The Perks and Perils of Visualizing the Digital Past

Rand McNally Histomap of World History:  Image and descriptive text courtesy of DataVis.ca.

Rand McNally Histomap of World History: Image and descriptive text courtesy of DataVis.ca.

Historians have long recognized the utility of graphs, maps and tables in augmenting textually-driven studies with visualizations of the past. As John Theibault points out, “It is, after all, much easier and more informative to create a chart of lines of descent to the Kings of France than it is to describe the lineage in paragraphs of “begats.””[i] However, it is not enough to add these elements simply for show. Effective visual representations must be “transparent, accurate and information rich.”[ii] All three qualities are paramount in a field where our research resources offer increasingly vast amounts of data ripe for interpretation—far more than we could ever hope to personally engage with in several lifetimes. Given this abundance, I believe visually interpreting big data can make us more efficient and effective historical explorers, but as Eric Grossman rightly points out, this range of information is “useless until we have them organized into conceptual frameworks able to answer useful questions.”[ii] Throughout this semester, we have grappled with the need to engage in more “distant reading” to maintain a fuller perspective of the past on a grand scale without sacrificing historical context. In exploring several projects, I can see that this dream, while still a work in progress, is achievable.

In a previous post, I briefly explored the ways interpreting big data challenges blossoming historians to reconceptualize our relationship to our sources, our peers and our audiences. I wholeheartedly agree with those arguing for increased transparency of digital methodologies and support John Thiebault’s assertion that this is especially important when trying to visually represent and interpret big data. Letting the viewer know how and why we choose to visually represent the past precludes possible misinterpretations of the image’s message and fosters feelings of inclusiveness.[iii] This is important given that the public imbues graphs, maps and other visual aids with a greater weight of scientific objectivity, even though our field is characterized by ambiguity and interpretive uncertainty.[iv]

Indeed, attempting to visually represent the past forces us to grapple with many questions facing digital historians today. Innovative projects like the recurring Digging into Data Challenge, a interdisciplinary project devoted to building networks and pushing historians to think and collaborate in new ways, are already proving that big data is unique suited to visual representation and interpretation. A deep-seeded interest in Egyptology led me to focus on the IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database. As stated on their project homepage, this multi-institutional collaborative project is dedicated to studying “mummified remains and the mummification traditions that produced them, through non-destructive medical imaging technologies.” According to an interim report, this ongoing project seeks to move beyond simple case studies to look at the human body’s transformation into an artifact through tradition and ceremony and, through a collaborative effort with an array of archaeologists, Egyptologists, historians and even doctors, will create a “virtual mummy museum” that will allow the fragile remains to be studied digitally. Data gleamed from CT and other image scanning of the remains will allow for analysis of the prevalence of certain medical conditions in specimens, providing a valuable window into the lives of past peoples.

Constricting analysis to a digital environment through a PACS (Picture Archiving and Communication System) protects the fragile artifacts. More interesting, though, is the way this system addresses questions of access, data storage and the need to protect an individual creator’s intellectual property rights in an environment based on open access between partners—a big issue for today’s digital historians.[v] Using Clear-canvas, a thin-client web server, the project keeps the original scan in a secure server, letting the user see a graphical representation of it without downloading the original data. Not only does this protect the data and the intellectual property rights of the contributor, but it also bypasses the need for specialized visual software or the sacrifice of large amounts of a user’s storage space. It is very gratifying to see someone managing these issues of intellectual property rights without sacrificing a collaborative environment!

Exploring this project also informed my experience with Railroads and the Making of America and I’ll touch on a few of the most intriguing:

TokenX: This application allows users to search for the frequency of word usage in the speeches delivered by William Jennings Bryan during his 1896 Presidential campaign, conducted along several railways. This is particularly fascinating because it will combine the use of GIS imaging with lexical analysis, allowing us to track how his rhetoric and subject matter changed as he moved from stop to stop. This easily leads viewers to question how the social geography of his route affected the content of his speeches and how he tailored them for audiences.

