“Re-thinking Digital History’s Contested Past, Promising Present, Uncertain Future” UTP Journals Blog 8 February 2021

Written by guest blogger Chad Gaffield.

UTP Journals Blog 8 February 2021

“Re-thinking Digital History’s Contested Past, Promising Present, Uncertain Future”

The use of digital technologies is now widespread in historical research, teaching, and societal engagement. This past year of online activity during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend in which historians rely, to varying degrees, on digitally-enabled scholarly practice.

But what does the increasing use of digital technologies mean for historical scholarship? To what extent are there substantive differences between the virtual and physical, or the digital and analog in historical work? And what are the implications for historical practice?

Ever since historians began using computers in the 1950s and 1960s, enthusiasts and critics debated such questions in ways that resonate with today’s discussion of Digital History. This is surprising given the current emphasis on unprecedented technological change. Scholars point to the proliferation of mobile devices, the increasing availability of digitized and born-digital data, and the growing number of easy-to-use applications such as the text reading and analysis tool, Voyant, that are relevant to historical scholarship including undergraduate research.

In contrast, my recent article in the CHR argues that meaningful change in the relationship between History and computers has never been technology-driven; in fact, the invention of increasingly powerful and accessible technologies did not correlate with an increased use in History until very recently. In “Clio and Computers in Canada and beyond: Contested Past, Promising Present, Uncertain Future,” I reinterpret the changing meaning of digital technologies within the dominant disciplinary commitments and institutional conditions of History.

As a contribution to the growing scholarly interest in the history of Digital History, this research project is rooted in my Canada-based experience as a participant-observer of digitally-enabled historical scholarship since I began doctoral studies in the mid-1970s. A glance at my collection of hardware illustrates how rapidly the technology has changed since then, in both expected and unexpected ways.

The first magnetic tapes that I used in the later 1970s replaced my initial boxes of punched Fortran cards and offered exponentially greater capacity while promising an elegant permanence for my historical work.

Image 1: Coding sheets and cards. Image 2: Mag tapes.

The arrival of microcomputers and diskettes sparked a new sense of personal control and greater accessibility during the 1980s, while the subsequent CDs and DVDs promised to take historical scholarship to a whole new level of immediate evidence-enriched engagement about the past. In comparison to the technologies I have used in the past two decades, this hardware is forgettable and, indeed, largely forgotten as technological changes render them unusable.

Image 3: Diskettes. Image 4: CDs.

But what should not be forgotten is how historians perceived and sometimes used the various computer technologies with consequences that proved to be rewarding, disappointing, surprising, and controversial in ways that are often familiar today. Moreover, the historical evidence that I have examined thus far reveals that many of today’s discussions about Digital History focus on epistemological and ethical issues that earlier generations of historians grappled with as far back as the 1950s. Debates about topics such as digital preservation, control, access, funding, curriculum, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and scholarly evaluation have long histories with insights relevant to current work in Digital History.

Rarely were computers seen as benign either by enthusiasts or critics. By situating technology in History’s changing disciplinary and institutional contexts, we can better understand how these contexts can both enable and undermine computer-assisted historical scholarship. In this sense, my CHR article invites both reflection on the past and historically-informed engagement with the present to advance Digital History in ways that build upon the core values of historical scholarship.  

Chad Gaffield is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the University Research Chair in Digital Scholarship. His recent publications include “Words, Words, Words: How the Digital Humanities Are Integrating Diverse Research Fields to Study People,” Annual Review of Statistics and Its Application 5, 2018.

His article, “Clio and Computers in Canada and Beyond: Contested Past, Promising Present, Uncertain Future” appears in the latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review.


“Browsing Digital History at AHA2016,” AHA Today: A Blog of the American Historical Association February 22, 2016

During the past decade, historians have been embracing digital technologies to an unprecedented extent. At the 130th annual meeting of the American Historical Association earlier this year, attendees looking to take advantage of today’s digital historyopportunities were indeed spoiled for choice.

