What Makes a Good Digital History Project?

To me, there are three main elements, often working in tandem, that comprise a good digital history project: Analysis, Interactivity, Visualizations.

Like any piece of history, digital history needs source-based, informed scholarly analysis. Analysis in print history takes on roughly the same form for any article or book, but in the digital medium, analysis can take on a variety of shapes and sizes. When it comes to picking out exemplary digital history projects, the more innovative the approach to analysis the better. Richmond’s Voting America project, which examines election and population data from 1840 through 2008, takes an interesting approach pairing videos of scholars speaking on various topics with visualizations demonstrating what the scholar is discussing. The Mountain Meadows Massacre project uses visualizations to contribute to analysis with its narrative map. The project highlights various concepts in the documents and presents them visually, showing the user a part of the often unseen process of historical analysis.

Allowing the user the opportunity to individually experience, process, and shape history to their interests, constructs a deeper connection between the scholars argument and the user, which is why interactivity is so important to a good digital history project.  Again interactivity can take many shapes, even within the same project. Gilded Age Plains City allows users to visually explore 19th century Lincoln in an interactive map. Even without the map, however, the project’s spatial narratives allow the user to explore analysis of the city in a mutli-linear fashion. While in print, the narratives would be arranged in an ordered manner, online, the user chooses which narrative to read (although ordered navigation adds some structure). Perhaps the best part about these textual and visual forms of interactivity is that they are constantly linked. Each spatial narrative has a link to the interactive map and when exploring the interactive map the project links to the text describing spatial narratives. Voting America also provides the user the opportunity to explore the data the project has processed in different ways allowing the user to find new (or new to them) trends.

Because of the comparative ease in which digital sites can produce and display dynamic visualizations, digital history has taken on more of a visual nature than print history. Some of my favorite visualizations can be found in the spatial history project at Stanford. These visualizations do not have extensive analysis sections, but rely more heavily on the visualization itself to convey the argument. While the spatial history project does not have one clear theme (aside from spatial history), like Voting America which is essentially all about visualizing and understanding American election data, I find their topical collections useful and perhaps the digital version of an edited volume (rather than an article or monograph). Like analysis, I find the more innovative the visualization the better. One of my favorite spatial history visualizations uses a dynamic timeline and attractive visuals, as well as an interactive element, to show the changing nature of railroad leadership.

Though I attempted to treat each element separately, analysis, visualizations, and interactivity often operate in digital projects together, like the Mountain Meadows Massacre’s narrative map, or the Gilded Age Plains City’s spatial narratives. These three elements often come together in digital history projects because they are essential to doing digital history. To do history you need analysis and to do digital history you need to utilize the digital medium, which lends itself to visual and interactive elements. Without analysis the project is not history and without visual or interactive elements, how is the project different from print history?

2 responses to “What Makes a Good Digital History Project?”

  1. I would add one additional consideration to a good DH project: sustainability.

    I’m of the mind that the books and articles we write are meant for their posterity (intellectually and physically), and we need to transfer those same ideas to digital projects. Digital publication, I think, lends itself to even greater considerations of sustainability just because technologies and standards so quickly become obsolete. This makes planning ahead and careful consideration of what standards and methods to use all the more significant.

    I think what’s specifically important is the visualization and encoding standards we employ. The scholarly text (narrative and interpretation) aren’t the only things that require posterity (though this is relatively easy to maintain). But the maintenance of visualizations or the obsolesce of technology (Flash, maybe?) means finding new ways to display information or port that information into a new web standard (hopefully with ease). HTML, TEI, and XML standards are always undergoing revision, so I think starting with the current standards makes it easier to move material into new iterations.

    I could also get on my soapbox about using open standards versus proprietary, but I won’t get into that now 🙂

    Great post, Brian!


  2. […] good comment on my What Makes a Good Digital History Project? by my colleague Jason Heppler suggested adding […]


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