I’ve been to the AHA annual meeting at least ten times over the years, for interviews and presentations. This year I arrived with a simple goal: to review the state of the field after so many years of COVID isolation, especially vis-à-vis digital history. The word “digital” appeared 44 times in the 2023 program, and I was excited to see so many panels dedicated to this work. Location also mattered. Two months ago, my eldest son moved to Philadelphia for his first full-time job. Additionally, I would be revisiting a treasured stomping ground where I scoped out Quaker dreams for my first book. So as the airport train sped by familiar rusty warehouses and unfamiliar shiny skyscrapers, I jotted down several questions about digital tools as related to accessibility, diversity, core curriculums, historical methodologies, and spatial turns.
With my roller suitcase and backpack, I took a circuitous route from the train station to my first session. The Marriott had inexplicably closed the entrance on Market Street and the escalator system was undergoing major repairs. I later found workarounds (enter through Starbucks) or just wait for the slow elevator. Yet, the initial feeling of being lost lingered on — likely exacerbated by trying to do too much. I rushed from panel to panel and attended all three plenaries. Dashing through hallways and city streets after each meeting, I considered my questions. In the end, I boiled it down to one big idea that I came up with after a panel: Is digital history “history adjacent” or is history “digital adjacent”? My answer: historians are beyond adjacent. Historians are doing digital work in classrooms, centers, and individual faculty research. However, there is plenty of room for historians in two imbricated fields to dig even deeper.
James Sweet’s plenary talk where he addressed “the elephant in the room”
The plenaries, for one, did not address digital history directly. Earl Lewis presided over the first plenary, a stimulating discussion of the “The Past, The Present, and Work of Historians.” The speakers offered insightful comments on the major question at hand, “presentism” in history, or as Herman Bennett put it, “What is the historian’s responsibility to the work of social justice?” AHA historian James Sweet would call the issue “the elephant in the room.” My takeaway was that these scholars generally maintained a need to connect social justice in the past to the present, while noting that people in the past might have used different terms. Sweet would later note, that good activism sometimes made bad history.
Sweet’s talk, “Slave Trading as a Corporate Criminal Conspiracy, from the Calabar Massacre to BLM, 1767-2022,” was a call for reparations — not a call for more digital history. Nonetheless, his argument drew directly on digital tools. In a detailed analysis of manuscript sources, Sweet traced the whitewashing of the Lace family who capitalized their legal firm on the slave trade. Sweet illustrated how Ambrose Lace engineered the Calabar Massacre to increase his profits, and founded a legal firm that has become London’s Clyde and Company. Lace, his children, and grandchildren would also withhold evidence about the family’s involvement in slavery as they talked to historians and abolitionists. Scouring the internet, Sweet showed that today’s Clyde firm continues to erase the truth about its past, trumpeting a diverse and welcoming work environment. Sweet’s talk illustrated how historians could simultaneously do detailed archival history and contribute to social justice. He also engaged in digital analysis: searching and analyzing web pages, even when they too disappear.
AHA Director Jim Grossman presided over the third plenary, a discussion with Shelley Love, head of the NEH, which did not directly promote digital work. Love did highlight two central initiatives: (1) to focus on Indian boarding schools, identifying burial sites and digitizing records and (2) to continue work on “American Tapestry,” providing opportunities for smaller organizations – such as community colleges — to access grants. The two directors gave many tips and urged historians to be more involved, especially in the review process. Like Sweet’s talk, an unstated undercurrent suggested that history and digital-minded history shape each other. Does his suggest that we are all becoming digital adjacent?
A working escalator to panel sessions, a lot of the escalators were not working
If the plenaries did not overtly address digital history, many well-attended sessions did. I repeatedly heard panelists in digital-oriented sessions rave about full conference rooms. Previous years had yielded five or so attendees. Panels included learning how to podcast and steps to insure accessibility. Creative projects explored “Digital and Physical Maps in the Classroom” (Sharika D. Crawford, Alex Hidalgo, Angeles Picone, and Jennifer Schaefer). In the “History Labs” panel Joshua Colin Birk, Elizabeth Hyde, Jonathon Mercantini, and Renee C. Romano illustrated how to engage students in high-impact activities: playing and creating in virtual labs or actual labs that included microfilm readers. This outward-facing work shares students’ historical findings with larger publics, in classrooms and beyond
While some historians practice digital work in classroom settings, another model roots itself in centers and consortiums — usually tied to archives, museums, universities, or government agencies. These centers explore historical topics, drawing on collaborative work and cutting-edge digital technologies. Centers often have teams of experts (including non-historians), and they too compete for limited funding. The panel presentation from the Roy Rosensweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, “The Pieces of Podcasting You Don’t Know but Should,” gathered together producers, post-production curators, and social media directors. The presenters (James Ambuske, Jeannette Patrick, Bridget Bukovich, and Halyey Madl) wanted historians to think about why they would want to do a podcast and asked us to start with identifying our audience. Additionally, the group from R2 studios noted that hikers and funders – even more than historians or history buffs — were their primary stakeholders. This of course raises the important question: should we value podcasts according to numbers and clicks? Historians, of course, want large audiences too, but isn’t there also value in doing obscure legwork in archives – or even obscure work in digital archives?
