American Digital History

by Orville Vernon Burton

July 2005

Archives, Overviews

This article was originally published in Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 23 No. 2, Summer 2005 206-220, reprinted here with permission.

U.S. History and Computing have had a long history of partnership in teaching and research. There currently is a deep divide among historians on the direction this partnership will take in the future. Will the partnership revolutionize the ways in which history is taught and researched or will it simply offer additional tools to improve traditional practices? In either case, future success depends on history scholars taking an active role in the partnership. With active and involved historians, great ideas such as digital libraries and online educational materials can be developed into workable and effective teaching and research tools. However, historians must take the initiative. A pioneering group of historians have laid the groundwork, now the profession must embrace this work and move forward or it will be done for us by those who are not historians.

Keywords: digital history; American history; trends; focus; survey; examples


The career in history I have experienced illustrates the changes in history computing dur-ing the past 30 years. Beginning primarily in the 1960s with what was then called the New Social and New Political History, a number of historians used computers on large databases to get quantitative results. As a graduate student, I embraced information technology (IT) and digital history. My study of a southern rural community, In My Fathers House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield (1985) used these IT techniques in analyzing the U.S. manuscript census returns and tax records to study a large southern community. Although personal computers (PCs) had not yet become widespread, in the 1970s and early 1980s historians were beginning to develop courses using the computer and census information to teach students how to do history (Burton, 1979, 1989, 1993; Burton & Finnegan, 1989, 1991).

With the advent of PCs, drills, and exercises, especially interactive learning and innovative uses of maps were developed (Burton, Blomeyer, Fukada, & White, 1987; Burton & Finnegan, 1990a, 1990b). It is interesting to note, history as a discipline has long been divided as to whether it belonged to the humanities or the social sciences. Today, because desktop and laptop computers have opened exciting opportunities for historians to work with texts in new and comprehensive ways, the history profession clearly sees itself as part of the humanities. Ironically it is the computer, which some traditional narrative historians despised in the 1960s and 1970s because a group of so-called new historians used it for quan-titative analysis, that has moved history as a discipline firmly into the humanities and away from the modeling and quantitative techniques generally associated with the social sciences. Increasingly, however, existing digital databases and fairly easy-to-work-with statistical programs may encourage historians again to use computers to address structural and quantitative questions.

By the mid 1990s, pioneering IT-savvy historians began using the Internet and World Wide Web as mediums for the teaching and researching of history. The Conference on Computing in the Social Sciences (CSS93) was hosted at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1993. The conference gathered scholars who were interested in computing in the humanities and social sciences and gave them the opportunity to interact with leading technology experts. At the conference, Richard Jensen founded the online history community H-NET and recruited its first list editors. H-NET would go on to win the 1997 James Harvey Prize, awarded biennially by the American Historical Association for the teaching aid that has made the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public or educational purposes. Of great interest to the conference attendees was a demonstration of the newly created Mosaic web browser, a definitive piece of software that turned the arcane realm of the World Wide Web into a point-and-click playground for millions of neophytes, helping build the first mass media outlet in computing.

During the next decade, with the declining costs of publishing online and the growing resources available to historians to create online content, there was an explosion of web sites and digital resources for historians. Many of these web sites have not survived to the present day, and some were plagued by serious design and usability problems. During the past few years there has been a huge increase in the quality and usefulness of digital resources as early pioneers have graduated to experienced designers, technology has been improved and developed, and a new crop of historians who grew up with computers are becoming active participants in creating digital history resources.

This article will not attempt to survey all of the web sites and related materials (an impossible task) but will select a few that will serve as examples of the movements in digital history. By talking about important and illustrative examples, as well as discussing some of the themes and problems present in digital history, a picture of American digital history should emerge.


This article uses the term digital history to describe the blend of computers and history. To be more precise, digital history is the process by which historians are able to use computers to do history in ways impossible without the computer. Digital history is something more than scanning academic articles and putting them online or publishing course notes on the World Wide Web. Digital history is a revolution in the history profession that will change the way history is done at every level of scholarship and teaching and throughout the libraries and databases historians use in their everyday work. By incorporating the tremendous power of the computer with the practices and methodologies of the historian, the result should be better history.

Although digital history is important to the operation and practice of doing history, very little attention has been paid to it from the mainstream profession. With computers and especially the networking of computers common for the past few decades and serious PCs for the past decade and a half, the potential for historians to use computers and comment on their usefulness to the historical profession is ripe for debate. Except for a few individuals who write about the so-called revolution or renaissance in history through computing, this is not happening as it should. Indeed, the leading journal that carried news and those debates, History Computer Review, which was ably edited by James B. M. Schick, after an exciting 19 years of innovative and useful essays and reviews, no longer publishes. Unfortunately, a seri-ous mainstream dialogue about digital history is still not happening (Ayers, 2002a; Burton, 1989, 1991, 2002; Rosenzweig, 2001; 2003; Rosenzweig & O’Malley, 2002; Sutton, 1990).

