Blog Post

A Review of the Spring 2017 Digital History Reviews

Let me start by thanking Christina Davidson and Benjamin Weber for putting together this series of reviews for HASTAC.  The Journal of American History has been reviewing websites and other digital projects for sixteen years and the number of other places featuring academic reviews of digital history projects has increased over the last five to ten years. Still, there is so much more that can and should be done to explore and evaluate and highlight historical scholarship in digital form. While there are many similarities to book reviews, digital scholarship follows different conventions, uses different methodologies, and presents in different forms, and so should the reviews of such work. As a result, digital history projects should be reviewed with the standards of the genre in mind. [This argument is a key part of the recommendations that the American Historical Association articulated in its 2015 Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians.]

The Journal of American History guidelines for reviewing digital projects were first developed by founding section contributing editor Roy Rosenzweig and then modified, first by Kelly Schrum and later by me. In particular, we ask reviewers to address the following areas: content, design, audience, use of digital media, and creators.  In recent years, the Journal changed the section title from “Web Site Reviews” to “Digital History Reviews” to reflect the growing array of formats of digital projects beyond websites.  We also have worked to highlight the contributions of the project teams that build many digital projects, both to recognize the efforts of all contributors and to provide appropriate context for evaluating what can be expected from a project. For example, the project of a single scholar working alone without substantial support should be evaluated with different expectations than a project created by a team of scholars, designers, programmers, and other personnel.

The four reviews from the Spring HASTAC Digital History Review series represent worthy contributions to the genre of digital history reviews.  Furthermore, in the digital space of the HASTAC site, they are not bound by the costs or static nature of the print form that JAH Digital History reviewers face.  So, the HASTAC Digital History reviews are appropriately full of screenshots, videos, links, and other examples of the digital medium.

Marco Basile's review of "The Liberated Africans" balances the incredible historical value of making available court records about those liberated from slavery through the international efforts to tamp down the trans-Atlantic slave trade with the very real limits of the records themselves and of the way that the site presents them.  The review suggests improvements for the site (important since “The Liberated Africans” is still in development and suggested changes could still be incorporated) and effectively compares the site to the best-known digital history project in the field.

Elizabeth Tammaro’s review of "Histography" explores a very different type of digital project than the digital archive Basile reviewed.  Histography is a slick interactive timeline that builds on information from Wikipedia. The review rightly addresses the scholarly concerns of using that crowdsourced reference, but also takes the project on its own terms, while identifying a number of pedagogical uses for the tool that actually build on that skepticism in productive ways.

Robert Cassanello's review of "The American Archive of Public Broadcasting" begins its evaluation of this large library of public radio and television materials with a useful discussion of the differences between the terms archive, library, and catalog.  In addition to a thorough exploration of the structure and construction of the project, the review appropriately delves into the value (beyond access to the materials) of a vast collection that demonstrates the importance of public media.

Finally, Jamie Goodall's review of "Click! The Ongoing Feminist Revolution" delves deeply into a site filled with primary sources, historical analyses, and multimedia sources on women’s lives.  The review thoroughly explore all five areas the JAH asks Digital History Reviewers I mentioned above.  In particular, the review’s analysis of the audience of the site comes with useful suggestions for further work while the site’s many creators are detailed with precision and context.

In terms of advice for these four reviewers, it would be helpful if they provided more context for the wonderful images, screenshots, and videos that they include. Elements of that already exists in the reviews, so this is more about enhancing the directions they have already gone rather than looking for wholesale changes.  Overall, Basile, Tammaro, Cassanello, and Goodall--as well as series editors Davidson and Weber--have made important contributions to this expanding field of digital history reviews.  I have no doubt we will see more excellent work from them all in the years to come.

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1 comment

Having been a participant in this Digital Review series, I wanted to thank everyone who allowed me to be involved in this project and was also involved in it! It was an interesting series of blogs to follow because of the differences between the projects, from range in subjects to the diversity of the project designs and interpretations. When I originally entered my studies in history, the term "digital history" was no where in my mind, but the outreach of opportunties such as hastac, and faculty at my university have led me to always be thinking of the future of history in this digital world.

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