Introduction: Promises and Perils of Digital History

tep back in time and open the pages of the inaugural issue of Wired magazine from the spring of 1993, and prophecies of an optimistic digital future call out to you. Management consultant Lewis J. Perleman confidently proclaims an “inevitable” “hyperlearning revolution” that will displace the thousand-year-old “technology” of the classroom, which has “as much utility in today’s modern economy of advanced information technology as the Conestoga wagon or the blacksmith shop.” John Browning, a friend of the magazine’s founders and later the Executive Editor of Wired UK, rhapsodizes about how “books once hoarded in subterranean stacks will be scanned into computers and made available to anyone, anywhere, almost instantly, over high-speed networks.” Not to be outdone by his authors, Wired publisher Louis Rossetto links the digital revolution to “social changes so profound that their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.”1

Although the Wired prophets could not contain their enthusiasm, the techno-skeptics fretted about a very different future. Debating Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s, literary critic Sven Birkerts implored readers to “refuse” the lure of “the electronic hive.” The new media, he warned, pose a dire threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth”—“the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”2

Some historians—on both the right and the left—also saw deep trouble ahead. In November 1996, the conservative Gertrude Himmelfarb offered what she called a “neo-Luddite” dissent about “the new technology’s impact on learning and scholarship.” “Like postmodernism,” she complained, “the Internet does not distinguish between the true and the false, the important and the trivial, the enduring and the ephemeral. . . . Every source appearing on the screen has the same weight and credibility as every other; no authority is ‘privileged’ over any other.” A year later, the Marxist historian of technology David Noble found himself standing beside Himmelfarb in the neo-Luddite crowd, although not surprisingly he spotted the cyber-threat coming from a different direction. “A dismal new era of higher education has dawned,” he wrote in a paper called “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education.” “In future years we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen.”3

More than a decade into the promised “digital revolution,” the cyber-enthusiasts and the techno-skeptics have both turned out to be poor prophets of the future. Universities and libraries still stand. Culture has not crumbled. Paradise has not arrived. But to decide that neither utopia nor dystopia beckons should not lead to the comfortable conclusion that nothing has changed or will change. Driven by the rapid emergence and dissemination of computers, global computer networks, and new digital media, change—though not revolution—surrounds us. Our daily habits of finding the news and weather, buying books, and communicating with colleagues and loved ones have permanently changed.

Even the ancient discipline of history has begun to metamorphose. In the past two decades, new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past. Almost every historian regards a computer as basic equipment; colleagues view those who write their books and articles without the assistance of word processing software as objects of curiosity. History teachers labor over their PowerPoint slides as do sixth graders preparing for History Day. Email and instant messaging has broadened circles of communication and debate among dispersed historical practitioners, scholars as well as amateur enthusiasts.

Nowhere are the signs of change for historians more evident than on the World Wide Web. Yahoo’s web directory currently lists 32,959 history websites. Even this vast catalog greatly underestimates the pervasiveness of the past online, not including, for example, the tens of thousands of online syllabi for history courses. In the past decade, historians with interests ranging from ancient Mesopotamia to the post-Cold War world have enthusiastically embraced the web. Virtually every scholarly journal duplicates its content online (though not always openly), and almost every history course has its syllabus posted on the web. Virtually every historical archive, historical museum, historical society, historic house, and historic site—even the very smallest—have its own website. So does just about every reenactment group, genealogical society, and body of historical enthusiasts.

This book emerges in response to these dramatic changes. Just ten years ago, we would not have imagined the need for “a guide to gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the web.” Indeed, few of us knew the web existed. Even the editors of Wired ignored it in their inaugural issue.4 Ten years ago, we would have been objects of curiosity, if not derision, if we had proposed such a project. Today, the need for it seems self-evident.

To offer such a volume implicitly puts us on the other side of the fence from neo-Luddite historians like Noble and Himmelfarb. We obviously believe that we gain something from doing digital history, making use of the new computer-based technologies. Yet although we are wary of the conclusions of the techno-skeptics, we are not entirely enthusiastic about the views of the cyber-enthusiasts either. Rather, we believe that we need to critically and soberly assess where computers, networks, and digital media are and aren't useful for historians—a category that we define broadly to include amateur enthusiasts, research scholars, museum curators, documentary filmmakers, historical society administrators, classroom teachers, and history students at all levels. In what ways can digital media and digital networks allow us to do our work as historians better?

This introduction briefly sketches seven qualities of digital media and networks that potentially allow us to do things better: capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity, and hypertextuality (or nonlinearity). We also talk about five dangers or hazards on the information superhighway: quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. This scorecard of possibilities and problems seems, on balance, to suggest a digital future worth pursuing. We thus align ourselves with neither the wild-eyed optimists nor the gloomy pessimists but rather with the camp known as “techno-realists” who seek, in the words of computer scientist and social theorist Phil Agre, to analyze “case by case the interactions between technology and institutions through which the action really unfolds.”5 Doing digital history well entails being aware of the technology’s advantages and disadvantages, and how to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.