Perhaps ironically, the lack of an ongoing mainstream discussion about digital history is the result of wide-scale usage of digital historical technologies by historians in their own scholarship and teaching. Although many historians use the computer in some fashion to aid their historical work, very few use it to accomplish this task in a way impossible without a computer. Many simply use a computer to find library articles and post class assignments online. Perhaps the refusal by historians to incorporate true digital historical technologies in their work stems, in part, from their lack of familiarity with the relevant technologies.

As is discussed later, even the most technologically savvy historians lack the digital cre-ation and programming skills necessary to make their historical scholarship truly digital his-torical scholarship. These historians, moreover, have very little incentive to develop these skills because there is not a very large demand for digital history, or any clear guidance or models for digital history. This situation is a derivation of the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum. Historians will not develop digital history technological skills because there is not a field of digital history to make those skills worthwhile, and the field of digital history will not develop because historians are not developing those technological skills. Moreover, except for a few rare graduate programs in American universities, the next generation of historians is not being trained in digital history techniques, particularly frightening for historians of modern United States when one considers how more and more records of our past have become digital since the mid-1980s.


There have been numerous pioneers and explorers who have worked to develop the field of American digital history through their projects and initiatives. These early adopters have created some amazing things despite huge numbers of technical and institutional barriers. It is because of the efforts of these innovators that the field of American digital history is at the point where we can look back and assess critically where we have come as a field and where we are going.

In this spirit, the first large-scale attempt to produce a set of reflections and analysis of digital history and digital history projects was compiled by Vernon Burton as part of his edited volume Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities (Burton, 2002). A collection of nine essays, about one half by historians (Burton, Ayers, Bass, & Rosenzweig, Plotkin) on various aspects of digital history, Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities helped to establish digital history as a legitimate and worthwhile field for discussion, thought, and publication. Met with positive reviews and the winner of Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Books for 2004, the book helped spark a dialogue about digital history and digital American history scholarship that will hopefully be followed by additional discussion.

Most exciting about Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities was an accompanying CD-ROM titled Wayfarer: Charting Advances in Social Science and Humanities Computing (2002), edited by Burton, David Herr, and Terence Finnegan and put together by Matthew Cheney and Frank Baker, which provided browsers with nearly 100 academic articles in PDF format and about a dozen digital history computer programs. They ranged from statistical analysis tools like Gary King’s EZI voting data analysis tools to Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox cultural music player. A number of historians contributed important articles and exciting interactive programs (Ayers, Bain, Binnington, Burton, Butler & Marty,

Cheney, Herr, Finnegan, Kornbluh, Latner, O’Malley, Prochaska, Rosenzweig, Shifflett & Richter, Sieber, Tucker, Turnbull). It is interesting to note, although the book was promoted as a useful tool for social scientists and humanities scholars studying digital history, it was the CD-ROM that is most valuable. It contained the entire print version of the book plus several times as many essays and the unique computer programs that made digital history come alive to those who browsed the CD-ROM (Burton, Herr, & Finnegan, 2002).

Also contributing to the dialogue and field of digital history is a number of centers and institutes set up around the country to promote and discuss digital history. By my count ,there are seven Humanities or History Computing Centers that are very important to the fostering of the scholarship on the new digital frontier. These include Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH;, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University (, the University of Virginia’s Center for Digital History (VCDH) that is the only Center dedicated exclusively to history (, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH;, the Center for Digital Humanities at the University of California Los Angeles (, the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities at Stanford University ( An outgrowth of H-NET, and the Center for Humane, Arts, Letters, and Sciences Online (MATRIX) at Michigan State University (, under the direction of historian Mark Kornbluh, has been extremely successful in acquiring funding and sponsoring a large number of international history-related projects. Each center contributes resources toward the promotion of digital history. These centers solicit and grant funding for digital history projects and help to promote the use of digital history technologies in the classroom. These centers are the vehicles by which new students learn about the techniques of digital history. Although all fields of history are covered, many of the projects and initiatives undertaken by these institutes are in the field of American history. These centers will become even more important as the digital world becomes more embedded in the academy.

Outside of the major computing and humanities centers, there are a great many professors and educators who use digital technologies in their classrooms and in their own research. A wonderful resource of current projects in United States history is the CHNM web site at George Mason University. Their guide to the best 800 web sites in U.S. history is at and includes links to the 75 or so reviews in the Journal of American History edited by the Center’s founder and director, Roy Rosenzweig, which also include some of the best U.S. history sites. A list of CHNM’s projects (including those in collaboration with the American Social History Project) and which are clearly some of the most important projects in U.S. history is at

The web has moved so quickly from having a few sites to being saturated, that guides are needed on how to evaluate sites on the web and where to find history projects and archives. CHNM’s web site has an ongoing evaluation process for historical web sites. There are several sites that suggest criteria for judging web sites on the Internet: Internet for Historians(, Internet Detective (, Guide to Critical Thinking About What You See on the Web(, Evaluation Criteria by Susan Beck at New Mexico State University (, and Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources by Esther Grassian at the University of California at Los Angeles ( are examples.

For historians an invaluable site for archives is compiled in a comprehensive list of online libraries worldwide at the University of California at Berkeley ( An example of a site that makes images available for noncommercial or educational use is Modern History Image Bank at Brooklyn College ( or more general links from Internet Modern History Sourcebook(


The scholarship currently undertaken using digital history technologies makes up a very small part of the total scholarship in American history. However, many of the scholarly digital history works have been innovative and influential. The first widely distributed piece of digital scholarship was a CD-ROM project called Who Built America? From the Centennial Exposition of 1876 to the Great War of 1914 developed by Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier, and Josh Brown (1993) and published by the Voyager Company. Begun in 1990 and finished by 1993, the CD-ROM gave students information about American history in a multimedia and digital environment. Highly successful in the classroom, the project won the American Historical Association’s James Harvey Robinson prize for “outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history.” Following the publication of Rosenzweig et al.’s (1993) CD-ROM, a number of other educational materials came out on CD-ROM and were gener-ally well received. Educators liked being able to incorporate digital technologies in their classrooms, and CD-ROMs became a means toward that goal.

Although that CD-ROM was and is a legitimate piece of academic scholarship, it was not until 2000 that a mainstream historical academic journal included a piece of digital content as a part of their publication. Under the visionary and inclusive editorship of American legal historian Michael Grossberg, the December 2000 edition of the American Historical Review included three “Review Essays: Historicizing the City of Angels,”; and although not even a word of summary or a printed version, in addition to the title and URL for the web site and an online article by Philip J. Ethington titled “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge” (2000; exclusive e-AHRmultimedia article). No page numbers were listed for Ethington’s innovative literal so-called mapping of Los Angeles; the reader had to go online at One could print the essay from the web site; however, most of the evidence and analysis was available at the web site, now accessible at the AHR’s online archives ( According to most reviews and accounts, the web site created by Ethington was effective at using multimedia imagery and digital content to provide historical illumination in a way that a traditional print source simply could not (Ethington, 2000).

In the years following the publication of Ethington’s article, there was little adoption of his digital techniques at creating historical scholarship in an online environment. One possible explanation for the lack of modeling is the truly unique nature of Ethington’s scholarship. The reason why his article was so successful was that the topic he chose-the epistemological nature of understanding the urban development of Los Angeles-was one that could be uniquely and best represented in an online environment because of the large number of maps and photos needed to make the argument. This reliance on digital images is not present in most historical scholarship. One place that digital scholarship and online sources can improve the way we do history is to introduce historians again to the valuable information available in studying change over time through maps.

As editor of the American Historical Review, Grossberg is working to foster digital schol-arship and has commissioned several so-called models of analytical digital history. Grossberg’s first commissioned digital history article came from the most impressive project in American history ( The next major article presented in a digital form sought to expand on the ideas of Ethington and develop an online framework for presenting historical argument of any sort. The authors, Edward Ayers and William Thomas (2003), were early pioneers in developing the “Valley of the Shadow” Civil War digital library and were well suited to the task of developing a model for digital scholarship that as they described “is intended to foster discussion about the best forms of digital scholarship for history.” Their article “The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities” was published by the American Historical Review (AHR) in December 2003 (Thomas & Ayers, 2003). The article was subjected to a complete peer review, and the process opened up a number of interesting ongoing conversations about the challenges of peer-reviewing complex digital publications.

In designing their article exclusively for online readership, Ayers and Thomas were able to incorporate many digital features that substantially improve the quality of the scholarship and allowed readers to better learn about change over time. These improvements include the ability to allow the user to browse the historical argument in a nonlinear fashion through hyperlinks in the online article, the ability of users to directly reference many of the primary and secondary sources cited in the article, and the ability of the authors to provide very detailed and specific claims about evidence the reader is able to see on the spot. Although only recently published, hopefully Ayers and Thomas’s article can serve as a model for future scholars looking to publish in an online environment. The second commissioned essay, on French history, is due out soon. The third commissioned AHR article will be developed from the RiverWeb Project (old site:; new developing site at; Burton, Herr, Binnington, Cheney, & Burton, 2002) and will describe how the once-thriving 19th-century city of East St. Louis has become a mostly all-Black town with serious poverty concerns.


History classes have a bad reputation especially at the high school level. They are viewed by many students as unthinking classes where a teacher simply provides many names, themes, and dates that students are suppose to memorize for exams. This memorization is not only tedious and boring but also does not critically engage the student with the material she is studying and results in poor education for all involved. It is a small wonder that when asked to choose their favorite high school class students rate history as their least favorite (Loewen, 1995).

In working to promote student engagement and interaction with the learning of history, a number of projects and programs have been developed to help students learn about a particular historical field. Early attempts to engage students include examples of interactive electronic textbooks of U.S. history. For example, one electronic textbook originally consisted of 50 computer exercise modules on 25 computer disks (Burton, 1987). Now the web, CD-ROMs, and DVDs have made disk exercises such as these unnecessary.

