In 2008, historian Tom Scheinfeldt made a prediction. He believed that the practice of history was moving away from big ideas about ideology or theory and toward an emphasis on “forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work.” The blog post titled “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?” outlined the rise of digital history as a field. That same year, the Journal of American History published an interchange between leading digital historians titled “The Promise of Digital History.” Together, Scheinfeldt’s blog post and the Journal of American History interchange embodied a feeling of newness, excitement, and tantalizing potential surrounding the future of a field that was about to take off. In fact, the word “new” appeared more than one hundred times in the Journal of American History interchange—eclipsed only by the words “digital” and “history” (“Interchange: The Promise of Digital History”).1 A brilliant sunrise was hiding just over the horizon.
Seven years later, the rhetoric surrounding digital history feels much the same as 2008. The 2015 American Historical Association (AHA) Conference included some twenty panels on digital history. A remarkable number of their abstracts and titles (including the title of my own panel) featured words like “promise,” “possibilities,” “opportunities,” and, perhaps most ubiquitously, “potential”—“the potential of digital humanities approaches” (Hulden), “the potential of digital tools” (Vincent Brown), “the potential of hypertext for history” (Appelbaum), “the potential of the archive in the digital era” (Desai). In short, the digital turn “has the potential to profoundly change the way we think and work as historians” (Nancy Brown et. al.) Reading these abstracts in 2015, one would think the sunrise of methodology was still hovering just over the horizon.
The ongoing rhetoric of “potential” and “possibility” is especially curious given the field’s very real advancements. The annual AHA conference now showcases dozens of digital history projects each year (Shrout). History departments are increasingly offering courses on digital methods at both the graduate and undergraduate level (Bush; Hajo; Heppler; Kramer; McDaniel). Historians have built a suite of widely used digital tools, from reference-management software to web-publishing platforms for archival collections, maps, and timelines.2 Online exhibits and interactive websites have allowed historians to reach an audience that stretches far beyond the walls of the academy.3 Digital history’s methodological sun is no longer lurking over the horizon; it has already come up. So what explains the disconnect between rhetoric and results? Why does the field seem to be stuck in a perpetual future tense?
There are many reasons for historians to frame digital methodology in terms of its future potential. The most obvious is that digital history is a relatively young field with much of its growth having taken place only in the past decade. A focus on technology means keeping an eye on the future, as new tools arise or certain platforms become obsolete. There is an element of strategic salesmanship as well. It is easier to pitch projects to university administrators, funding agencies, and skeptical colleagues if the enterprise is framed as innovative and forward-looking. But there is a subtler reason why digital history operates in a perpetual future tense. Although the sunrise of methodology has cast its light across much of the historical profession, one area still remains in the shadows: argument-driven scholarship. In terms of using technology specifically to advance academic claims about the past, digital history has largely overpromised and underdelivered.
For academic historians, the enterprise of historical research is synonymous with making arguments. Doctoral dissertations and monographs present arguments about the past, while job committees and tenure review boards evaluate the originality and impact of these arguments. There is, of course, much more to doing history than just making arguments, but this kind of scholarship has been the primary measuring stick in the academy for the past half-century. Argumentation is still the fulcrum of academic history. So long as this remains the case, it poses a problem for digital historians. Because as a field, digital history has largely pivoted away from making academic arguments. We have instead poured our energies into other historical practices: digitizing and archiving sources, designing online collections and exhibits, building tools and platforms, and incorporating digital media into the classroom. These projects may incorporate scholarly claims and interpretations about the past, but argumentation is rarely their central purpose. These are the areas where the sunlight of methodology has shone brightest and where digital history has achieved its most impressive accomplishments. By comparison, academic argument-driven scholarship remains in the shadows. Few of us want to acknowledge this gap, but it is a major reason why historians continue to use the future tense of “potential” and “possibility” despite two decades of successfully applying digital methods within archival, pedagogical, and public history initiatives.4
It is time for academic historians to close the gap. This essay explains how and why this gap developed by tracing digital history’s genealogy over the past several decades. It focuses on two historical traditions that are most frequently linked to digital history: quantitative history and public history. Both have left their imprint on the field, but in opposite ways. Quantitative history serves primarily as a cautionary tale, while public history acts a template for the current practice of digital history. This particular genealogy has steered digital historians away from advancing explicit, scholarly claims about the past. For digital historians interested in these kinds of arguments, it is time to devote far more of our time and energy to making them. A renewed commitment to generating argument-driven scholarship will help push the field out of its perpetual future tense.