The first advantage of digital media for historians is storage capacity—digital media can condense unparalleled amounts of data into small spaces. A 120-gigabyte hard drive that sells for $95 and weighs about a pound can hold a 120,000-volume library. Because historians love data and archival sources, they have great interest in this ability to condense large amounts of data into tiny amounts of space. Historians who would like to make considerable quantities of primary sources available over the web quickly learn that storage space is perhaps the smallest expense they face.

The most profound effect, however, may be on tomorrow’s historians. The rapidly dropping price of data storage has led computer scientists like Michael Lesk (a cyber-enthusiast to be sure) to claim that in the future, “there will be enough disk space and tape storage in the world to store everything people write, say, perform, or photograph.” In other words, why delete anything from the current historical record if it costs so little save it? How might our history writing be different if all historical evidence were available?6

The vast storage capacity of digital media would be of much less interest without a second and even more important advantage—accessibility. This quality derives both from the ability to condense the bits and bytes encoded in digital media into small spaces but even more from the emergence of ubiquitous computer networks that can almost instantly send those bits around the world. Historians have multiple audiences; digital networks mean that we can reach those audiences—students, other scholars and teachers, the general public—much more easily and cheaply than ever before. The distribution of history projects electronically approaches what the economists call “zero marginal cost;” once the initial expenses are met, reaching an additional person costs almost nothing (unlike, say, a print book where costs decline after the initial investment but still remain substantial). Our web server at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) gets about three-quarters of a million hits a day, but on September 11, 2002 (when people looking to commemorate the attacks of the previous year descended in droves on the September 11 Digital Archive that we organized in collaboration with the American Social History Project), we handled eight million hits—a more than ten-fold increase with no additional costs.7

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entre before. The analog Library of Congress has never welcomed high school students—its reading rooms, no less its special collections, routinely turn them away. Now the library’s American Memory website allows high school students to enter the virtual archive on the same terms of access as the most senior historian or member of Congress. To those who previously had no easy access, online archives open locked doors. Nonacademic users of the University of North Carolina’s archival website, Documenting the American South, reports university librarian Joe Hewitt, speak eloquently of how they “felt privileged to have access to these primary sources as if they had entered an inner sanctum where they did not fully belong.”8 But even for well-credentialed historians, such online archives put millions of historical documents at hand twenty-four hours a day and without the cost of a plane ticket or the delay of travel to Washington, D.C., or Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The instantaneous access to primary and secondary sources—the ability to very quickly make and test out intellectual connections—will likely alter historical research and writing in ways that we haven’t yet imagined.

The accessibility and publicness of the web has consequences for history projects much less extensive than those mounted by the Library of Congress or major university libraries. High school teachers can devise community programs in which students present the results of their historical research to an online audience of local residents. Historical societies based in small and declining towns on the Great Plains can keep in touch with—and gather historical information from—former residents.9 A genealogical web page can bring together the descendants of a family who started out in County Cork, Ireland, but later scattered to London, Toronto, San Francisco, Cape Town, and Melbourne. The Internet allows historians to speak to vastly more people in widely dispersed places without really spending more money—an extraordinary development.

The past that is suddenly more accessible is also much richer because of a third characteristic of digital media—what we might call flexibility. Because digital media are expressed in a basic language of 1s and 0s, they can take multiple forms, and that means we can arrange those bits into text, images, sounds, and moving pictures. Thus we can more easily preserve, study, and present the past in the multiple media that expressed and recorded it. Online digital archives can contain images, sounds, and moving pictures as well as text. And you can present the past in multiple media that combine sounds, images, and moving pictures with words.

But the flexibility of digital data lies not just in the ability to encompass different media. It also resides in the ability of the same data to assume multiple guises instantaneously. Although language translation software is still primitive, we are moving toward a time when words in one tongue can be automatically translated into another—perhaps not perfectly but effectively enough. More generally, digital information organized into databases or marked up in structured languages like XML (see Chapter 2 and the appendix) can be instantly reordered or combined into new forms. Acting on the pieces in a database or XML document, small but powerful computer programs can pull together disparate materials in a way that compares, contrasts, and enhances them. For example, a scholar of ancient Greece simultaneously can see an image of a vase, commentaries from several other historians about that vase, and suggestions of similar artifacts from a database. As new media theorist Lev Manovich points out, the “numerical coding of media” and the “modular structure of a data object” means “a new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions.” Thus Manovich sees the database—with its infinitely rearrangable data—as one of the fundamental forms found in new media.10

Flexibility transforms the experience of consuming history, but digital media—because of their openness and diversity—also alters the conditions and circumstances of producing history. The computer networks that have come together in the World Wide Web are not only more open to a global audience of history readers than any other previous medium, they are also more open to history authors. A 2004 study found that almost half of the Internet users in the United States have created online content by building websites, creating blogs, and posting and sharing files. An astonishing 13 percent maintain their own websites, and one recent census counts more than seven million blogs.11 No publishing medium has ever had such a low barrier to entry. At virtually no cost, millions have access to their own printing press. Already, the number of authors of history web pages is likely greater than the number of authors of history books. But the even more dramatic contrast is in the social composition of the two sets of authors—web history authors are significantly more diverse and significantly less likely to have formal credentials. Their strong presence online unsettles existing hierarchies, thus producing Himmelfarb’s jeremiad and the laments of other techno-skeptics.

