The Interpretive Work of Digital History

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 One of the most vocal criticisms of the digital humanities is their supposed lack of interpretation. As interpretation remains the bedrock of the humanities, the argument goes, the digital humanities represent, at best, a degradation of the humanities or, at worst, something antithetical to them. For a recent example of this criticism, consider the words of Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia in the Los Angeles Review of Books earlier this year (and alluded to in one of our classes):

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Digital Humanities has often tended to be anti-interpretive, especially when interpretation is understood as a political activity. Digital Humanities instead aims to archive materials, produce data, and develop software, while bracketing off the work of interpretation to a later moment or leaving it to other scholars — or abandoning it altogether for those who argue that we ought to become “postcritical.” (Allington et al.)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 For the authors, the digital humanities clearly concern themselves with archival, data, and software development—tasks more suited to corporations than to scholars. Pitted against the digital humanities, there exists the critical, political, and interpretative work that should define the humanities. Does this definition of the digital humanities, and its comparison to the political work within the humanities, seem limited or even inaccurate?1

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Viewing the digital humanities through the lens of digital history, I think this definition does seem limited and maybe inaccurate. As Stephen Brier argues, historians “made a substantial and quite different contribution to the emergence of the Digital Humanities” than certain literary scholars that the digital-humanities-as-anti-interpretation critics often highlight (1). For Brier, there exists another digital humanities emergence story where social history—“recounting what happened in the past ‘from the bottom up’” by emphasizing the voices of marginalized peoples—and public history—making the past relevant to those “that could and would benefit from exposure to and knowledge about their ‘lost’ pasts”—play major roles (2, 4). Together, these modes of history concern themselves with both the interpretive and the political. Moreover, in seeking to elevate the voices of the marginalized or to reach marginalized peoples, social and public historians were comfortable with new modes of investigation and “new, non-print” forms of communications such as radio broadcasts, television series, and films (4). As precursors to digital historians and digital humanists, then, they envisioned a fruitful relationship between interpretation and new tools of scholarly production.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This fruitful relationship becomes more apparent when we consider more recent projects in digital history. For example, Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City expands a peer-reviewed essay on a murder trial and 19th-century urban culture in Lincoln, Nebraska into a “self-directed exploration of the social, cultural, legal, and political concerns raised in the course of the trial providing insight into understanding the origins of Progressivism and modernity” (Seefeldt and Thomas). By augmenting his textual “spatial narratives” with interactive mapping tools, Mahoney seeks to generate a better understanding of his subjects. Similarly, Crandall Shifflett’s essay on the construction of Virtual Jamestown reveals how a consideration of information architecture and the development of mapping visualizations transformed a “digital archive” into “a far more interpretive site” about interactions among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans in Jamestown (Shifflett). Not until Shifflett and his team had to organize an archive of materials in a digital space did they fully determine how to interpret those materials. As Shifflett himself concludes, “presentation may be the area where new technologies have the greatest potential for the practice of history” (Shifflett).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This interplay between interpretation and new tools of scholarly production suggests that digital historians do not necessarily archive materials, produce data, and develop software in “bracketed off” and “postcritical” spaces. Rather, these tasks are integral to the production of scholarship and the critical work contained therein. If we expand our definition of the digital humanities to encompass digital history, and its interpretive and politically-engaged influences, then distinction between critical humanistic work and newer digital tools seems more complicated.


7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 1. The evidence the authors use to arrive at this definition does, at the very least, seem limited but not inaccurate: in the section of “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” in which this excerpt appears, they discuss, almost exclusively, the English department at the University of Virginia.

Works Cited

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Allington, Daniel et al. “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 1 May 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberal-tools-archives-political-history-digital-humanities/.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Brier, Stephen. “Confessions of a Premature Digital Humanist” (draft).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Seefeldt, Douglas and William Thomas. “What is Digital History?” Perspectives on History, 1 May 2009, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2009/intersections-history-and-new-media/what-is-digital-history.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Shifflett, Crandall. “The Problem of Design and Navigation: A Case Study from Virtual Jamestown.” http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/essays/shifflettessay.php.


Source: https://dhpraxisfall16.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2016/09/19/the-interpretive-work-of-digital-history/

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar