Power and authority in oral history, public history, quantitative social history, and now digital history, …

Thus far, submitting a chapter for Writing History of the Digital Age has been one of the more engaging and enjoyable bits of writing and scholarly interaction I’ve had in almost a quarter century in my field. The public discussion (including comments by the peer reviewers for the press) has been productive from my perspective as an author, as I wrote in late November: “When I submitted this essay, I was not certain if it would get a rise out of anyone or just get a ho-hum, so what? reaction. Instead, I have a wonderful set of comments challenging me to think about the potential value of long-form arguments on multiple levels as well as missed opportunities for digital history to engage in argumentation.” At this point, I’m supposed to turn around a revised chapter by January 20, which is more of a challenge than non-academics might think!

I’ve been trying to get a handle on the more complicated requests as soon as possible. In his general comments on the draft chapters, Timothy Burke pointed out that collectively, the chapter authors had skimped on putting the book’s issues in the broader context of contested authority and production of historiography:

[V]ery few of the authors I’ve seen so far seem aware of a much larger ongoing historiography concerned with the production and circulation of historical knowledge outside of or interpenetrated with the academy. I guess this is the somewhat conventional kind of comment in a peer review for more citations to more people, but I think this is a crucial issue for this project. There’s no reason not to situate an understanding of how digitally-mediated practice affects the production and consumption of history within a much larger and preceding attention to similar circulations in non-digital spaces. Some of the questions and provocations that are being formulated here as native to digital media, or largely novel to digital practices, were already sharply identified in an earlier scholarly discourse about public history, commemoration and memorialization, memory and silencing, ‘amateur’ and ‘lived’ forms of historical inquiry, etc.

Guilty as charged. As I noted somewhere in comments, I skimped on the broader context in part because of the word limits we were all given as authors. But the individual incentives to focus just on digital history has left a collective gap, and the anthology’s editors1 have slated my chapter as … the first in the collection. Gulp. Time to squeeze out as much space for additional context as I can manage.

Burke is correct that any current discussion of digital history (and digital humanities) is far from the first modern act of historians’ navel-gazing in response to an emerging new type of scholarship. Previous bits of navel-gazing just in the U.S. have come in response to post-WW2 developments in quantitative social history, oral history, public history, social history more generally, postmodernism and cultural history, and the debates sometimes called “the culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.2 So, too, are many of the issues surrounding what Burke and others call the production/consumption of history, what oral historians refer to as the ideal of shared authority, and the connections with a broader public that Roy Rosenzweig, Herbert Gutmann, and many others argued for throughout their careers.3

What I have to figure out for myself are two issues: what is new/different with digital history/humanities, and what piece of that is relevant to the topic of my chapter (how digital history might affect the centrality of argumentation to the norms of historical scholarship). While I ponder those questions, I have some generally pleasurable reading to revisit or catch up on.4 The “new to me” reading includes the 2010 book Cartographies of Time, which I did not not know about until this month and is a bit like the historian’s Edward Tufte.


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  1. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki []
  2. And that list does not mention the general navel-gazing of others, including David W. Noble and Peter Novick. []
  3. To answer the obvious question in comparing this entry to the last few on Ben Wildavsky, shared authority does not mean an interviewer cedes all perspective to participants in an interview project, in the same way it also does not mean you pick and choose quotations to serve a predetermined thesis or perspective. []
  4. Fortunately, everything I need to read anew has either been in the USF-Tampa library or easily acquired. []