For an especially influential example, a very early pre-web project, The Great American History Teaching Machine: an interactive atlas of U.S. History, primarily developed by David W. Miller (1994) at Carnegie Mellon University, allows students to browse U.S. Census statistics at the county level from 1790 to 1990 and voting returns since 1840 as well as create county-based maps in interesting and exciting ways. Students are able to run their own historical queries and are able to become directly engaged with the historical learning process (Miller & Modell, 1988).

A more focused project is the Primary Sources Network collaboration between the University of Michigan Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education (, the Henry Ford Museum, and two local Detroit schools. This very carefully constructed pedagogical tool is still only available via CD-ROM (for copies, contact Robert Bain, the University of Michigan, 610 E. University Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48109). This project, led by Bain, allows students to interact with computer software to better understand and explore the primary source documents housed at the Henry Ford Museum. Through the use of the Virtual Curator and Virtual Expedition (VE) software packages, students are able to explore virtual representations of important historical landmarks and analyze historical sources in a digital environment. Because this project rests on principles regarding teaching and learning for which digital history is ideal, it is worth a more extensive discussion (Bain, 2000, 2002; Bain & Ellenbogen, 2001). Based on a pedagogical framework linked to national standards in history education and research on the teaching and learning of history, the VE integrates advanced technologies incorporating multimedia, including the Internet, databases, digital movies, and carefully designed learning scaffolds. The aim is to help students explore museum resources and locate relevant information while, more important, helping them pose questions, corroborate, contextualize, and analyze the sources and information they uncover. The project uses research in historiography and history of the great migration and urbanization in the 20th century as well as scholarship in history-specific cognition and the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. The technology is innovative in that it (a) forces students to treat museum objects as objectives of inquiry and (b) creates context and discipline-specific scaffolds that enable learners to engage in more sophisticated inquiry than they could without such supports.

The software confronts students with an authentic historical problem that requires the use of museum resources and other primary and secondary materials. For example, students are invited to consider “Why would someone move to Detroit in mid-20th century?” Using QuickTime VR, the technology enables students to visit the Mattox House, a rural Georgian tenant home, and the Sojourner Truth Housing Project, opened in Detroit in 1942 to investigate changes in living people experienced moving from rural south to industrial Midwest. Beyond a virtual tour of houses, however, the technology links students to relevant archival materials for each of the QuickTime houses. For example, students touring the Sojourner Truth Housing project can connect to more than 30 articles from the African American news-papers about life in Detroit during World War II, census data, and letters to politicians and other resources from archives of The Henry Ford Museum. To support students’ analysis of these materials, the technology (a) quickly links various sources to each other and to the house under investigation, (b) provides sourcing buttons that gives students contextualizing information that stimulates interrogation of sources, and (c) includes corroboration buttons that encourage students to compare and contrast sources. Finally, the CDs that contain these materials also include interviews with so-called experts, who, using the same sources students used, provide their own interpretations of the problem.

Another especially influential example is the History Matters: A US Survey Course on the Web online site ( Developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (CHNM), History Matters is a collection of digital educational resources such as primary source documents, sample lesson plans and syllabi, interviews with teachers, and discussion boards about teaching American history. This web site serves as a model for how digital history can be done on the World Wide Web and how it can be incorporated into the classroom. The resources available on this site have been used in many classrooms and in many different ways around the country.

Although there are many web sites and digital resources for teaching American history, the University of Maryland University College ( has developed a completely online college-level history degree. Serving a wide population of students, the program led by Bud Burkhard has developed innovative and exciting teaching methods to allow students to learn about American history. Students enrolled in the program log into the University of Maryland’s web site and are greeted with many digital equivalents of a real-life environment. They can go to the library, socialize with other students, attend class lectures, or work on homework. This digital world allows many students without access to a university environment, including many military personnel stationed oversees, to learn about U.S. history. In addition to offering traditional face-to-face classes globally, the program currently delivers 15 scalable, team-designed courses via the Internet. Each class contains multimedia learning objects to capture student interest and to provide depth to the online class discussions. To build a community of students, the programs offer an online history club and a unique chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society. Guest speakers appear regularly, covering topics ranging from graduate program or law school admissions, alternative careers for historians, and internship opportunities to teacher certification or lectures on research in progress. Enrollments increased from 900 in 1999 to 3,100 in 2003; majors in history soared from 34 to more than 650 (

A long-standing digital teaching project is Project RiverWeb, an initiative undertaken by Vernon Burton at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The project began in the mid-1990s and created static Web pages that provided historical narratives about the American Bottom region and East St. Louis, Illinois ( Currently the project is being moved away from this static history web site to a more interactive and dynamic model. More recent developments begun in 2003 under the direction of RiverWeb project manager Matthew Cheney have added advanced educational and library functions to the site. Teachers are now able to author learning modules that function as online lessons that incorporate primary source documents from RiverWeb‘s digital library. This allows students to learn as historians do by looking at and analyzing digital primary source documents-a powerful educational technique (


The development of American history digital libraries has been extremely important in spreading the use and development of digital history. Unlike traditional libraries whose col-lections and materials are limited to those who can physically gain access, digital libraries allow a wide number of visitors and a large number of new and innovative usages of the col-lections. In the field of digital American history, there have been a number of innovative digi-tal libraries created. These digital libraries are more than simple collections of documents but are instead digital collections of library resources and services that meet a unique library user information need. To be a digital library an online resource must meet three criteria.

