Digitizing History: My First Thoughts on Digital Scholarship

What was the price of coffee in 1920? Today, for my second day as a Digital Scholarship Summer Intern at Amherst College’s Frost Library, I explored The New York Public Library’s digital initiative, “What’s on the Menu?”. Could questions like the coffee question be potentially answered through digital scholarship? “What’s on the Menu” is a crowdsourcing initiative that seeks everyday people beyond the NYPL staff to help transcribe menus from a vast array of historical periods from around the world. Eventually, scholars could easily look up specific dishes and prices in these menus rather than rely on the menu titles for their research. Evaluating “What’s on the Menu?” provided me with a platform for planning the digital program that I will work on along with other interns and library staff.

Our society seems to like binaries quite a bit, whether they are gender binaries or the academic binaries we artificially create between the humanities and the sciences. Before, I never considered technology and science as potential aspects of my professional life, confining myself in a self-imposed false binary of humanities versus science. Today, I’m starting to work with the humanities and technology side-by-side, learning to respect them as distinguishable but interconnected fields.

As a high school student, I had convinced myself that the past required historians to dedicate themselves to perfecting their writing and argumentative skills, rather than apply any technological or scientific expertise to their work. History is the study of human behavior over time. It has the power to strengthen and inspire individual people or entire communities. Consequently, I thought that everything that makes history what it is seemed to be so fundamentally human.

In a similar way, technology also fascinated me growing up, always offering more to explore and always growing, just like how historical knowledge can be constantly discovered and re-interpreted. Furthermore, I recognized how technological advances could enhance historical practice. Nonetheless, when I began to do college-level historical research, I still had underestimated the extent of the role that technology played in historical investigation (in comparison with human capacities, diligence, and effort). It became clear to me that the humanities and technology do not have to exist as mutually exclusive realms: I could utilize digital tools and methods to make me a better historian.

If there’s one thing that being an intern for Frost Library’s Digital Programs Department has taught me so far, it’s that Amherst’s liberal arts philosophy needs to go beyond our ability to take different kinds of electives with the open curriculum. Being a student of the liberal arts also means not letting your major constrict your opportunities for professional self-growth. It means that you can have a passion for a particular subject, but still simultaneously develop a diverse skill set that will empower you to approach a vast variety of situations. Essentially, this just means one can develop technological skills and still be an historian. The digital humanities, or DH, is an emergent, exciting, and constantly growing field; similarly, my internship this summer is also exploratory and novel in nature, the first of its kind at Amherst College.

At the end of the day, I still can’t define for myself exactly what “digital scholarship” is yet (and perhaps I never will due to its complexity and breadth). But my own ignorance doesn’t intimidate me. I know that the digital humanities will make me a better historian: not only because I will learn to appreciate the hard work and technological processes behind archival collections and library science, but also because I will be prepared to tackle a changing academic world in which technology and data become more and more relevant to the humanities.

-Matt Randolph, Amherst College ‘16

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