Argument and Genealogy
In the 1960s, quantitatively inclined historians turned to computers, social-science methods, and statistical analysis to make arguments about the past. A “cliometric” cohort of economic historians rose to particular prominence within this quantitative turn, perhaps none more than Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman. In Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), Fogel and Engerman used statistical analysis to argue that slavery in the nineteenth-century United States was both more profitable and more benign than previously thought. For many historians, Time on the Cross embodied everything that was wrong with quantitative history, from its reliance on limited datasets to its dismissal of less quantifiable aspects of history such as ideology or power. Cliometricians may have been able to calculate exactly the average number of whippings a slave received each year, but they had far less to say about what that violence meant and the ways in which these enslaved men and women created meaning in their lives (Gutman; Weiss; Thomas III). By the 1980s and 1990s, the cultural and linguistic turn had eclipsed quantitative approaches. In the words of historian Ed Ayers, “Rather than SPSS guides and codebooks, innovative historians carried books of French philosophy and German literary interpretation. . . . The first computer revolution largely failed” (Ayers, “The Past and Futures of Digital History”).
Quantitative history’s controversies and limitations cast a long shadow across the historical profession. Many historians who studied quantitative methods in graduate school still shudder at the memory of laboriously coding punch cards or wading through unreadable statistical charts and tables. Others vaguely conflate the entire quantitative history movement with the lack of empathy and argumentative overreach embodied by Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross. As one joke went at the time, “If a cliometrician were to write the history of the crucifixion . . . he would begin by counting the nails” (Haskell). It wasn’t the numbers themselves that provoked this kind of backlash; it was the use of those numbers to make positivistic arguments. The caricatured view of quantitative history was that it reduced the past into a laboratory in which the historian-as-scientist could run experiments, test hypotheses, and reach empirically verifiable conclusions. Historians are wary of being tarred this way by the brush of scientific positivism, and this fear holds particular resonance for digital historians. Using computers and quantitative data to make historical arguments runs the risk of echoing the work of cliometricians, with all the baggage that comes with that association. Digital historians are much more eager to distance themselves from the mistakes of their quantitative predecessors than they are to proudly carry forward their methodological mantle. This is an unfortunate part of quantitative history’s legacy: a fear of argumentative overreach based on numerical evidence (Sewell Jr.).5
The cautionary shadow cast by the quantitative history movement is a real one, but it does not fully explain digital historians’ lack of academic argumentation. The looming specter of scientific positivism might frame how we make historical arguments, but they do not necessarily dissuade us from making them. It is simply that argument-based scholarship does not rank especially high on the field’s priority list. For example, one of the most successful digital history projects released in 2014, Histories of the National Mall, uses a mobile interface to explore the place-based history of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall.6 The project certainly offers an historical interpretation of the National Mall: rather than the neatly curated and organized landscape with which we are familiar, the National Mall was, for much of its history, an unregulated space defined by messiness and multiplicity. But this interpretation—the kind of traditional argument with which academic historians are familiar—is implicit rather than explicit, not least because the project is aimed at tourists and visitors rather than a handful of specialized history professors. Academic argumentation takes a backseat to the project’s larger goals and interventions: building a user-friendly mobile platform, narrating compelling stories about the Mall’s history, and facilitating exploration and discovery. As a paragon of modern digital history, Histories of the National Mall seems utterly divorced from the kind of quantitative history conducted by cliometricians during the 1970s. Instead, it exemplifies a different historical practice that has shaped the current field of digital history: public history (Leon).
