Challenges of Digital History

The digitization of history presents a wide variety of advantages and pitfalls for the historian, but it does not replace the historian. The historian is key in the development of the story, or argument that is being made on the digital platform whether that be a website, image, or video. The technology allows historians to reach a wider audience, while also engaging in a non-traditional presentation of history.

Because of the nonlinear nature of the web presenting a historical argument is challenging. The traditional essay or thesis that is the foundation of any history program in the United States does not lend itself easily to creating a website. Cutting and pasting your paper, and calling that good are unacceptable because such a format is not visually appealing. The Internet first and foremost is visual. One only has to look at any major website like CNN, Yahoo, National Geographic, to see that a certain amount of flash and flare is needed in order to capture the audiences attention.

Secondly, how do you portray an argument in a format that uses visuals, audio, and video? Unlike, the traditional essay your argument is not stated in explicit language. Instead, in some sense it is embedded in the pictures you choose, the sound bytes that play at the clicking of an image or its placement, and coloring of your entire website. The historian by engaging in this new format in some ways needs to become familiar with the power of placement, lighting, coloring, and the subtle art of image selection. These are all things that filmmakers are aware of, and I’m sure the best PR Professionals and web-designers are as well.

One thing that all the previously mentioned professionals, and the historian who uses digital tools must be very aware of is audience. For example, large news organizations like Aljazeera has multiple website for the multiple countries it serves. Even the English speaking countries of America and the UK have different content, layout, and color schemes tailored to its audience. (The hyperlink connected to Aljazeera is the one tailored to the US. I have accessed the Aljazeera English website which is connected to UK. I had opened and read through it, after a while I was blocked from the website, and only able to access Aljazeera America.) As you can see the content of these websites is different. The American website is dominated by a deep blue, and the English by a bright orange. These observations are superficial, but they do point towards this idea of the creator of the website changing the website to fit the needs of the audience. If a historian is to be successful in this digital form audience awareness is vital.

One thought on “Challenges of Digital History

  1. That’s so interesting how news sites have different content and layout for different countries. I think consumers, and American consumers especially, think of news providers as unchanging “truth-givers,” so the idea that they would change for different audiences is disconcerting. It’s a great reminder to take nothing at face value.


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