by Chad Gaffield
During the past decade, historians have been embracing digital technologies to an unprecedented extent. At the 130th annual meeting of the American Historical Association earlier this year, attendees looking to take advantage of today’s digital history opportunities were indeed spoiled for choice.
The strengthening historian-digital relationship was evident before the official start of the sessions thanks to AHA16’s decision to welcome THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) again this year. THATCamp is an internationally successful extracurricular initiative designed to enhance digital literacies while also fostering innovation through in-person engagement. Hosted off-site at Georgia State University and offered without charge, THATCamp’s “unconference” attracted a healthy mix of graduate students and established historians.
Meeting attendees could then build on this well-crafted event by also registering for Thursday morning’s “Getting Started in Digital History Workshop” designed both for the uninitiated and the experienced historian seeking to learn additional digital tools. In fact, participants benefitted from such mentorship informally throughout AHA16 as well as in a special drop-in session offering one-on-one support for specific digitally enabled projects.
Overall, three features of AHA16 deserve emphasis when it comes to digital history: the impressive diversity of digital initiatives; the importance of collaboration including scholarly community building; and the extent of cross-campus engagement especially in light of the “spatial turn.”
The diversity of this year’s programming reflects how historians are engaging with digital in classrooms, archives, and the larger society. Presenters focused not only on how to take advantage of the “data deluge” of historical content to promote learning, but also on how to increase digital literacy. Discussions also stressed the importance of helping the now-dominant digital-native students to be effective producers as well as critical users of resources such as Wikipedia.
Along with presentations on educational initiatives, historians reported on a wide range of research projects based on digital content and technology. Presenters highlighted insights from digitized evidence as well as challenges in creating data from manuscript and printed sources. They emphasized the growing number of digital tools for data management and data analysis while also admitting that most are being developed for other fields and thus are less than ideal for historical research.
AHA16 also included sessions devoted to digital storytelling, podcasting, and other technological innovations that expand scholarly communication well beyond journal articles and books. Presenters emphasized the need for historians to develop multiple rhetorical voices. Discussion explored the potential relevance of well-developed expertise in public history (writing for exhibits, for example) or in newspaper journalism (such as op-eds) to digital communication.
In addition to the impressive range of research projects, this year’s annual meeting also demonstrated the extent to which digital history is collaborative. While the single-author tradition remains strong, presentations characteristically specified the role of other contributors or the ways in which the research contributed to a larger collaborative project. The ethic of digital history during the meeting was clearly on the side of openness and collective effort with consistent attention to the value of scholarly community-building. The annual reception for those interested in digital history attracted diverse historians, including bloggers and Twitterstorians. Attendees also milled together in conversation on Digital Alley in the Exhibit Hall that included both nonprofit and commercial exhibitors of various products, tools, and services.
The third feature of AHA16 that emerged from this year’s program was the increasing importance of digital in the “spatial turn” of historical research. This turn involves not only the well-established uses of maps to support, illustrate, and describe findings but also new ways to use maps as analytic and interpretive tools. Historians discussed projects that geo-reference historical maps (taking advantage of present-day digital maps) enriched with evidence from other sources to address complex historical questions. Other scholars detailed the challenges of creating digital maps from documentary sources that were never intended for that purpose.
Overall, AHA16 indicated that the relationship between historians and digital technologies has never been stronger. Naysayers were not vocal while the mood was cautiously optimistic. Building on the publication last year of the Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians (which were also presented at an annual meeting session), the AHA is now leapfrogging to the front of authoritative efforts to advance scholarly policies and practices in the Digital Age.
At the same time, the annual meeting made clear that, unlike the previous phases of the historian-digital relationship, today’s activities reflect a far more robust appreciation of the complex metaphysical, epistemological, and interpretive challenges and possibilities of digital scholarship. In this context, the theme of AHA17 offers a timely opportunity to maintain the encouraging momentum of recent years. Expressed as “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience,” the annual meeting theme raises key questions of continuity and change that can now be re-imagined thanks to the digitally enabled ability to connect massive, wide-ranging evidence at the level of individuals, groups, and societies. In this way, AHA17 promises to further advance the increasingly sophisticated historian-digital relationship showcased at this year’s impressive annual meeting.
Chad Gaffield is professor of history and university research chair in digital scholarship at the University of Ottawa (Canada).