Clio Wired Wrap Up

The question, since it’s not on the syllabus, was: what difference does new media make to doing history? Reflect on your time with us this semester.

I want to address these in two sections. First, the disclaimer that I am a new media fan, have drunk the kool-aid, etc. I think there are number of ways that new media makes a difference to the practice of history, and the class does an excellent job of covering them. What follows is just what I’m particularly excited about these days.

One of the best advantages new media has for history is the ability to easily embed non-textual sources. My favourite class in my MSc programme was the Material Culture of Gender in 18th Century Britain, where our sources were not only the books we read but tea tables, prints, advertising cards, furniture, clothing, and buildings. Representing these objects in traditional print media is problematic: either you spend a great deal of money for a (big, heavy) book full of large, full color glossy photographs or you save money, have a few color photographs, and end up describing the objects which you’re trying to interpret.

New media offers an alternative. Even if your text is no different from what it would be in a physical book, you can use image thumbnails which the user can enlarge, zoom into and finally see all the details (( This is particularly useful for those wonderfully dense prints of the 18th century )). Quicktime VR lets you rotate an object, and other modeling software can build you a walkthrough of the 1797 version of a house or show all the secret compartments of an 18th century French writing desk. Non-textual sources are such a rich repository of information for historians of all kinds, and I cannot help feeling that one of the reasons they remain underutilized is the difficulty in deploying them within a traditionally written-and-printed work.

Even textual sources can be represented in new media; the limits of a website is determined by the storage and bandwidth, not page numbers, so you can create an appendix with all your transcriptions of primary source material, or even the originals if you have permission.

This leads to the second aspect of new media that I find really exciting: the conversation. Historians have always been in conversation with one another, even before there was a modern “profession” of history (Herodotus and Thucydides, anyone?). For the past 150-odd years, the conversation has taken place at conferences or through books and journals. Conferences happen annually, and the statement and response might be spread out over a series of meetings, meaning over a span of some years. Books and journals might take longer.  New media offers the opportunity to have the conversations at a more normal pace. I don’t mean to sound like the teenagers of today who apparently think that email is far too slow (compared to texting), but I do think we could benefit from a more dynamic conversation.

Putting our primary source material alongside the argument, or at least some of it, would seem to me to be a way to help generate a (relatively) faster response. The primary source material is right there to be considered without requiring trips or letters to far-flung archives. (( Not that such trips aren’t one of the joys of the profession, just that they may not always be feasible. )) With tools like CommentPress, scholars can respond to each other in the ‘margins’ of a post, see what other readers have said, and even engage in conversation with both the original author and other scholars reading the same work. It becomes an actual conversation in near real-time, and ideally one which is open enough that scholars who might not be able to get an article into a journal as response can still participate.

To sum up part one, then, what I see as most exciting at the moment in terms of new media and history is the opportunity to use non-textual sources more extensively, and the possibility for more dynamic scholarly conversations.

And now a few words about the class. As I said at the beginning, I’ve been sold on new media and history for some time. However, I’d been experiencing the conversations in fits and starts, on twitter and at THATCamp, but I lacked a real understanding of the context and subtext of some of those conversations. It was wonderful to have a chance to really get at the topics and tools for nearly three hours a week – far superior to 140 characters.

I also appreciated the diversity of opinion and experience in the group. It forced me to evaluate my opinions, to explain myself more fully, and it also provided a very useful point of reference for some of the projects and tools. Having grown up in a household where computers and tech were toys to be played with and explored, I have to work to remember that not everyone approaches software with the desire to take it apart to see how it works. Those of us who intend to create resources and tools for historians (and others) in new media would do well to remember the range of skills which people bring to the desk.

I am more optimistic about the future of history in/and new media than I was at the end of August. Even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going next, I know that I’m in excellent company.