Tag Archives: history

The Message of the Historical Medium

[This post was written for my graduate class, “Doing Digital Humanities,” and originally posted on that course’s blog.]

Literary scholars and creative writers spend quite a bit of time thinking about the medium in which they work. Historians tend to think about such things less, since literary theory often doesn’t work well with historical inquiry. Serious historical scholarship is almost always created in a standard medium: the monograph.

Reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium Is the Message” for class, I thought that a more careful examination of the historical medium might be in order.

Traditional Medium for Traditional History

The historical monograph has several salient features. First, it’s a fixed document. Once it’s published, it really can’t be changed. Second, it has clear structural organization (table of contents, preface, introduction, chapters 1-…, afterword, notes, bibliography). Third, only a few names, often only one, appears on its cover.

Perhaps these elements of a monograph are what make it so appealing to many historians. For many years, the typical historian focused on national history. He worked within a closed geographical boundary (the United States, let’s say), generally within a fairly rigid time frame (the early republic, let’s say). In many instances, the goal of his research was to standardize and/or streamline the nation’s history into a coherent narrative. The parts that didn’t fit the thesis were left out or marginalized. The monograph could just as easily have been written on a typewriter as a MacBook.

The method of doing history correlates fairly well to the medium in which it is displayed. A closed geographical area is written about in a fixed canonical document. A standard organization correlates well with a coherent national narrative. An individual listed author emphasizes the originality of the work. Though the connections of the work to the broader scholarly community are often emphasized, the collaborative efforts of archivists, researchers, and others are usually less noticeable. Many great historians of both past and present have expertly used their medium to tell a compelling narrative that explains many aspects of human history.

But not all.

New Methods, New Topics…New Media?

National history, in the last few decades, has fallen out of favor for many historians. Gender, class, race, and other themes that transcend the history of one nation have become more prevalent topics of study. These themes have often proved messy, unable to be fit into one coherent narrative. In a way that’s the beauty of this new way of thinking about history: it doesn’t have to be neat. It doesn’t have to work out in the end.

So we have to ask ourselves: is the monograph the medium suited to this message? Perhaps not. Instead, perhaps we should look for a medium that allows for multiple narratives to be investigated simultaneously, for massive amounts of data to be made comprehensible, for something that doesn’t tie history between two covers.

Cultural and social historians have long used large data sets, visual aids, and multiple narratives in their monographs. But these features often have the effect of confusing the issues or bogging down the reader instead of helping to bring clarity to complicated problems. (After all, who but the most dedicated of us actually reads all the sociological data charts or carefully scrutinizes every single map in a monograph?) Sometimes publishers do not even allow their authors to include their large data analyses in their published work.

These sorts of historical inquiries, then, would seem to invite a different type of medium, one that’s better suited to their message.

Perhaps digital humanities can help provide a new medium for the new message of history. Maps can be made interactive, better demonstrating real movements. Visualizations can be dynamic, showing in one setting what might take multiple confusing charts or graphs in a monograph. Large data sets can be published online, where users can manipulate them or filter them to match their interests. At its simplest, digital humanities can provide a way to simultaneously provide multiple equally weighted narratives, which the reader can choose to read however he or she wishes.

Digital humanities also provides a way to change the inequalities of credit for work on a project. Collaboration is at the heart of traditional historical writing no less than in the heart of digital humanities, but DH tends to be more open about equal credit for all collaborators (and is working toward a better model all the time). Perhaps, then, it fits well with history whose goal is to give all people of all types their part in the history of the world.

So maybe digital humanities is a way to control the messiness of these new ideas of history without losing their analytical coherence. It may be a different type of coherence than historians are used to, but these are different questions.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Some historians wonder whether the digital humanities will change the way history is done. They worry that the message of the new medium does not fit well with the message of the entire historical discipline. They fear that the traditional practices of reading and writing will be jeopardized by the new modes of expression in the digital humanities. But historical analysis is still going on, even in new digital projects. Writing is still happening, and it’s being read. In fact, digital writing has the potential for a much larger readership. So the question isn’t whether reading and writing will disappear (I’m pretty confident that they won’t), but whether the specific medium in which historians like to work will have to make room for other media.

I’m a traditional historian. I like monographs. I like national histories. My field, naval history, is highly traditional in subject, methodology, and practitioners (male-dominated would be an understatement). But my field also has great potential for non-monographic treatment. What better field can you have for mapping than one whose entire existence is about movement across the globe? What better field can you have for networks than one whose highly stratified structure belies the tangled web of intense personal connections amongst a tight-knit group? What better field can you have for big data work than one that records practically everything about each of its denizens’ environments multiple times per day?

