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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Defining Digital History
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2002

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Source: Defining Digital History
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 5, no. 1, May 2002
Article Type: Benchmark

Defining Digital History

Benchmarks: Defining Digital History [1]

Deborah Lines Andersen

April 2002

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged. [2]


With continuously advancing digital techologies, the field of history is undergoing a change in the way academics use and access information. Whereas some sources will never change—primary materials in particular, other areas are in a state of constant flux. Teaching, communicating, hardware, software, research and publishing in history are all affected by new information technologies. This editorial reports the results of analyzing the articles that appeared in the first four years of the JAHC, using content analysis to define "digital history" and the "digital historian."


In 2001, after the American Association for History and Computing conference in Indianapolis, I asked the members of the editorial board for this journal to send me an e-mail defining "digital history." One individual wrote that he would think about it and get back to me. No one else replied.

The commentary that follows is an attempt at a definition of digital history. It is based upon a review of the contents, and formal content analysis [3] of this journal. If the editors could not answer my question, I thought perhaps the journal could. For the last four years academics from around the world have been relating their experiences about digital scholarship, and publishing them in the JAHC. What better place to discover how the field defines digital history than to see what authors here have done?


Since its beginning in 1998, and not including the articles in this issue, the journal has presented 71 articles to its reading public. Sixty-five of these were single author papers, while five had dual authorship and one had three authors. This authorship pattern follows what one normally sees in the humanities–scholars tend to work and write alone. [4] The electronic format of this journal does not seem to have changed this pattern. There was a ratio of approximately two to one in male versus female authorship. This is again a pattern that bears out in history departments across the United States. [5] A number of individuals had multiple submissions. Three authors each submitted four papers, and another three authors submitted two papers. In all, there were 64 unique authors over the course of these four plus years.

All these statistics suggest that there is a fairly large, if not truly representative sample of historians and other academics who have written here about their experiences with digital technologies. Their stories are extraordinarily varied, arguably forming the best basis imaginable for defining digital history today. Since technologies are being created, adopted, and discarded on a daily basis, the definitions here necessarily are a benchmark for 2002–we should expect that definitions will need to be updated as our technological capacity changes.


Because primary sources are the grist of the historian's mill, it is not surprising that the primary sources referenced in the JAHC are, for the most part, predictable and what one would see in other, print venues. [6] The paper-based records look very familiar. The multimedia and computer-based sources are what give the journal its unique flavor.

Private Citizens. The materials that appear in the journal include a variety of correspondence in the form of paper letters. Additionally, we cite diaries, journals, family biographies, and memoirs as important sources of historical information. Other private citizen documents are in the form of ledgers and church registers or records. This last category is important in that more and more of these records are appearing in digital formats so that they can be indexed and accessed for historical and genealogical research. Although no one in the journal has referenced the Mormon Church as a source of digital family records, these remain a landmark in acquiring and organizing family records. [7]

Governments. As might be expected, government documents are another large category of primary sources referenced in the JAHC. These include information on citizens such as census data, births, deaths, and marriages, and immigration or emigration information. Military records and state papers form another category of documents. Finally, some of the authors here have referred to edicts, petitions, and patent applications. The journal has international authorship so the government documents are not just those of the United States.

Print Media. A third category of primary sources concerns itself with print sources of information. These include newspapers and political cartoons, advertisements and illustrations. Furthermore, the journal has references to dictionaries, pamphlets, and literary texts.

Multimedia. This category is not unique to e-journal production. If the journal were to include sound and video clips, or interactive formats, then this multimedia would be distinguishing. Nonetheless, authors here have referenced songs, movies, and speeches as primary sources. Other non-print primary "documents" include costumes, uniforms, tapestries, paintings and photographs. On a more practical note, there are also references to tools, furniture, household appliances, and cooking.

Computer Media. Finally, we see primary sources that appear unique to the definition of digital history. In the case of computer media, there is often no paper counterpart, or, at best, an awkward counterpart due to shear volume or method of presentation. Included in this category are geographical information system maps, 3-D animations, and net-newspapers that have no print counterpart. Census documents, like church records mentioned previously, are good examples of awkward sources. They are so large that searching them can be a life's work without the benefit of computer indexing and access.


This category appears to be the one that defines the realm of digital history. Throughout the journal we see examples of using technology for research and for teaching. Given the rate of change that exists with technology, it is not surprising that this category is complex. In fact, as will become apparent, it is difficult to create workable, standard definitions in a field that moves so fast and is embraced by so many individuals.

Teaching. Within the realm of pedagogy there are myriad applications for technology, from using PowerPoint slide presentations, to posting class notes on the World Wide Web, to teaching entire classes at a distance. Additionally, authors in this journal have written about virtual classes, computer assisted instruction (CAI), asynchronous instruction access, online multimedia self teaching tool, prepackaged primary sources exercises, and education utilities. These last applications are directly quoted from the journal. An interesting exercise would be to ask technology-savvy educators what these terms mean. We have probably reached a point in technology applications that requires careful attention to definitions. It is doubtful that anyone could easily distinguish among these pedagogical choices.