First, a digital library needs to be a collection of library resources. This means the digital library needs to have a set of documents that are digitized and put online. This process sounds simple; however, it is complicated and involves barriers to success. To digitize a doc-ument requires not only scanning the document but also preserving the associated metadata of the document, making sure that the original formatting is preserved, and making sure the scanned document is free from errors. This is something for which it is very difficult to find funding.

Second, a digital library needs to be a collection of resources and services. Most people just conceptualize digital libraries as a bunch of online documents; however, a digital library requires a lot more. To be successful, a digital library needs librarians to organize the infor-mation online, provide sophisticated user interfaces to search and browse the library collections, and be available by e-mail or online chat to answer questions of library patrons as they arise.

Third, a digital library needs to address a unique library user information need. Often, digital libraries are considered simply convenient-letting people get access to online documents at home instead of going to the physical library. Although this is useful, most digital libraries are created to address a particular information need. The digital library, in simple terms, needs to do something better or something new that a physical library has not already done.

The most well known digital library in the field of American history is the Valley of the Shadow Project at the University of Virginia. Created by Edward Ayers, the project looks to collect and digitize primary source documents about two counties on opposite sides of the Civil War. Through an extensive collection of soldier records, census records, maps, news-paper collections, diaries, and letters, visitors to the site can immerse themselves in the two different communities and conduct their own original research about the causes and effects of the Civil War. In 2002, Ed Ayers, Anne Rubin, and Will Thomas received the American Historical Association’s James Harvey Robinson Prize (

Will Thomas, who had been Ed Ayers’s project manager for The Valley of the Shadow, became the director of and driving force behind the Virginia Center for Digital History (VVDH) in 1998. Thomas’s current project is The Civil Rights Era in Virginia, 1945-1970, intended to be a comprehensive history of Virginia’s role as a battleground state in the resistance to desegregation that puts Virginia’s experience in the context of other major changes in the state and nation: the Cold War, the growth of federal power, the development of mod-ern conservatism, and the growth of televangelism. Thomas’s project includes a digital collection of all available original footage of news films from the period, indexed and arranged for teaching Civil Rights history in American history courses ( Thomas is teaching a course, “Civil Rights in US and Virginia History,” and the web site for that course demonstrates the potential value of this project for teaching Civil Rights history (

Thomas’s Center for Digital History sponsors another project similar to Ayers and Thomas’s Valley of the Shadow, Shifflet and Richter’s the Virtual Jamestown Project at Virginia Tech ( This digital library project looks to collect primary source materials about the settlement of Jamestown and present those documents and related materials to facilitate an interactive and immersive experience for visitors to their web site. The result is that students and researchers can experience Jamestown and learn about its unique and rich history from the perspective of an observer (

The ongoing Secession Era Editorial Project developed by Lloyd Benson in 1995 was a unique way in which digital document collections could be created in ways that would be substantially better than their printed counterparts. The collection currently contains hundreds of newspaper editorials related to four key events of the late antebellum period-the passage of the Nebraska Bill, the attack on Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, the Dred Scott decision, and the raid on Harper’s Ferry. The editorials can be selected and organized by event, political party, and region. They make an invaluable learning and research tool. The project also includes the ability to interactively map keyword usages by geographic location (

Another interesting digital library project is the OYEZ Project sponsored by Michigan State’s MATRIX and Northwestern University that seeks to document the proceedings and decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Complete with unique digitizations of recordings of Supreme Court sessions, history comes to life as site visitors can listen to the voice of Justice Brennan or hear the oral arguments of Thurgood Marshall. This resource has enormous potential as a learning resource but also serves as a good example of how to create a digital library incorporating not only textual documents but also other multimedia sources such as sound (

An inspiring digital library project seeking to document the present, rather than represent the past, is the CNMH’s September 11th Digital Archive. This project uses digital media to collect and preserve the public memory of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Virginia. The site collects firsthand accounts of those who witnessed the attacks or experienced loss and tragedy as a consequence. The project is a great example of how digital technology can be used to document relevant historical events for those historians of the future who will be able to draw on rich and well-documented historical sources for their research (

