Digital History and Naval History: Ships in the Night


Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.
—Henry Wadworth Longfellow

This month I attended two very different professional conferences. The first, THATCamp CHNM (aka THATCamp Prime), is so unlike normal conferences that it’s billed as an “unconference.”[1. If you want to know exactly what an unconference is, read the THATCamp About page.] It brings together people from a wide swath of academic disciplines to talk about digital humanities. Sessions ranged from talking about programming languages to teaching digital history to talking about size and scale in academic research. Many of the people in attendance were relatively young; many hold “alt-ac” jobs.

The other conference could not have been more different. Even its title, “From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference on the War of 1812 and its Aftermath,” fits it into a tight disciplinary mold. Though it drew scholars from the United States, the UK, and Canada, all the scholars were primarily historians of the 19th century, and a large proportion were military historians. My fellow panelists and I were among the youngest there by a fair margin; very few of the attendees were graduate students or young scholars. A surprising number of panelists were independent scholars. It was very much a traditional conference, with concurrent panels and two (great) keynote addresses.

I’ll write more about each conference later. For now, I want to talk about where I hope the fields of digital history and naval history may go, based on these two conferences. It has long been my impression that digital humanities and naval history (and military history more generally) are a bit like ships passing in the night. Every once in a while, they graze each other, but they quickly separate again and carry on without much change to either field. Conversations with people at both conferences confirmed this suspicion. When I asked some people at the War of 1812 conference if they’d ever thought about using digital mapping tools or creating online exhibits, the response was generally “I don’t really do computers.” But they were drawing digital maps—in PowerPoint. Similarly, I don’t know anyone who self-identifies as a DHer whose primary academic discipline is military history—at least no one I met at THATCamp CHNM. (Big huge disclaimer here: obviously, I don’t know all the DHers in the world. If you work on military history and do DH, we need to talk. Please email me.) But military history comes up—witness one of the models for Omeka’s Neatline exhibits: the battle of Chancellorsville.

So I found it somewhat amusing that in both conferences, the most interesting outcome for me was related to the other discipline. At THATCamp, I won third place in the Maker Challenge (along with my partner in crime Lincoln Mullen) for creating an argument about promotions of naval officers from 1798-1849, which actually came in handy while I was talking to scholars at FETA. And at FETA, the best contact I made was with a scholar who wants me to help him build a database about engagements during the War of 1812 not unlike the Early American Foreign Service Database. He’s one of those who “doesn’t do computers,” but he understands the values of accessibility and openness that THATCampers hold dear.

Going to the two conferences almost back-to-back highlighted for me how much each field might enrich the other. These connections give me hope that someday soon, digital historians can “speak” naval historians with greater success. And then, not all will be darkness and silence between the two.

Who’s with me? 

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