Week 3: What Is Digital History?

(For those not in the class, the syllabus is online.)

The readings for this week took me from familiar ground to unfamiliar and back again. Some of them touched on some topics I’d been wanting to blog about but hadn’t quite gotten a hold of, including the history and nature of hypertext and the illusion of permanence of digital media. I will talk about hypertext in a moment, but I want to reflect on the question of presentation of information which is raised both by Cohen and Rosenzweig in Digital History and in the JAH article “The Promise of Digital History“.

Both of these works include discussions about how the material (source, image, analysis) is presented to the user. While design and layout is an element of print publishing, it seems to me a less vital element in that medium than it is for digital history. In fact, the need to consider interactivity, presentation, and layout when creating digital history are part of why I feel that it has many similarities to museum work. Creating an exhibit in physical space and creating a digital history require the curator/historian/team to tackle many of the same questions.

There are design questions: font choices and color schemes, and how long captions/label text should be. There is the inevitable uncertainty of whether anyone will read your text at all, because they might simply look at your lovely objects/pictures and move on, completely missing the carefully crafted context you’ve provided. Then there are questions about layout (how do we want to organize the flow? rooms in a line or independent path creation?) and interactive/hands on elements (do we use them? what do they do if we add them?)

Interactivity and layout for digital historians lead my thoughts to  hypercard. The first personal computer I ever interacted with was the Apple Macintosh (IIe, I think) that my Dad brought home. Most of my first experiences in digital narrative were built using hypercard; as a result I tend to conceptualize digital text in hypercard form, at least in the draft stages. “The Promise of Digital History” and the chapters from Digital History made me realize that I have been thinking in an essentially traditional manner and also inspired a model for alternatives.

How I had been thinking was very linear narrative. If it were a museum exhibit, you would go in via a door or space marked “Entrance” and all the rooms would have only two doors, one in and one out; guided like a historic house or self-guided like many Smithsonian exhibits. There might be hyperlinks which opened small windows of commentary, but the history would otherwise progress in the traditional way.  My hypercard model is a copy of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide omnibus edition  that technically belonged to my older sister. There may have been some hyperlinked words with sounds or images, and I believe there was a built-in standard dictionary, but the only interesting deviation from a published version was that file opened to a window with a large red button reading Don’t Panic which you clicked to open the text.

The other hypercard experience I remember is a definite contrast. Its physical layout was more a group of rooms opening onto each other in a variety of ways, some of them utterly unexpected, and the stories you uncovered ran every which way, overlapping and underlapping in truly delightful ways. It was a game-story called The Manhole.1 Although the stories were set, the fact that you could discover them in your own order at your own pace was exciting. Simply the fact that the story was discovered and not just in front of you was exciting.

Reading Adams’ work on the computer was entertaining, but playing The Manhole was interesting. Which is why I think it’s worthwhile for digital historians to consider Peter Gallagher’s comment regarding “a pursuit of content versus a delivery of content.”2 The digital medium has such potential to engage users in a pursuit of content, and while it may not always be feasible, it must  not be forgotten.

1 Some images from the game can be seen at Smackerel.net.
2 “The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History, September 2008. The comment is in response to a question regarding similarities between museum exhibits and digital history, located roughly halfway down the page.