One of the largest and perhaps the most useful digital library collections is the American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library run by the Library of Congress. Contained on the site are millions of primary source documents that span the entire history of the United States. Included are newspaper accounts, maps, photographs, manu-scripts, letters, video clips, and many other historical documents. This large collection is broken down into smaller web sites that deal with a particular topic that users to the site are invited to browse and search. This allows a large collection of documents to be easily accessed and used by visitors and students to the site looking for a particular type of information. There are also a number of useful sections designed for educational purposes. Called learning pages, they allow students to improve their critical thinking and history skills as they answer targeted and appropriate questions about the collected materials (

Another interesting digital library is the Making of America collection developed as a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Cornell University. The collection con-tains digitized versions of tens of thousands of academic and professional journal articles that cover topics from psychology to religion to sociology. The collection focuses on the Civil War era (1850 to 1877) and serves as a valuable resource for those looking to under-stand literature and culture. This resource is especially valuable because the site includes particularly rare sources that are often in very poor physical condition, making physical examination difficult and ultimately destructive. These digital versions open up the sources to a much wider audience (

A smaller, but enormously useful and focused digital library is the Famous Trials library established by University of Missouri at Kansas City professor of law Douglas Linder. The digital library contains digital images and documents from famous, important, and sensational court cases in U.S. history. Among the 35 trials documented on the site are the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial, the Scopes trial (also called the Monkey Trial), the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Aside from the historical documents, there are also extensive annotations of the historical documents as well as educational and background context that allow students, as well as researchers, to use this digital library collection (

A specialized and sometimes disturbing digital library collection is The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record web site. Developed by James S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr., the site contains images and maps that pertain to the slave trade and the life of slaves sold through that trade. In total, the site includes roughly 1,000 different images complete with bibliographic citations and some descriptive text about the pictures. However, there is no overall framework or educational context for the images, and there are some questions as to the historical materials the images represent and explain. Users to the site would need some external guide or experience to be able to make sense of the images and what sort of historical information they provide (


The use of technology and digital history could pose a serious danger to the teaching and research practiced in the field of American history. In some ways, technology will serve to widen the gap between those who have access to new information and those who do not. As teaching and research tools become more dependent on technology, only those who can afford to purchase the technology and have the time to acquire the training necessary will be able to use the new tools and become fully engaged in the profession. This will be disastrous to educators and researchers at schools unable to pay the high cost of digital history technology and will serve as a serious barrier of entry to those students seeking to become professional historians.

In other ways, the high cost and experience required to produce and implement technological tools will deter historians from engaging in the production process and will leave the task up to corporations. Although private models of production are, in many cases, necessary to develop and distribute academic tools and products, faculty must insist on input and part-nerships in the creation of IT products aimed at the teaching and research of history. The 21st century demands of historians a much broader approach to learning, and technology can help meet that demand, but only if the technology is made available to the public and not reserved for the elites. The goal and charge should be to democratize education and the tools necessary for its execution.

Even with the appropriate tools, there must be a reward structure present in the academy to allow for educators to be able to spend time with digital history technology. A large problem faced in history is that work done in digital forms is not rewarded in the same ways as work done in more traditional forms of history. The result is that those interested in digital history must either abandon or limit those interests to create traditional scholarship worthy of tenure or promotion or remove themselves from history departments and move to more supportive academic units such as Digital History Centers or Departments of Information Sciences or Library and Information Sciences, where an increasing number of historians and humanities scholars reside within universities.

This is a tremendous problem because the result of such a process disconnects those who study and practice history as a daily matter and those who develop the tools necessary to do history in a digital environment. The active input and involvement of professional historians is required to allow the process to function smoothly. To involve historians, history departments must provide a reward structure for digital work and provide promotions and tenure to professors doing digital work. This type of policy will not only attract academics interested in the digital world but also will also encourage historians to cultivate an interest in the digital world and provide some of their scholarship in digital forms.

These new forms of scholarships will form new challenges for historians and those who evaluate their work. Central among these challenges will be the ability to correctly review and evaluate historical work. With open publishing on the Internet, how will academic standards for scholarship be enforced? Without a rigid peer-review process, how will high-quality pieces of scholarship remain the historical norm? How are history departments supposed to evaluate the impact and relative importance of historical scholarship for purposes of promotion and tenure? These are issues the profession will have to address.

Despite all the amazing work in American digital history, the promise of computer-based instructional materials has not been realized. Advertisements in education periodicals, web sites devoted to education, and administrative policy on many campuses suggest that computers and the Internet improve education by providing tools, resources, and online teaching and learning. From the faculty perspective, these are all tools analogous to pen and paper, chalk and chalkboard, not to the analytical and interpretive works from which our students should be learning. The computer-based instructional materials we need are similar to the research-based articles and books we write, not to the instruments we use to produce them. Only when faculty researchers and writers produce computer-based instructional materials-and discuss them and argue about them in professional venues-will they be more than syllabi marked up in HTML, more than text with attractive illustrations and hyperlinks, more than links to others’ web sites.