Geographic/spatial analysis: This aspect underlines several different selections on the site, though I particularly enjoyed Strikes, Blacklists, and Dismissals–Railroad Workers’ Spatial History on the Great Plains and the Land Sales in Nebraska features. Taken together, these bits offer us the chance to view the railroad not only as a means of transportation, but also as a force of social change by showing how the ethnic demographics of migration patterns (and thus settlement, economics and local political demographics) changed with the prevalence of the railroads at the local and national level throughout the 1800s. Although I wish the interface in detailing the Strikes, Blackouts and Dismissals provided a bit more context, it is still an effective learning tool and push us to consider how the industrial built environment changes our society.

Exploring each of these projects has helped me grasp the potential for visual interpretation and manipulation of big data. Although optimistic, I am still cautious, for being effective in the digital realm means approaching our interpretations with the respectful dedication to historical contextualization expected of traditional monographic studies. This responsibility extends to the need for transparent digital methodologies in order to ensure that both the audience and our collaborators can get the most out of every project. And as we have seen, successful collaboration will require us to overcome some tough obstacles, with the need to protect individual intellectual property rights among the most difficult to crest. Difficult as this may be, historians must adapt, for globalization is breaking down traditional barriers to intellectual ownership and distribution of information. I am by no means suggesting that we should sacrifice claims to individual contributions for the betterment of a project, but issues of ownership should not overshadow our duty to provide historically authentic and meaningful interpretation—or keep us from collaborating at all. Such barriers are not insurmountable; it merely requires that we change our ways of thinking without sacrificing our fundamental duty to deep, contextual meaning.  After all, using images to explore big data may help us explore the past in new ways, but without the proper context, they can do more harm than good.


[i] John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012).

[ii] James Grossman, “‘Big Data’: An Opportunity for Historians?,” Perspectives on History (March 2012)

[iii] Theibault.

[iv] Data Visualization, Tooling Up, Stanford University.

[v] Michael Simeone, Jennifer Guiliano, Rob Kooper, Peter Bajcsy, “Digging into data using new collaborative infrastructures supporting humanities-based computer science research” First Monday, 16, no. 5 (2 May 2011).

The Old Bailey: Contextual Challenges of Big Data Analysis

October 14, 1842 trail at the Old Bailey. Courtesy of Victorian Calendar blog.

October 14, 1842 trail at the Old Bailey. Courtesy of Victorian Calendar blog.

For the historian, text is our bread and butter. We are constantly encouraged to understand the past through close, critical reading of primary and secondary sources. In some ways, this is only natural; after all, we see the past as a series of stories, and, as storytellers, we know the public will be most invested (and perhaps more entertained) if we focus on individual human experiences to paint a sweeping narrative. In a previous post, I discussed the work of Franco Moretti and his insistence on the historian’s need to embrace what he calls “distance reading” in order to see things from a fuller perspective.[1] Although difficult to initially comprehend, this central argument for the need to step outside the box and analyze data in new, more detached ways is one that has grown on me over the semester. Thus, we are posed with an interesting question; can history in the digital realm help us achieve the traditional depth of expected in textual analysis while remaining distant enough to observe patterns otherwise missed?

Part of the answer lies seeing what we have produced so far. Although we still have a long way to go, sites like The Old Bailey suggest that distant and close reading of sources is certainly possible and profitable. The site is dedicated to allowing users to search through a digitized collection of over 100,000 court proceedings that took place in England’s Old Bailey courthouse from 1674 to 1863. Results can be searched and sorted according to gender of defendant/victim, offenses, verdicts and punishments and displayed in a variety of ways from tables to graphs.[2] Of course, extracting meaning from this abstracted cache depends on context—and thankfully, the site provides a very helpful historical background tab that gives new and returning users the lowdown on where these documents come from and what they mean. This critical addition opens the door to the site’s true potential. One can not only perform the usual keyword searches to dig for specific trials, but also trace the shifting frequency of usage of words in court cases over the years. Even for someone familiar with only the broad strokes of British history, I can easily see the potential for pursuing questions about the shifting political and social nature of the country over the years. For example, it would be quite interesting to see what crimes are most commonly committed when the country is at war, as this might be able to tell us something about the ripple effect of an event like America’s Revolutionary War throughout Britain.

