Mining Digital History

One of my favorite things about modern technology is our ability to access almost anything we wish. We can even conjure voices from the past, eliminating the gaps in our knowledge of life as it once was. We call this digital history. 

What is digital history? 

According to The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, digital history utilizes modern communication technologies and computers to conduct research, gathering and interpreting data from events of the past. 1 Digital history allows anyone who so desires to participate in history, including its telling and presentation through interpretations of patterns across digital sources

In the project “Mining the Dispatch,” we can see the results of digital history interacting with the past through thousands of digitized records from the Richmond Daily Dispatch between 1860-1865.2 During this time, Richmond was the hub of Confederate activity.3 But the project’s author, R. K. Nelson,calls Richmond an “offstage presence.”4 Despite its cruciality to the Confederacy, historians are forced to tuck away their unanswered questions for a later time.

How have digital methods changed historical scholarship and the kinds of stories that can be told? 

Through using digital history, we can share once silenced or marginalized voices from our past.

Again, in “Mining the Dispatch,” the author brings to light several advertisements from the Richmond Daily Dispatch of individuals searching for fugitive slaves.5 These advertisements included vivid descriptions of the people fleeing their harsh conditions, and the highest spikes in numbers of fugitive slave ads appeared when the Northern armies were near. All of this information provides insight into not only the physical conditions of the people fleeing oppression but their courage and clever timing, too.

What affordances do digital history projects allow that traditional books and articles do not?

Just as “Mining the Dispatch” demonstrates, we can compare thousands of sources rapidly to analyze patterns and trends from the past that would be time-consuming and difficult in a tangible form.6 Just think—when was the last time any of us chose to use an Encyclopedia over Google?

Does digital history have the potential to challenge power structures?

Digital history has the potential to challenge power structures by “deconstructing silences.”7 We can analyze more information now than we ever could before. We can compare sources and draw conclusions and bring to light events of the past we never understood.

Digital history changes everything.

  1. Digital History. (2019, June 4). The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook. https://inclusivehistorian.com/digital-history/
  2. Robert K. Nelson. (n.d.). Mining the Dispatch.
  3. Robert K. Nelson. (n.d.). Mining the Dispatch.
  4. Robert K. Nelson. (n.d.). Mining the Dispatch.
  5. Robert K. Nelson. (n.d.). Mining the Dispatch.
  6. Robert K. Nelson. (n.d.). Mining the Dispatch.
  7. Trouillot, M. (2015). Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.04595.

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