AHA Report Part 3: Digital History

Posted on January 20, 2011. Filed under: Digital History, Women's history |

Today’s post concludes my reflections on the AHA 2011 meeting.  As a point of departure, I’ll start with Dan Cohen’s annual report/rant on the dearth of digital sessions at the meeting:

“Evidently we historians will just keep on doing what we’re doing how we’re doing it until it seems truly anachronistic. Just one of the main AHA panels, out of nearly three hundred, covers digital matters; perhaps another will touch on digital methods. By my count there are another six digital sessions overall, but these other sessions are put on by affiliate societies or were added by the program committee during lunches or other break times (that is, there were almost no digital panels proposed by historians attending the meeting). Incredibly, there are actually fewer digital sessions at the 2011 annual meeting than in prior years. Because clearly this digital thing is a flash in the pan.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Dan — we are way behind our colleagues in literature on this account.  Nevertheless, I did get something out of the sessions I attended.

First, I’ll mention one that Dan neglected to list — Documenting Social History: The Story of Three Archives.  (this turned out to be a story of two archives because the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum would not provide travel funds for Lara Godbille to attend the meeting!) To be fair, the term digital history wasn’t in the session title, but Wendy Chmielewski‘s paper was titled “Digitizing Women’s History.”   Poor Wendy — the Marriott forgot to provide a computer and projector for her presentation!  Also, there was no wireless in the hotel’s sessions rooms (just in the lobby and second floor) so no live tweeting for me.  Much of what I heard from her talk was familiar to me — she listed a variety of online sources for women’s history, including Archive Grid,  Discovering Women’s History Online, the Genesis project that is a megasite for collections on women’s history in the United Kingdom, and the section on women’s history in the Library of Congress’ American Memory collection.  The most surprising observation she made was that guide to women’s history collections compiled by Andrea Hinding in the late 1970s is still the most comprehensive source for archival and manuscript collections.  [I find this difficult to believe now that Worldcat includes archival material].

The talk by Ellen Shea from the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, although not specifically on digital sources, did mention their Blogs: Capturing Women’s Voices project.   The mission of this project is “to capture the voices of women whose points of view might not be found elsewhere, as well as to document the use of blogs and other forms of web publishing by American women in the early 21st century, the Schlesinger Library has selected and archived a sample of approximately 20 blogs. These blogs illuminate the lives of African-American and Latina women, lesbians, and women grappling with health and reproductive issues, and typically reflect their engagement with politics, their personal lives and philosophies, and their work lives.”

The library also has archived blogs by organizations whose collections are housed at the library, including the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.

All of these blogs are searchable.  The library is also experimenting with data mining to make these collections more useful to scholars.

[while we're on the subject of women's blogs -- I have to give a plug for the roundtable "Women Gone Wild," starring Tenured Radical, Historiann, Jennifer Ho, May Friedman, Marilee Lindemann and Rachel Leow, in the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of Women's History.  It might have featured yours truly had I gotten my act together in time, but alas, was too busy working on other stuff to get a proposal submitted.]

As to sources that were not born digital, the enormous cost of digitization is still a barrier — Shea said that the Schlesinger doesn’t even have a budget line for these projects.  Both presenters concluded that the main result of digitization revolution will not be more archival material online: rather,  special collections and archives of the traditional kind (i.e. paper, books, and other stuff that needs to be examined in person) will be what makes libraries of the future distinctive.

The future of libraries was also the main issue addressed in the session on Critical issues in Bibliography and Libraries in the Digital Age. I’m really glad I attended this instead of the session on Google ngrams (which was not in the room indicated in the digital addendum to the conference program — did anyone out there ever find it?) because I got a lot out of it.  Matthew Shaw’s presentation centered around the “Growing Knowledge” exhibit at the British Library, which shows the way that the digital revolution is changing historical research, among other things.  His main point was that the traditional role of libraries — to organize and catalog information, establish relationships among sources, etc. — are at the center of the so-called digital revolution.  He used the metaphor of a library as “an airport for books or a convention center of the mind.”  Libraries will be responsible for preservation of digital materials, but more importantly, creating ways for researchers to find, filter, assess, and assemble relevant information from these sources.

Dominique Daniel and Steven Wise both addressed issues of digital literacy and the critical role that librarians/information specialists play in teaching “Generation Y” how to use both digital and analog sources properly (amen to that!)   The key point I got from both presentations: historians recognize a need for information literacy but are doing little to address it.  Librarians, on the other hand, are doing all sorts of great things with media literacy but are not necessarily addressing the issues particular to the discipline of history (unless, like Wise, they are both librarians and history instructors).  There needs to be more collaboration between historians and librarians around issues of media literacy — this goes beyond just showing students how to use databases and other e-resources and tools.

I’m not really sure what the answer is to getting more historians involved in digital history.  Speaking only for myself, the main reason I got into it was so I could introduce graduate students in public history to various tools and methods that are revolutionizing their field.  I do some stuff on information literacy in the historical methods class.  Oh yeah, and the self-promotion on this blog and on Twitter has brought me in contact with scholars I might not have met otherwise.  Yet, I’m far from a master of this subject and find it difficult to find time to keep up with everything that’s happening.  I would guess that I’m not alone here.  Thoughts?

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2 Responses to “AHA Report Part 3: Digital History”

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I went to a panel, “When ‘Real’ is ‘Magical': Supporting Teaching Innovations with Online, Archival, and Material: Primary Sources from Elementary Grades through Graduate Studies,” which was pretty interesting. We had “Teaching the “Doing of History”: Using Primary Sources with Pre-Service Teachers” by
Sarah Drake-Brown, Ball State University and
“Identifying Cool, Old Stuff for New Teaching Methods—An Archivist Looks at Teaching with Primary Sources by Doris Malkmus, Pennsylvania State University. You mmight like to see if you can get a hold of them (in keeping with the subject, there were no paper handouts), since a lot of the students of your Digital History classes are primary and secondary school teachers. I mostly missed David Jaffey’s presentation “Exhibiting the Historical: Using Digital Exhibitions in
the Graduate Classroom” because we had a building evacuation and that was not fun.
One of the problems with keeping on top of everything is it’s hard to know what one should be viewing with alarm/joy. Just 20 years ago, my mother was in library school and the Big Question was “When will these stupid networked computers finally get graphics?” Now I think the big question (for me) is when does education become entertainment, and is that necessary a Bad Thing.

[...] Some thoughts on Digital History at the American Historical Association annual meeting. [...]


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    Heather Munro Prescott

    Heather Munro Prescott

    Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT.

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