The web, as a result, has given a much louder and more public voice to amateur historians. If you searched for “Abraham Lincoln” in Google in 2004, the top site listed was the Abraham Lincoln Research Site, which features the writing of Roger Norton, who says of himself “I am not an author or an historian; rather I am a former American history teacher who enjoys researching Abraham Lincoln's life and accomplishments.”12 Through Google’s eye, which is how an increasing number of people view the web, Roger Norton was a more influential Lincoln historian than the Pulitzer-Prize winning Harvard professor David Donald.

For the most part, these first four qualities of digital media provide what we might call quantitative advantages—we can do more, reach more people, store more data, give readers more varied sources; we can get more historical materials into classrooms, give students more access to formerly cloistered documents, hear from more perspectives. But does digital history do anything differently? Literary critic Janet Murray raises this issue in Hamlet on the Holodeck, her book on the future of narrative in cyberspace. There, she distinguishes between “additive” and “expressive” features of new media. She makes the useful analogy to early films, which were initially called “photoplays,” and thus thought of as “a merely additive art form (photography plus theatre).” Only when filmmakers learned to use montage, close-ups, zooms, and the like as part of storytelling did photoplays give way to the new expressive form of movies.13

To consider these “expressive” qualities we need to think, for example, about the manipulability of digital media—the possibility of manipulating historical data with electronic tools as a way of finding things that were not previously evident. At the moment, the most powerful of those tools for historians is the simplest—the ability to search through vast quantities of text for particular strings of words. The word search capabilities of JSTOR, the online database of 460 scholarly periodicals, makes possible a kind of intellectual history that cannot be done as readily in print sources. Say you want to trace the changing reputation of Richard Hofstadter in the historical profession; the 667 articles in JSTOR that mention Hofstadter provide an invaluable starting point. Historians of language are already having a field day playing with such massive databases. The librarian and lexicographer Fred Shapiro, for example, has uncovered uses of such phrases as “double standard” (1912) and “Native American” (for American Indian, 1931) that predate citations in the Oxford English Dictionary by decades. Similarly, CHNM’s Syllabus Finder makes it possible to discover—by searching through thousands of online history syllabi—patterns in history teaching (the popularity of different courses, texts, or types of assignments) that were once invisible.14

But text searching is only one very simple technique, albeit a powerful one when leveraged through Boolean searches and the use of advanced pattern-matching techniques such as the “regular expressions” used by computer scientists. Even more tantalizing are the prospects of being able to search automatically through vast quantities of images, sounds, and moving pictures. And, at some point, we may be able to dynamically map (temporally and geographically) historical events drawn from tens of thousands of historical sources. Or we may be able to see new things in historical images through digital close-ups or manipulation. Jerome McGann, for example, talks about using software tools to “deform” images and see in them elements previously missed.15

Digital media also differ from many other older media in their interactivity—a product of the web being, unlike broadcast television, a two-way medium, in which every point of consumption can also be a point of production. This interactivity enables multiple forms of historical dialogue—among professionals, between professionals and nonprofessionals, between teachers and students, among students, among people reminiscing about the past—that were possible before but which are not only simpler but potentially richer and more intensive in the digital medium. Many history websites offer opportunities for dialogue and feedback. The level of response has varied widely, but the experience so far suggests how we might transform historical practice—the web becomes a place for new forms of collaboration, new modes of debate, and new modes of collecting evidence about the past. At least potentially, digital media transform the traditional, one-way reader/writer, producer/consumer relationship. Public historians, in particular, have long sought for ways to “share authority” with their audiences; the web offers an ideal medium for that sharing and collaboration.16

Finally, we note the hypertextuality, or nonlinearity, of digital media—the ease of moving through narratives or data in undirected and multiple ways. Hypertext, as is well known, is a constitutional principle of the World Wide Web; its original designer, Tim Berners-Lee, called its most basic protocol the “HyperText Transfer Protocol”—the “http” that begins every web address. For postmodernists, hypertextuality fractures and decenters traditional master narratives in beneficial ways. “Hypertext,” writes literary critic George Landow, “emphasizes that the marginal has as much to offer as the central by refusing to grant centrality to anything É for more than the time a gaze rests upon it. In hypertext, centrality, like beauty and relevance, resides in the eye of the beholder.” For Landow, hypertext reconfigures texts, authors, writing, and narrative. In this fundamental “paradigm shift” (what he calls “a revolution in human thought”), conceptual systems “founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity” are overturned by “ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks.”17