The current model of improving education with computers and the Internet generally involves three elements. First is marking up traditional course material such as a syllabus and weekly readings in HTML and making them available online along with hyperlinks to web sites deemed relevant by the instructor and, perhaps, by students but not under their control. Second is crafting an online environment with asynchronous discussion (bulletin boards, conferences, listservs, threaded discussions) and opportunities for such private interactions between teacher and student and between student and student as responding to a student’s work and posting his or her grades. Third is offering campus workshops and consultations for faculty members who wish to avail themselves of the first two elements.

This third element, as a common institutional response to the computer revolution in higher education, is hindering progress in that it has led many to believe that the essential faculty role in the revolution is picking up tools made by others. Unfortunately, this also means that not only individual professors lag far behind their students in the techniques used to gain information and analyze and synthesize it (this is already surely the case on many campuses) but also that higher education itself is failing to keep up with the young people it should be serving. An analogous situation is not one in which youngsters know how to use a browser while their teachers do not but one in which students have read Karl Marx when their teachers in historical studies have not or in which students have read T. S. Eliot when their teachers in literature have not. Imagine trying to teach modern history without the analytical possibil-ities suggested by Marx, or modern literature without those deriving from Eliot, or African American history without those offered by W. E. B. Du Bois, and then you understand the problem of the profession of higher education failing to participate in its computer revolution.

The current model relegates faculty members to the passive role of shaping their own material with molds provided by those outside our teaching and research profession. It denies us even the sometimes-perverse pleasure of arguing with others about their interpretations of material we think we know well. It denies us significant ability to match the form of our courses to their content because the tools available cannot do justice to the variety of courses we teach.

Historians are used to working by themselves, in isolation. The new digital scholarship requires a different model. Much of the best digital history is done collaboratively, however, and that is likely to be the way of the future. Collaboration is characteristic of digital scholarship-a point made often in discussions of the impact of new media on the humanities. Because the problems one can encounter with networked computers are large and complex, tackling them often requires you to cooperate in substantial and coordinated ways with people who know things that you do not. Until recently, most humanities and history research has been cooperative, in the sense that “an individual or group provides another with useful information or data, although little other discussion is held in relation to the data” (Sanderson, 1996, pp. 97-98). With the advent of networked computing, we see more and more collaborative work, in which “a group of researchers with various backgrounds and interests . . . jointly identify a common research theme or scientific problem, and carry out coordinated actions in order to create new knowledge in relation to the research question” (Sanderson, 1996, p. 97). History, similar to all disciplines, is badly in need of models beyond the monograph for the demonstration of excellence, and where the scholarship itself is in need of new genres and new strategies for reaching new audiences. The older generation has laid the foundation. We need a new generation of historians to lead the discipline of history into the future.

That digital future is here.

Author Bio:

Orville Vernon Burton is a professor of history and University DistinguishedTeacher and Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author or editor of nine books, one of which is on CD-ROM, and is currently the associate director of humanities and social science computing at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.He may be contactedby e-mail:

Author Bio

Orville Vernon Burton is a professor of history and University DistinguishedTeacher and Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author or editor of nine books, one of which is on CD-ROM, and is currently the associate director of humanities and social science computing at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.He may be contactedby e-mail:



Ayers, E. L. (2002a). Technological revolutions I have known. In O. V. Burton (Ed.), Computing in the social sciences and humanities (pp. 19-28). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Ayers, E. L. (2002b). The valley of the shadow. In O.V., Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Ayers, E. L., & Thomas, W. (2003). The difference slavery made: Two American communities in 1860 and the coming of the Civil War. American Historical Review, 108(5), 1298-1307.

Bain, R. B. (2000). Into the breach: Using research and theory to shape history instruction. In P. Stearns, P. Seixas, & S. Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, teaching and learning history: National and international perspectives (pp. 331-353). New York: New York University Press.

Bain, R. B. (2002). Web-supported world history course presentation. In O.V., Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Bain, R. B., & Ellenbogen, K.M. (2001). Placing objects within disciplinary perspectives: Examples from history and science. In S. Paris (Ed.), Perspectives on object-centered learning in museums (pp. 153-170).Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bass, R., & Rosenzweig, R. (2002). Rewiring the history and social studies classroom: Needs, frameworks, dangers, and proposals. In O.V. Burton (Ed.), Computing in the social sciences and humanities (pp. 29-48). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Burton, O.V. (1979). Using the computer and the federal manuscript census returns to teach an interdisciplinary American social history course. History Teacher, 12, 71-88.

Burton, O.V. (1985). In my father’s house are many mansions: Family and community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Burton, O.V. (1987). Lessons in the history of the United States. Wentworth, NH: COMPress (1989 with QUEUE, Fairfield, CT).

Burton, O.V. (1989). History’s electric future. OAH (Organization of American Historians) Newsletter, 17(4), 12-13.

Burton, O.V. (1990). Complementary processing: A supercomputer/personal computer U.S. Census database project. In J.L. Martin & S. Lundstrom (Eds.), Supercomputing 88 (Vol. 2, pp. 167-77). Washington, DC: IEEE Computer Society Press.

