Digital Tools for History – Blog Post 1

Garrett at FHQ has now become Garrett in Dr. French’s Digital Tools Course!

Same look, Same URL, Whole new focus (trademark pending on the slogan)

This week’s assignment: “Write a 500-750 word blog entry that conveys your critical perspective on Ayers work/career and the lessons it offers to those just starting out”

Right off the bat, it’s easy to see that Ed Ayers is a revolutionary guy. His bio on NEH’s site makes him sound almost mythical, like a modern-day academia version of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill combined, born in the mist of the mountains, descending on the Ivy League with his blue ox (his digital tools), prepared to lasso a twister (the digital revolution). And frankly, this glowing description might be underselling him.

Indeed, Ayers seems perpetually ahead of his time. His Valley of the Shadow project laid the groundwork for what digital history could look like. In 1993, when many were still unaware of how to even begin approaching the World Wide Web, Ayers was already testing its boundaries for academic purposes, aiming to disseminate historical knowledge and diversify historical approaches. Ayers met these aims, and then some. Valley of the Shadow not only depicts the similarities and differences between two opposing communities during the Civil War, serving to simultaneously provide an intimate microhistory and representative case study for understanding the North and South as a whole. It also serves as an enormous archive for scholars of all ages and skill levels to interact directly with primary sources. Ayers subsequent Valley work only increased this accessibility, serving to educate, inform, and inspire on multiple formats. Moving on from Valley, Ayers has directed or contributed to many other digital projects, all of which seem to carry on Valley‘s dual purpose to interpret and archive.

The lessons Ayers’ work offers to those starting out abound. Among these are many concepts commonly held to be cliche but are nonetheless extremely important: “push the limits,” “ask the big questions,” “think outside the box,” “don’t ask ‘why?’ Ask ‘why not?'”

Ayers’ sheer volume of production should stand out to all young scholars, many of whom complain about being bogged down in work. Next to Ayers, who serves as Director of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, teaches classes as a history professor, and, until recently, served as Richmond’s president, young scholars are hardly breaking a sweat.

What’s more, Ayers never settles and seemingly never waivers. Once his digital work becomes the norm, he presses on to new projects. Though many scholars claim to be disinterested in digitization, Ayers continues to see its importance.

The reality, sadly, is that Ayers seems to be more of a minority than a majority. No doubt he has helped countless students familiarize themselves with digital tools. He obviously has been instrumental in creating digital labs at two universities, and has influenced a few others to do the same. However, across the board there isn’t much being done to teach students how to utilize digital tools.

This lack of educational support, coupled with the historian’s tendency to “take a few things from the menu of possibilities and leave the rest untouched,” (Ayers, 1999) render many young historians bound to enter the cycle of change-at-a-snail’s-pace. At least at UCF we have a culture of embracing digitization. I’m not saying this to suck-up, but the reality is that we are luckier than most to have Dr. French (eFHQ), Dr. Lester (RICHES), Dr. Cassanello (podcast editor, FHQ), and a host of other professors who recognize the importance of digital history. Still, though, there isn’t much cross-disciplinary initiatives to pair students in our department with students in tech/web design/visual media departments to see what cool projects we could come up with. We, and students across the country, need our institutions to cut the red-tape and encourage, through accredited courses, the intra-instutional collaboration of young scholars across disciplines. After all, Ayers and his Valley of the Shadow would never have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for different departments at UVa coming together to build something that could showcase the full range of the university’s abilities.

Ayers makes many good points about the possibilities of digitization that are still unmet, but more needs to be said across the board about raising the level of digital education across the country. As long as we are not educated on how to maximize digital history’s potential, we won’t. Until then, we, like Ayers did in the 1970s and 80s, must teach ourselves how to utilize the abilities of computers. Again, we are indeed lucky to have the support we do have, but I think even our most supportive professors would agree that we, and students across the country, need even more if we are to create groundbreaking work. Then again, Ayers did teach himself a lot, and effectively networked across departments. Perhaps that aspect of Ayers, even more than his projects, should be what we try to emulate. Perhaps then, we’ll create our own Valley.

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