I don’t think monographs are going anywhere, not just yet anyway–nor do I want them to. But I do think it’s time for historians to exercise a little creativity in their choice of medium. As DH research changes the questions we ask, perhaps the message of our research requires a different medium to match it.

Historical Literacy and Public History, Part 2

My first experience doing public history was in third grade, when I dressed up as Miles Standish to do a book report of a biography I’d read about him (yes, I was the only girl in my class to read about and dress up as a male). Looking back, I know that what I was wearing was not even close to correct as far as what Standish would have actually worn. But the experience–and even some facts about Standish–have remained with me despite the inaccuracy of my costume.

My other vivid memory of history was becoming a junior ranger at Jamestown and Yorktown National Park Service sites. I remember having to card wool, identify tools, and other somewhat mundane (to an adult) things. I’m sure that the rangers there made the junior ranger program as historically accurate as possible, and I benefited from their work. Less successful were junior ranger programs elsewhere that only asked me to write things down or solve word jumbles and such.

Based on my childhood experiences, it seems to me that the way to get kids to have a sense of history is to get them to experience it in some way. (I do recognize that, as a person who has ended up in graduate school for history, my experience may be abnormal.) And the experience does not necessarily need to be 100% historically accurate in order to be effective.

Before people can have an interest in history, they must be aware of history–not just that it happened in books, like a sort of true fairy-tale, but that it actually happened. The earlier this realization occurs, the more likely (I would guess) history will matter later.

In other words, children have to understand a narrative before the facts mean anything. Many people never get past the narrative and into the actual facts of history. But again, I wonder–is that so bad?

Historical Literacy and Public History, Part 1

Historians and political pundits often lament the woeful historical ignorance of the public. They claim that the lack of historical knowledge causes people to make bad political choices or appreciate their country less than they should. But I wonder whether the ignorance of the American public about history (which I’m not disputing) has the profound political ramifications that so many pundits claim.

For the final paper for Issues and Problems in Public History, our professor asked us to write a paper that synthesized our readings into an argument about how the mythic past and historical memory propel the practices of public history. Working on this paper made me think about how history really functions, at least in the United States. What follows is the theoretical background for a couple of future blog posts about historical literacy and public history.

History and politics interact on several levels. These levels are fluid, often working together to help form the basis of people’s historical consciousness.

First, identity. David Lowenthal suggests that “we alter the past to become part of it as well as to make it our own.”[1. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 331.] Individuals base their identity in large part on their past, both their own past accomplishments and their forebears’. What is true for individuals is also true for nations. Lowenthal suggests that personal memory is to identity what history is to collective “self-awareness”: memory and history validate a sense of identity.[2. Lowenthal, 213.]

Forming a collective identity is difficult because the collective has to attempt to incorporate the identities of all its members. This means that collective historical memory is both something less  and something more than individual historical memory. It is less because it operates by consensus–only the things that the group agrees on are maintained in the collective memory–but more because it provides a historical grounding for people who do not have a personal past they can or want to identify with.

When individuals cannot claim their own past, they can identify with the past of a larger group they are part of. But when groups or nations do not have a past they can meaningfully identify with, they may turn instead to an invented tradition. These traditions are not just for nostalgic effect: Eric Hobsbawm argues that invented traditions are explicitly didactic, and they are used to cope with social change.[3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1, 5.] History can be used to establish political legitimacy for groups who can establish their historical identity, perhaps even more so when the tradition is invented: Hobsbawm suggests that “all invented traditions, so far as possible, use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.”[4. Hobsbawm, 12.]

It is remarkable how powerful and pervasive an invented tradition can be. One only has to look at the obsession of Scotland (and the world) with tartans and clans to see that invented identity can hold as much weight as, if not more weight than, an identity based in historical fact. Most people who claim an invented identity probably do not even know that their tradition is fabricated. Those who do know either consciously choose to not care, or they change their way of identifying themselves. As Lowenthal points out, we almost always change the past to make it more positive and more coherent.[5. Lowenthal, 325.] But in the process of creating such a past, we exclude or marginalize those who were in the historical record but do not reflect well on our sense of ourselves.

Narratives. Identity is constructed most effectively through the use of narratives, which is the second point at which public history and politics intersect. A single person can be a part of many narratives, from the highly individual to the cosmic. These narratives are effective for at least two reasons. First, everyone remembers stories, especially about themselves. It is not necessary to know the facts of one’s history in order to be part of (and be aware of being a part of) a larger narrative. In fact, the specific details do not even matter all that much.

