Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reflections on Digital History

I began this blog in September of 2009 as a requirement in my Digital History course, which I am taking as part of my MA in Public History. As a final exercise, my professor, Bill Turkel has asked each of us in the class to write a post looking back at our experiences in the class, what we have learned, how we view things differently, and what we have discovered about ourselves as future historians.

What I have learned is an easy, though lengthy answer, as it reads basically like the course syllabus. I have learned the power of the digital world and its potential use for historians, something already being explored by a number of academics and organizations. I have learned skills like HTML, CSS, blogging, tweeting, website design, data mining, visualization techniques, and how to create mashups and georeference with services like Google Maps. Furthermore, it has been impressed upon me that the internet is by no means a perfect medium, and that its democratizing aspect is both a great strength and a great weakness. Amateur history sites and reference sites like Wikipedia compete with academic history sites for peoples’ time and attention. I have learned that the best way in which to improve the internet as a source of good history is through engaging with it, be it through starting one’s own site, collaborating with others on theirs, or even just creating or editing Wikipedia entries.

Over the past few months, as I waded into this largely new world, I began to view things differently. The implications of copyright (and copyleft) have wide implications on my future work in public history, and while by no means an expert, I now have enough knowledge to comfortably navigate those potentially treacherous waters. I have also gained an appreciation of free and open source software such as CutePDF, and the graphic design programs GIMP and InkScape. I am also now more likely to notice the computers that subtly permeate our lives, and I try to think of ways in which these new (or new to me) technologies could be used in history or heritage.

Most importantly this course has helped to shape what kind of an historian I want to be. Prior to starting this program, my experiences had been in heritage, rather than history, and I believe this has come across in my blog posts. (A few weeks ago I ran my blog through the Blog Discourse Analyzer available through the Text Analysis Developers Alliance webpage and discovered that I had used the term ‘Heritage’ 36 times, where as the term ‘History’ only appeared 16 times.) I am passionate about local history and built heritage, and by taking this course I now have a better idea as to how I might better engage with the public and make history as relevant as possible through things like online publishing, interactive websites and collaborative online projects, as well as trough emerging technologies like augmented reality.

When I began this course, I was competent with both computers and the internet, but I never imagined the possibilities that have been presented to me over the past few months. I am looking forward to a second course with Bill, Interactive Exhibit Design, where I can continue engaging with digital technologies in a heritage-related context. This post by no means marks the end of this blog, and I plan to continue updating it as often as possible.