As Tom Scheinfeldt, Stephen Robertson, and other digital historians point out, public history can make a strong claim as digital history’s true progenitor. When digital history began to take root in the 1990s, it found its most fertile ground in archival collection, digitization, and presentation. From an early stage, the historians and institutions that did the most to adopt new media and technology digital innovations were also deeply involved in the world of libraries, education, archives, and museums (Scheinfeldt, “Dividends of Difference”; see also chapter 25 by Robertson in this volume). Early projects like The Valley of the Shadow at the University of Virginia, an online repository related to the Civil War, or the City University of New York’s multimedia textbook Who Built America? became the primary models for digital history products (Thomas III, “Computing and the Historical Imagination”).7 The priorities and interests of early pioneers like Roy Rosenzweig laid down the path for future digital historians to follow. Rosenzweig’s own Center for History and New Media, which he founded at George Mason University in 1994, became one of the institutional epicenters for the emerging field of digital history. Over the next two decades, the majority of the Center’s projects were public history initiatives, and in 2005 Rosenzweig and his colleague Daniel Cohen authored one of the field’s foundational texts: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past (Robertson, “CHNM’s Histories”; Cohen and Rosenzweig).8 The volume was, in effect, a guide to the practice of public history in a digital age.
Early digital historians interested in public history often launched initiatives that targeted a particular audience: history teachers and students (Robertson, “CHNM’s Histories”). History Matters, for instance, was an early digital history collaboration produced by two of the field’s most influential institutional leaders: the American Social History Project at the City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.9 It offered high school and college teachers and their students in U.S. history survey courses a gateway for accessing primary documents, resources, and guides. Much like public history projects, these teaching initiatives were primarily concerned with using new media and the Web to reach a more general audience outside of the academy. The goal of expanding access to the past (in this case, expanding access for specifically teachers and students) took precedence over using digital tools to craft new academic arguments about the past.
During the late 1990s, the rise of hypertext also helped shape the young field of digital history. Hyperlinks presented digital historians with the opportunity to recast traditional historical narratives into radically new electronic formats. In the early 2000s, the American Historical Review (one of the historical profession’s premier academic journals) published several articles that, to varying degrees, engaged with hypertext, new media, and nonlinear historical narrative (Darnton; Ethington; Thomas III and Ayers). The revolutionary possibilities of hypertext found fertile ground in the wake of the field’s wider “linguistic turn,” which critiqued the underlying assumption that historical narratives were an objective reflection of past realities. In this context, hypertext was a way to detonate the tidy beginnings, middles, and ends that historians artificially impose on the past. The historical profession’s broader interest in hypertext and nonlinear narratives ultimately proved fleeting, but for many early digital historians it was an important step in challenging traditional approaches to studying the past. These early works of hypertext history focused primarily on using digital methods to explore the new forms that historical scholarship might take in a digital medium. Although some of them incorporated tools like GIS to reach new findings and build new arguments about the past, their larger interventions centered primarily around how these findings and arguments were communicated and consumed. Once again, argumentation about the past itself often took a backseat to other interests and priorities.10
Of all the different genealogical strands that helped foster digital history’s emergence during the early 1990s and 2000s—public history, pedagogy, and hypertext—public history proved to be the most influential and enduring. More so than teaching and far more so than hypertext, public history came to define how people, especially other historians, understood the practice of digital history. Projects completed during these early years became the template for what constituted and defined the field. Today, digital history is all but synonymous with digital public history.11 The syllabi of digital history courses typically cover topics like digitization, copyright, and website design. Assignments in these courses frequently take the form of an online website, collection, or exhibit (Bush; Hajo). One of the largest grant-makers for digital history initiatives, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities, has dispensed millions of dollars over the past several years to historical projects. Most of its grant recipients focus on cultural heritage initiatives, online archives, museum collections, digital preservation, databases, tool building, and software design.12
To borrow from historian Sherman Dorn, the “first-mover” advantage of early digital historians in the 1990s and early 2000s helped set the agenda for the field as it coalesced (Dorn). At the top of this agenda was an overriding ideology: to democratize access to the past. The rise of the World Wide Web offered a powerful vehicle to achieve this goal. In fact, there was a strong parallel between the democratizing impulse of public history and the democratizing potential of the early Web. Rosenzweig and Cohen, for instance, ended their 2005 book Digital History with a “larger message—that all historians can use the web to make the past more richly documented, more accessible, more diverse, more responsive to future researchers, and above all more democratic” (Cohen and Rosenzweig, 248). Digital history was imbued with an early and overriding commitment to empower all kinds of people, not just professional historians, to interact with the past more easily, more flexibly, and more directly.