Digital History at AHA16

The strengthening historian-digital relationship was evident before the official start of the sessions thanks to AHA16’s decision to welcome THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) again this year. THATCamp is an internationally successful extracurricular initiative designed to enhance digital literacies while also fostering innovation through in-person engagement. Hosted off-site at Georgia State University and offered without charge, THATCamp’s “unconference” attracted a healthy mix of graduate students and established historians.

Meeting attendees could then build on this well-crafted event by also registering for Thursday morning’s “Getting Started in Digital History Workshop” designed both for the uninitiated and the experienced historian seeking to learn additional digital tools. In fact, participants benefitted from such mentorship informally throughout AHA16 as well as in a special drop-in session offering one-on-one support for specific digitally enabled projects.

Overall, three features of AHA16 deserve emphasis when it comes to digital history: the impressive diversity of digital initiatives; the importance of collaboration including scholarly community building; and the extent of cross-campus engagement especially in light of the “spatial turn.”

Digital History at AHA16

The diversity of this year’s programming reflects how historians are engaging with digital in classrooms, archives, and the larger society. Presenters focused not only on how to take advantage of the “data deluge” of historical content to promote learning, but also on how to increase digital literacy. Discussions also stressed the importance of helping the now-dominant digital-native students to be effective producers as well as critical users of resources such as Wikipedia.

Along with presentations on educational initiatives, historians reported on a wide range of research projects based on digital content and technology. Presenters highlighted insights from digitized evidence as well as challenges in creating data from manuscript and printed sources. They emphasized the growing number of digital tools for data management and data analysis while also admitting that most are being developed for other fields and thus are less than ideal for historical research.

AHA16 also included sessions devoted to digital storytelling, podcasting, and other technological innovations that expand scholarly communication well beyond journal articles and books. Presenters emphasized the need for historians to develop multiple rhetorical voices. Discussion explored the potential relevance of well-developed expertise in public history (writing for exhibits, for example) or in newspaper journalism (such as op-eds) to digital communication.

In addition to the impressive range of research projects, this year’s annual meeting also demonstrated the extent to which digital history is collaborative. While the single-author tradition remains strong, presentations characteristically specified the role of other contributors or the ways in which the research contributed to a larger collaborative project. The ethic of digital history during the meeting was clearly on the side of openness and collective effort with consistent attention to the value of scholarly community-building. The annual reception for those interested in digital history attracted diverse historians, including bloggers and Twitterstorians. Attendees also milled together in conversation on Digital Alley in the Exhibit Hall that included both nonprofit and commercial exhibitors of various products, tools, and services.

Digital History at AHA16

The third feature of AHA16 that emerged from this year’s program was the increasing importance of digital in the “spatial turn” of historical research. This turn involves not only the well-established uses of maps to support, illustrate, and describe findings but also new ways to use maps as analytic and interpretive tools. Historians discussed projects that geo-reference historical maps (taking advantage of present-day digital maps) enriched with evidence from other sources to address complex historical questions. Other scholars detailed the challenges of creating digital maps from documentary sources that were never intended for that purpose.

Overall, AHA16 indicated that the relationship between historians and digital technologies has never been stronger. Naysayers were not vocal while the mood was cautiously optimistic. Building on the publication last year of the Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians (which were also presented at an annual meeting session), the AHA is now leapfrogging to the front of authoritative efforts to advance scholarly policies and practices in the Digital Age.

At the same time, the annual meeting made clear that, unlike the previous phases of the historian-digital relationship, today’s activities reflect a far more robust appreciation of the complex metaphysical, epistemological, and interpretive challenges and possibilities of digital scholarship. In this context, the theme of AHA17 offers a timely opportunity to maintain the encouraging momentum of recent years. Expressed as “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience,” the annual meeting theme raises key questions of continuity and change that can now be re-imagined thanks to the digitally enabled ability to connect massive, wide-ranging evidence at the level of individuals, groups, and societies. In this way, AHA17 promises to further advance the increasingly sophisticated historian-digital relationship showcased at this year’s impressive annual meeting.

