Review of “Digital History”

21 Mar

by Tom Thompson-

Review of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

I saw that this book was part of our curriculum as we are to read an excerpt for a class later in the semester.  When I looked into it, I decided to read the book since it is a subject that interests me.  The book is a good, practical introduction to presenting historical content via the various mediums available on the Internet.

The book begins with a description of how history is presented on the web. In some cases the presentation of history is just normal scholarly work displayed online. However, as the web has become more sophisticated entire collections have been converted to digital and available to all. Digitizing of materials makes searching faster and speeds up academic research. At first this was accomplished so that the information was available to more researchers but publishers of these sites have found that the general public drives more views than were first expected.

The authors continue with a discussion of the technologies available to the digital historian. Decisions need to be made early in the process with respect to storage and presentation. Domain names are discussed next in terms of their acquisition, web-hosting locations, and the costs involved. Cost considerations continue in a discussion of the process of actually digitizing different types of media. There are different technologies available depending on the types of artifacts that the web site will display. For instance, photos and other types of visual art require more technology to digitize in high quality than printed word material. In addition, the storage capacity required to store digital graphics (in high quality) versus printed material is exponentially higher. Here the authors bring up a valid point about the administration of such materials. At the beginning of site development the authors point out that organizations underestimate the “administrative and intellectual” costs of reviewing collections and selecting the specific artifacts for display. The next discussion is about building an audience for your site. Again, the amount of time required to introduce and market your site is significant.  The process to measure “clicks” or “views” is more difficult than I would have thought.

The chapter “Owning the Past” covers copyright law, its application for historians, and its importance to web publishing.  As legal rulings and federal laws have developed over time, the calculation of copyright expiration has become more difficult and a reference table is provided.  There are also some thoughts on intellectual property rights of your own content.  Although the authors advocate an open Internet, they offer some steps to keep the web historian out of trouble with those who are not so generous.

I found this book a good introduction to the topic of presenting and collecting digital materials on the web.  The book does not offer technical solutions.  Expertise in writing, hosting, and maintaining web sites is required to complement the skills of the historian. I liked the format in which each chapter introduction includes what the reader will learn there. This makes the book a better reference in which your question can be found easily. Since the book was published in 2005 there is no discussion of social networking capabilities such as Facebook and Twitter. This book is published for free online.  Unfortunately it has not been updated to add the latest methods for the public historian to implement.

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One Response to “Review of “Digital History””

  1. Becky Johnston March 22, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    For my senior project as an undergrad I researched the first writings on Cahokia Mounds. Without the digitization of the books, magazine and journal articles, and other writings, I would never have been able to complete my paper. I found sooo many writings online through google books and the Internet Archive. I thanked these people everyday for taking the time to gather and digitize these works. Some were notable and commonly known works, but I was also able to find obsure works that had few copies. If these hadn’t have been digitized, I would have had to drive all over the country looking for them and hope that the archivists kept good records.

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