The American Historian

The Digital Ecology of American History

Edward L. Ayers

Historians of the United States have never reached as many people in as many ways as we do now. Blogs, social media, podcasts, and digital experiments have grown, spread, and developed, created through the efforts of graduate students and senior historians, departments and teams distributed across the country, and specialists at museums, organizations, and businesses. At the same time, and through related developments, historians now have unprecedented access to media sponsored by major publications. 

 This growth has been spontaneous and uncoordinated, the product of individual initiative and passion, often in the face of accepted assumptions about professional advancement. Without seeking to domesticate the new possibilities, the profession would do well to acknowledge, celebrate, and foster them. Surveying the evolution of now-familiar media and tools reminds us how recently they have arrived and how rapidly and thoroughly they have spread.

The new ecology began to grow as soon as the World Wide Web appeared. In the early 1990s H-Net created online networks to establish communication among historians. Centers at colleges and universities across the country quickly began building tools, teaching resources, and archives. 

Blogs appeared early in the new era and have been a continuous presence ever since, taking advantage of ever more appealing, sophisticated, and convenient platforms for extended writing. Blogs have become more collaborative, providing ways for graduate students and junior scholars to reach audiences more quickly than established professional channels permit. Energetic conversations unfold at Black Perspectives, the Junto, Nursing Clio, Not Even Past, Civil War Memory, NOTCHES, and the Legal History Blog, among many others. The OAH maintains its own impressive blog, Process, and peer-reviewed journals such as Southern Spaces build effectively on the blog format.

Social media emerged not long after blogs. Twitter flourished at historians’ conferences soon after its arrival, with hashtags weaving talks and presentations together. Historical organizations were quick to adapt, providing conference hashtags for what had begun as unofficial channels of communication. Social media is now as taken for granted as the meeting program and pitchers of water on the tables. 

Podcasts grew in the same ecosystem as blogs and social media, nourished by the same do-it-yourself ethos, low cost of entry, and free dissemination. The range of popular American history podcasts appears in their names: Stuff You Missed in History Class, 15 Minute History, History Talk, Flatbush and Main, Ben Franklin’s World, Past Present, and New Books in American Studies. BackStory, originally a radio show and now a podcast, features academic historians as hosts (including the author of this piece) and as guests. Compelling history by non-academics also appears on the podcasts The Memory Palace, Revisionist History, Whistlestop, More Perfect, and Radio Diaries.

Projects using the geolocation capacity of smartphones have emerged to provide historical information at the places that history occurred. A non-profit site, Clio, has crowdsourced tens of thousands of entries. The National Civil War Trust interprets battlefields on location and the National Mall can be read as a complex text through a smartphone screen. Encyclopedia Virginia uses virtual reality as well as geolocation to portray historical places in compelling ways.

Commercial enterprises and academic scholarship have become steadily more entwined. Historians have always benefited from the market reach of major publishers, of course, and that relationship flourishes today in additional forms. The Teaching Company presents dozens of courses delivered by history professors, Audible presents hundreds of books of American history as audio downloads, and Detour sells polished historical audio tours of cities.

The limitless thirst for online content creates opportunities for historians who want to write for general audiences—and many, it appears, want to do so.

Rebecca Onion, a doctorate in history, has established a strong voice for history at Slate and Jill Lepore writes elegant essays online and on paper in the New Yorker. The Disunion blog in the New York Times and the promising new Made by History blog in the Washington Post combine the authority of historians with the global reach of major newspapers. 

This broad range of new capacities to reach new audiences has emerged with remarkable speed and without notable resistance, partly because these innovations seem a natural extension of tools and networks historians use in other facets of their lives. In contrast to the debates over digital scholarship that have marked the last twenty years, historians have not talked very much about the larger consequences or possibilities of these other electronic forms. The new media seem an easy fit with traditional practice, leaving monographs and journals firmly in place. A new project by JSTOR—Reimagining the Monograph—embraces the centrality of that format while unlocking new capacities in the digital version of the monographic form.

Historians, by and large, have enjoyed free rides on innovations created for other purposes. Twitter, Facebook, Squarespace, and Medium are corporations with their own purposes, as are publishers and other distributors of history. On the non-profit side, we have relied on the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund projects, create tools, and provide vision. We have also benefited from the enormous labors of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Digital Public Library of America, and many other libraries. The historical and scholarly record is becoming digital without historians’ effort. 

The digital ecology has silently transformed teaching. Even historians who would not consider embarking on a digital project of their own direct their students to such projects. Thanks to the profusion of online sources of all kinds, professors can expose their students to vast archives simply by including a URL in a syllabus. Thanks to the far-sighted work of librarians and archivists, our students now have access to archives even the most generously funded senior professor could not have enjoyed twenty years ago. 

In one example, sixteen first-year students in my class this spring created a sophisticated project on Reconstruction in Virginia by tapping into an archive of a Richmond newspaper that had been digitized, transcribed by optical character recognition, and made available through a collaboration of the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Library of Virginia. The students then used Omeka, an open-source software program produced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, to tag, correct, categorize, analyze, and present those two thousand articles, complete with a random article generator and a complex timeline. They then presented the project at the Black History Museum in Richmond, where visitors mistook the students for graduate students instead of nineteen year-olds. None of this would have been possible, of course, without the creation of the newspaper archive, the provision of tools, and the skill of library staff eager to help build thesuch a project. Such projects have become a common feature of history teaching at institutions of every scale and range of resources.

These developments open exciting avenues of expression for a profession growing more diverse in its voices and purposes. The digital ecology of American history demonstrates that innovation and expansion need not come at the expense of our profession’s established virtues. In fact, the new distributed media provide us an opportunity to extend those virtues—respect for evidence, clarity of argument, the power of narrative as explanation—into places they are badly needed.

Going forward, it will be useful to think about the ecology of American history more broadly and more systematically. Historians need to devise, at the departmental and institutional level, ways to encourage those who are doing important work in the new media and sharing their advances with their students, other historians, and broader audiences. We need to talk about ways to train graduate students, sustain our networks and projects, navigate commercial enterprises, and integrate innovative work in our hiring and tenure decisions. This is a remarkable moment in the evolution of our discipline and we should take advantages of the opportunities it offers. 


Edward L. Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities at the University of Richmond and current OAH president. He is the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Bancroft Prize, and National Professor of the Year