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《Digital History》 __ Adam Chen

Digital History
            If you were to ask an average American when the last time they studied history was, they might say high school or college. For most people, history stops being relevant when they enter the adult world. The field of history as it exists today consists of scholars who conduct meaningful historical research, publish their findings in academic journals, and profoundly impact our understanding of history. However, the advent of digital history has begun to reshape the field. It has opened up history to more people by allowing them to engage with historical content in new ways. We begin to see the emergence of lay historians joining the conversation and the idea of a “citizen scholar.” In this paper, I will play the role of a “citizen scholar” and delve into two digital history projects, The Roaring Twenties and The Living New Deal. The Roaring Twenties presents a collection of sights and sounds from 1920’s New York City, while The Living New Deal organizes photos and descriptions of enduring projects from the New Deal era. Though both projects showcase the capabilities of digital history, they also exhibit shortcomings and present pressing questions about the future of digital history.
            Designed by aural historian Emily Thompson, The Roaring Twenties utilizes digitization and technology to present a multimedia experience for users browsing the database. Upon entering the site, I am immediately greeted with a hodgepodge of city sounds ranging from bells and whistles to a radio announcer to children’s laughter. Thompson then lets me choose how I want to explore the historical content: through space, time, or sound category. After selecting space, I am taken to an old-fashioned map that can be navigated the same way one might navigate Google Maps. The interface is sprinkled with small icons that each have a corresponding piece of history, either a video clip, sound recording, or digitized document.
            Unsure what to expect, I click on a couple of these icons and begin exploring the history of sound in 1920’s New York City. After browsing through a couple grainy videos of fire engines, tugboats, and street vendors, I stumble upon a small district on the map that piques my interest more than any of the other videos. The titles of these videos include “Chinese New Year Dragon on Mott Street” and “Kung Fu Demonstration in Chinatown.” It quickly becomes obvious that I had discovered a 1920’s New York City Chinatown. The videos provide an incredible glimpse into the past, full of busy streets, the sound of drums, and dancing dragons. As my parents are Chinese immigrants and as I am a Chinese-American, these videos hold a special interest for me. I began to think, what was it like living in 1920’s New York as a Chinese immigrant? Was it difficult integrating into an American city given the perhaps racist social climate? The videos made me think of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which I subsequently researched on the internet. I learned that the act was not even repealed until 1943, meaning the Chinese people in the video are living in an era in which the Chinese Exclusion Act was still an active law.
            Instead of coming into the database looking to answer questions I had about the Roaring Twenties, I wandered through the content without a destination and found new questions about history that I had not thought about before. One of the most powerful advantages of digitized history is the ease at which historical data can be modularized and restructured for users to explore. The way The Roaring Twenties project is spatially organized gave me the freedom to determine my own path when exploring the content and stumbling upon areas of the exhibit that interest me, so that I could form my own questions, thoughts, and arguments about history. In comparison, traditional historical scholarship usually does not take on this form. In The Roaring Twenties, there is no historian presenting a linear argument about the history or explaining to users how to interpret the past. The antique videos and black-and-white photos are presented in its raw form for users to peruse and interpret.
            Despite the apparent advantages of The Roaring Twenties project, its new capabilities also exhibit shortcomings and potential issues of presenting history in this particular form. Though modularization succeeds in allowing users to randomly browse content, its lack of structure can sometimes make the content difficult to navigate and can overlook important insight. After watching videos of 1920’s Chinatown, I thought it would be really interesting to compare them with clips of life in other minority districts of New York. I decided to look for videos from Little Italy or Little Poland. However, I found searching for that data to be difficult because the map was not organized by district or neighborhood and those pieces of content, if they existed, were not categorized in a way that was helpful. The same haphazard structure of the site that lent itself to my stumbling upon Chinatown made it difficult to search for more information. In this example, more structure and organization in the site would have been helpful.
            Furthermore, by fragmenting historical content into small pieces as this site does, a lot of meaningful insight and information is lost. For example, browsing through the map on The Roaring Twenties, I came across a lot of documented noise complaints. The information is presented in a very isolated form, meaning each icon corresponds to just one noise complaint and you can only view the items one at a time. If I wanted to know how many noise complaints in total there were, the project makes it very difficult to find out that information. Was there a specific category of sound people complained most about? Which district in New York was the noisiest and received the most complaints? These are meaningful questions for a historian exploring the aural history of New York, but The Roaring Twenties fails to help one answer them. The fragmented nature of the information causes users to miss information that would have been clear if the data was presented en masse.
            In comparison, The Living New Deal project utilizes digitization to open up history to the “citizen scholar” in a very different way. Whereas the data in The Roaring Twenties was procured by a small group of historians, many of the photos and descriptions of New Deal projects are submitted by users and visitors to the site. With over ten thousand entries in the database, it would have been nearly impossible for a small group of researchers to travel across the United States and compile a database of equal size. Technology and digitization make this project possible with the use of crowd-sourced information. While browsing the site, I remembered that my high school in Alhambra, California was built as a part of the New Deal program. Because The Living New Deal has a search function, I was able to quickly locate the entry on my high school and discover some new details pertaining to its history. The description includes an excerpt from 1939 newspaper article about the ground-breaking ceremonies for the school. The entry, however, lacks a modern photo or recent description of my school. Because of the user-submitted nature of the site, I can contribute to this ongoing history project by submitting a photo or description to the site. Digital history projects like this open up the field of history so more people can participate and engage in scholarship.
            Like The Roaring Twenties project, however, the advantages that digital history bring also present a slew of issues and challenges. For example, with crowd-sourced information, how do the curators of the project ensure the accuracy of user-submitted data? Whereas historians follow guidelines for research and citing sources, individuals who submit information may unintentionally submit inaccurate data. And with the sheer volume of data being collected (over ten thousand entries), checking the accuracy of that much data becomes a significant challenge for the curators of the site. Going further, what if there is a disagreement over the accuracy of a submission? Who has authority in these user-generated history projects? Despite the fact that democratic participation in historical scholarship is a good thing for history, there is still a clear need for experts in the field. If anything, historians and those who dedicate their lives to studying history become even more important as the field of history opens up to more people.
            Both projects, The Roaring Twenties and The Living New Deal, demonstrate the complexities of digital history. Though digitization and technology have been heralded for “revolutionizing” the field of history (and the humanities in general), it’s important to recognize its shortcomings and the difficult new questions it poses for the field of history. As I explored the projects as a “citizen scholar”, I saw the exciting new capabilities of digital history, namely modularization of data and crowd-sourced information. I also saw that isolating pieces of data, as The Roaring Twenties does, can lend itself to incomplete history and failure to see the larger picture. In The Living New Deal, I saw that crowd-sourcing brings along with it a myriad of questions concerning accuracy of information and authority of scholarship. Nevertheless, with digital history reshaping the way people study the past and opening the field up to more people, it is an exciting time to be a historian. As more lay historians and “citizen scholars” get involved with scholarship, however, it becomes even more important that experts of the field steer history in the right direction.
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Adam Chen
Northwestern University 2017
Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences (MMSS) | History

[Ed. This essay was given an A]

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