For me, digital history’s most valuable assets are flexibility, transparency and a sense of playfulness—and the Old Bailey has all three. Part of this lies in the site utilizing XML (Extensible Markup Language) formatting and open source access, offering users the chance to not only explore the world but also providing them with a means to craft their own customizable tool belt of search terms—if one has the know-how use XML in such a playful manner. This makes the site highly adaptable in a way few others are—an important factor, given the increasing flexibility we demand from our technology. This flexibility also applies to the number of visual representations of data the site offers in the form of pie, chart and line graphs. Although using textual analysis has great potential to help us weave new webs of connectivity by allowing us to step back and view the “big picture” while giving us the option of occasionally giving into “descriptive reading,” it can be difficult for those of us who have never used it before. Although I am still learning the ins and outs of XML formatting, even I can see that this site is laudable for its attempt to make methodological approaches to digital history more transparent. Fredrick Owens and Trevor Gibbs correctly note that, as digital history is a field concerned with engaging broader audiences in the joys of historical discovery, our emerging methodological techniques must be accessible to a larger public audience rather than remain “an impenetrable and mysterious black box.”[3] The Old Bailey’s use of XML and open source formatting is certainly a step in the right direction in this regard, for all of this allows the visitor to engage these documents on his own terms—approaching history with the same playfulness so often expressed by blossoming professionals.

While these possibilities are exciting, the site’s limitations raise a number of interesting questions about what the future holds for contextually meaningful textual analysis. My colleague Nicholas Sacco rightfully points out that, while The Old Bailey’s analytical techniques for managing “big data” are useful for quantitative analysis, it is still very difficult to extract qualitative meaning (on both an individual and group level) from such a large cache of text.[4] In the end, our current coding parameters still force our machines to think more like machines and less like people. I believe David Brooks best expresses this in a recent New York Times piece, saying; “Data struggles with context… People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.”[5]

I began this post by asking whether we can effectively mix quantitative with qualitative analysis without sacrificing emotional and contextual depth for the sake of numerical spread. While my experiences with The Old Bailey have pushed me toward the affirmative, I believe part of the answer lies in tackling a more pressing question; Are we ready to embrace a change in our method of historical storytelling in order to qualitatively meaningful quantitative studies? And, more importantly, can we afford not to be? Gibbs and Owens again warn us that, “This may mean de-emphasizing narrative in favor of illustrating the rich complexities between an argument and the data that supports it. It may mean calling attention to productive failure–when a certain methodology or technique proved ineffective or had to be abandoned. [But] these are precisely the kinds of lessons historians need to learn as they grapple with new approaches to making sense of the historical record.”[6] Even though The Old Bailey is far from perfect, the fact that we are able to create a site of this caliber that embraces such imaginative new forms of thought gives me hope for the future—and reinforces the need for historians to broaden our scope of narrative analysis.


[1] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2005), 3.

[2] Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Robert Shoemaker, “Research and Study Guides – Doing Statistics“, Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 09 December 2012), accessed February 23, 2012.

[3] Frederick W. Gibbs and Trevor J. Owens, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012 version).

[4] Nicholas Sacco, “The Old Baily Proceedings: Big Data and the Expansion of Research Methods,” Exploring the Past (February 23, 2012), accessed February 24, 2012.

[5] David Brooks, “What Data Can’t Do,” nytimes.com (February 13, 2012), accessed February 25, 2012. Thanks again to Nick for the illuminating article.

[6] Gibbs and Owens.

Dynamic Digitization: Technology’s Role in Two Indianapolis Museums

When I visit a museum, hands-on experiences with the past through interactive exhibits often leave the deepest impression. As institutions dedicated to making the past come alive for visitors in ways books cannot, gamifying exhibits is one of the most effective ways to reach young audiences. This is especially true when attempting to explore subjects and areas where man’s direct role is rather limited, like the formation of igneous rocks. Yet implementing this technology can be far from easy, and complicates issues of accessibility and the need to balance traditional and novel experiences. After visiting the Indiana State Museum and the Eitelljorg Museum of Native American and Western Art in Indianapolis, I have more respect for the difficulties of successfully implementing digital technology. There are some spaces where digital gamification is certainly informative and it has potential to augment our experiences in new and interesting ways. But does it always need to be used? And although including it in your museum space certainly helps (if done correctly), it does not do to neglect the institute’s online presence, for this can sometimes make up for the site’s lack of digital engagement.

