History is Not the Past

As we approached our final week of class (save for troubleshooting our Air Canada project), Shawn asked us to reflect on what we thought the holes in our introduction to DH might be. He suggested we peruse Digital Humanities Now to see if there was anything there that piqued our fancy which we didn’t get to cover in the class. Unsurprisingly, however, the offerings on Digital Humanities Now pretty closely mirrored the debates, issues, successes, and failures we would discuss each week. Knowing that Shawn gave us an introduction which allowed us to understand the DH field as a whole, the only hole I felt in this year’s offerings would be a deeper discussion into the “so what” of DH. A discussion of how DH may or may not be changing what we think history is and what history is doing.

This is not to say that DH practitioners aren’t thinking about this and including this in their work. I know that many are, and that questions about the nature of history and representation inform many, many DHers work. However, I feel that the new-ness of many of the tools and methodologies still overshadow the meat of the historical work being done. Surely this is something that will shift and grow over time. In fact, I know it’s starting to, because of this perfect passage from Tim Hitchcock’s Big Data for Dead People that I got so excited about that I texted it to a few friends word for word (I have very patient friends):

“… history is not the past, it is a genre constructed by us from practises first delineated during the enlightenment. Its forms of textual criticism, its claims to authority, its literary conventions, the professional edifice which sifts and judges the product; its very nature and relationship with a reading and thinking public; its engagement with memory and policy, literature and imagination, are ours to make and remake as seems most useful.

DH lets us make and remake our understanding of the past using incredible tools which give us incredible insights. As long as we remember that history and digital history are not the past themselves, then all’s well that ends well with me.

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