Public history’s ideology has had an overwhelmingly positive influence on digital history. A commitment to public engagement and accessibility has democratized both the consumption and production of history. Expanding the audience has simultaneously allowed digital history’s practitioners to expand the kind of work that they do: building new textual search interfaces like Bookworm, developing open-source software like Omeka, or redefining the scope of national archives like the Digital Public Library of America or the National Library of Australia (Cohen; Sherratt).13 It is a field that has become predicated on ambitious collaborative projects conducted with a broad audience in mind. This is the enduring legacy of public history within the practice of digital history today.
Yet in borrowing from the priorities and values of public history, digital historians have simultaneously turned away from argument-driven academic scholarship. It is not that public historians do not make arguments. Every online exhibit or archive offers an interpretation about the past, explicitly or implicitly. But argumentation is not the organizing objective of public historians in the same way that it is for modern academic historians. To give one example, the National Council on Public History states that public history prioritizes “an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere” (“What Is Public History?”). Debates over arguments, claims, and interpretations might have their place in public history, but they are not as central as the goal of making the past accessible, relevant, and useful for a wide audience.14 And despite calls for change, the opposite is too often true in the academy, where accessibility, relevance, and public engagement frequently take a backseat to scholarly arguments, claims, and interpretations.
At first glance, public history’s emphasis on accessibility embeds history within the digital humanities landscape. Digital history’s commitment to democratizing access to the past, for instance, dovetails with the “openness” of the broader digital humanities, which Lisa Spiro describes as one of the field’s “core values” (Spiro). But in other ways, digital history’s genealogy and its move away from academic argumentation sets it apart from other disciplines. The difference is especially telling when compared to digital literary studies, which has embraced argument-driven scholarship in recent years with far more enthusiasm. Public-facing initiatives certainly played an important role in the field’s growth, most prominently with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), a long-standing project to define a schema for digitizing and encoding texts. But argument-driven analysis exerts a much stronger influence on digital literary studies compared to digital history. Statistical studies in authorship attribution and stylistics stretched back for decades, and these kinds of literary analysis were featured prominently in 2004’s A Companion to Digital Humanities (Burrows; Craig). Franco Moretti’s analytical concept of “distant reading,” meanwhile, has come to define how many people view and define the field of digital literary studies, so much so that Moretti won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2014 (Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature”; Moretti, Distant Reading). The enormous attention paid to analytical approaches like “distant reading” has grown so large that other digital literary projects such as preservation, curation, annotation, and encoding—public history’s closest literary cousins—are being marginalized (Cordell).
In digital literary studies, the scales have tipped toward argument-driven scholarship such as “distant reading” rather than archival and digital publication practices. In digital history, that balance is entirely reversed. There is no Franco Moretti or “distant reading” in history. Instead, public history projects garner far more popular attention than argument-driven academic analyses (Onion, “Five of 2014’s Most Compelling Digital History Exhibits and Archives”; Onion, “Five More Digital Archives and Historical Exhibits We Loved”). Compared to our literary colleagues, digital historians have pushed academic arguments into the background in favor of public-facing projects. The difference between the two fields is partly an issue of sources. Historians rely on an archive that does not readily lend itself to digitization, much less digital analysis. After all, a printed novel like Middlemarch is much more digestible for a computer than the handwritten scrawl of a probate will or a mortgage deed (see chapter 25 of this volume). Although digital literary scholars had something of a head start in terms of their source base, the archival lag between machine-readable texts and unpublished documents does not fully explain the argument gap between literature and history. Source availability matters less than what the two fields want to do with them and how those goals have been prioritized. To offer a caricature of recent years: in digital literary studies the predominant goal has been to use digital sources to generate arguments. In digital history, the predominant goal has been to make those sources available and accessible.
The Case for Argument
Digital historians should be proud of their field’s genealogy and public history’s path-defining role within it. With all due respect to our colleagues in English or classics, no other discipline in the humanities has committed itself so wholeheartedly to public engagement and access. One could argue that online historical exhibits, collections, and archives reach larger and more diverse audiences than any other kind of humanities work. These digital history projects are some of the strongest rebuttals we have for critics who bemoan the humanities’ eroding position in society or growing irrelevancy in the digital age. In this context, a call for more argument-based academic scholarship might seem odd. After all, shouldn’t academic historians spend less time debating with one another and more time making the past accessible to nonacademics? This dichotomy between accessibility and argument is, of course, a false one; we can and indeed should do both. But as it currently stands, argument lags far behind accessibility in the way that digital historians practice their craft.