To talk about revolutions in human thought starts to make us sound like one of the cyber-enthusiasts with whom we began. Are we, in fact, on the verge of a new, richer, and rewarding era of cyber-historical work—a digital history revolution? Although we would not disavow the profound advantages and features of digital history, we would quickly offer some caveats. Some equally profound barriers and difficulties keep all of us from reaching this rosy digital future. Moreover, some of the positive goods that online history is bringing to our desktops are accompanied by serious hazards and dangers—many of them are, in turn, the flip side of advantages we discussed earlier.

For example, the problems of quality and authenticity emerge, in part, out of the vast capacity of digital media. Often cyber-skeptics summarize this view in the simple phrase “it’s mostly junk.” “Internet search engines,” writes Gertrude Himmelfarb, “will produce a comic strip or advertising slogan as readily as a quotation from the Bible or Shakespeare.” Historian James William Brodman similarly worries that students will unfailingly grab the comic strip rather than Shakespeare: “Much of the material that students . . . unearth in cyberspace is of uneven character—juvenile, inaccurate, or sometimes simply wrong.”18

And to be sure, we can find plenty of inaccurate history on the web. Take a look at the web pages of Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and read a letter allegedly from Martin Van Buren to Andrew Jackson calling for government intervention to stop the threat to the railroads posed by the Erie Canal. A careful assessment of internal evidence (an important historical skill in all ages) readily betrays the twentieth-century origins of this “nineteenth-century” letter. But the forgery predates the web, and the web also offers crucial evidence about the origins of the counterfeit. Moreover, in general, the web is more likely to be right than wrong. A quick check of Google finds 613 web pages discussing the “Gettysberg Address” but 86,100 that correctly spell the locale for Lincoln’s speech as “Gettysburg.” If the existence of misinformation on the web is no more of a problem than its existence in the rest of society, the web does actually pose some thornier problems of authenticity and authority. One is that both forgery and the movement of forgery into the “information stream” are considerably easier in the digital and networked world.19

Consider, for example, the famous “photograph” of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby playing rock music together in a Dallas basement. Such fake photographs have a long history; Stalin’s photo retouchers, for example, spent considerable time airbrushing Trotsky out of the historical record. But the transformation of the original Bob Jackson photo of Ruby shooting Oswald into “In-A-Gadda-Da-Oswald” did not require a skilled craftsman. George Mahlberg created it with Photoshop in forty minutes and it quickly spread across the World Wide Web, popping up in multiple contexts that erase the credit of the “original” counterfeiter.20

Figure 1: Fake photographs long predate the web, but digital tools have made them much easier to create and disseminate. Adobe Photoshop enabled George Mahlberg to produce “In-A-Gadda-Da-Oswald” in forty minutes.

Himmelfarb implies a related problem in her horror that a comic strip could have the same authority as the Bible. In this new space, will traditional repositories of authority retain their stature and influence? In the heterogeneous space of the web, will the History Channel serve as a more influential authority than the History Cooperative, the online publisher of the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History? Anyone can gain admittance to the History Channel site, but the History Cooperative site is only open to journal subscribers.

Is there some way to police the boundaries of historical quality and authenticity on the web? Could we stop a thousand historical flowers—amateur, professional, commercial, crackpot—from blooming on the web? Would we want to? Of course, issues of quality, authenticity, and authority pre-date the Internet. But digital media undercut an existing structure of trust and authority and we, as historians and citizens, have yet to establish a new structure of historical legitimation and authority. When you move your history online, you are entering a less structured and controlled environment than the history monograph, the scholarly journal, the history museum, or the history classroom. That can have both positive and unsettling implications.

One vision of the digital future involves the preservation of everything—the dream of the complete historical record. The current reality, however, is closer to the reverse of that—we are rapidly losing the digital present that is being created because no one has worked out a means of preserving it. The flipside of the flexibility of digital data is its seeming lack of durability—a second hazard on the road to digital history nirvana. The digital record of the federal government is being lost on a daily basis. Although most government agencies started using email and word processing software in the mid-1980s, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration still does not require that digital records be stored in their original form.21 Again, historical and archival preservation are hardly new problems, but the digital era has forced us to reconsider fundamental questions about what should be preserved and who should preserve it.