The two institutions form an interesting contrast. The Indiana State Museum makes great use of digital technology to augment its science and natural history gallery. In the “Finding the Fault” exhibit, visitors navigate and explore the different varieties and geological circumstances that lead to the formation of a volcano, complete with illustrative animations. Clickable key terms help clear up any possible misunderstandings of words and case histories provide specific instances where a certain kind of volcano occurred in the past (some of them in Indiana.) Other displays offer visitors the chance to examine an archeological dig and answer questions based on what they see.

This gallery also showcases digital history’s potential to help us overcome traditional limitations One of the historian’s most pressing problems is imparting a sense of place and personal involvement in the past. This is especially true when discussing pre-human history. I may understand the basics of evolution and geology, but they remain largely abstract concepts. In “Changing the Face of the Earth,” a turntable allows visitors to alter a digital representation of a landscape (both forward and backward in time) showing the progression from ocean, to mountain range to glacier to river to desert. A corner display lists the years as changes take place, imparting a sense of the time it takes for these changes to occur, regardless of the speed the dial is turned at. Such an impressive display gives users the power to engage with the past in a way static representations almost never can.

Continuing through the museum, although I viewed several other elements of engagement, none of them fit into the digital category. And I found myself wondering; did they need to? For example, in the “Hoosier Heritage” gallery, the focus remains on traditional displays of objects accompanied by text descriptions and a few running audio logs that helpfully contextualize the scene. All of these do an excellent job of giving the viewer a sense of place and historically mindedness within time (and perhaps remind us why the past is better studied than lived.) These exhibits, while lacking much of the digital gamification seen in the previous gallery, managed to be just as immersive.

Coming from such an interactively stimulating environment to the comparatively low-key and traditional Eiteljorg Museum provided an interesting contrast of experiences. My initially suspicions that I would find little in the way of digital engagement in the galleries quickly proved correct. As an institute concerned primarily with displaying art, quiet portrait halls and static displays of tribal sculpture, clothing and folk art dominated much of the space. This is in part by design; the goal of the Eiteljorg differs from its neighbor in subject matter and approach. Although the Eiteljorg’s galleries lack the running audio and video displays that make the ISM so interactive and engaging, this makes for a more introspective and contemplative atmosphere and I initially considered the lack of digital technology to be a positive.

But then I realized my scope was too limited; digitization does not demand flashing lights and booming voices. Even the “Changing the Earth” display at ISM depends on imagery alone to make it’s point. What’s more, this lack of technology actually limits our ability to engage with the art beyond personal opinions about the picture. We may appreciate on a visual level, but without some way of communicating the importance of the piece in its local and national context, we cannot fully appreciate its worth as a historical artifact. Having a downloadable App to allow people to view the history of each painting and where and what it represents in the context of Native American history (perhaps specific to a tribe?) offers engagement without sacrificing atmosphere.

While the Eiteljorg proved more limited in physical exhibit presentations compared to ISM’s, their online presence is much more engaging, including links to Youtube videos advertising upcoming events, downloadable podcasts of interviews with notable Western and Native American historians and artists and even a blog. The ISM’s website is comparatively lacking, serving mainly as a source of online advertising for exhibitions and events. This is disappointing considering it misses the opportunity to cement the museum’s truly interactive nature by exploring similar displays through online games and help to augment ‘traditional’ exhibits

Scouring these two museums showed me the contextual strength of using digital technology to gamifiy exhibits. But success also depends on properly embracing, or perhaps challenging, public preconceptions of what digital history in a museum should look like. Some may be swayed by the ISM into thinking that effective digital engagement depends on physical interactive displays within the exhibits—but these do not work for every subject, nor are they financially viable for every museum. And while museums are often looking for ways to bring visitors through the doors with technological innovations, designers must consider what audience they are trying to attract and whether appealing to visitors more open to digital engagement is worth possibly alienating those seeking a more ‘traditional’ experience.

