History, Department of


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Published in the “Intersections: History and New Media” forum in the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History . Copyright (c) 2009 American Historical Association.


Both of us came into the history profession in the early 1990s and went through graduate school just before the remarkable emergence of the World Wide Web. Of course, we can see now that a communication revolution was taking place during those years and that it was changing the way we do historical scholarship and teaching. After the development of browsers like Mosaic Netscape and Netscape Navigator in 1994, the web grew at an astonishing rate into a global information network. Even at the early stages of the web’s growth, history was all over the web. Amazingly, people rushed to put their own histories on the web and to create sites dedicated to their favorite subjects. Big organizations, such as the National Park Service and the Library of Congress, put up web sites on major historical places and topics. Eventually, new tools, such as JSTOR and ProQuest, opened up full-text facsimiles of journal articles and major newspapers. Research libraries took the lead in developing their catalogs and collections for online access. Teaching everything from the U.S. history survey to specialized research seminars became more dynamic and student-centered. The primary sources of the past were open for students in ways unimaginable only a decade earlier. But just as research techniques and tools were being transformed by the new media, would scholarship also change? If so, how, and in what ways?

A whole new field opened up around the concept of digital history as historians tried to experiment with the new medium. They began using new tools that computational systems and networked information made available. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have become prominent because of the wide interest in more spatial approaches to the past, but a whole range of technologies proved useful: Flash animation, XML coding, digital video, blogs, and wikis. Because the medium is still so new in comparison to traditional modes of communication, and the technology is still rapidly changing, we historians have only just begun to explore what history looks like in the digital medium. Increasingly, university departments are seeking scholars to translate history into this fast-paced, widely accessible environment and to work in digital history; however, they have found that without well-defined examples of digital scholarship, established best practices, and, especially, clear standards of review for tenure, few scholars have fully engaged with the digital medium. So, what is digital history and how should we understand its characteristics?

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