The Promise of Digital History and Pomplamoose

[Posted mostly the same as the original at briansarnacki.wordpress.com on January 21, 2011]

Since I want to blog on digital history and the digital humanities, I felt compelled to begin with some sort of introduction to/promise and perils of digital history post, but there are so many gooddefinitions for and introductions to digitial history and the digital humanities (even http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_history) already online. So instead of rehashing their arguments in the same way, I want to try and rehash their arguments in a different way. This post stems from an idea I had pre-blog about seeing similarities between digital history (or the digital humanities) and one of my latest musical obsessions, the youtube two-person band Pomplamoose. Even though the comparison is not comprehensive by any means (I only touch on the three biggest similarities I see), I hope drawing some comparisons will bring out a few of the main ideas behind digital history in an interesting way.

What Pomplamoose and DH have in common #1: “What you see is what you get”

Pomplamoose’s videos follow the form of “VideoSongs” in which there is no lip-syncing and no hidden sounds (you see the source of every sound at some point). Pomplamoose makes no effort in hiding the production of their music.

Likewise, digital history can reveal the production of history to viewers in a way that print history rarely does. Whether historians admit it or not (most will), they produce history. They extract and mix different parts of a variety of sources. Print history (often) hides the compilation and analysis that goes into producing a historical narrative, giving the reader at best a footnote and a quote that could be verified if someone was willing to trek to the archive (though I would argue Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is a nice exception). On the other hand, digital history projects can present an archive of sources used, showing the viewer the full document (snapshot or transcription), allowing him or her to individually judge the context of the historian’s interpretation of the document and argument.

DH Example: Douglas Seefeldt’s Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark

Pomplamoose video for your enjoyment: Single Ladies

What Pomplamoose and DH have in common #2: “Publishing outside the traditional power structure”

Pomplamoose’s members are professional musicians, without a record label, physical copies of albums or touring. Even though it appears hard copies of CDs and touring are in their future, they demonstrated musicians can take non-traditional paths to success. By releasing music directly to youtube they effectively circumvented the traditional record label power structure dynamic.

Digital history has a similar ability to disseminate scholarship beyond traditional publishing structures of academic presses and peer reviewed journals that can slow down and stifle scholarship. Digital history can take history and historical analysis straight to the public. (disclaimer: I do not mean to say peer review is bad, but reexamining the way historians use it may not be a bad thing).

DH Counterexample: William Thomas’s and Edward Ayers’s The Differences Slavery Made from the American Historical Review

Pomplamoose video for your enjoyment: If you think you need some loving

What Pomplamoose and DH have in common #3: “Utilizing new tools”

Pomplamoose clearly mastered youtube as a tool for outreach and without a label or CDs they had to utilize the power of the iTunes store to sell songs and albums. I also find Pomplamoose’s mixing and presentation of video and audio tracks better utilizes youtube’s visual abilities than say just sitting in front of a camcorder (mimicking live shows) and singing or placing music videos (devised for television) onto the web.

Digital history projects seek to use the Internet’s hyperlinking and visual capabilities in ways beyond simply posting text and images on a website. Digital history is not simply print history on the web. Instead, digital history projects often use different tools (text analysis, complex visualizations, GIS, multi-linear narratives) than print scholarship to present dynamic and interactive analysis.

DH Examples: Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City, Standford’s Spatial History Project

Pomplamoose video for your enjoyment: Beat it

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