Within the past week, my Digital History classmates and I have decided on a course we want our semester-long project to take. By the end of the semester, we want to have produced an ArcGIS Storymap containing the results of our research process, mainly a map with data points of married couples in Clay County and more detailed information about specific people we find using Heritage Quest. It feels great to finally have a solid outline of what we want to achieve! However, I think it’s still important that we think about why and how we are doing this project as we move forward. For me, these questions center on understanding what undergraduates have to contribute to the field of digital history and how this project in particular can become a valuable contribution to the digital history field. When thinking about these questions, I’ve turned to a couple resources I found through the Carl B. Ylvisaker Library and JSTOR for insight.
First, I browsed our Library’s catalogue for resources pertaining to how our digital history project could be considered a “real” academic digital history project. For that, I turned to Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, two familiar names from our course readings, and their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Cohen and Rosenzweig structure their book as a how-to of creating a digital history website that is not only scholarly, but accessible and attractive as well. The book’s chapters focus on setting up a website, basic web design, building an audience, and copyright issues, among other topics. For our project, I think the question of audience is very pertinent. We need to keep in mind who will be looking at our storymap and what kind of information they’ll be looking for. Will it be researchers who are focused on the data presented in maps? Or will it be community members dazzled by our striking design and compelling stories? Is there a way for us to effectively bridge the divide between those two audiences and create a website that appeals to every potential audience? I’m looking forward to seeing what suggestions Cohen and Rosenzweig have for addressing these concerns.
Secondly, I looked through JSTOR for articles related to why digital history projects matter. Particularly, I wanted to see what justification there was for non-professional historians, aka my undergraduate classmates and I, to create serious digital history projects. Why would visitors to our site have any reason to believe that our research has authority? Why would they turn to us for information? I found a compelling answer in “Faculty-Undergraduate Collaboration at a Public Research University” by Robert Stephens and Josh Thumma. In this article, the authors explain the virtues of collaborating with undergraduate students to produce digital history projects. The authors argue that digital history projects utilizing undergraduate research are a benefit to academia because they both bring new perspectives into the research and allow undergraduates to experience the work of “real” historians before they get to graduate school. This line of thinking directly relates to our project; as undergraduate students, we are collaborating both with our professor and with HCSCC’s archivist to produce this project. Rather than our undergraduate status detracting from the project, we need to view it as a benefit. Our perspective is worthwhile in the field of digital history, and it will allow us to produce a final product that is different, but ultimately better, than if any one party was working on this project alone.
As we move forward with our project, my classmates and I should keep in mind that we are creating a valuable addition to the field of digital history. While that knowledge may feel like a weight, I like to think of it as motivation to produce the best final product we can. If you’d like to see what other resources I’m thinking about when creating this project, check out my Zotero library.
Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Stephens, Robert, and Josh Thumma. “Faculty-Undergraduate Collaboration in Digital History at a Public Research University.” The History Teacher 38, no. 4 (2005): 525–42. https://doi.org/10.2307/30036719.