Showing How or Showing Off: ‘Doing’ Digital History

By saramnixon

Dynamic distance cartography. A map of the Roman travel networks mapped out in ORBIS

As the adventure of #hist5702x winds down, I’ve been reflecting on what ‘holes’ and gaps that digital history has filled in my own understanding of ‘doing’ history. I am a public history student, and I know that doing history is not confined to the traditional peer-reviewed essay with all its necessary footnotes. We’ve talked a lot about this in theory. But, digital history has actually introduced me to some of the practical tools, methodologies and possibilities of taking public history beyond words on paper (or historical plaques or museum panels) to the world of the digital. I’d like to use this space to reflect on how #hist5702x has fixed some of the holes (holes I didn’t even know I had!) in thinking about my own graduate research.

You’ll recall that my research examines Main Street as a place where community memory and identity is constructed, preserved and performed. My focus is Grimsby, Ontario – my hometown. I consider how the street is used as a place of identity performance by members of the local community in the spectacle of festivals and parades,. I’m also interested in Main Street as a repertoire of the memory, meanings and feelings evoked during such spectacle performances. A very public history topic, yes. But the project was going to be a very traditional essay with all those necessary footnotes. I was not going to push the boundaries of my thinking because I did not know I could. And then digital history, #hist5702x and Dr. Shawn Graham happened.

This seminar has opened me to the idea that there are other ways of ‘doing’ history using the endless platforms, technologies and approaches of the digital. What has particularly struck me, is the idea that the past, and the connection between people, places, and events and time can be visually displayed using digital platforms. In our week on visualizing big data, Dr. Graham introduced us to ORBIS, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World in a chapter of his co-written book The Historian’s Macroscope.

Dynamic distance cartography. A map of the Roman travel networks mapped out in ORBIS

The program is an interactive educational tool allows users to map out travel routes along the roads, rivers and seaways of the Roman Empire to learn the financial and time costs of travel in antiquity. Mapping routes in this way reveals to the user the “true shape of the Roman World.” This is something that would not be grasped and understood with the same intensity if it were outlined in an essay. I really like this idea of visualizing and interacting with the past digitally. It allows for deeper engagement with the history the user is confronted with.

Reflecting on these digital tools and the possibilities they offer public historians, I’ve now begun to think about how I can use these kinds of tools for my own public history project. How can I visualize Grimsby’s Main Street as a repertoire of the community’s past? I’ve been struggling with this question for my Narrativity and Performance seminar this semester as well. Since I have very little skills in digital technology to actually create projects like ORBIS, I’ve been thinking of ways visualize the imagined repertoire as data digitally. This process has actually led me to filling in a gap in my own project. I’ve come up with the idea of overlaying historical photographs of buildings along the town’s Main Street on top of present images. I am actually quite proud of this idea (hence why it one of the images is the banner for this blog!), but I am aware that it is pretty rudimentary compared to the projects shared on Digital Humanities Now.

Layering a 1915 photograph of Bank of Hamilton building over present building on Main Street West, Grimsby, Ontario.

This leads me to the ‘holes’ that I’ve found with digital history as a field. Digital history has opened me to so many promising possibilities of doing history. I’ve been introduced to a number of really interesting, and really important digital projects, platforms and tools. But, I have not been taught how to actually use these for my own work. I was excited to find Elijah Meek’s blog post on ORBIS and Geographics. But I was not expecting my inability to understand what he was saying about the program. There seems to be a language barrier between digital humanists and historians, and there doesn’t seem to be an effort to close this gap for those students willing to enter the digital world. But then again, I think this might be the nature of digital humanities, as it stands right now. Digital history might still be too new of a discipline to teach others the “how to’s”, because it is still teaching itself what these even are.

Something to ponder at least.

Source: Sara