“ContraFuerte,” Miguel Horn, 2020, a metaphor for historians?
The uncertain relationship between historians and digital historians was evident in “Using Digital Archives for Teaching, Research, and Public Education.” Digital history pioneer Edward L. Ayers led a discussion with “American Archive and Public Broadcasting” (AAPB) and “Bunk” team members. This is where I first heard the terms “media adjacent historian” or “history adjacent” producer, and panelists lamented a continuing divide, especially from historians who consider digital research as “media studies.” Yet panelists pointed out that historians, archivists, and media producers have much in common. We are all under stress and should collaborate with each other. Another question that came up was the selection of content. While AAPB allowed people to self-nominate and compete for projects, “Bunk” used select algorithms to choose material. Curation was also an important theme for the “Revolutionary Archives: New Directions” panel. Several of the museums and archives discussed their common portal called the “Revolutionary City.” This digital collection presents material about Revolutionary Philadelphia in anticipation of the 250 year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. While the main goal of “Revolutionary City” is to collate and share rich archival materials housed in various collections according to themes, panel presenters also hoped historians would contribute to their ventures.
Discussions at all these digital history sessions addressed perennial questions. Would collegiate institutions, curricular programs, and review committees value such work? Presenters trumpeted StoryMaps, We Flip, Timeline, Curatescape, PubPub, ArcGis, Omeka, QGIS, and more. But how much time would it take to learn these programs? Would open-source software stay free? Would it remain at all? How should we create data management plans and protect data in the future? What of student work? How should students be recognized and compensated for their labor on projects? Who would edit student submissions done in classroom settings? Were these digital opportunities available to underrepresented students who needed it most? And, perhaps the most pressing question of all. Who would pay for all this technology? My favorite answer to this question came from Ayers. He pointed out that when he couldn’t get enough support for “The Valley of the Shadow,” he became an administrator to funnel more resources in that direction. But we can’t all be administrators (or must we?). The members of Ayer’s panel also suggested starting small.
A third group of historians presented material that relied on digital and computational work in their individual faculty research projects (though most also collaborated with digital folks in some form or other). In the panel “Archaeoastronomy and History” Suzanne Hoffman worked at the intersection of computing, visual history, and the history of science to trace the way in which different astronomers created lined figures to represent constellations. “Decolonizing Historical Data in the Context of Colonization and Empire,” presented the work of Ashley R. Sanders, Roopika Risam, and Christy Hynam, showing how deep historical research drawing on digital methodologies could address questions of “data justice.” “Museums, Decolonization, Anti-black Racism and the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage,” wasn’t billed as digital history, but it raised a new and interesting question about digital products. Who owns Non-Fungible Token rights (NFTs)? Moreover, can NFTs return an object to its original or bring about a new spiritual purpose? The two main poster sessions had many digital and data-rich projects, for example, Lindsey Maxwell’s “Places Lost and Found: Restoring 1950s Havana in Virtual Reality as a Case Study in Experiential History” and Dan Royles’s “Mapping Sites of Memory of Anti-Black Violence in the United States.” Both these faculty researchers collaborated with communities. By contrast, individual student posters did not highlight a lot of digital work or methodologies.
Unlike some other conferences this AHA meeting did not have a stated theme, but it did have an unstated one: presentism in history. In more ways than one, questions about digital history are wrapped up directly and indirectly to this larger theme. Funding is spread thin. Institutions with missions and wedded to public funds work in different ways and ask different kinds of questions than individual historians. In addition, people working in time-sensitive platforms or on contemporary issues may not have the luxury of exploring traditional archival collections.
Still, one thing is certain. Historians are doing digital work — lots of it. At the end of this meeting, I left with the impression that we are bridging many gaps. Yet some people on both sides of the divide are left feeling adjacent.
Walking around Philadelphia, from one hotel to another, I stumbled on an amazing piece of art, “ContraFuerte” (which means buttress). Artist Miguel Horn installed this sculpture in an alley on Cuthbert Street. On NPR Horn described the work as “a group struggle, but there’s also the individuals within that. I think the way people relate to that connects with their own internal struggles and experiences.” This hidden yet public gem seemed like a good metaphor for what we are all doing — trying to hold up history, together and apart.
As for my three nights in Philadelphia, it was great to see my son and eat squid-ink pasta, bring beer to a sushi bar, and order a vegan Philadelphia cheesesteak at a local sports bar. Like the field of history, Philadelphia has changed a lot since I did graduate research there.
My son and I at the sushi bar, Center City