis, and research. It is a branch of the Digital Humanities and an outgrowth of Quantitative history, Cliometrics, and History and Computing. Some of the previous work in digital history includes digital archives, CD-ROMs, online presentations, interactive maps, time-lines, audio files, and virtual worlds. More recent digital history projects focus on creativity, collaboration, and technical innovation, all of which are aspects of Web 2.0. Future work in digital history will likely include projects such as text mining.


Defining digital history

Digital history is a rapidly changing field. New methods and formats are currently being developed. This means that 'digital history' is a difficult term to define. However, it is possible to identify general characteristics. Digital history represents a democratization of history in that anyone with access to the Internet can have their voice heard, including marginalized groups which were often excluded in the 'grand narratives' of nation and empire.[1] In contrast to earlier media formats, digital history texts tend to be non-linear and interactive, encouraging user participation and engagement.[2] Digital history is studied from various disciplinary perspectives and in relation to a range of interrelated themes and activities. The field includes discussion of: archives, libraries, and encyclopedias;[3] museums and virtual exhibits;[4] digital identity and biography;[5] digital games and virtual worlds;[6] online communities and social networks;[7] Web 2.0;[8] and e-research and cyber-infrastructure.[9]

Issues and challenges

Digital methods in historical research offer new ways to record, communicate and preserve documents, artifacts and knowledge of the past. However, there are challenges. These include: developing efficient ways to determine the authority and authenticity of digital content; shifting from long established archival preservation systems designed for earlier media formats to using relatively unstable digital preservation formats and standards; and ensuring better accessibility for those who lack access to the technology due to age-related or socio-economic disadvantage.[10]

Many online history projects facilitate large-scale conversations (one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many), producing new kinds of distributed 'texts'. Further research is required to understand the significance of these texts for historical studies.[11]

Narrative forms continue to be central to history in digital environments, even as experiments in nonlinearity challenge and extend conventional boundaries and understandings of narrative. "Digital history could be both a catalyst and a tool in the creation of a more literary kind of history," Ayers wrote in his landmark essay 'The Pasts and Futures of Digital History'.[1]


Some historians began using computers to develop new research methods in the mid-1960s.[12] The new interest in social history led these historians to ask and answer several kinds of new quantitative questions. Historians turned to computers as they quantified data found in censuses, election returns, city directories, and other records. Through this process, social historians came up with new generalizations about communities and populations. By the late 1970s younger historians turned to cultural studies, but the outpouring of quantitive studies by established scholars continued. Since then, Quantitative history and Cliometrics have been used primarily by historically-minded economists and political scientists. In the late 1980s quantifiers founded The Association for History and Computing. This movement provided some of the impetus for the rise of digital history in the 1990s.[13]

The more recent roots of digital history were in software rather than online networks. In 1982, the Library of Congress embarked on its Optical Disk Pilot Project, which placed text and images from its collection on to laserdiscs and CD-ROMs. The library started offering online exhibits in 1992 when it launched Selected Civil War Photographs. In 1993, Roy Rosenzweig, along with Steve Brier and Josh Brown, produced their award-winning CD-ROM Who Built America? From the Centennial Exposition of 1876 to the Great War of 1914, designed for Apple, Inc that integrated images, text, film and sound clips, displayed in a visual interface that supported a text narrative.[14]

Among the earliest online digital history projects were The Heritage Project of the University of Kansas and medieval historian Dr. Lynn Nelson's World History Index and History Central Catalogue.[15] Another was The Valley of the Shadow, conceived in 1991 by current University of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers, who was then at the University of Virginia. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia adopted the Valley Project and partnered with IBM to collect and transcribe historical sources into digital files. The project collected data related to Augusta County in Virginia and Franklin County in Pennsylvania during the American Civil War. In 1996, William G. Thomas III joined Ayers on the Valley Project. Together, they produced an online article entitled "The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities," which also appeared in the American Historical Review in 2003 [1]. A CD-ROM also accompanied the Valley Project, published by W. W. Norton and Company in 2000.[16]

Rosenzweig, who died October 11, 2007,[17] founded the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University in 1994. Today, CHNM boasts several digital tools available to historians, such as Zotero and Omeka. In 1997, Ayers and Thomas used the term "digital history" when they proposed and founded the Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH) at the University of Virginia, the earliest center devoted exclusively to history.[14] Several other institutions promoting digital history include the Center for Humane, Arts, Letters, and Sciences Online (MATRIX) at Michigan State University, Maryland's Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska. In 2004, Emory University launched Southern Spaces, a "peer-reviewed Internet journal and scholarly forum" examining the history of the South.

Notable projects

The collaborative nature of most digital history endeavors has meant that the discipline has developed primarily at institutions with the resources to sponsor content research and technical innovation. Two of the first centers, George Mason University's Center for History and New Media and the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia have been among the leaders in the development of digital history projects and the education of digital historians.