Public access to this technology is also an important issue, as this directly impacts the effectiveness of your technology. Although we can assume the majority of people have access to smartphone technology, what are we to do for those that do not? Gamification forces us to be cognizant of the fact that our choices will produce winners and losers among visitors. Despite this, as we’ve seen, abstaining from this technology does more harm than good. But should a museum consider risky financial investments in digital technology in the present to ensure future success? Having witnessed the proliferation of smartphone technology, I’ve no doubt it will eventually become as universally necessary and culturally expected as texting is now, so visitors will eventually expect more from museums. Funding these innovations may be risky, but as the Eiteljorg’s website demonstrates, an online presence can make up for offline limitations.

I began by asking if digital history has a place in every exhibit and, in writing this post, I’ve come to understand that, yes, if implemented correctly and carefully, it has the potential to enhance every experience. Overall, the key takeaway here is the need for balance. While digital gamification can prove very enlightening, we should strive to use it in ways that benefit the exhibit and guard against over-saturating a space to the point that it negatively impacts visitors’ experiences. And while we should not let digital engagement overshadow the value of hands-on physical interaction with objects, the power of digital gamification cannot be denied.

Visually Problematizing the Past with Maps, Graphs and Trees

Can a book that leaves you confused even after multiple readings still legitimately challenge the way you think about “doing” history? Since reading Franco Moretti’s Maps Graphs and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, I’ve struggled with this and other questions. His discussion of using visual abstraction to explore literary history includes several insightful points, yet comprehending these is sometimes hindered by odd composition. In spite of this, I think his argument for using graphs, maps and trees to study and visually interpret nonlinear transitional and morphological patterns in history outlines several issues of historical scale of interest to public historians in general and digital historians in particular.

Just as the title implies, Moretti’s book involves looking at the chronological progression of literary history in different countries and between different genres and authors through three titular visual representations. Each one displays the possibility for unique insights achievable only through visual representations instead of text. In looking at graphs, Morreti attests to the usefulness of quantitative analysis to overcome problems of diversity as well as scale. As a field characterized by many divergent genres, he argues that literary history “cannot be understood by stitching together bits of knowledge from individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases; it’s a collective system that should be grasped as such, as a whole.”[i] By spreading data, we reveal new patterns and connective threads. His use of maps outlines the value of spatial analysis by creating a sense of space. Applying a map of geographic connectivity to Our Village, the author demonstrates that maps “help prepare a text for analysis” by giving us a sense of the interconnected, isolated nature of the village (and by extension, any particular past culture or society) and its changing relationship to the world outside its small, concentrically centralized social spheres.[ii] His final discussion of trees focuses on understanding the past through “morphological diagrams, where history is correlated with form,” allowing us to track the progression (or perhaps evolution?) of past people, places and subjects.[iii] All three of these approaches address the problem of scale and the need to visually communicate history to audiences, especially when the information is primarily told through dense collections of text.

Moretti’s discussion of the importance of quantitative analysis, while not altogether new, helps me to see how I might apply his techniques in my own work. For example, when studying the regional makeup of a single Indiana Civil War unit based on information gleamed from serialized diaries and letters of its members, mapping would allow me to augment my discussion of the ethnic and political demographic makeup of the group and provide a sense of how the local geography affected them. In so doing, Moretti posits, I can use the maps to “process ‘emerging’ qualities that were not visible at the lower [textual] level.”[iv] And considering this information will come from a caches of letters, a tree would make an excellent visual representation of the changing semantic importance attached to certain words over the course of the war. For example, how did the soldiers’ use of the word ‘freedom’ change between the start of the war and the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation?  A graph would let me chart how often special ‘buzzwords’ like ‘freedom’ ‘duty’ and ‘honor’ are used. All of this is especially useful when the historian’s goal is to track change over time.