Prophets of hypertext have repeatedly promised a new, richer reading experience, but critics have instead seen the digital environment as engendering the death of reading as we know it. Sven Birkerts has expressed the most profound sense of loss in Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. The more prosaic (and the most common) complaint centers on the difficulty of reading a screen, that is, the issue of poor legibility. But reading on screen may ultimately find a technological solution as high-resolution, high-contrast displays become cheaper to produce.22

The more profound problem of readability is figuring out what it means to be an author in this environment. Typically such experiments place large demands on the reader—they are, in Espen Aarseth’s phrase, “ergodic” literature, in which “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.” Historian Philip J. Ethington’s online article on Los Angeles—the American Historical Review’s first all-electronic work—asks you to make your way through a relatively dense argument for a spatial theory of historical certainty as well as a vast set of videos, panoramas, maps, and essays on everything from photography to urban epistemology.23

Hypertext scholarship like this disrupts the conventions of the printed scholarly article. Yet although such conventions can be deadening, they can also make printed articles easy to read, at least by those who know the “codes.” Most academics can rapidly find the thesis in the first few pages, the conclusions on the last two pages, and a sense of the sources used through a quick scan of the footnotes. Such strategies are worthless in confronting hypertext essays. Not only is the thesis often hard to find quickly, but it is not always clear that there is a thesis. Where is the beginning? The end? Reader expectations about the investment of time required to master an essay are entirely disrupted. In effect, those works undercut the unwritten social contract that exists between readers and writers of scholarly essays—a social contract in which the author agrees to follow conventions of argumentation, organization, and documentation, and the reader agrees to devote a certain amount of time to give the article a fair reading.24

Digital enthusiasts assume that the online environment is intrinsically more “interactive” than one-way, passive media like television. But digital technology could, in fact, foster a new couch potatoÐlike passivity. Efforts to create nuanced interactive history projects sometimes become quixotic when the producers confront the fact that computers are good at yes and no and right and wrong, whereas historians prefer words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “it is more complicated than that.” Thus the most common form of historical interactivity on the web is the multiple-choice test. But the high-budget version is little better. Take, for example, the History Channel’s website Modern Marvel’s Boys’ Toys, which is a combination of watching the cable channel and playing a video game. The true interactivity here comes when you click on the “shop” button. As legal scholar Lawrence Lessig has written pessimistically: “There are two futures in front of us, the one we are taking and the one we could have. The one we are taking is easy to describe. Take the Net, mix it with the fanciest TV, add a simple way to buy things, and that’s pretty much it.” At the same time, some wonder whether we really want to foster “interactivity” at all, arguing that it fails to provide the critical experience of understanding, of getting inside the thoughts and experiences of others. The literary critic Harold Bloom, for example, argues that whereas linear fiction allows us to experience more by granting us access to the lives and thoughts of those different from ourselves, interactivity only permits us to experience more of ourselves.25

A more serious threat in digital media, which runs counter to its great virtues of accessibility and diversity, is the real potential for inaccessibility and monopoly. The best-known danger—the digital divide in computer ownership and Internet use between rich and poor, white and non-white—has diminished somewhat, but it persists despite politically motivated claims to the contrary. And on a global basis, the divide is wide indeed; two-thirds of the people in the world have no access to telephones, let alone the Net. Moreover, even as more and more people acquire computers and Internet connections, they do not simultaneously acquire the skills for finding and making effective use of this new, free global resource.26 Another concern stems more from the production than the consumption side. Will amateur and academic historians be able to compete with well-funded commercial operators—like the History Channel—for attention on the Net?

In any event, the most important commercial purveyors of the past are not, at the moment, the History Channel or the magazine-driven TheHistoryNet but global multibillion-dollar information conglomerates like ProQuest, Reed Elsevier, and the Thomson Corporation, which charge libraries high prices for the vast digital databases of journals, magazines, newspapers, books, and historical documents that they control.27 Dividing cyberspace into a series of gated communities controlled by information conglomerates means that the dream of a globally interconnected scholarship is just that—a dream. The balkanization of the web into privately owned digital storehouses has been made worse by the scandalous Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998, which extended already lengthy existing copyright terms by another twenty years (in part due to the aggressive lobbying of the Disney Corporation, whose Mickey Mouse was scurrying toward the public domain). Will “authority” and “authenticity” reside with the corporate purveyors of the past? Will these diverse, eclectic, and largely free online history resources survive the onslaught of these mega operations? Will access to the best historical resources be open or closed?

Such questions and concerns should not lead us to throw up our hands in despair. Rather—and this is a key message of this book—they should prod us to sit down in front of our computers and get to work. Historians need to confront these issues of quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility rather than leave them to the technologists, legislators, and media companies, or even just to our colleagues in libraries and archives. We should put our energies into maintaining and enlarging the astonishingly rich public historical web that has emerged in the past decade. For some, that might involve joining “the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the Internet,” as embodied, for example, in the Budapest Open Access Initiative.28 For others, that should mean joining in eclectic but widespread grass-roots efforts to put the past online—whether that involves posting a few documents online for your students or raising funds for more ambitious projects to create free public archives. Just as “open source” software has been the rallying cry of academic computer scientists, “open sources” should be the slogan of academic and popular historians. Academics and enthusiasts created the web; we should not quickly or quietly cede it to giant corporations and their pricy, gated materials. The most important weapon for building the digital future we want is to take an active hand in creating digital history in the present.