We rarely acknowledge the widespread absence of academic argumentation in digital history. To take an example from my own work: in 2010, I wrote a blog post about the diary of an eighteenth-century Maine midwife named Martha Ballard, first made famous in the early 1990s by historian Laurel Ulrich’s prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale (Blevins, “Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary”; Ulrich). The post described how I used topic modeling15 to analyze about 10,000 diary entries written by Ballard between 1785 and 1812. Topic modeling is a technique that generates groups of words more likely to appear with each other in the same documents (in this case, diary entries). For example, one of the topics the tool identified in Ballard’s diary contained the following words: gardin, sett, worked, clear, beens, corn, warm, planted, matters, cucumbers, gatherd, potatoes, plants, ou, sowd, door, squash, wed, seeds. As a human reader, it is clear that these are words about gardening. Once the program identified this topic, it measured the topic’s relative presence within all 10,000 diary entries—essentially tracking when Martha Ballard wrote about gardening in her diary. Aggregating the topic’s presence across all of the entries into a single representative “year” produced a thumbprint of a typical New England growing season, one that spiked dramatically in the late spring and early summer before slowly tailing off during the autumn months.
The blog post about topic modeling is probably the most widely read piece of historical writing I have produced in my career. Five years after I wrote it, the post has been viewed more than 10,000 times and appeared on the syllabi of at least twenty different courses (Bush; Gibbs; Wilkens). It has been cited in books, journal articles, conference presentations, grant applications, government reports, whitepapers, and, of course, other blogs (Jockers 22, 124; Tangherlini and Leonard, 728; Meeks and Weingart; Kushkuley; Guiliano; Fox; Yang, Torget, and Mihalcea; Posner). Lost amidst all of this attention, however, was the fact that there was little new or revelatory in my writing about the past itself. It made no new interpretations about women’s history or colonial New England or the history of medicine. It largely showed us results that we already knew—like the fact that people in Maine did not plant beans in January—or visualized patterns that had already been analyzed in far richer detail by historian Laurel Ulrich in A Midwife’s Tale. Outside of a few scattered and underdeveloped sentences, interpretive historical arguments were almost entirely absent from the blog post.
My post’s contributions were illustrative and methodological rather than interpretive and historical. I showed how a topic-modeling tool could ingest 10,000 diary entries and, in a matter of seconds, spit out the major themes of those entries and track them over time. And, like a magic trick, it could do this without understanding the semantic meaning of a single word, connecting Martha Ballard’s “gardin” and “beens” regardless of how she spelled them. Near the end of the post I wrote, “Topic modeling offers a new and valuable way of interpreting the source material.” Maybe so, but left unsaid is the fact that I did not actually use the method to build an original interpretation about Martha Ballard and her world. I was content to outline the method and its results while stopping just short of argument. Instead, I stuck to the familiar script we so often deploy when talking about digital methods and historical research, writing about “the potential for topic modeling in historical source material” (Blevins, “Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary). In short, digital history’s perpetual future tense.
Trying to locate explicit, historical arguments in digital history projects can often feel like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” This is partly because academic historians have been content to follow the templates laid down by public history or pedagogical projects. There are vastly more examples to follow of historical collections built using Omeka than there are of argument-driven historical scholarship using digital methods. Digital projects may begin with a focus on producing purely academic research, but many of them ultimately end up taking the form of online exhibits or collections of primary sources. Meanwhile, even when historians use digital methods specifically for the purposes of research and analysis, they often focus far more on the data and the methodology (and the methodology’s potential) than on interpreting the results—just as I did with my blog post on Martha Ballard. Explicit arguments about the past tend to fade into the background or melt away entirely.
