Public History, Digital History, and the Digital Humanities

In The Master’s Tools 2.0, Kelland’s piece inspired by Rizzo’s piece pondering of the place and role of public history in relation to the emerging ‘digital humanities,’ the public/digital historian raises an important point in the current dialectical process that is shaping the age-old humanities introduction to the technologies defining the 21st century. The old academic establishment’s role in producing, managing, disseminating knowledge has indelibly influenced the structure of its institutions, practices, and standards, especially of those most associated with the ‘ivory tower’ syndrome. Kelland and Rizzo share a valid concern for what Kelland describes as ” the old problems of authority and power in traditional academic scholarship,” and how the digital humanities in general has been relapsing into outdated, elitist models of higher education. Kelland’s vision is for the democratic marriage of public history and modern ‘tools’ (oral history, digital history) to pervade the methodology of the digital humanities in general, giving the field a more ethnographic bent that can articulate with social movements on the ground.

This discussion on the democratic potential of digital approaches to the liberal arts and interpretations of the past benefits from Stephen Robertson’s piece exploring the difference between Digital History and the Digital Humanities. Robertson argues that the fundamental reason for drawing a clear line between them owes itself to the different nature of the object of study of the disciplinary areas. While Humanities scholars (mostly literary scholars) can benefit hugely from defining technologies such as textmining and topic modeling, historians who deal with mostly unpublished, untranscribed sources are less likely to rely or even benefit from them. There is irrefutable truth to this point, and something to be said about the democratic teaching of historiography through virtual primary sources, but Robertson’s point does not speak to the plethora of historical foci which do not rely primarily on unpublished primary sources or obscure manuscripts (intellectual history, social history, historical geography, historiography). Robertson also hints at an insightful contradiction referring to the usefulness of the umbrella term ‘Digital Humanities.’ While it may be fruitful as a category for allocating funding from the Dean of Arts and Science or the Naitonal Endowment for the Humanities, it raises eyebrows within History Departments from purists who, perhaps with some reason, question their input to the discipline.