This book is intended to tell you how to do that. As our title indicates, this is meant to be a practical handbook rather than a theoretical manifesto. Our distinctive contribution, as we see it, is our focus on history and historians. The “History Web,” as we call it here, has grown so large that it merits a separate introduction focused on the specific problems and possibilities faced by historians who want to enter it. Of course, historians are not so very different from other folks, and we hope that the book will also be of help and interest to a wider community of people, especially those in the humanities broadly defined.

Throughout we have tried to make the book accessible to the historian contemplating the web for the first time as well as to more experienced hands who might know a great deal about web design (and hence might skim over Chapter 4) but know little about copyright and preservation issues. Our goal is not to turn you into a master of the all matters covered in the book; that would be impossible, and frankly we can’t claim expertise on all of them ourselves. Nor do we intend to teach you “how to build a web page,” which is done better by other, generic volumes that sit on long shelves devoted to the subject. Similarly, we cannot cover in a short book all the dimensions of complex topics such as server infrastructure, scanning resolutions, web design, copyright, and preservation. Other volumes and web resources cover these topics in much greater detail, and we provide references to those works within these pages for those who want to develop their skills and knowledge further.

Rather, we want to get you to think about why you might build a history website and what challenges and opportunities that might pose. More generally, we want you to know enough to organize and lead an online history endeavor even if you are joined by collaborators (designers, programmers, lawyers, archivists, librarians) with more specialized knowledge of key aspects of your project. Our practical goals have a basis in a broader democratic aspiration to make the History Web a place where ordinary historians can practice their craft in new and innovative ways. We think that it is a mistake for historians to confine themselves purely to history (narrowly defined) and then turn their digital projects over to “experts.” In this new medium, new and creative work will only come out of equal collaborations among partners with different perspectives and skills.

Chapter 1 (Exploring the History Web) provides a survey of the historical development (and current status) of the online history world. If you want to get involved with online history, you need to first get acquainted with the main genres of web-based history—the models that you will seek to emulate and exceed.

Before your first web pages are posted, you must consider a host of critical questions concerning your own and your users’ wants and needs. Chapter 2 (Getting Started: The Nature of Websites, and What You Will Need to Create Yours) will walk you through the first steps in getting an online history project up and running. It then takes you “under the hood” of a history web project, outlining the operation of the “server-side”—that is, the setup and activities of the computer that historians will need to understand if they want to establish a website. Given that hardware and software options constantly change and multiply, we emphasize the basic principles of how you can structure and serve a site.

But what are you going to put on your website? That historians deal mostly in old stuff presents real hurdles to getting online. Current historians rarely rely on databases of materials created in digital form—“born digital” in the contemporary argot. Depending on the amount of material to be presented, its format, age, and condition, “becoming digital” can require a significant initial investment of time, energy, money, and technology. You need to understand these costs at the outset of any online history project. Chapter 3 (Becoming Digital: Preparing Historical Materials for the Web) discusses the costs and benefits of digitization, the digital formats to consider, ways of digitizing the past, and considerations about whether to do the work yourself or hire a commercial vendor.

In Chapter 4 (Designing for the History Web), we switch from behind the scenes to the most visible aspect of a history website. The historian’s public role as a narrator and interpreter of the past requires clear and compelling expression. Although historians understand well the structural elements and composition of paper-based works such as books and essays, they generally know little about the principles and features that make for effective communication on the web. This chapter covers the basics of web design, including hypertext and multimedia, maximum access for different audiences, the use of fonts and typography, user-friendly page layouts and navigation, and the integration of images such as maps and diagrams.

A well-built, well-designed, and well-stocked history website is still like a tree falling in the digital forest if no one visits it. The Internet promises unmediated access to a potentially unlimited audience, yet this exciting possibility rarely lives up to its promise. Chapter 5 (Building an Audience) discusses strategies for attracting an audience as well as assessing its size and contours.

At least some historians will want to consider whether their audience can become co-creators of their site. Can you use the web not just to present the past but also to collect it? Chapter 6 (Collecting History Online) explores some of the ways in which the web has been used (and might be used) to build significant collections of born-digital historical materials such as first-person recollections, email, digital images, and video of events in recent memory.

Who, then, “owns” born-digital materials? And, more broadly, who owns the web pages you create or the documents that you want to present on your website? Historians who go online put themselves on both sides of the increasingly contested issues of copyright and fair use. They create intellectual property, which they may want to protect. And they very often use intellectual property—words, images, sounds, and films—owned by others. Chapter 7 (Owning the Past? The Digital Historian’s Guide to Copyright and Intellectual Property) explores what every historian needs to know about copyright, fair use, intellectual property, and the collective “commons” of the web.

