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What Is Digital History? A Guide to Digital History Resources, Museums, and Job Description


History

When researching historical information, people often start with a Google search or a query to a voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant. Depending on the search terms, the results may include websites with resources and links to digital materials from thousands of libraries, archives, and museums. This near-instant access to primary source material stored in multiple locations is made possible by the work of digital historians.

What Is Digital History?

Digital history refers to historians’ use of modern computer and communication technologies to digitize archival materials and make them available to anyone with internet access. Using technologies ranging from basic web publishing applications to the latest virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools, digital historians present materials in new ways to various audiences. Digital history also provides opportunities for historians to expand the reach of their historical collections to "marginalized or silenced voices", according to the Inclusive Historian’s Handbook.

Digital history involves the use of digital tools to: 

  • Research, analyze, and visualize patterns in historical information. 
  • Present research findings and historical narratives in an enriched content format that is both informative and entertaining.
  • Invite collaboration and enable various audiences to participate in the preservation and telling of stories.

Digital historians select materials for digital collections that support the understanding of a topic. By including certain materials, they exclude others. “When a digital collection reproduces a single archival collection, the selection of that collection is an argument for its importance, and the importance of considering it as a whole,” according to Digital History and Argument, a white paper from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. The selections by digital historians will, in turn, influence other historians.

This guide describes digital history, provides links to notable digital history resources, examines key digital historical projects, explains the role of digital historians, and how students can prepare for careers in this growing field through advanced education.

Historians can use technology to gather, quantify, interpret, and present the past and educate various audiences. In addition to digitizing the past, digital history advances scholarly pursuits in the field of history, helping to "create frameworks for mediating the results of scientific research," according to Digital Historian. This digital approach to examining and representing historical information is known as digital history. 

What does digital history offer the world? The integration of primary sources and imagery with modern technological advances allows historians to transform their scholarly research into digitized material. These digital resources are more accessible than the traditional avenues of presenting research. Digital historians can publish their analyses on websites, blogs, social media, and online journals. Through digital media tools, digital historians can build dynamic and insightful presentations, such as interactive graphs, charts, and maps, to help others visualize historical events. 

Digital history expands access to historical materials and can advance historical knowledge. In the classroom, digital history provides teachers with the resources to create more engaging lesson plans and curricula, including the use of simulations, VR, and AR. Digital history also provides an avenue for the creation of digitized public historical projects that engage various audiences.

The Resources of Digital History

Historians can expand the presentations of their research beyond traditional books and journal articles by employing digital history resources such as text-gathering tools, interactive map builders, and data visualization. 

Open-source digital publishing tools such as Scalar and Omeka enable historians to publish their scholarly work. These tools, which are useful in gathering and annotating text from various sources, allow for the inclusion of visualizations and media-rich presentations.

Exploring historical data through visualization can enrich historical interpretation and teaching, provide additional context to data, and help to make scholarly points. Historians have many options for building these visualizations. For example, R, a programming language, is commonly used in digital history projects to create visualizations such as geospatial data, interactive plots, and animations. Another tool, Google Books Ngram Viewer, allows users to search through millions of digitized books to create insightful graphs. 

Digital history resources such as StoryMapJS and ArcGIS StoryMaps enable users to incorporate descriptive text, images, and multimedia content to present historical information on interactive maps. Historians and teachers can tell a story of places, events, trends, and patterns through the context of space, time, and geography. The Geography of the Post website, which shows the openings and closings of post offices in the western U.S. in the second half of the 19th century, offers an example.

The American Historical Association provides digital history resources to help historians get started with digital history initiatives. Additionally, collections from the Library of Congress and digital history projects from many states reflect the diversity of what can be created with digital history tools.

One of the aims of digital history is to inform and engage new audiences. Video and audio podcasts focused on historical subjects and themes can help build online communities. These digital communities provide a place for people to communicate their shared experiences and interests. Social media tools also help. For example, the use of the hashtag #twitterstorians on Twitter can help extend the reach of digital projects to wide-ranging audiences.

A Look at Key Digital History Projects

Throughout the U.S., historians, educators, cultural institutions, museums, and libraries have created and collaborated on digital history projects. These projects provide different insights on cultures, traditions, and stories that are part of our shared history. These projects are organized around specific themes, incorporate dynamic content, and are freely accessible to everyone. Below are examples of digital history projects:

  • Korean War Legacy Project—This interactive library provides historical insights on the origins and outcomes of the Korean War, often referred to as the “forgotten war.” Teachers, students, and the public can visit the project to understand the challenges soldiers faced on the battlefield. The project also aims to heighten awareness of the war’s impact on democracy in the world today. Content includes interviews with Korean War veterans, archives and recordings of their experiences as well as original artifacts.
     
  • Constitute—This digital history project enables individuals to read, search, and compare the constitutions of nearly every independent state in the world. It includes useful interactive tools, including a timeline of constitutions, which visually represent constitutional amendments made throughout history. In building content, historians constructed the chronology of constitutional events, acquired English texts of constitutions, and translated non-English texts of constitutions. They also used survey tools to gather data from international, legal, and constitutional scholars.
     
  • Smithsonian Learning Lab—This platform provides visitors with an interactive site to research, explore, and discuss millions of archives, including recordings, texts, and videos, housed across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, 9 major research centers, and the National Zoo. This digital project encourages the Smithsonian community to share knowledge and learning in the areas of history, art and culture, and the sciences.
     
