Week 9: Digital Scholarship

The readings which most resonated with me were the reports from the 2007 Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship and the 2007 essay by William G. Thomas III, “Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account”. They are relevant not only to the course, but to my future as a historian (academic/public/digital), and I suspect I’ll reread these over the next few years.

Even if digital history isn’t implicitly public history, I think that the recommendations of the working group for evaluating public history work create a very helpful template for digital historians. The emphasis to community engagement is in particular is worthy of attention. One, because public history and publicly-accessible digital history works are a way of engaging with the community, and can especially help foster connections between a local group and the college/university, breaking down barriers which might otherwise exist. Secondly, because I think historians sometimes forget about the communities with which they could engage; if we keep that in mind as one of the assets of our work, it is harder to neglect those ties.

The reports from the working group, in conjunction with Thomas’ essay, point out some of the challenges in evaluating digital scholarship. For public history, the working group makes an excellent point that much of the work is peer-reviewed prior to the staging of an exhibition. That doesn’t always happen with a digital work, unless it’s grant funded, in which case the grant fills some (but not all?) of that function.

I think one of the challenges of peer-reviewing a digital work is finding the peer group. While public history isn’t that much older, as a discipline, than digital history, it has seems to have a larger group of practitioners. Moreover, there were curators, interpreters, and consulting historians long before there was a definition (as much as there is) of “public history.” It should not be difficult for history departments to find experts where exhibits and public projects are concerned.

The issue in digital history seems to be not just finding sufficiently informed peers to review a work, but even realizing that those peers are needed.  After reading Thomas’ essay, the part which I found echoing in my head was the colleague who “explained that he had read ‘the actual article’ but had ‘not seen the web site.’ ” To me, that was like saying he had seen an exhibit when in fact he’d only read the catalogue. Even one of the lovely, detailed catalogues published by the National Gallery of Art doesn’t convey the same sense of a collection of, say, early printed books as being in the exhibit, with the layout and flow arranged by the designer. I think that there’s a conceptual understanding of the scholarship involved in digital (and public) history which is not universally grasped.

The overall tone of the reports and the essay, as well as the other readings, leaves me largely optimistic. Digital scholarship is not new, but it may be finally reaching voting age; the disciplines and people who dismissed it when it was a child may finally have to recognize it as an adult who has something useful and worthwhile to contribute.