Chad Gaffield

Chad Gaffield is professor of history and university research chair in digital scholarship at the University of Ottawa (Canada).

Blog for DH+Lib: where digital humanities and librarianship meet

Beyond Dead or Alive Books: Redefining and Repositioning Scholarly Content in a New Knowledge Environment 1

29 Apr 2015 | Features
In this post, Chad Gaffield (University of Ottawa) reflects on the Association of Research Libraries’ 2014 Fall Forum.

The compelling, timely, and provocative title of the ARL Fall Forum 2014 could have been articulated several different ways. Rather than “Wanted Dead or Alive: The Scholarly Monograph,” the title might well have been “Wanted Dead or Alive: University Presses” or even, “Wanted Dead or Alive: Research Libraries.”

These alternatives came to mind during a stimulating and, at times, both inspiring and discouraging discussion of the rapidly changing and uncertain landscape of scholarly communication. I had the good fortune to be part of the closing panel that brought together highly respected leaders representing university presses, research libraries, and major funders.

My own contribution to this urgent and complex topic draws upon two professional experiences: first, as a professor of History (with related research and professional activities over the years); and as President and CEO between 2006 and 2014 of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the major funder of campus-based research, including support for knowledge mobilization such as scholarly monographs.

Even though the destiny of scholarly monographs may not determine the destiny of libraries or university presses, they all currently share many of the same underlying drivers of change

One of the key strengths of the ARL Fall Forum was its explicit effort to use the focus of scholarly monographs to make connections among all those involved in its production, use, and preservation. Over the years, I have had many occasions to see a much more segmented approach involving separate meetings of publishers or librarians or funders or academics.

In fact, it has often surprised me to learn that leaders from the same post-secondary institution have each left campus without the knowledge of their colleagues to develop strategic plans with their counterparts at other institutions. The resulting plans of librarians, publishers, scholars, provosts, or research vice-presidents have sometimes overlapped but more often have exposed competing and contradictory assumptions that defy integration at the institutional level.

For this reason, the ARL Fall Forum rightly focused on the urgent need for a common understanding of the desired eco-system of scholarly communication within which different participants can identify their specific and complementary roles, contributions, and responsibilities. Even though the destiny of scholarly monographs may not determine the destiny of libraries or university presses, they all currently share many of the same underlying drivers of change.

We do not live in a technologically-driven age but we do live in a technologically-enabled age that is proving to be paradigm-shifting, with DH often leading the way

My perspective first situates the question of scholarly monographs within the larger campus contexts of professorial careers, institutional imperatives, and fiscal conditions. In turn, I place these contexts within the profound conceptual changes that are being enabled, accelerated, and influenced by digital technologies, as illustrated by the field now called Digital Humanities (DH). We do not live in a technologically-driven age but we do live in a technologically-enabled age that is proving to be paradigm-shifting, with DH often leading the way.

One of the most insightful texts about these deep changes was published fifty years ago. In a substantial report entitled Libraries of the Future, J.C.R. Licklider presented the results of a two-year inquiry into how computers could be used in “library work – i.e., the operations connected with assembling information in recorded form and of organizing and making it available for use” as described in the foreward by Verner W. Clapp of the sponsoring organization, the Council on Library Resources Inc. Interestingly, the Council’s motivation for this inquiry was the perception that “research libraries are becoming choked from the proliferation of publication, and that the resulting problems are not of a kind that respond to merely more of the same – ever and ever larger bookstacks and ever and ever more complicated catalogues.”

Licklider’s early 1960s perception that “more of the same” was not the answer to the “proliferation of publication” may seem quaint given the subsequent avalanche of new journals and books, but his proposed solution resonates with current discussion of new not-of-a-kind models for scholarly communication.