All people need to know in order to be a part of the American national narrative is that America has always been about about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all; if even that is too much to remember, then citizens of the United States need remember only that they live in the greatest nation on earth. That metanarrative will inform their political choices and all them to call others’ political choices into question if they appear to diminish America’s greatness.

Second, narratives are flexible. They can be leveraged on all sides in order to achieve political goals. Because they are not strictly fact-based, their interpretations can be multiple and even conflicting; they may be able to merely co-exist instead of colliding head-on.

Tragedies. Some events in history do not fit into the standard heroic narrative. The grave injustices, serious misjudgments, and horrifying tragedies in history do not fit into a narrative of progress and greatness. dealing with these events and injustices is the third point of intersection between public history and politics. When narratives in conflict cannot bend to co-exist, public historians must decide which narrative is the correct one and thus which to perpetuate. Often, historians fixed on a particular narrative simply ignore the ugly parts of their past; as Lowenthal says, “Americans for whom history has to be a chronicle of national greatness shun reminders of what seems shameful and demeaning.” But this type of historical forgetfulness, though impossible to avoid in the general public, is irresponsible in the hands of historians who ought to know better.

So, as historians, both public and academic, how do we work with ideas of identity and narrative? 

DigiWriMo Wrap-Up

Today’s the last day of November. Advent starts in two days; classes end in four days (for me, anyhow); and today DigiWriMo is ending.

So, what was DigiWriMo like for me?

Maybe I should start with how I did on my goals.

Goal #1: Completed. All officer bios on Preble’s Boys are completed.

Goal #2: Mostly completed. In the last few days, I did slack off. Bad Abby. But I got a fair number up.

Goal #3: Technically completed. I didn’t do the intensive reflection I was intending. But that’s ok. I wrote some other pretty good blog posts.


I purposely didn’t tax myself all that far for this DigiWriMo. This is my first semester in grad school in a long time, and I wasn’t sure how much time my projects would take down the stretch. In retrospect, that was probably a wise decision.

Nevertheless, I did reap some rewards from doing DigiWriMo.

Because of the rapidity with which I wrote the officer bios, I saw some connections and similarities that I feel certain I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In addition, the group has started to really cohere as a unit for me; before this month I viewed them as individuals who were just arbitrarily grouped together (although I do still think their grouping is somewhat arbitrary).

I also gained an appreciation for other people’s amazing work that they wrote about for DigiWriMo. I feel somewhat more connected to the DH community than I did before DigiWriMo, even if it’s a somewhat one-way connection for now.

Because I spent so much time in the blogosphere and on my Omeka site this month, when a speaker at Northeastern mentioned the possibility of doing a department-based group blog, I jumped at the idea. Thanks in part to DigiWriMo, we successfully launched Global History in the Digital Age in the middle of the month. This blog’s authors are members of Northeastern University’s history department, and we’re writing about things that we’re doing in history right now, digital or not. (Please read and follow!)

Global History in the Digital Age is giving some members of my cohort the chance to get their ideas out on the Web without having to deal with the admin stuff of running a blog. So DigiWriMo did something for not just me but also at least four (right now) people in my department. (Since I started the blog, I think I should get DigiWriMo credit for all of the posts on it right now–just kidding. :) )


I’m sure the makers of DigiWriMo will be making structural changes to the event for next year (though mad props to them for a really fantastic month of writing!). For myself, there are a few things I’d like to do or see done for next year.

1. I’d like to see more historians participating. Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right place, but I seemed a bit like a horse among a herd of zebras.

I’ll probably be proselytizing DigiWriMo next year several months in advance of November. I’d love to see some of my cohort at Northeastern participate.  Now that we have our blog up and running, they have the platform to do the writing.

2. I’d like to do more substantive collaboration with other historians. This follows from No. 1, of course. I enjoyed participating in the opening-day collaborative poem and the collaborative novel, but I’m not that much of a creative writer like that. (I still need pen and paper to do most of my creative writing.) But I would love to see some serious historical research collaborations.

More historians would also be nice for the Twitter discussions, since the types of digital writing that might be discussed would be different from the literature-types’ writing.

3. Next year, I’m doing 50,000. You can hold me to that.


Total word count for the month (not counting FB and Twitter words): 13,800 words


I remember the first time I heard the word(?) NaNoWriMo. First I thought: What in the world does that word(?) mean? It sounds a bit like an alien planet. Once I found out what it was, I thought: You people are insane. Write a novel in a month? That’s crazy.