Communicating. Within both teaching and communicating with colleagues there is a wealth of information available in this journal on ways of reaching individuals through technology. Authors talk of networked computer laboratories for on-site learning, as well as computer mediated communication, groupware conferencing programs, moderated listservs, and threaded discussion lists. Additionally, the World Wide Web provides subject specific information gateways for faculty and students alike. Without belaboring the point made previously, there is a lot of room for fuzzy definitions in this collection of terms.

Hardware. JAHC's authors refer to technologies that range from the mundane to the sophisticated, including screen projectors, color printers, modems and speakers at the low end of the spectrum. At the high end are scanners, video cameras, digital cameras, and CDROM read/write drives. One would hazard a guess that only the most technologically sophisticated would be able to use all of these with ease.

Software. Software follows hardware's pattern from the simple to the sophisticated. Whereas file transfer processes (FTP) and TELNET are old hat to most academics, optical character recognition (OCR) and geographic information system (GIS) software packages are not so familiar. JAHC's authors also write about image analysis, speech analysis sound filtering, and digitization projects that include digital manipulation of images. Not only are these last software applications at the upper end of today's technological sophistication range, but they also require a fairly good grasp of acronyms.

Computer Simulation. Going at least one step beyond OCR and GIS, historians in the journal write about software packages that make use of computer simulations to create topographic battlefields, virtual excursions for students, and virtual reality simulation. These last technologies are the heady stuff of digital history, and their inclusion in the journal is what distinguishes authors and readers who delve into digital scholarship.

Preservation and Access. For those readers who are concerned with archival organization and retrieval, the journal offers a wealth of information about data mapping, metadata standards, including Dublin Core, meta indexes, and online thesauri. Additionally, there is information about bitmapped documents and digital surrogates, not to mention digital watermarking for security and authentication. These concepts could form the basis for a college course in electronic records management or archival preservation.

Research and Publishing. Finally, the journal also informs its readers about such topics as editing with computers, text retrieval programs for content analysis, documentary editions on CD-ROM, and bibliographic data sets. These concepts form the core of content analysis of qualitative data (the sort that computer-savvy historians might use instead of tried-and-true note cards), and distinguish these authors as digital historians. The journal in itself is an example of digital history–an e-journal with no paper counterpart. Authors today have moved from papers, to hypertext (some with hypermedia), to what has been termed "hyperpapers."


Defining digital history is difficult. The vocabulary is unstable because technologies appear and change over time, not to mention the fact that similar applications might be named different things by different authors. Categories overlap when speaking about the uses of technology. Whereas a primary source diary is a diary and readers here could probably agree on a common definition, computer-mediated communication could be nothing more than e-mail, or a sophisticated software package that manages on-line class discussions and bulletin boards. The long-held cultural definitions in the field of history often do not hold here. Research and teaching could be defined in entirely new ways.

It is clear that the vast major of primary sources we see in the Journal of the Association for History and Computing are the kinds historians have always seen. What is different is not the sources, but the way that digital scholars do their work. They teach using computers. They manipulate data with software programs that allow visualizations unheard of ten or twenty years ago. They publish their work in e-journals, or on interactive CD-ROMs, or they teach whole classes using resources posted to the World Wide Web. They put the time into these sophisticated applications because they believe they make a difference in their research and in their teaching.

In the end perhaps this discussion should not have been in search of digital history, but in search of the digital historian. The applications that we see in the JAHC are thus an indication, a benchmark, for defining the digital historian 2002. It will be fascinating to read the journal's articles and see how this digital historian changes over time.


Embedded in this discussion of digital history and historian, and the terminology used to define their realm, is a very important issue for the field. This journal uses vocabulary and concepts that are not common knowledge to everyone in the field of history, much less in the whole of academe. The editors of the journal sometimes have to ponder what a new term means. For the sake of those who read the journal, and for the scholar/historian whose work will be judged by academic review boards that are not grounded in technology, it would be worth thinking about vocabulary, standards, and definitions in order to reach and inform as wide an audience as possible. It is impossible to judge what we do not understand. Teaching to create this understanding is a task for the journal, and for all digital scholars.


1. This writing of "Benchmarks" is based upon a presentation given at the annual conference of the American Association for History and Computing, Nashville, TN, March 8, 2002.

2. "Benchmark," American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

3. See Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin. 1990. Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. Newbury Park: Sage Publications

4. See Rebecca Watson-Boone. 1994. The information needs and habits of humanities scholars. RQ 32(2):203-216 for a discussion of work habits of humanists (including historians).

5. This proportion holds almost exactly for history faculty across the four State University of New York University Center history departments. Thirty one percent of the full-time faculty, aggregated across Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook, are female.

6. Given the scope of this content analysis, I have not referenced the source of the materials found in the journal. The notes or links would have been overwhelming.

7. A search of the World Wide Web for Latter Day Saints and genealogy provides just a sample of historical records that have been digitized.

Deborah Lines Andersen can be reached at <>.