There are exceptions, of course. To take one example, historian Benjamin Schmidt posted a series of blog posts16 detailing his research that used a nineteenth-century ship’s logs to map historical maritime patterns (Schmidt, “Reading Digital Sources”). In these posts, Schmidt first spends considerable time discussing the digital source base itself:17 how the archive was originally collected, the reasons and process behind its digitization, and its gaps and limitations (Schmidt, “Logbooks and the Long History of Digitization”). He goes on to outline18 the methodology19 he used, including an innovative application of machine-learning algorithms to extract a particular subsample from the archive (Schmidt, “Machine Learning at Sea”; Schmidt, “When You Have a MALLET”). All of these posts give crucial context for Schmidt’s captivating visualizations20 of that data, including ghostly animations of thousands of individual voyages traversing the globe (Schmidt, “Visualizing Ocean Shipping”).
Schmidt does not stop at advancing new analytical methods or designing beautiful visualizations: he uses the data, the methods, and the visualizations to make new arguments about the past. In particular, Schmidt reinterprets nineteenth-century American maritime history, reorienting it away from an interconnected commercial network and toward a conceptualization of the ocean as a site of industrial extraction and pillaging21 (Schmidt, “Data Narratives and Structural Histories”). It is exactly the sort of explicit and substantive historical claim that is so frequently absent from digital history works, including my own blog post on Martha Ballard’s diary. What is so compelling about Schmidt’s work is the way that he blends discussions of methodology, data, and visualization (the familiar terrain of digital historians) together with scholarly interpretations about maritime history and the American state (the familiar terrain of academic historians). It is an admittedly difficult juggling act to pull off, but one that more of us should attempt.
To be clear: it is not the responsibility of digital historians to suddenly reorient their priorities toward academic argumentation. A historian working in cultural heritage preservation cannot be expected to drop everything to intervene in obscure historiographical debates. And making scholarly arguments does not mean that we have to abandon the core values that have made digital history such a thriving field. Public engagement and accessibility can and should shape our arguments about the past. Even more important, I hope that digital historians continue to push the boundaries of what “counts” as historical scholarship beyond the traditional definition privileged by what Edward Ayers terms the academy’s “monographic culture” (Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?”; Dorn; Scheinfeldt, “Where’s the Beef?”). But those of us who are interested in academic arguments need to get on with making them.
There are two major reasons for digital historians to engage more forcefully with argument-driven scholarship. The first reason is pragmatic. A turn away from argumentation erects a wall between digital history and the academy. There is currently widespread curiosity from traditional academics in digital methodology, but the barriers to entry are steep. Some of these barriers center on technological learning curves or funding issues, but a less acknowledged barrier is that the field’s most prominent projects do not necessarily line up with the interests and practices of academic historians. The American Historical Association, for instance, has awarded its Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History almost entirely to libraries and archives for online collections of documents (“Roy Rosenzweig Prize Recipients”). While scholars might admire and benefit from these projects, many will not want to invest their time and energy in building them. For academic historians who have trained, worked, and built their careers on the basis of making arguments, digital history’s current landscape can seem like an unfamiliar place. And while it is unfair to expect the field of digital history to bend its priorities wholesale to reflect the needs of academics, we should also consider the extent to which our projects would benefit from the thematic knowledge, expertise, and experience of academic historians. A more explicit emphasis on generating argument-driven scholarship would give these scholars a more inviting avenue through which to participate in the field.
The second, and more important, reason that digital history should reengage with argumentation is that making arguments is a fundamentally valuable and necessary way to further our collective understanding of the past. History is an interpretive process, and argumentation is a means of making that interpretive process explicit. After all, not every interpretation is equally good. Arguments backed by evidence allow others to evaluate the quality of those interpretations—to confirm them, to critique them, and to build upon them. It is easy to forget that Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross received enthusiastic initial accolades from the popular press when it was first published in 1974. Academic historians were the ones who led the counterattack against their interpretations. The book suffered from many weaknesses, but a lack of argumentation was not one of them. By positing explicit arguments about, say, the profitability of antebellum slavery, Fogel and Engerman allowed other scholars to evaluate and ultimately reject their conclusions. Four decades later, academic historians waded into a related debate about the nature of the Confederate flag in the wake of the June 2015 shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. When they argued that the flag is a symbol of white supremacy rather than benign regional heritage, they were drawing on a rich historiographical tradition of academic research, argument, and debate stretching back more than a century (Richardson). The controversies surrounding Time on the Cross and the Confederate flag were far more than just ivory tower academics quibbling over arcane historical details. Both examples involved very real stakes: how the United States understands the legacy of its enslavement of millions of black men and women.
