Welcome to the Digital Age: New Digital Practices, Projects, and Audiences

Digitisation has become an almost fundamental part of human life in the twenty-first century. Communication, entertainment, culture and increasingly education are becoming digitised to greatly enhance our capacity to create and learn. At the New Digital Practices, Projects, and Audiences workshop at the University of Liverpool, we were presented with questions surrounding the future of the digital humanities, historical research and teaching at the university. What new forms of knowledge/educational benefits might digital projects bring? Are there significant limitations? To what extent does technology drive the shape, content and methodology of digital projects? What audiences are we trying to reach? How should digital projects be evaluated for their academic contributions for academic credit?

But what exactly are the digital humanities and how are they changing the academic landscape at universities? The digital humanities involves the collaborative, interdisciplinary and computationally engaged research, teaching and writing, allowing new kinds of teaching and research possible such as Virtual Reality and Digitised Primary Source Bases.[1] Thus, the field both employs technology in the pursuit of humanities research and subjects technology to humanistic questioning and interrogation, often simultaneously.[2]  Debates in the Digital Humanities (2016) acknowledges the difficulty in defining the field: “Along with the digital archives, quantitative analyses, and tool-building projects that once characterised the field, Digital Humanities now encompasses a wide range of methods and practices: visualisations of large image sets, 3D modelling of historical artefacts, ‘born digital’ dissertations, hashtag activism and the analysis thereof, alternate reality games, mobile maker-spaces, and more. In what has been called ‘big tent’ Digital Humanities, it can at times be difficult to determine with any specificity what, precisely, digital humanities work entails.”[3] Typically, the digital humanities involves the open access of secondary and primary materials, data mining tools, digital archives, online publishing and Analysis of Macroscopic Trends in Cultural Change. But what exactly is the potential for the digital humanities at the university?

BAFTA nominated screenwriter, director, and activist  Tina Gharavi opened the workshop, discussing how history and culture can be presented creatively through documentary and sensory stimulation. Tina began with a screening of her 2015 documentary People Like Us, a short film exploring the experiences of wrongful conviction and exoneration in mass incarceration era Louisiana. The film gives an insight into ‘live after death row’, using artful, snappy editing, immersive sound and metaphorical images, overlaying oral history interviews, to capture the psychological and emotional experience of an exonerees.

“My film weaves the emotional experience of those who have been released as they come to terms with what has happened in their lives.” – Tina Gharavia, Feb 2017.

Tina’s work highlights the unexplored avenues of oral history interviews. While many historians have used oral history, television and documentary extensively, Tina explores the more creative and sensory avenues, presenting the viewer with difficult questions in an attempt to create empathy and understanding. By using film to not only inform, but as a reflective, engaging platform, new ways to present and understand oral history can be explored. Tina also discussed her work-in-progress  Tribalism is Killing Us, which was created through a collaborative storytelling platform. Through this, many participants could contribute, comment and edit the documentary, allowing a greater collaboration between disciplines when presenting visual information.

Zoe Alker  (UoL) also discussed new ways of presenting visual data through VR technology, evidenced to be particularly good at engaging students in the classroom. Through basic programming and tools such as SKETCHUP© to create historically correct environments, such as  Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, an institutional prison which was never built, and enabling the exploration of the virtual environment with VR technology. Through VR, the potential for teaching and learning seems endless. Allowing students to explore and possibly create historical environments teaches skills in programming, computing, understanding source accuracy and an exploration in the history of senses/history of emotions while using the VR headsets. Furthermore, realistic events such as court room environments could be animated and overlaid with recorded sound, allowing deeper immersion. Zoe also noted that her software allowed the user to set their height-view within the VR environment, allowing the historian to ‘see’ as a historical actor once did. VR (and perhaps educational gaming) have the potential to open new avenues for historical understanding, presentation, and exploration as well as new ways to teach and engage students in the classroom.

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Primary sources are integral to historical research and digitisation has allowed  libraries, students and academics to easily curate and access these materials. Tom English, Library Reference Executive at Gale Cengage Learning, demonstrated the benefits of data mining of digital archives. Using the Nineteen Century Collections Online, Tom demonstrated how data (including newspapers, monographs, articles etc.) could be effectively ‘mined’ and analysed, using tools such as data frequency, key word searches and multimedia graphs. Benjamin Ehlers, Alexandra Greco (UGA), Nicholas Fuqua and Joe Kelly (UoL) discussed ‘Slavery and the 19th century Atlantic Economy’, a developing digital resource that taps into sources from archival repositories in Liverpool and Savannah, unifying the University of Liverpool and the University of Georgia through collaborative digital work benefiting students and academics alike. Clearly then, the digital humanities has a lot to offer in terms of putting primary and secondary sources online. Data sites such as JSTOR have become part of a modern historians everyday life and enable groundbreaking research anywhere, at anytime. Speaking from experience, the digitisation of more sources, such as local newspapers will help find information and allow research which was previously difficult to undertake.

Finally, Jon Hogg (UoL) demonstrated his new Open Access electronic textbook Using Primary Sources, which provides students with a digital guide to historical research. The online textbook currently has three sections: Early Modern Sources, Medieval Sources and Modern Sources. Within each are a number of useful chapters written by academics and postgraduates on using different thematic primary sources such as memory, environment, religion, and social class. Alongside the chapters are a number of scanned primary source materials which compliment the chapter. Due to its online nature, the textbook can be edited and updated with new chapters and materials almost anytime, giving it endless possibility. Furthermore, its use in the classroom is highly useful. The textbook outlines ways of analysing and understanding primary sources, while actively engaging with the material within the textbook itself. Using Primary Sources is thus a huge resource for lecturers and students, allowing a unique way of engaging with texts as well as providing a basic source for theoretical and methodological primary source analysis.


Overall the workshop was engaging, useful and interesting, raising questions about the future of history and the digital humanities. Perhaps the largest conclusion drawn was the potential of the digital humanities; its potential for teaching, learning and education across all levels. Film, VR, Source bases and Online Textbooks are all clearly incredibly useful materials that are marrying history and digital humanities, each have vast (possibly endless) potential. So where does it end? In an age increasingly reliant on technology, perhaps the biggest question we could ask is should we move towards digitising history? In my opinion, the answer is simply yes. The digital humanities allow new ways for historians to present and engage with the past, engage increasingly distant students (usually due to smart phones), and collaborate and learn with one another. If visualising sources is becoming increasingly popular, then why shouldn’t historians follow foot? If more students are using smartphones in lectures, why not create apps to engage them inside and outside the classroom? If historians can now work and create with one another from all reaches of the world – why shouldn’t they? However, I also think that the skills of manually searching for primary sources, giving live presentations and networking should not be forgotten. As we rapidly speed towards the digital era and realise the intriguing potentials for the digital humanities, we should do what we do best as historians, and not forget from whence we came.


[1] J. J. O’Donnell, ‘Engaging the Humanities: The Digital Humanities’, Daedalus, 138.1 (Winter 2009), pp. 99-104
[2] R. Scholes, and C. Wulfman, ‘Humanities and Digital Humanities’, South Atlantic Review, 73.4 (Fall 2008), pp. 50-66.
[3] M. K. Gold and L. F. Klein, Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

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