Some of the noteworthy projects emerging from these pioneering centers are The Geography of Slavery, The Texas Slavery Project, and The Countryside Transformed at VCDH and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution and The Lost Museum at the CHNM. In each of these projects, mediated archives holding multiple types of sources are combined with digital tools to analyze and illuminate an historical question to a varying degree; this integration of content and tools with analysis is one of the hallmarks of digital history – projects move beyond archives or collections and into scholarly analysis and the use of digital tools to develop that analysis. The differences between the ways projects incorporate these integrations are a measure of the development of the field and point to the ongoing debates over what digital history can and should be.

While many of the projects at VCDH, CHNM, and other university's centers have been geared towards academics and post-secondary education, the University of Victoria (British Columbia), in conjunction with the Université de Sherbrooke and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, has created as series of projects for all ages, "Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History." Laden with instructional aids, this site asks teachers to introduce students to historical research methods to help them develop analytical skills and a sense of the complexities of their national history. Issues of race, religion, and gender are addressed in carefully constructed modules that cover incidents in Canadian history from Viking exploration through the 1920s. One of the original co-creators of the project, John Lutz has also developed Victoria's Victoria [2] with the University of Victoria and Malaspina University-College.

In addition to Ayers, Thomas, Lutz, and Rosenzweig, numerous other individual scholars work with digital history techniques and have made and/or continue to make important contributions to the field. Robert Darnton's 2000 article, "An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris" was supplemented with electronic resources and is an early model of the discussions around digital history and its future in the humanities.[18] One of the first major digital projects to be reviewed by the American Historical Review (AHR) was Philip Ethington's "Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge" [3] -- a multimedia exploration of changes to Los Angeles' physical profile over the course of several decades. Patrick Manning, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of World History at the University of Pittsburgh, developed the CD-ROM project "Migration in Modern World History, 1500-2000." In the "African Slave Demography Project," Manning created a demographic simulation of the slave trade to show precisely how declined in West and Central Africa between 1730 and 1850 as well as in East Africa between the years 1820 and 1890 due to slavery.[19] Jan Reiff, of UCLA, co-edited the print and online versions of the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Andrew J. Torget, founded the Texas Slavery Project while at VCDH and continues to develop the site as he completes his PhD—likely a model for new digital scholars who will incorporate digital components into larger research agendas.

Another notable project that makes use of digital tools for historical practice is The Quilt Index.[20] As scholars became increasingly interested in women's history, quilts became valuable to study. The Quilt Index is an online collaborative database where quilt owners can upload pictures and data about their quilts. This project was created due to the difficulty of collecting quilts. Firstly, they were in the possession of various institutions, archives, and even civilians. And secondly, they can be too fragile or bulky for physical transport.


Digital technology tools powerfully arrange ideas and promote unique analysis for the presentation and access to historical knowledge online. Some tools exist for basic web development, like WYSIWYG HTML-editor Adobe Dreamweaver. Other tools create more interactive digital history, such as Databases, which provide greater capacity for information storage and retrieval in a definable way. Databases with features like Structured Query Language (SQL) and Extensible Markup Language (XML) arrange materials in a formal manner and allow precise searching for keywords, dates, and other data characteristics. The online article "The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities" used XML for presenting and connecting evidence with detailed historiographical discussions. The Valley of the Shadow project also employed XML to convert all of the archive's letters, diaries, and newspapers for full text searching capabilities.

The Differences Slavery Made also used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze and understand the spatial arrangement of social structures. For the article, Ayers and Thomas created many new maps through GIS technology to produce detailed images of Augusta and Franklin counties never before possible. GIS and its many components remain helpful for studying history and visualizing change over time.

The Semantic Interoperability of Metadata and Information in unLike Environments (SIMILE) project at MIT develops robust, open source tools that enable access, management, and envisaging digital assets. Among the many tools built by SIMILE, the Timeline tool, which employs a DHTML-based AJAXy widget, allows digital historians to create dynamic, customizable timelines for visualizing time-based events. The Timeline page on the SIMILE website declares that their tool "is like Google Maps for time-based information." Additionally, SIMILE's Exhibit tool boasts a customizable structure for sorting and presenting data [4]. Exhibit, written in Javascript, creates interactive, data-rich web pages without the need for any programming or database creation knowledge.

Creating visualizations of textual elements open new interpretations and new uses of historical data. Text-analysis software like TokenX, developed at the University of Nebraska's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, generates word-frequency lists and word clouds to illustrate language usage and word significance within historical resources.[5] The Text Analysis Portal for Research (TAPoR) based in Canada has also developed a web portal for experimentation with text analysis tools. On, an online bookmarking and research tool, tag clouds visually depict the frequency and importance of user-generated tags. These tags promote new modes of learning, exploration, research, and communication that foster the production of knowledge in a more efficient manner by elucidating related subjects and making connections based on related information.

