Identifying and Removing Barriers to Digital History

Originally posted on the Defining Effective Mentorship in Digital History site. Header image by Willow Brugh (what is mentoring) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

by: Carys Brown, James Baker, Richard Deswarte, Adam Crymble

What factors are preventing academics from learning the digital skills that could enhance their research? A diverse group of twenty scholars consisting of postgraduate students and academic staff, assembled in Cambridge this past month to find out. Together, they critiqued a range of learning opportunities and they have identified the following challenges that must be overcome to encourage further growth in new skills acquisition amongst students and colleagues. The list is not exhaustive, but we hope it provides a useful starting point for those seeking to promote digital history and who are in a position to lower the barriers to access for learners.

1) Where do I start?

A big barrier for many learners is knowing where to start, or what questions to ask. Approaching a new field without an understanding of what’s out there can be daunting. This can be particularly challenging for individuals working or studying at institutions that have minimal digital expertise, meaning casual conversations become difficult to initiate. Unfortunately this leads to an element of privilege when it comes to the question of who has access to digital knowledge and who does not.

One route to overcoming this obstacle is the provision of online self-learning resources such as tutorials. These can be particularly effective if used in conjunction with some form of directed learning through either a teacher or a mentor. That said, many resources could do more to make sure that their projects are as accessible as possible to would-be learners.

We urge providers of self-learning tutorials to self-assess their own projects with the following in mind:

  1. Are the practical uses of skills made evident through clear examples?
  2. Are menus organised by research outcome rather than technical skill?
  3. Is jargon explained through glossaries or links to definitions?
  4. Can users tell at a glance the required level of expertise?
  5. Is there an estimated time commitment visible?
  6. Are steps numbered to make the task easier to follow and progress measurable?

2) Can I get help? Should I offer help?

Some scholars may have access to workshops or summer schools, or access to a mentor in either an official or unofficial capacity. This can be a mutually beneficial experience that at the same time builds a broader community of digital history scholars. Learners can get informal advice and help to resolve small or larger issues of a methodological or scholarly nature.  Mentors can gain insight into new approaches and scholarly questions from those with a fresh viewpoint.

For those offering mentorship or running classes or workshops, there are a number of competing pressures that must be considered. These include both managing the expectations of the learner to protect one’s own time, and working to ensure that what help is offered fits the needs of the student. Anyone engaging in this practice should consider the following issues:

  1. Are you prepared to tackle (reasonable) follow-up questions after a workshop/class, and have you vocalised this to students clearly?
  2. Have you been honest about the level and type (email/Skype/face-to-face meetings) of support you are willing to offer?
  3. Are you aware of issues of diversity and how to manage the needs of your learner(s) should a matter arise?
  4. Learners, are you aware that this type of mentoring is often informal? Do keep in mind that mentorship may be a gesture of goodwill on the part of a mentor.

3) Is this relevant to my work?

For scholars who must publish research findings, digital methods are only as good as the historical research they produce. Many scholars are thus unsure if digital methods will add enough value to justify the time invested. Demonstrating the direct link between digital skills and the possibilities for high-quality academic research is essential as an encouragement to those exploring the parameters of digital history. This means putting history before digital. Stressing the historical value of digital methods is also essential in demonstrating the value of digital history to universities and research funders.

As much of digital history work currently emphasises issues of access, methodology, and technology, over contributions to specific historiographical discussions, there is often a disconnect between what digital and non-digital historians do and publish. To bridge the divide, we recommend more active attempts on behalf of the digital history community to engage directly with historical discussions. This might include:

  1. Since many people are aware of large-scale digital projects, they may not see the relevance to their own work. Thus, providing small-scale examples of digital methods used in research is an important bridge.
  2. More actively publishing subject-specific history that has benefitted from the use of digital methods and making it clear when this is the case.
  3. Adopting the conventions of historical publishing (e.g. including footnotes, providing bibliographies, engaging with the published historiography).
  4. Adopting the language of the historical discipline when it is possible to do so (sources vs data)
  5. Following up methodological advances with subject-specific publications.

4) Will my effort be recognised?

Finally, the group highlighted the social and cultural barriers that have left some worried that their digital history efforts will not be recognised by their peers or employers. Some scholars may fear (justifiably or not) that their institution/supervisor/manager will disapprove of digital history. For anyone working in the British academic context, pressures from the Research Excellence Framework to publish recogniseable scholarship may leave some wondering where ‘digital’ outputs fit compared to journal articles and scholarly monographs.

Next Steps

We are grateful to all the participants in these discussions for their enthusiasm, positivity, and excellent ideas. Even the most productive day spent tackling the issues raised here cannot provide comprehensive solutions. We nevertheless hope that the results of the day will be a starting point not just for further conversations but action to make digital history a useful tool for a wider range of scholars. With this in mind, we hope to produce in the near future a more detailed analysis of our findings, as well as a visual representation of some of our suggested steps for removing barriers to digital history.

In the meantime, we encourage all historians to join the conversation:

  • Attend Digital History seminars  and conferences to find out more and share your expertise and ideas
  • Follow #dhist on Twitter
  • Try out online tutorials, and give their authors feedback
  • Discuss digital methods with students and other historians
  • Engage your institutions and professional bodies to support digital history approaches and mentoring

There is a nascent and emerging community of historians exploring digital approaches to the past.  They are creating online tutorials and resources, engaging in mentoring, and producing innovative historical research. That community would benefit from your perspective, criticism, and support. Join in.


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