Gathering history online

In an age of technological improvement, history seems no longer solely to be found in books and documents in archives, museums, universities and other traditional institutions. We have reached a moment when most people in the Western world have a computer with connection to the internet which they know how to use. This instrument is relatively new to historians, but could prove a very useful tool when mastered. This is the reason why Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig have written their book, Digital history. A guide to gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the web, to instruct historians about the uses of the web for online historical work, which, very fittingly, is fully accessible online.

The sixth chapter, titled ‘Collecting history online’, is mainly about the ways to use the web to collect information for your historical research and why you should be encouraged to do that. We all turn to social media when something happens in the world. A great example given by Cohen and Rosenzweig is 9/11 when blogs where flooded with comments and newspages were continuously updated. These are a rich source of information on the impact of the event on individual people and on the unfolding of the incident and it’s aftermath. However, as articles get updated and rewritten, the previous version gets lost and blogs also disappear when the owner stops his project. Therefore these websites should be stored in a digital archive.

It gets far more interesting when the authors encourage historians to collect information through individual contributions on the web and give tips how to get the best results. I really agree with their opinion that people should participate in discussions about history. History should not be something that’s only told by professionals. Everyone must be invited to participate and tell their stories and discuss how they think about the way history is being told. The past gets more interesting when it becomes a more personal matter. The contributions have multiple uses. Firstly it gives people a place to tell their story, to make sure it is passed on. Historians can use this to create new insights about historical events. Secondly, when you yourself take part in an activity instead of passively seeing it, you become more engaged. This generally leads to a better understanding of the past.

In the United States, there are a lot of institutions and project which have a site where they encourage people to tell their story. The subjects vary from World War II to Yiddish language and Jewish culture. A Dutch website which collects personal history isn’t that easily found. The Anne Frank Museum is one of the few museums which offers a guestbook on their site where visitors can write about their experience of the museum. Other websites however from museums like the Rijksmuseum and the Amsterdam Museum lack such a feature. The reason behind this might be the fact that the Rijksmuseum displays a collection which covers a great period. As Cohen and Rosenzweig noted, a broad topic “fails to excite any discernable cohort”.

After searching for a bit I did find a site, from the Florence Nightingale Institute, where they ask about your experience. It’s written in quite small letters at several places on the homepage. However, before you can upload your contribution, you have to make an account and you have to log in. This is one of the points Cohen and Rosenzweig mention when they talk about things which you should not do when you want to encourage contribution. It makes it more difficult and less attractive for people to upload their story. An open forum, where you can freely post without the necessity to make an account, is more suitable. The option to stay anonymous is also recommended since not everyone likes it when their names show up on the internet.

Digital history is a recommendation to historians who would like to know more about the applications of the web for their projects. A lot of things they mention might be quite obvious for history students. Dating from 2006, the newest inventions on the web and the options available through applications on smartphones are not mentioned. Thus it might be a good idea to write a new updated version of the chapter. But even though the chapter, and perhaps the whole book, is a bit dated, it might still be a valuable starting point for historians who want to know more about Digital History and its uses.

– Written by Virginia