In a recent New York Times editorial, historians Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood lament the decline of traditional political history as print outlets and universities move to privilege scholars and scholarship that emphasize political change from the “bottom up.” Yet whether one aligns with the Logevall and Osgood call for more “traditional” political history or with those who focus on the contributions of historically underrepresented groups, the print mediums historians use to address and document these debates—monographs and scholarly articles—are coming to seem increasingly inadequate in breaking through this historiographical quagmire. The Digital Humanities offer a possible way out.
At first glance, the Digital Humanities might seem a strange place to seek out broad historical synthesis. The push to bring humanists into the digital age has been met with begrudging acceptance by some and outright revolt from others. In particular, critics claim that the digital emphasis on short-form writing and audio-visual material denies the complexity and nuance that historians have worked to highlight during the last fifty years. These critiques, however, miss the larger mission and operational demands of the Digital Humanities. One of the core philosophies of the Digital Humanities is that they succeed only when those involved understand that the sum is greater than any one part. In this way, the Digital Humanities propose a research model and presentation format that allows historians to craft political narratives that account for all sectors of everyday life. Whereas traditional print formats and academic career paths have redirected scholars and scholarship into fragmented silos, digital scholarship connects the interplay of social life, grassroots activism, and popular culture to the formal legislating bodies where political victories or defeats are sealed.
The Digital Humanities is able to make these connections by utilizing new advancements in data mining, mapping, and multimedia narrative. These methodologies allow scholars and users to curate, process, and present a larger range of historical events, voices, and policies simultaneously; these are effects that are difficult to pull off in non-digital formats. Thus, while traditional print mediums force historians to focus on select political groups in a very narrow time and place, digital platforms enable scholars to capture the complexities and contributions of those moments and debates while simultaneously showing how local events are intimately connected to national political and cultural trends. For example, The University of South Carolina’s “Negro Travelers’ Green Book” digital project shows how a single text, in this case the popular manual utilized by black travelers during the age of segregation, can more accurately capture the interplay of policymaking, culture, regionalism, discrimination, and the built environment that comprised the Jim Crow diaspora. This is especially important for historians who have recently pushed to nationalize the black freedom struggle and other social movements. By offering a multi-dimensional platform that demands interdisciplinary collaboration, digital humanities is not subjected to the tug and pull between political and social history that has dominated the historiographical contests captured in Logevall and Osgood’s article. Instead, it offers a new direction to better conceptualize and represent in “real time” the complicated and comprehensive political world in which people of the past lived.