Given the central mission of their profession, surprisingly few digital historians have thought about ensuring that what has been created today in digital formats will survive into the future. Digital materials are notoriously fragile and require special attention to withstand changing technologies and user demands. In particular, projects that collect and present historical materials online assume a special responsibility for the long-term survival and availability of those materials. Online historians must therefore think prospectively, creatively, and strategically about issues of digital preservation and access. Chapter 8 (Preserving Digital History: What We Can Do Today to Help Tomorrow’s Historians) will help you meet this challenge by offering simple, practical, and affordable advice.

In offering such advice, we realize that we are speaking to a diverse audience of historians—students and teachers, research scholars and museum curators, history enthusiasts and professional historians. Even more wide-ranging, no doubt, is your degree of familiarity with the subjects covered in this book. We have tried hard not to be too technical in our discussions, but we know that some readers will want more detail on audio sampling rates, and others will wonder what they are in the first place. In general, Chapters 2 and 4 are the most “technical” from the vantage point of hardware and software. To make things easier for novices, however, we have placed some more advanced topics such as databases and XML in an appendix.

Figure 2: The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University was founded in 1994 with the goal of using digital media and computer technology to change the ways that people—scholars, students, and the general public—learn about and use the past. Many of its projects have been undertaken in collaboration with the American Social History Project at the City University of New York.

We should also say something here about the authorial “we” behind the book. Most obviously, that reflects the two authors—Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig. But the “we” also indicates some broader collaborations stretching over more than fifteen years. For Roy, they go back to his earliest work in new media done in collaboration with the American Social History Project (ASHP) at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (and especially Steve Brier and Josh Brown) and the Voyager Company starting in 1990. And for Roy and Dan, they are rooted in the larger work of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which Roy founded in 1994 and Dan joined in 2001. Not surprisingly, we regularly draw on our own experiences with ASHP and CHNM for examples. And for reasons of linguistic convenience, we talk about those as “our” projects, but readers should be aware those projects are the work of literally dozens of people—some of them thanked specifically in the acknowledgments and others who are credited on the web pages for those different projects.29 Those projects have been our postgraduate education in the potentials and perils of digital history and the basis of our belief in its democratic possibilities. This book is an invitation to our fellow historians to join in exploring that potential.

These notes include references to almost six hundred web pages. To save readers from having to type long web addresses into their browser and from experiencing the frustration of addresses having gone bad, we have created a web page with links to all of the references here. At, you will find a list of web addresses organized by chapter and note numbers. The websites mentioned in the text are first listed serially. Then, there is a list for the endnotes from each chapter. For example, below you will be referred to “↪link 5.7a.” (The symbol ↪ indicates a web link.) That is the web address for Chapter 5, note 7, first reference (a; subsequent references in the same note are b, c, and so on), and you will find the link listed there. If the original link has disappeared, we will refer you to the best available reference for the material. Links in Introduction notes begin with 0 (0.1a).

1 Lewis J. Perelman, “School’s Out: The Hyperlearning Revolution Will Replace Public Education;” John Browning, “Libraries Without Walls for Books Without Pages;” Louis Rosetto, “Why Wired?” all in Wired Magazine (March-April 1993), parts of which are available at ↪link 0.1.

2 Birkerts in “The Electronic Hive: Two Views,” Harper's Magazine, May 1994, 17Ð21, 24Ð25. See also Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994).

3 Gertrude Himmelfarb, “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet,” Chronicle of Higher Education (1 November 1996), A56; Noble’s essay was later reprinted in David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001).

4 Even the Internet (and not the web) rates mention in only two articles: Bruce Sterling, “War Is Virtual Hell;” John Browning, “Libraries Without Walls for Books Without Pages,” both in Wired Magazine (March-April 1993).

5 Phil Agre, “RRE Notes and Recommendations,” email to “Red Rock Eater News Service”, 8 August 2000, ↪link 0.5.

6 Michael Lesk, “How Much Information Is There in the World?” Michael Lesk, ↪link 0.6a. See also Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” American Historical Review 108 (June 2003): 735Ð62, ↪link 0.6b.

7 CHNM and ASHP, The September 11 Digital Archive, ↪link 0.7. Of course, a long-term increase in traffic of that scale will increase costs (for bandwidth and for support, for example), but not to the same degree as, say, printing ten times as many copies of a book.

8 Library of Congress, American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library, ↪link 0.8a; Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Documenting the American South, ↪link 0.8b; Joe A. Hewitt, “Remarks,” DocSouth 1000th Title Symposium, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1 March 2002, ↪link 0.8c.

9 See, for example, Kevin Roe’s website Brainerd, Kansas: Time, Place and Memory on the Prairie Plains, ↪link 0.9.

10 Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 36, 214. As Jim Sparrow has pointed out to us, this, in effect, reverses Walter Benjamin’s famous argument in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that an “authentic” original is essential to our valuation of art as a “priceless” work of human creativity. For Benjamin, “mechanical reproduction” erased value, but here it unleashes the collective process of interpretation, debate, and memory from which genuine historical value flows. In other words, access harnesses and democratizes the collective work that undergirds the production of historical knowledge.