But this raises the issue of historical scale. What amount of time should I attempt to chart on a graph? How many words are important enough to warrant a spot in my lexical tree? It may be possible to limit the scope of these representations—in fact, the sources I have at my disposal may force me to. But this issue becomes more complicated when we consider the implications for digital history, where an overabundance of sources and perspectives can be just as problematic. How is the historian to choose what eras, demographic populations and issues to study in his exploration of the past? Can we do so in a way that is representative without overwhelming our audience? Too many pictures can be just as damning as too much text, even in a museum setting. This issue of scale encompasses questions of practicality as well. Creating an interactive database that allows users to scan and hierarchically organize caches of Civil War letters from multiple archives according to certain words and phrases used over time would be a boon to historians and other members of the public looking to study the Hoosier experience in the Civil War, but how big (and costly) would such a project need to be? Moretti offers few answers to these questions, but the fact his work inspired me to consider them is encouraging.

Although Moretti focuses on the visual representation and abstraction of data, his goal is much the same of any public historian’s; he seeks to communicate his findings in readily digestible and thought-provoking ways. But he reminds us that such visual abstraction “is not an end in itself, but a way to widen the domain of the literary historian and enhance his inner problematic.”[v] This statement is particularly relevant to digital historians. We are so often concerned not only with how to maximize the effectiveness of our available technology to explore new interpretive avenues. More importantly, digital history emphasizes constant awareness of how using this technology can challenge our audience, our peers and our own willingness to continue problematizing the past. Smart history is built on good questions, and Moretti certainly inspires plenty of those!

Despite this capacity to inspire thought, the fact remains that Moretti stumbles in the one area public historians are most concerned with: good communication. To be fair, part of this confusion comes from his choice of subject matter. Literary history is something I have only passing knowledge of and jumping into the thick of things as Moretti’s work requires initially left me feeling somewhat disoriented. Even so, his insightful ideas (and somewhat unnecessarily arduous compositional style) have equally impressed me for different reasons. A graph or tree on Civil War era jargon may help us understand the average Northern soldier through visual representations of his changing thoughts, but text (and, for public historians, spoken words) remain the central tether to our audiences. I certainly believe in the importance of Moretti’s message and think it is a useful tool for any blossoming digital historian because it reinforces the need to explore all avenues of interpretive representation, but I also think it is indicative of some of the difficulties academically-oriented historians face in communicating with broader audiences. And as public historians, we must always strive to do our best in this regard.


[i] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2005), 3.

[ii] Ibid., 37-40, 53.

[iii] Ibid., 69.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] Ibid., 2

A Digitization of a Rebel War in a Border State: The Tennessee Civil War GIS Project

When considering why and how digital history seems so revolutionary for public historians, I still find myself thinking in terms of technological innovations instead of considering how our use of the technology changes what we can do with the sources. Digital history is certainly changing the way many of us think about public history, but is there merit to the idea of doing history from the comfort of your couch? Does it mean we see digital history as an integral part of the public historian’s training? Or is this merely a new way of exploring the past?

Part of the answer for me came in the form of a new state-funded GIS project devoted to exploring Tennessee’s role in the Civil War. The aptly named “Tennessee Civil War GIS Project” is a massive undertaking, dedicated to graphing and exploring every battle site within the state. Similarly to Google maps, viewers can switch between aerial photography and overhead street views of the state, with roads traced in yellow and battlefield sites marked with red pins. Viewers have the chance to browse the state county by county via drop-down menus. For example, selecting ‘Bedford’ county pulls a brief listing of 1860 state census information regarding the area’s population, including; “Total White Persons,” “Total Slaves” “Total Free Blacks” “Total Free Colored Persons” and “Total Slave Holders”. The number of farms of 1000 or more acres and the number of “Manufacturing Sites” are also displayed. Additionally, hotlinks to the regimental histories of every unit that occupied the county at some point in the war (both Union and Confederate) provide downloadable unit histories in PDF form. The same treatment is given to a list of engagements and historic markers within the county.

While this site in particular may not revolutionize the field of public history, I think it shows some promising potential. Site designers proudly proclaim this project to be “the first of its kind,” and it shows us the potential for constructing similar projects in other states.  The census information included in each county may be limited for now, but the demographic breakdown it provides for each area is a boon to local residents, out-of-state historians and any member of the general public looking to gather information on the Civil War. It allows us to look at the war from broad and narrow perspectives. Imagine the discussion that can be created from knowing the local high school or your own homes stand on sites where perhaps a thousand men or more laid down their lives. What were they fighting for? Why did we choose to commemorate one site over another? How does knowing the history of this hallowed ground change student engagement with the past? All are ripe for exploration.

What’s more, you can tour the state’s history from the comfort of your couch or classroom. The state’s civil war history is open not only to local residents but to the wider public as well. Reading through a dairy of a Tennessee soldier and wishing you could track his movements? It’s but a few clicks away to pull up the soldier’s unit, listing the men who served in it and the battles they fought in. It puts a digital face on what is previously only recognizable only through text or with an onsite visit. As the first of its kind, this project has proven that such undertakings can be successful and enlightening.

This potential for learning is magnified by a sister project, “Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee.” In honor of the 150th anniversary of the civil War, diaries, photos and other artifacts held in private collections are being digitized by state historians for display in an online exhibit. Although still under construction at present, when taken in conjunction with the GIS project, this collection has the potential to further contextualize the war by offering digital access to equipment, uniforms and documents typically used by soldiers during the war, adding a distinctly local and personal tie to the past.

As historians, we’re constantly reminded not to let personal biases cloud our judgment. I freely admit that my interest in the Civil War may be leading me to “over-hype” what may seem like just another pair of disconnected point-and-click sites. To be sure, each is far from perfect; for all my talk of the power of context, both sites do little more than put items on display for now. Yet both appeal to me because I can see the potential for a future where further advances may lead to such sites becoming more in depth. Instead of merely viewing overhead shots of former battlefields, visitors may be able to zoom in and witness reenactments of the engagements or read the diaries of men who fought in them, transforming a point-and-click navigation of the past into an immersive virtual experience with history on a personal level.

Of course, obstacles still need to be overcome, time and money being the most obvious. But the audience is real. The very fact we are still discussing and even reenacting the war 150 years after Appomattox is proof of this. Yet, digitization of the past poses a more significant problem—at least for historians. Given that such sites are open to the whole world, might we be tempted to put a positive spin on things? Maintaining authenticity is a very real threat, after all. If this GIS project is any indication, the future is looking bright; every county’s African-American population—both free and enslaved—is accounted for. Though the experiences of these men and women are currently limited to statistical representations, it gives me hope that perhaps digital history may give us the chance to embrace a more objective, open-ended discussion of the past.

History in a Digital World

Defining digital history is a tricky business. Is the concept of using digital resources to explore historical topics and questions significant enough to warrant it being singled out as its own historical field? After all, almost every academic profession now depends on computers in some way and social networking technologies pioneered on sites like Twitter and Facebook become a more prominent part of our daily lives every year. This level of technological immersion is both a blessing and a curse in that it makes it easy to focus on the technology we use instead of the way in which we use it. Given that many of us consider online databases like JSTOR and even some blogs to be educational resources that are as viable as any traditional print media, it is understandable that we might at first be unable to see the forest from the trees. While exploring the theoretical base of digital history is vital, much of this article will be devoted to my interpretation of digital history as a virtual playground.

Understanding digital history must begin with an understanding of Digital Humanities, the broader field that birthed it. Very simply put, digital humanists study how digital technology changes our analysis, understanding, distribution and collection of information related to the humanities and how to best use these digital resources to push our thoughts in new and interesting ways. [2] Still, the question remains; what makes digital history unique? William G. Thomas III offers four key concepts that push digital history beyond a simple sub-genre under the digital humanities umbrella: the capacity for play, manipulation, participation and investigation by the reader. His characterization of the field as “an open arena of scholarly production and communication” where advances offered by the Internet and other software help to develop and spread new ideas comes closer to the virtual playground I imagine.[1] This spread also increases collaboration in constructing innovative interpretations of the past. This reciprocal relationship extends beyond collaborations between different historians to include the general public in the historical discussion–oftentimes on a global scale.

