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,

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,

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Shifflett, Crandall. “The Problem of Design and Navigation: A Case Study from Virtual Jamestown.”

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 22, 2016 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    The readings about the employ of DH in History made me ask myself if – especially in History – DH are just a tool or if they are instead deeply influencing the discipline itself.
    I am a scholar in Literature, and I want to study some digital projects which applied DH to Literature. During my research, I am continuously asking myself if DH are influencing not only the way to produce and ‘consume’ (a term spread over by the appearance of social networks, which turned the way we consider literary objects) Literature, but also the way Literature has been changed and is changing due to the presence of DH. I think that DH are changing Literature itself (basically, they are changing the world where we live, our perception of it, and also the style used to describe this ‘new’ world). Do you think the same is happening to History?

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  • Welcome to Digital Praxis 2016-2017

    Encouraging students think about the impact advancements in digital technology have on the future of scholarship from the moment they enter the Graduate Center, the Digital Praxis Seminar is a year-long sequence of two three-credit courses that familiarize students with a variety of digital tools and methods through lectures offered by high-profile scholars and technologists, hands-on workshops, and collaborative projects. Students enrolled in the two-course sequence will complete their first year at the GC having been introduced to a broad range of ways to critically evaluate and incorporate digital technologies in their academic research and teaching. In addition, they will have explored a particular area of digital scholarship and/or pedagogy of interest to them, produced a digital project in collaboration with fellow students, and established a digital portfolio that can be used to display their work. The two connected three-credit courses will be offered during the Fall and Spring semesters as MALS classes for master’s students and Interdisciplinary Studies courses for doctoral students.

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