Licklider began by emphasizing the “‘passiveness’ of the printed page” which limits severely the interaction of humans with the page’s content. He reasoned that “If books are intrinsically less than satisfactory for the storage, organization, retrieval and display of information, then libraries of books are bound to be less than satisfactory also.” In turn, “if human interaction with the body of knowledge is conceived of as a dynamic process involving repeated examinations and interconnections of very many small and scattered parts, then any concept of a library that begins with books on shelves is sure to encounter trouble.” By imagining computer-enabled “precognitive systems” for information storage, organization, and retrieval by the year 2000, Licklider moved the focus from the medium (e.g. a book) to the substance (knowledge, information, insight).

A half-century later, we are still struggling to perceive with clarity the full implications of focusing on content rather than container. One example from my experience as SSHRC President illustrates the value of embracing this new focus. Our challenge was to update support for high-quality learned journals that, for many years, had been eligible for an operating grant calculated, in part, on the number of subscribers to an annual production of several print issues. In an Open Access and on-time digital knowledge environment, this approach was no longer appropriate.

The new approach focuses exclusively on the value-added of filtering and curating the communication of research results. SSHRC’s adjudication committee examines only the scholarly quality of the past three years of work made available by the journal editors (thereby taking an agnostic approach to the medium of the work). The grant covers a set amount of $850 (Can) for each scholarly article with a maximum of $30,000 per year for each journal. The amount reflects an estimate of the cost of the scholarly filtering and initial editorial work. The assumption is that institutional hosts will support the other editorial, dissemination, and preservation costs. This approach has made it possible for journal editors to move completely online and to adopt gold OA (without page charges) if the host institution (usually a research library) can provide the needed complementary infrastructure.

If this model is extended to books, we could rephrase the question at hand to ask: Who will help authors create, share, and preserve long-form scholarly content?

The DH community has in recent years contributed profound insights as well as innovative policies and practices that embrace the value of content over the specific medium of expression. In this way, DH perspectives address (admittedly, more implicitly than explicitly) current questions about scholarly monographs, university presses, and research libraries. Rather than retaining these categories, Ray Siemens and his colleagues aptly call for the creation of “new knowledge environments” that transcend twentieth-century definitions of scholarly communication. Toward this end, the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) collaborative has been hosting an annual conference that showcases a variety of projects designed to “transform scholarly production” in the Digital Age.

From this perspective, the ARL Fall Forum 2014 was aimed at helping redefine and reposition the content of the 20th century scholarly monograph in the new knowledge environment of the 21st century. Indeed, no speaker suggested that the scholarly monograph should, or even will, die; rather, the focus was on renewal and sustainability of long-form content in a rapidly changing context.

What was the added value of the 20th century scholarly-monograph content and what aspects of this should endure today? What new value is possible and appropriate? And what policies, practices, and financial support are required to realize the potential of a redefined and repositioned scholarly-monograph content?

These questions rightly assume that the drivers of change are not, in the first instance, either technological or financial. New technologies are important to the extent that they are enabling deep conceptual changes that probe to the heart of higher education and that would be transforming campuses (albeit more slowly) even in a continued print culture. Similarly, financial pressures are accelerating efforts (rather than creating them) to embrace new ways of thinking that would be (and are) inspiring new policies and practices even on wealthy campuses.

In order to continue making progress in creating the new knowledge environments of the 21st century, institutions of higher education (especially the leading research universities) must bring together their university presses, vice-presidents academic and research, their CIOs, and their university librarians in order to develop a single strategic plan. These senior academic leaders must embrace in theory and in practice the new digitally-enabled ways in which their operations are becoming interdependent and, indeed, intertwined components of a single scholarly infrastructure that, in turn, contributes to larger scholarly infrastructures both locally and globally. The result of this new approach should be the development of an integrated institutional plan that aims to create a robust digitally-enabled knowledge environment that supports all learning on campus (by students, professors, and research partners) while also contributing to the larger knowledge environment (requiring, therefore, adherence to, and contribution to, standards).

In undertaking this work, institutions would do well to involve digital humanists both for domain expertise in creating knowledge environments and for experience in working across 20th century boundaries. Digital humanist collaborations have characteristically included those in diverse departments, libraries, campuses, and countries. While a great deal of work is ahead, the success of such collaborations thus far should inspire optimism among all those like the participants of the ARL Fall Forum who seek to benefit from the past while building a better future.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Post for CBIE-BCEI

International Research Collaborations Tackle the World’s Toughest Challenges,” March 20, 2014.

Des collaborations internationales de recherche pour résoudre les plus grandes difficultés mondiales,” March 20, 2014.

International Research Collaborations Tackle the World’s Toughest Challenges

by Dr. Chad Gaffield, President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Professor of History, University of Ottawa

The complex challenges facing society in the 21st century characteristically transcend national boundaries while also calling for multi-dimensional solutions. From poverty and inequality to sustainability and cyber security, such challenges defy simple fixes or cookie-cutter approaches that ignore the local specificity of global issues. For this reason, post-secondary institutions are increasingly collaborating with community organizations, businesses and governments, and at all levels, to develop new insights and effective strategies for enhancing quality of life both locally and globally. One result has been the flourishing of what Canada’s Governor General David Johnston calls ‘a new diplomacy of knowledge’ involving the rich flow of ideas and people, research findings and policy recommendations, around the world for the benefit of individuals, families and communities. Our continued prosperity in Canada depends upon our effective international collaboration in supporting global efforts to make a better future.

One major component of the flourishing international research-based collaborations is the increased mobility of graduate students who leave Canada to contribute internationally or who come to Canada from other countries around the world. Two recent initiatives are the Government of Canada’s Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS) for doctoral students and the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships, both of which welcome domestic and foreign applications. Moreover, Banting Fellowships can be held by Canadians at institutions world-wide. These initiatives build upon established federal research agency programs that support international graduate student recruitment and mobility while also adding to their prestige and impact by, for example, including leadership as a criterion for evaluating both achievement and promise. They are also complemented by the CGS Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplements that help Canadian master’s and doctoral students participate in international collaborations through research activities in other countries; in just five years, this program has supported almost 1300 students.

Just as Canada has been increasing support for the international mobility of graduate students, the federal research agencies have been working to enhance and facilitate international partnerships among leading scholars and scientists as well as research partners across the private, public and non-profit sectors. As the federal agency that promotes and supports post-secondary research and training in the study of human thought and behaviour, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) has developed strong working relationships with other national funding organizations in order to increase support for international research collaboration. Last year, SSHRC took a lead role in the development of a proposal to the European Commission to build a Trans-Atlantic Platform (T-AP) to support international research collaboration between Europe and both North and South America. Now under construction, T-AP is a global first, representing an international collaborative effort of key humanities and social science funders on an unprecedented scale. This Platform will enhance the national agencies’ ability to fund international collaborative research including that focused on the societal challenges identified in Horizon 2020 – the largest EU Research and Innovation program ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020).

Recent evidence assembled by Budd Hall (Canada) and Rajesh Tandon (India) in the new Higher Education in the World Report 5: Knowledge, Engagement and Higher Education: Contributing to Social Change provides further insights into the benefits of international collaboration to addressing societal issues. We are indebted to all the contributors to this report and congratulate them on enhancing our knowledge of how to work together to build prosperous, resilient and just societies in the 21st century. SSHRC’s own Imagining Canada’s Future initiative has reinforced the importance of collaborative approaches to better understanding and meeting the opportunities and challenges of the coming decades. Canada has a strong reputation for research excellence on the world stage; and what better way to leverage the talent at our post-secondary institutions to build a better world for future generations.