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.


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