Although theoretically sound, this explanation still did not ‘click’ for me. After all, digital history is as much about the process of creating digital resources as it is the finished product–in fact, its manipulable nature means revisions and improvements can go on almost indefinitely. One of the most enlightening descriptions of this integral component of digital history also comes from Thomas III who, in a roundtable discussion on digital history with several of his peers for the Journal of American History, equates the field to gaming:

“The best analogy may be gaming—users have control over where their characters will go and what they will see and do, but the creator/author controls the parameters of that experience. And history in the digital, it seems to me, is an experience for users—a process, an active, spatial, virtual-reality encounter with the past.” [3]

While clearly far from perfect, this analogy reinforces the need to approach digital history in 21st century terms of collaborative interactivity. At its core, digital history is a continually evolving and collaborative creative process interested in providing new, interactive ways for audiences to explore history on their own terms in an environment whose basic parameters are set by a diverse team of historians and programmers. Creating an archival database is similar to creating, maintaining and upgrading a massive online multiplayer game. It also highlights the four previously mentioned aspects unique to history in the digital realm. Much like an MMO, digital history is built on reciprocal relationships between digital historians designing the resource (i.e. the game world) and between the designers and the community of users. Like any good gaming studio, success lies in assembling a team of uniquely skilled but complimentary professionals—archivists, preservationists, librarians, programmers and website designers, etc.—who come together to create something unique.

Like a good sandbox game, digital history presents its arguments and ideas in a distinctly nonlinear fashion, allowing visitors to playfully engage history on his/her own terms. Each player can manipulate his own experience, choosing to follow a single narrative or take on several ‘side quests’ to see how far these historical off-shoots carry him. Although largely scorned as a resource by traditional ivory-tower academics, Wikipedia provides the perfect example of the possibilities for developing new webs of connective meaning in a digital age. When scrolling through the entry regarding George Washington, for instance, the viewer is free to click on a hotlink to the page dedicated to Martha Washington, and thus potentially learn more about the man through a study of his wife. This, in turn, may lead to an interest in the former President’s home and the way in which this information (seen in digital format) is presented in a live interpretation of the home. Like side-quests that help flesh out the central ‘world,’ these branching stories have the potential to alter his perception of the overall world and enrich his experiences by forming connective webs of inquiry that can extend beyond the digital realm to encompass the real world.

This level of interactivity and potential for playful exploration may appear limitless on the surface, but as Thomas points out, the original ‘development team’ of digital historians are ultimately in control of shaping the world the audience explores. However, the choice of how a resource develops does not rest only with the creators. For, just as an MMO is nothing without its player community, a database or online archive is useless unless the invested community can and does participate in the world’s development by positing new additions to help make their experience smoother and more enlightening. Are pathways to information still too arduous? Digital historians can listen to the suggestions and requests of their ‘player base’ to create a new layout, interface or webs of connection to make navigation and exploration easier. Instead of a new weapon or community-generated item, users may offer up additional resources, like a previously untapped collection of letters that broaden and enrich the community’s experience.

This approach also outlines the limitations and difficulties still facing digital history. Most prominent among them is the issue of shared authority and how to maintain a professional level of historical authenticity when the reciprocal nature of digital communication means ceding a certain level of control to a non-professional online community? Although the quality control of the average Wikipedia article is now much more satisfactory than it was even a few years ago, mistakes and misrepresentations still occur. And even though digital communication with invested audiences offers speedier and more numerous responses, these problems are nothing to sniff at. While audiences appreciate this interactive, reciprocal approach to historical exploration, digital history continues to face resistance over understandably divisive issues like quality control, accessibility to sources and shared authority. Given all this, we must ask what the future holds? Will it become a more integral part of the way we do history? Personally, I believe greater acceptance and incorporation if its techniques are just a matter of time. After all, with so many other fields already relying on digital distribution and interaction to help collect data and spread news of new findings, history must embrace this new age of digital communication or risk being left behind. Confronting the problems we’ve briefly touched on will not be easy, but I believe it can and will be done.

[1] “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 452–491.

[2] Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 3-11.

[3] William G. Thomas III, “Interchange”.