Digital history centers

Digital history projects

See also


  1. ^ a b Ayers, Edward. L. 1999. The Pasts and Futures of Digital History. Online essay, available at
  2. ^ Wiliam G. Thomas III, in Interchange: The Promise of Digital History. 2008. Journal of American History 95(2): available at
  3. ^ Cox, R. 2007. Appraising the Digital Past and Future. Digccurr2007: An International Conference in Digital Curation. Chapel Hill, NC: USA, available at
  4. ^ Reading, Anna. 2003. Digital Interactivity in Public Memory Institutions: The Uses of New Technologies in Holocaust Museums. Media, Culture and Society 25: 67-85.
  5. ^ Zuern, John. 2003. Online Lives: Introduction. Biography 26(1): v-xxv.
  6. ^ Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. The Scope and Subject of this Inquiry, and, History. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Ch 1, 3-30; Ch 2, 31-59.
  7. ^ Sheehy, Megan. 2008. New Perspectives on the Past: YouTube, Web 2.0 and Public History. Melbourne Historical Journal 36: 59-74.
  8. ^ Boggs, Jeremy. 2006. A Quick Overview of Web 2.0. Past Forward blog, available at
  9. ^ Arthur, Paul. 2009. Virtual Strangers: e-Research and the Humanities. Australian Cultural History 27(1): 47-59.
  10. ^ Frow, John, 2006. The Archive under Threat. Memory, Monuments, Museums. M. Lake. Melbourne (ed.): Melbourne University Press / The Australian Academy of the Humanities, 137
  11. ^ Sack, Warren. 2004. What Does a Very Large-Scale Conversation Look Like? First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 239.
  12. ^ Charles Dollar and Richard Jensen, Historians Guide to Statistics (1971)
  13. ^ Thomas, III, William G. (2004). "Computing and the Historical Imagination". In ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Oxford: Blackwell. Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  14. ^ a b Burton, Orville Vernon (Summer 2005). "American Digital History". Social Science Computer Review 23 (2): 206–220. doi:10.1177/0894439304273317. Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  15. ^ WWW-VL: World History Index and History Central Catalogue
  16. ^ Ayers, Edward L. (2005). What Caused the Civil War. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-05947-2. 
  17. ^ Bernstein, Adam (2007-10-13). "Digital Historian Roy A. Rosenzweig". Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-04-02. 
  18. ^ Darnton, Robert (2000). "An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris". American Historical Review 5 (1). Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  19. ^ Manning, Patrick. 2007. Digital World History: An Agenda. Digital History portal, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, available at
  20. ^ Kornbluh, Mark. 2008. From Digital Repositories to Information Habitats: H-Net, the Quilt Index, Cyber Infrastructure, and Digital Humanities. First Monday 13(8): available at


  • Ayers, Edward L. "The Pasts and Futures of Digital History," University of Virginia (1999).
  • Ayers, Edward L. "History in Hypertext," University of Virginia (1999).
  • Burton, Orville (ed.). Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Cohen, Daniel J. "History and the Second Decade of the Web". Rethinking History 8 (June 2004): 293-301.
  • Cohen, Daniel J. 2005. The Future of Preserving the Past. CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 2.2 (2005): 6-19.
  • Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  • Denley, Peter and Deian Hopkin. History and Computing. Manchester: Manchester University, 1987.
  • Dollar, Charles, and Richard Jensen. Historians Guide to Statistics (1971), with detailed guide to older studies
  • Greenstein, Daniel I. A Historian's Guide to Computing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • "Interchange: The Promise of Digital History." Special issue, Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 2008). (accessed May 1, 2009).
  • Knowles, Anne Kelly (ed.). Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History. Redlands, CA: ESRI, 2002.
  • Kornbluh, Mark. 2008. From Digital Repositories to Information Habitats: H-Net, the Quilt Index, Cyber Infrastructure, and Digital Humanities. First Monday 13(8): available at
  • Lutz, John Sutton. 2007. Bed Jumping and Compelling Convergences in Historical Computing. Digital History portal, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Rosenzweig, Roy. "Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era," American Historical Review 108 (June 2003): 735–62.
  • Rosenzweig, Roy and Michael O'Malley. "Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web," Journal of American History 84 (June 1997): 132–55.
  • Rosenzweig, Roy and Michael O'Malley. "The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web," Journal of American History 88 (September 2001): 548–79.
  • Thomas, William G., III. "Computing and the Historical Imagination," A Companion to Digital Humanities ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
  • Thomas, William G., III. "Writing a Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account," Digital History (December 2007).
  • Turkel, William J, Adam Crymble, Alan MacEachern. "The Programming Historian," (London, NiCHE, 2007-9).

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