Week 1: the work of digital history

Wrapping up this first week of readings and exercises, I’m excited by the possible scope of discussion and projects in this course, especially given the broad experiences and interests of everyone in the class! Working on this blog post has highlighted one of the areas of concern for me, though: writing regularly, writing (somewhat) quickly, and keeping my thoughts and interests in order. I’m still fairly new to the art history program and haven’t been writing with the regularity that is certain to come, but it’s an area where I tend to struggle. This isn’t necessarily about mechanics, but about trusting ideas, exploring them to a necessary depth, and feeling comfortable sharing them in a more or less permanent1 and public medium. (I also have a lifelong bad habit of starting journals or diaries and dropping them weeks later, never really certain what to do with the thing, but having a grade and course expectation attached in this case is as good an incentive as any.)

This course is also going to be an exercise in shifting perspectives. Most of my work up to this point has been parallel to that of the discipline of history or art history, coming from the position of libraries and cultural memory institutions, or that of a visual artist and practitioner.2 How will my driving questions and methods change? (Will they really change all that much?) This needs some deeper exploration, and it’s a question that digital historians and practitioners are likely to continue to work out as practices and expectations evolve. In 2009, Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas wrote that, while digital historians may certainly digitize materials, their work is “different from that of the librarian,” and that digital history is “much more than [digitizing]. It is to create a framework […] for people to experience, read, and follow an argument around a major historical problem.” While not inaccurate, this creates something of a false division between “those who manage the stuff” and “those who use/ask questions of the stuff.” It also overlooks the critical questions and concerns of how “the stuff” comes together—especially with the growth of born-digital materials. This framing has the effect of limiting the work of librarians and archivists to something procedural and straightforward, when our involvement in digital history projects should be anything but. Librarians address questions of selection (what gets digitized) and the acquisition of archival materials, and the language used to find, describe, and organize digital materials. This work is never happening from a position of neutrality and is always driven by a particular perspective or concern, however explicit that may be.

Ian Milligan acknowledges this and presents a more nuanced view on the interdisciplinary nature of digital history projects. While this text arguably benefits from greater time and perspective (History in the Age of Abundance coming almost 10 years after Seefeldt’s and Thomas’s article), Milligan recognizes the overlapping areas of expertise where librarians, archivists, historians, and technologists might inform the work of each other.3 (In a recent article in the Journal of Critical Librarianship, Heidi Jacobs and Cal Murgu ask similar questions in their examination of digital historiography, and impressing the necessity of librarians and archivists to operate in a framework of critical theory.)

At the same time, Milligan argues the work of digital curation cannot be taken for granted as something left to the librarians, both for reasons of selection bias and limited scope, but also the inherent nature of the web.4 To “do” history in a digital age is to recognize that history IS digital, and to understand the semantic, linked nature of these new primary sources, the design of algorithms, and ways in which content is disseminated, indexed, revised, and erased.  Milligan provides a well-balanced examination of the potential of web archives and born-digital collections, while recognizing the inherent limitations on the materials that can possibly be saved and whose perspectives and voices are included (or missing) in these efforts. The scope is daunting, but Milligan grounds his approach in a broad look at what comprises web archives and the kinds of questions that can be asked of these sources.5

I came out of my master’s program with a focus in preservation studies and an interest in working with physical and digital art materials in museums, but transitioned directly into a research librarian role instead. I’ve tried to keep some of that early work going, though, and in 2018 I co-authored an article with a colleague at the Library of Congress arguing for academic and research libraries to support webcomics archives, and with potential approaches to these types of collections. Since I’m not currently in a position to do the archiving, this was a good chance to take a step back and look at the potential for these kinds of collections, and what library and archives workers should take into account when developing a webcomics collection. Our perspectives and concerns resonate with many the arguments outlined by Milligan for the recognition and vital necessity of web archives, and the digital world AS history.

Returning to an earlier question: a librarian is not a historian, nor an archivist, but we’re doing this work together. What does this mean for a student/librarian/artist somewhere in the middle spaces, though? What new questions do I want to ask of these materials? Will it matter who is doing the asking?

  1. More or less. See: all of Ian Milligan and Trevor Owens.
  2. This is not to discount the disciplinary knowledge and expertise of GLAM workers or research interests of artists, but to distinguish it from the domain-specific knowledge of history/art history.
  3. Ian Milligan, History in the Age of Abundance: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), pg. 27 and Chapter 4, 143-170.
  4. Milligan 24
  5. Milligan 28

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  1. I enjoyed reading your blog post, Stephanie! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas on DH and the various readings assigned in Module 1.

    I think you raise an interesting point that sort of goes along with my idea that DH is an experience, not just a method or strategy that goes from point A to B. Librarians and archivists might take in books and materials, curate them, and put the metadata online for others to use, which actually might still be a form of DH! The experience that I think about is when a scholar, historian, anyone interested in information, data, technology takes that material and transforms into something else — to help visualize a topic in a new way, to forward new questions, to make other arguments.

    Looking forward to reading more of your work this semester!

  2. Stephanie, I hear you on the “public and permanent medium” part. This is especially underscored in Milligan’s discussion of his 12-year old self commenting on a gaming chat room and the mind-blowing amounts of information and digital fingerprints we have of people’s lives through the archival projects he mentioned. There is a real concern for privacy and that whole “right to be forgotten.” I also appreciate your perspective as a librarian and what you brought to the reading, and where you read closely, which is different from my own.

  3. Hi Stephanie,

    I really enjoyed your first blog. I think your discussion about librarians and their relationship to digitizing brings up the issue of the way librarians are viewed in our present society. I feel that librarians do not get the respect that they deserve. Their ability to handle complex access to an ever-growing amount of information and yet interact with the public requires tremendous skill. I believe that as we move to combining various disciplines in the digital age, the librarian will provide an important diplomatic function in helping the various fiefdoms communicate.

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