11 Amanda Lenhart, John Horrigan, and Deborah Fallows, Content Creation Online (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2004), ↪link 0.11a; Technorati, ↪link 0.11b counted 7,130,059 blogs on 17 February 2005.

12 Roger Norton, Abraham Lincoln Research Site, ↪link 0.12. Norton was first between June 2003 and July 2004 but has since slipped to number three.

13 Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997), 66.

14 Ethan Bronner, “You Can Look It Up, Hopefully,” New York Times, 10 January 1999; Daniel J. Cohen, “By the Book: Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses,” Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1405-1415, ↪link 0.14.

15 Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web, (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 84Ð85. For a brief overview of the state of content-based image retrieval, see Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute and National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage, The NINCH Guide to Good Practice in the Digital Representation and Management of Cultural Heritage Materials, 45, ↪link 0.15.

16 Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). See also Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

17 George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 89, 2.

18 Himmelfarb, “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet”; James William Brodman, “E-Publishing: Prospects, Promises, and Pitfalls,” Perspectives (February 2000), ↪link 0.18.

19 Kent Lassman, “Tech Bytes—Tid Bits in Tech News: Endangering Life and Limb É At Breakneck Speed,” Citizens for a Sound Economy, ↪link 0.19a (In July 2004 Citizens for a Sound Economy and Empower America merged to form FreedomWorks, and the article is on their joint website); Bob McTeer, “The Great Trade Debates and What’s at Stake” (remarks delivered at the World Affairs Council and Texas International Trade Alliance, Houston, Texas, 10 October 2000), ↪link 0.19b; David Bearman and Jennifer Trant, “Authenticity of Digital Resources: Towards a Statement of Requirements in the Research Process,” D-Lib Magazine 4, no. 6 (June 1998), ↪link 0.19c.

20 One website with this photo is ArteMedia, ↪link 0.20.

21 Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance?”; Jeffrey Benner, “Is U.S. History Becoming History?” Wired News (9 April 2001), ↪link 0.21a. Not until January 2005 did the National Archives finally issue guidelines on the archiving of the millions of government web pages. “NARA Guidance on Managing Web Records, January 2005,” NARA, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, link 0.21b.

22 Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies; Roy Rosenzweig, “Crashing the System: Hypertext and American Studies Scholarship,” American Quarterly 51 (June 1999): 237Ð46. Business historian Austin Kerr wrote in an online response to the online AQ essays: “a few moments was enough. . . . I certainly did not feel comfortable trying to read this one example.” Sony’s recently (2004) released Librie, which offers resolution of 600 x 800 dots at 170 dpi, provides a glimpse of things to come. J. Mark Lytle, “Library Without books,” Guardian (22 April 2004).

23 Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Philip J. Ethington, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge,” American Historical Review 105 (December 2000), ↪link 0.23.

24 Rosenzweig, “Crashing the System.”

25link 0.25; Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Random House, 2001), 7; Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why (New York: Scribner’s, 2001).

26 On the digital divide, see Mark N. Cooper, Does the Digital Divide Still Exist? Bush Administration Shrugs, But Evidence Says Yes (Washington, D.C.: Consumer Federation of America, 2002), ↪link 0.26a; Jeffrey Benner, “Bush Plan ‘;Digital Distortion’,” Wired News (7 February 2002), ↪link 0.26b; Eszter Hargittai, “Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills,” First Monday 7, no. 4 (April 2002), ↪link 0.26c.

27 Roy Rosenzweig, “The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,” Journal of American History 88, September (2001): 548Ð79, ↪link 0.27a. For example, the list price for Thomson Corporation’s eighteenth-century digital collection begins at $500,000: Kinley Levack, “Digital ECCOs of the Eighteenth Century,” (November 2003), ↪link 0.27b. Jeffrey Cymerint, interview, 1 August 2003. See also Barbara Quint, “Gale Group to Digitize Most 18th-Century English-Language Books, Doubles Info Trac Holdings,” Information Today (17 June 2002), ↪link 0.27c.

28 Budapest Open Access Initiative, ↪link 0.28.

29 Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier, and Josh Brown, Who Built America? From the Centennial of 1876 to the Great War of 1914, multimedia CD-ROM (New York: Voyager, 1993). The CHNM home page (↪link 0.29) provides a portal to these different projects. Those done in collaboration with ASHP include the CD-ROM Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946 and the websites: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution; and the September 11 Digital Archive. CHNM’s other projects include World History Matters, the Blackout History Project, and Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online—Science, Technology, and Industry. CHNM also hosts projects which have been developed by others, including DoHistory, History News Network, and the Business Plan Archive.<endfile>