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Spring Series Book Review #1: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web

Spring Series Book Review #1: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web

Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web

Daniel J. Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig

Last Monday, I received an email for Cathy Davidson’s Coursera MOOC, The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, detailing last week’s topic of discussion. The email gripped me from its first sentence, which read: “The world changedon April 22, 1993, when the scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications released the Mosaic 1.0 web browser for use by the general public.” From that day on, the internet became a platform on which anyone could publish materials online without consulting an editor or publisher. This event held major consequences for academic publishing which (to this day) invests heavily in peer-reviewed, formal publications. The highly praised workbook, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, for example, strongly cautions first time authors from publishing in non-peer reviewed journals because “a review by peers remains the sine qua non of quality in academic publishing.” (106) Not only did the release of the Mosaic 1.0 web browser transform the future of academic publishing, it also transformed the ways in which we collectively record, share, edit, and curate knowledge. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig wrote Digital History at a critical landmark in the history of higher education: the 10-year anniversary of the Mosaic 1.0 web browser. With a decade of experimentation, successes, and failures in Digital History initiatives, these authors set out to reflect on the consequences of the internet on the discipline of history.

Another 10 years has passed and the internet has grown into an almost incomprehensibly vast universe. This tangled web of hyperlinked constellations is as difficult to define, if not more so, as it was in 2003. The internet’s expansive growth in the last decade (along with the creation of numerous sophisticated Digital History projects) has rendered some of the book’s practical advice on website design and structure démodé. However, this book is so much more than a how-to guide for historians interested in finding their sea legs in web design and digitization. In fact, the authors argue that their goal is not so much to teach you how to build a history website, but rather to push you to consider why you want to build such a site. Perhaps most enlightening is the authors’ commitment to “critically and soberly assess where computers, networks, and digital media are and aren’t useful for historians.” (3) At the most basic level, their work is driven by a question that continues to drive discussion today: “In what ways can digital media and digital networks allows us to do our work as historians better?” (3) Their concerns with accessibility, quality, and readability of digital projects reflect many of the questions that ignite discussions on online forums such as

As Cohen and Rosenzweig see it, the digital world has seven key qualities that advance the study of history: capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulatively, interactivity, and hypertextuality. The authors, for example, recognize the power of the web to disperse knowledge (in some cases) for zero marginal cost, effectively eliminating the financial barriers that prevent people from having access to traditionally published journals and books. The internet, however, is not just about accessibility for readers. Much of the power in the internet lies in the ability of anyone to contribute to the historical narratives created on the web (247). In The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, for example, Cathy Davidson notes the lack of a traditionally published, global history of calculus. Recently, the most representative history of calculus was on Wikipedia because authors from around the world could edit the entry (it was later discovered that the contributions of Wikipedia editors held true the archival evidence of the development of calculus). The collective knowledge of these Wikipedia editors demonstrates the ability of the internet to weave a reliable historical narrative together without the safety nets of traditional publishing. Crowdsourcing, as demonstrated in the above example, raises key questions not only about access to collective knowledge, but also about issues of effective participation and representation online.

As a crucible of collective knowledge, the internet also has its downsides. Cohen and Rosenzweig identify five dangers of the digital world: quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. They judiciously weigh the potential pitfalls of the digital world with successful examples of the durability and readability. Rather than bogging themselves down in the potential threat of the internet, they optimistically look to the future with a mantra of “doing.” They convincingly argue and demonstrate throughout their book that the only way to deal with the uncertainty of history in the digital world is to sit at one’s computer and “get to work.” (13)

In sum, Digital History contains in its pages key questions, strategies, and examples of Digital History projects that continue to shape the field today. This monograph clearly outlines a way in which historians can get their feet wet, so to speak, in the digital world while addressing issues that are not only relevant to the neo but also the established digital scholar. Although a decade has passed since Cohen and Rosenzweig’s decided to reflect on the discipline of history in the digital world, the key questions driving their analysis remain relevant to the current debates over the future of higher education and collective knowledge online.


Works Cited

Belcher, Wendy Laura. Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2009. Kindle edition.

Cohen Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Davidson, Cathy. Email message to The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education students. February 10, 2014.



Digital history didn't start with MOSAIC!  Please recognize the elearning start with schools using access to time-sharing systems and text publishers workbook exercises in the early '60's. --and the development of the PC at Xerox PARC




You raise an excellent point, Charles. The definition of Digital History has many iterations depending on who is writing the history. Your post raises many questions for me. Who holds the upper hand in crafting the "official" evolution of Digital History. Who is left out of this narrative and why? Why did Daniel J. Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig choose to frame their discussion around the landmark release of Mosaic? All important questions. Thank you for response.