  • Indian Ocean in World History—This digital history project allows individuals to explore documents and artifacts that chronicle the Indian Ocean’s trading and exploration history. The site includes an interactive map, a lesson plan generator for teachers, and video journeys. Building the project involved the collection of primary sources such as written accounts of travelers throughout history; political and economic documents such as inscriptions, decrees, and treaties; objects from archaeological investigations and scientific investigations; and geographic information.
     
  • Cold War History—The Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) chronicles the origins, rise, and end of the Cold War. This digital project, established in 1991, is overseen by the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program. It contains declassified historical materials, including photos, diplomatic cables, high-level correspondence, and meeting minutes. Historical information is presented in essays, timelines, educational resources, and tools such as maps and timelines. In addition to using archival documents, it conducts oral history interviews.
     
  • World Population History—This digital project tracks the evolution of the world’s population over the past 2,000 years. It highlights noteworthy milestones in human history and provides perspectives on the historical, social, political, and environmental influence of various groups. The project was created from “a unique dataset that is a compilation of several sources outlined in the Sources and Credits page,” according to the site.

What Is a Digital Historian, and What Do They Do?

The traditional theory and methodology of the history discipline are critical to digital history. As such, digital historians promote scholarship at the highest levels in their work. They research primary historical resources such as letters, photographs, archival documents, and more to write historical narratives, reports, and presentations.

Digital historians also determine the authenticity and significance of sources and archive or preserve materials. They work for museums, governments, businesses, individuals, nonprofits, and historical associations. The primary differentiator in the digital historian role is in their focus on integrating technology to expand the reach of scholarship and enrich the presentation of historical research. 

Digital historians use digital tools such as data and text analysis, data mapping, and visualization to share inclusive histories with various audiences. They promote multidisciplinary collaboration and encourage the use of digital methods to provide broad audiences with access to historical information. These historians publish research that is suited for interactive spaces, using graphs, timelines, charts, simulations, and more. Digital historians go by various job titles including historians, historical consultants, archivists, museum professionals, oral historians, curators, historic preservationists, among many others.

How to Become a Digital Historian

Historian positions typically require a master’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For historical research positions, a doctoral degree may be required. An advanced degree prepares graduates with research, critical thinking, and analytical skills essential for work as a historian.

Digital literacy is a core competency for digital historians. At a foundational level, digital historians must know how to use digital library catalogs, conduct keyword searches online, and understand the educational impact of using digital technologies. At a more advanced level, the adoption of advanced digital technologies among historians has been gradual, according to a survey of 1,266 historians.

Advanced digital tools can be used to examine historical data from vast resources, present research in online and interactive formats, and improve educational delivery. This base of digital literacy and data analysis skills, along with research, communication, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills, are essential for digital historian roles of the future.

What Is a Digital Historian’s Salary?

Historians earned a median annual wage of $61,140 as of May 2018, according to the BLS. Median annual wages for historians in industries identified by the BLS were as follows:

  • $97,840—Federal government, excluding postal service.
  • $61,680—Professional, scientific, and technical services.
  • $50,040—State government, excluding education and hospitals.

Salaries for historians vary not only by industry but also by experience level and job location. The median annual salary for a digital archivist is about $58,000, according to data from PayScale as of January 2020. 

The Future of History

Digital history is necessary in an increasingly digitized world. As technologies expand in capacity and complexity, demand will grow for historians to use digital tools, techniques, and resources to advance digital history scholarship. The application of digital tools will strengthen traditional methods of historical research, and in doing so, help address key challenges in the field.

Already, digital historians have access to wide-ranging tools such as Google Earth, Zotero, and Scribe. The number of digital tools for historians continues to grow. In addition to exhibiting research in new and engaging interactive ways, these tools will facilitate research and analysis. In the process, more people—historians and non-historians alike—will participate in the creation of digital history resources that improve teaching, research, and outreach.
 

Pursue a Career as a Digital Historian 

Programs such as Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History provide graduates with essential skills to synthesize different types of historical knowledge using a historiographic tradition. The program offers students global and cross-cultural perspectives and access to the latest digital history tools. Graduates acquire deep subject matter expertise applicable to various roles, including that of a digital historian. 

Explore how Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History can build students’ proficiency as digital historians and prepare them to make a positive impact on the study of history.


Recommended Readings

Sources

Digital History, The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook
Digital History and Argument, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
Digital History, Digital-Historian.com
About Scalar, The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture
Omeka
Ngram Viewer, Google Books
StoryMap, knight lab
ArcGIS StoryMaps
Geography of the Post, cameronblevins.org
Digital History Resources, American Historical Association
Getting Started in Digital History 2019, American Historical Association
Digital Collections, Library of Congress
State Digital Resources: Memory Projects, Online Encyclopedias, Historical & Cultural Materials Collection, Library of Congress
#twitterhistorians, Twitter
Korean War Legacy Project, Korean War Legacy Foundation
Constitute, Constitute
Timeline of Constitutions, Constitute
Welcome to the Smithsonian Learning Lab!, Smithsonian Learning Lab
Learning Tools, Indian Ocean in World History
Cold War History, Wilson Center
World Population, World Population History
Sources & Credits, World Population History
Historians, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Historians and the Technologies of Research, American Historical Association
Average Digital Archivist Salary, PayScale
Google Earth
Zotero
Scribe
Blending Local and Spatial History, Perspectives on History
Digital History Reviews, Organization of American Historians
Research Design, Comparative Constitutions Project
About the Smithsonian Learning Lab, Smithsonian Learning Lab
Master of Arts in History, Norwich University