Whether in 1974 or 2015, academic argumentation is still a crucial means of advancing a conversation about the past. It is not the only way to have that conversation, but it is a necessary one. So far, digital history has largely shied away from this kind of conversation. Instead, digital history has thrown itself into other conversations with other participants. Our field’s genealogy means that many of those conversations are centered on libraries and archives, museums and classrooms. Digital historians have contributed far more to public history than we have to argument-driven scholarship. When we do engage in academic conversations, we often elide the priorities of the other participants while lapsing into a vague future tense of promise and possibilities. It is time to spend less time talking about digital history’s potential to generate new arguments about the past and more time actually making them.
This chapter is a revised version of Cameron Blevins, “The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology,” Cameron Blevins (blog), January 5, 2015. http://www.cameronblevins.org/posts/perpetual-sunrise-methodology/. Many thanks to Matthew Gold, Stephen Robertson, and Dennis Tenen for their feedback.
1. Word-count figures ignore common English stop-words such as “the,” “and,” “of,” etc.
4. Two critiques to the necessity of traditional academic arguments can be found in Dorn and in Scheinfeldt (“Where’s the Beef?”).
5. Scott Weingart writes on the scientific model in the humanities in Weingart, “Appreciability & Experimental Digital Humanities”; Weingart, “Do Historians Need Scientists?”; Weingart, “Digital History.”
8. The twenty-year anniversary of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media in 2014 featured a round-up of all the projects conducted at the center: http://20.rrchnm.org/items/browse/type/project.
10. Many thanks to Stephen Robertson for pointing out the role of hypertext in digital history’s genealogy.
11. Both Lara Kelland and Mary Rizzo warn of the dangers of public history being marginalized under the umbrella of digital humanities and losing its drive and ability to challenge traditional power structures. Those fears might apply to the broader field of digital humanities, but this is not the case within digital history, where public history holds a tremendous degree of influence (Kelland; Rizzo).
12. NEH Office of Digital Humanities Press Room (March 2013) http://www.neh.gov/divisions/odh/grant-news/announcing-23-digital-humanities-start-grant-awards-march-2013; NEH Office of Digital Humanities Press Room (July 2013) http://www.neh.gov/divisions/odh/grant-news/announcing-6-digital-humanities-implementation-grant-awards-july-2013; NEH Office of Digital Humanities Press Room (March 2014)http://www.neh.gov/divisions/odh/grant-news/announcing-20-digital-humanities-start-grant-awards-march-2014; NEH Office of Digital Humanities Press Room (July 2014)http://www.neh.gov/divisions/odh/grant-news/announcing-seven-digital-humanities-implementation-grants-july-2014.
13. http://benschmidt.org/projects/bookworm-info/; http://omeka.org; http://dp.la/info/2013/04/18/message-from-the-executive-director/; http://www.nla.gov.au/our-publications/staff-papers/from-portal-to-platform.
14. Public history is an incredibly diverse field that in many ways defies tidy categorizations. For an introduction to the field and its diversity, see Weible.
Appelbaum, Yoni. “Open Sources: Realizing the Potential of Hypertext for History.” American Historical Association, New York City, January 2–5, 2015. https://aha.confex.com/aha/2015/webprogram/Paper17502.html.
Ayers, Edward L. “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” Educause Review 48, no. 4 (2013): 24. http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/does-digital-scholarship-have-future.
—. “The Past and Futures of Digital History.” Virginia Center for Digital History, 1999. http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html.
Blevins, Cameron. “Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary.” Cameron Blevins (blog), April 1, 2010. http://www.cameronblevins.org/posts/topic-modeling-martha-ballards-diary/.
Brown, Nancy, Rachel Kantrowitz, Ashley Sanders, and Nora Slonimsky. “Digital Tools: From the Archive to Publication.” American Historical Association, New York City, January 2–5, 2015. https://aha.confex.com/aha/2015/webprogram/Session12161.html.
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