Digital history, studying the past using electronic resources, is not just the electronic storage and presentation of historical materials; it promotes “doing” history and it can engage students in history studies. Digital history puts students in the role of apprentice historians investigating aspects of the past. Teachers can design activities that enable students to use authentic historical resources, now widely available, to create engaging, meaningful, and useful lessons about the past.
Analyzing primary sources and inquiry-based learning are recognized as essential steps in building student interest in history and culture and helping them understand the ways that scholars engage in research, study, and interpretation. Primary sources give students a sense of the reality and the complexity of the past; they represent an opportunity to go beyond the textbooks to engage with real people and problems. In this section, attention is paid to noteworthy digital history resources available for use in classrooms today.
The proliferation of digital history resources means that there are many new resources available to use in the classroom, but it also means educators must evaluate these resources before using them.
Bull, Bull, and Dawson identified four criteria for evaluating digital products.
The criteria are questions to ask about digital resources:
It is important to have meaningful criteria when evaluating digital history resources, or any online resource for that matter.
Digital History Resources on the Web
One of the most comprehensive digital history website is the American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html) project of the Library of Congress. The website provides open access to written and spoken words, audio recordings, images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. These digital resources chronicle historical events, people, places, and serve as a resource for education and lifelong learning.
The National Digital Library Program (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dli2/html/lcndlp.html) has a collection of over five million digital holdings, including photographs, manuscripts, rare books, maps, recorded sound, and moving pictures.
World History Matters (http://chnm.gmu.edu/worldhistorymatters/) provides students with multimedia case studies of scholars detailing how they analyze a particular primary source and giving students specific guidance on how they can engage in the same kind of sophisticated analysis of sources. World History offers visitors a database of website reviews written by teaching historians, each of which includes suggestions for students and world history teachers as to how best to use the resources found at these sites. Students using this type of database for their research, rather than a search engine such as Google, will start with the best websites as opposed to searching aimlessly around. Such resources, integrated into an instructional unit, have the potential to engage students and involve them in exciting learning experiences. Using digital documents in the classroom encourages critical thinking skills and helps promote information literacy, the need to be able to analyze information and understand how meaning is created.
The “Magic Lens,” an electronic tool developed by the Memorial Hill Museum Online, can superimpose a transcript over an original document to help reveal the writing of the document. Similarly, in “Battle Lines: Letters from America’s Wars”, an online exhibit of the Gilder Lehrman Institute featuring correspondence from over 200 years of American conflicts, ranging from the Revolution to the current war in Iraq, users can place a typed transcript over a handwritten script and also hear each letter read aloud. The British Library developed “Turning the Pages,” a digital tool that allows students to leaf through famous books, reading, magnifying, and hearing the story read aloud to them (http://www.adgame-wonderland.de/type/bayeux.php). It is a thoroughly satisfying method of experiencing these rare treasures.
The Cherokee County Digital History Project, in Canton, Georgia, is an example of a digital history project that is also a virtual field trip back to Historic Cherokee County. It was developed by students in a history class to serve as a digital survey of historic properties in Cherokee County. This project serves as a model of how teachers, curriculum planners, and local historians can facilitate digital historical inquiry in conjunction with local, public history. Through collaboration and interaction with the community, students and teachers develop relationships that allow them to answer questions about their past.
Digital resources, and the tools being developed to utilize them, enable learning activities such as searching, examining patterns, and discovering connections among artifacts, all critical skills of historians and scholars of society and culture. When students make decisions about which document to use and how to use that document, they are constructing knowledge of their own. As students put together their own interpretations of digital resources, they are constructing history.