Burton, O.V. (1991). Computers, history, and historians: Historians and converging cultures? History Microcomputer Review, 7(2), 11-23.

Burton, O.V. (1993). Teaching historians with databases. History Microcomputer Review, 9(1), 7, 9-17.

Burton, O.V. (Ed.). (2002). Computing in the social sciences and humanities. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Burton, O.V., Blomeyer, R., Fukada, A., & White, S. J. (1987). Historical research techniques: Teaching with data-base exercises on the microcomputer. Social Science History, 11(4), 433-448.

Burton, O.V., & Finnegan, T. (1990a). Developing computer assisted instructional (CAI) materials in the American history surveys. History Teacher, 24(1), 1-12.

Burton, O.V., & Finnegan, T. (1990b). Teaching historians to use technology: Databases and computers. International Journal of Social Education, 5(1), 23-35.

Burton, O.V., & Finnegan, T. (1991). Historians, supercomputers, and the U.S. manuscript census. Social Science Computer Review, 9(1), 1-12.

Burton, O.V., & Finnegan, T.E. (1989). New tools for “new” history: Computers and the teaching of quantitative historical methods. History Microcomputer Review, 5(1), 13-18.

Burton, O.V., Herr, D., Binnington, I., Cheney, M., & Burton, B. (2002). RiverWeb: River Basin knowledge network. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Burton, O.V., Herr, D., & Finnegan, T. (Eds.). (2002). Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Butler, C. (2002). The use of flowcharts in the teaching of history and flowchart examples. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Butler, C., & Marty, P. (2002a). Oikist: A computer simulation of Greek trade and colonization computer simula-tions for the teaching of history-PowerPoint presentation. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Butler, C., & Marty, P. (2002b). The use of simulations in the teaching of history. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing[CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Ethington, P.J. (2000). Los Angeles and the problem of urban historical knowledge. American Historical Review, 105(5). Available at and

Galgano, M.J. (1999). “The best of times”: Teaching undergraduate research methods using The Great American History Machine and The Valley of the Shadow. History Computer Review, 15(1), 13-28.

Kornbluh, M.L. (2002). Envisioning the future: Arts and letters in the digital age. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing[CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Latner, R.B. (2002). Crisis at Fort Sumter: Information technology and the beginning of the Civil War. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Loewen, J.W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: New Press.

Miller, D.W. (1994). The great American history teaching machine: An interactive atlas of U.S. history[CD-ROM]. College Park, MD: The ePress Project.

Miller, D.W., & Modell, J. (1998). Teaching United States history with the Great American History Machine. Historical Methods, 21(3), 121-134.

Plotkin, W. (2002). Electronic texts in the historical profession: Perspectives from across the scholarly spectrum. In O.V. Burton (Ed.), Computing in the social sciences and humanities (pp. 87-123).Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Prochaska, D. (2002). Iconothuque: Orientalist paintings and art of colonialism, colonialism of art. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Rosenzweig, R. (2001). The road to Xanadu: Public and private pathways on the history web. Journal of American History, 88(2), 548-579.

Rosenzweig, R. (2000a). Who built America? From the great war of 1914 to the dawn of the atomic age in 1946 [CD-ROM]. New York: Worth Publishers.

Rosenzweig, R. (2000b). Who built America? Working people and the nation’s economy, politics, culture & society. New York: Worth Publishers.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). Scarcity or abundance: Preserving the past in a digital era. American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762.

Rosenzweig, R., Brier, S., & Brown, J. (1993). Who built America? From the Centennial of 1876 to the great war of 1914 [CD-ROM]. New York: Voyager.

Rosenzweig, R., & O’Malley, M. (2002).Brave new world or blind alley? American history on the World Wide Web. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Sanderson, D. (1996). Cooperative and collaborative mediated research. In T.M. Harrison & T. Stephen (Eds.), Computer networking and scholarly communication in the twenty-first century (pp. 95-114). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Shifflett, C., & Richter, R. (2002). Virtual Jamestown. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Sieber, D.E. (2002). “Netagogy” in history and literature departments: On technology, effective teaching and student learning. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Sutton, W.A. (1990). Another view: History’s electric future. OAH (Organization of American Historians) Newsletter , 18(2), 6.

Thomas, W.G. III, & Ayers, E.L. (2003).An overview: The differences slavery made: A close analysis of two American communities. American Historical Review, 108(5), 1298-1307.

Tucker, S.W. (2002). Oral history and the Internet. In O. V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Turnbull, P. (2002a). Historians, new communications technologies and historiography: “Pictures of health,” an Australian history World Web project. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Turnbull, P. (2002b).Pictures of health. In O.V. Burton, D. Herr, & T. Finnegan (Eds.), Wayfarer: Charting advances in social science and humanities computing [CD-ROM]. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.


the center today.
Each year, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s websites receive over 2 million visitors, and more than a million people rely on its digital tools to teach, learn, and conduct research. Donations from supporters help us sustain those resources.