Introduction to Digital History

With the first week of a new semester done, I’m off to a great start in some new classes. In the past week in my Doing Digital History course with Dr. Joy Lintelman, I’ve already read several insightful articles, started an archival research project, and set up my own website. I think that may be the busiest first week of class I’ve ever had at Concordia! But all this activity calls for some reflection.

I originally signed up for Digital History to satisfy a requirement for my Heritage and Museum Studies major. As archives and museums become increasingly digital—digitizing papers and recordings, creating digital exhibitions, and interacting with the public increasingly through solely digital means—it is of great importance that heritage professionals understand how their digital materials are used by researchers and the general public. By taking a digital history course and understanding how to do digital history for myself, I’ll better be able to serve researchers and curious learners in my future career as an archivist.

We jumped headfirst into creating our own websites this week. I had already created my own rudimentary website last fall to blog about my experience studying in Washington, D.C. (you can read those blog posts here). But when I set up that website, I wasn’t thinking of its long-term utility. That site was a means to an end for me: a way to let my adviser at Concordia know what I was up to in my internship with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. However, I wasn’t focused on creating a long-term and professional website; it had just the blog and little else. With this new site, I can develop an online identity that more closely aligns with my academic and professional goals. This is something all college students should keep in mind as they enter the workforce. Having your own custom website be the first thing that shows up when employers search your name gives you the power to shape your first impression.¹ And the most surprising thing about creating this new website for me is how fun it’s been! I’ve enjoyed experimenting with layouts and color schemes. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m excited to see what the final product will be.

Finally, our class started an archival research project in collaboration with the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. There seems to be a pervasive myth that all records are digitized by now and that they’re all 100% searchable and easy to understand. As someone who has worked in archives and knows how time-consuming it is to not only digitize materials but also transcribe them for searchability, I know this isn’t true. As a class, we searched Heritage Quest for census records of couples in early 20th century Clay County. I think many people not familiar with digital history or archiving think that you can just type in somebody’s name and a treasure trove of information pops up about them—all sorted and accurate, of course. That simply isn’t the case, as evidenced by my fruitless struggle to find anybody named John Hartes in the 1900 census, much less confirm that he was the correct person I was looking for. This is the struggle and fun of digital history; old problems of digging through boxes of documents are gone, but they’re replaced by different puzzles and problem-solving strategies. I’m excited to see how my classmates and I can problem-solve this semester, and I can’t wait to see what kind of projects we can make out of this struggle.

Feel free to add your comments or questions about digital history below. I’d be happy to hear others’ ideas on how to make this the most worthwhile semester possible! 

 

¹ Farrington, Robert. “Why every college student needs their own website.” The College Investor. May 23, 2019. https://thecollegeinvestor.com/17402/every-college-student-needs-their-own-website/.

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