I still think NaNoWriMo is crazy. But it has spurred several other WriMos that seem a little more useful to my current life: DigiWriMo and AcWriMo. Both of these challenges begin in about a week on November 1. And I’m going to try to do them both. I feel pretty certain that I won’t make it to 50,000 words, but you never know.

The cool thing about AcWriMo and DigiWriMo is that they work in tandem. I intend to do a large portion of my academic writing for the month online, thereby fulfilling the requirements for both challenges. (Is that cheating? If it is, oh well. I’m doing it anyway.)

Both WriMos have challenged participants to set outlandish goals and make them public. So here’s my plan for the month.

The overall goal: Populate Preble’s Boys with bios of each officer and ship.

The specifics:

1. Write one officer bio every day for the first 17 days, taking off Sundays.

2. Write one or two ship bios for the remaining days. (Take Thanksgiving Day and Sundays off.)

3. Blog about the progress and challenges of the site at least twice during the month.

The challenges:

1. Language exam, Nov. 16.

2. A live-in toddler.

3. Need for more research. (My intention is to write the bios using secondary sources for now and when I have the chance to travel to archives, then flesh them out with primary sources if needed.)

4. Thanksgiving!

The preparation:

1. Research: I need to build up my Zotero library about each of these officers so that I don’t have to do a lot of reading when it’s writing time.

2. Organization: I need to set up a good system for keeping myself organized. I’ve been working in a sort of piecemeal fashion up to this point. I need to get it together.

And that’s the plan. We shall see whether my site is text-heavy by the end of the month!

I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else is doing for DigiWriMo and AcWriMo!

Omeka Development Plan

In their book Digital HistoryA Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the WebDan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig advocate that digital historians should have a well-defined plan for their websites before they start. So I thought I’d share my ideas about Preble’s Boys here, and perhaps get some feedback from others about the plan.


First off, the inspiration. I was inspired to do this project by thinking about how naval officers of the nineteenth century acted, specifically to what extent they acted in concert with their official orders or whether they tended to be influenced by each other. One pressing question was this: How much did they really interact with each other?  I don’t have the primary sources to do this sort of investigation at this point (tracking down all the officers’ papers is going to be quite an undertaking). When I looked for secondary sources that might address the question, I remembered Fletcher Pratt’s 1950 book Preble’s Boys.

Preble’s Boys is an entertaining read, written very much in an old-school narrative style that has a certain charm. But the stories Pratt tells are often speculative or at least unverified (he explicitly states that he doesn’t think bibliographies belong in books), so his conclusions about the cohesion of this group of naval officers are open to dispute. In addition, the maps and diagrams in the book, though charmingly drawn, are not that helpful in explaining ship movement (since they are static).

Second, the purpose. My purpose with this project, then, is to essentially reinvigorate Pratt’s book using interactive web technology. I don’t plan to use Pratt’s actual words, but I’m going to use his framework to create a digital exhibit about these men.

Third, the goals.

I have several goals, which take the form of phases of the project.

1. Create a digital exhibition that provides an introduction to the group Preble’s Boys, their ships, and the battles they were in. (That’s the phase I’m working on right now.) This introduction isn’t intended as a scholarly treatment of any of these men or their activities, though it is intended to be a little more scholarly than Pratt’s original (cited sources and all that). It’s merely for basic education. However, even this basic treatment benefits from the web medium. I’d like to use Neatline to recast battle maps and ship diagrams as interactive rather than static. Even this small change will enhance existing scholarship about the  19th-c. navy. This phase’s audience is primarily the general public. (I’d love to do animations of the battle diagrams, too, but I’m not an animator. If anyone would like to collaborate, give me a shout-out.)

2. Document the connections between Preble’s Boys using network analysis. This phase will help to interrogate Pratt’s claims of connections between the men linked to Edward Preble. This phase will take some time, as I will have to build the network from the ground up. In other words, I’ll have to track down the primary sources. I’m also not quite sure how to measure connections here. (I’m sure I’ll write more about this later.) Once I get the network going, I’ll publish it to the website. This phase will help historians like me see just how influential Edward Preble was in shaping the early navy. (Or maybe it will show that someone else was influential. I don’t know.)

3. Provide digital copies of the papers of these men, as well as other relevant primary sources. The work of getting digital copies of the sources will hopefully occur in concert with phase 2. Getting permission to post them online and creating a decent archive framework may be the bigger issue (Omeka’s going to help with the framework). But in the end, I would like Preble’s Boys to be a sort of compendium of information about these officers.


So that’s the plan. Comments, questions, suggestions, prohibitions, exhortations welcome!