Using and Designing Digital Tools To Do History

Designing historical content for the Internet in the form of a website can be a challenging notion for people who are much more used to dealing with archives. It is important for the historian to keep in min the primary purpose of your website. Your website needs to be planned out in the same way you would plan out an article or book. (Cohen and Rosenzweig) Everything from layout, content, and domain name need to be consciously chosen in order to make the most of your website. (Cohen & Rosenzweig) Depending on what sort of webpage you decide upon will determine the practical questions of costs, databases, and the level of software you will need to create the website.

One of the dangers of digital history would be getting caught up in statistics and data, but one way in which technology can bring the human story to the forefront is through face recognition software, which is highlighted in Tim Sherrat’s article, “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Sherrat highlights the power of search tools, like face recognition software, that is able to search through thousands of photos in an amount of time that is humanly impossible. This sort of search capabilities allows historians to do research on both a grand scale, because of the sheer volume, and on a very human scale because the search highlights individual human stories.

These search tools, even the simple ones, like the keyword search challenge traditional power structures. (Sheratt) Archives, and the way governmental records are stored follow and reinforce existing power structures by organizing their documents in ways that mirror these structures of power. This structure is challenged when the archives digitize their records and open them to searches using tools like face recognition or keyword searches. These searches break down walls because they use a logic or intelligence that is removed from a human being; at least to a certain extent. These tools also help us overcome the “information overload” that seems to be occurring presently, by aiding us in the “storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing” of vast amounts of data. (Cohen)

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.