Digital History

I recently attended a seminar at Senate House which looked at the history of how computing impacted on the study of history. This seminar was led by Dr Adam Crymble of the University of Hertfordshire. It was part of the Institute of Historical Research’s Digital History seminar series.  


The four main sets of evidence which Dr Crymble analysed were online discussion groups, blogs and social media, and syllabi. The online discussion groups, in some cases go back several years and offer a fascinating insight into the field and the concerns of its practitioners. Blogs and Social Media are more recent. Crymble called these the “Grey Literature” of the field. I thought this was a fascinating concept.  

By closely reading as many syllabi of undergraduate digital history modules as he could, Dr Crymble was able to create statistical models for trends within the field. The first major focus of digital humanities, when it began, was quantitative analysis. This reflected the initial strength of computers during this period which was their use as calculation tools. The first historians using computers focused on creating data models.  

A photo of the City Computer Department from the period of Digital History’s first golden age.

Who sets the agenda? 

Around the turn of the millennium there was a perceived skill shift away from this use of digital technology. In 2001 Nancy Ide argued that historians no longer needed programming skills as off the shelf tools were all that was needed. We see this in the syllabi evidence, as modules began to focus on blogs and project work instead of teaching  undergraduates programming. The long-term effects of this has been that many digital historians tend to use software created by companies and do not create their own digital tools. Silicon Valley was setting the agenda. 

Blogs experienced a massive boost around the middle 2000s, followed by social media (especially Twitter). We see this in the syllabi evidence, as modules began to focus on blogs and project work instead of teaching programming. For Dr Crymble this focus was inspired by the success of the Digital History by Cohen and Rosenzweig. There was a period when public online history was what digital history meant to most practitioners. Several modules from this period were assessed through a web-based history site or blog. These were often local histories; in three cases, the area around campuses or the university itself. 

An example of an experienced digital historian engaging with the public.

The field today 

Analysing the syllabi of several undergrad programs from the UK, US and Canada Dr Crymble noticed several interesting trends. 

  • There is a preponderance of male practitioners 
  • There was an early connection to the state of Virginia. 
  • Elite universities are not teaching it. 4 out of the 8 Ivy League institutions, only 1 elite Canadian institutes and 0 Russel Group institutions teach it. 
  • There’s been a decline in blogs towards more project work in recent years 

A ground-breaking analysis on the field, Dr Crymble argues that although trends in this field can be seen to develop in waves there is little communication between different “generations” of practitioners. Another important fact is that although quantitative training is low, some modules still teach programming software to create tools but not the supporting skills to analyse mathematical data. The reasons for this were discussed but the unfortunate early specialisation in the UK education system may be partly responsible for this. (Although personally as a student of the humanities with an A-Level in mathematics, I do not begrudge other humanities student this).

As City Library prepares to support a BA History program, with a digital history focus, we may need to consider how we can support digital literacies. As digital natives par excellence, information professionals can support history students approaching digital history in various ways. This may not just be in finding valuable resources online and teaching how to measure the validity of digital  information. We may be called on to support them with issues that normally academics would face; issues such as copyright/IPaltmetrics and using social media for academic work. Yet who really knows what requests we may be asked. The field is constantly changing, as Dr Crymble points out. The main support that we can offer as information professionals is the flexibility, up-to-date knowledge and customer service excellence that we have always prided ourselves on. 


A helpful member of staff using digital tools to support a student.

Further reading 

Cordell, R. (2015), ‘How Not to Teach Digital Humanities’ [online]. Available at: [Accessed 24th October 2017]

Hicks, A. (2015) ‘Libguides: Pedagogy to oppress?’ [online]   [Accessed 24th October 2017]

IHR Digital History Seminar (2017), ‘Adam Crymble: The History of Learning Digital History, c. 1980-2017 abstract’ [online]. Available at:   [Accessed 24th October 2017]

Time Magazine (2014), ‘Fifty Years of BASIC, the Programming Language That Made Computers Personal’ [online]. Available at:  [Accessed 24th October 2017]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *