Retaking the High Ground of Digital History for the Civil War (Part 2)

This is part two of my ideas about how to improve the study of the American Civil War online. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

Below are three more ideas for projects that Civil War scholars should consider to make sure that the Civil War retains a prominent position in the growing field of digital history.

The first two are primarily aimed at an academic audience. Still, I believe that all three ideas could promote more interaction between scholars and the general public. Please feel free to contact me with any comments or suggestions about my proposals. If you have any ideas about other digital Civil War projects that you think would help bridge the gap between academic and popular Civil War history please feel free to share.

(3) Update the Society of Civil War Historians’ Website

The home page for the Society of Civil War Historians' Website.
The home page for the Society of Civil War Historians’ Website.

Last year, the Society of Civil War Historians sent out a survey to its members asking for feedback on the society’s website.. This is a great initiative, for the site is starting to show its age compared to others for similar American history professional organizations. Updates similar to what the American Historical Association, American Catholic Historical Association, and the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic have done would bring the SCWH’s site into the 21st century and increase its usefulness to members. For example, the society might consider creating its own version of AHA Communities or following the AHA’s and the ACHA’s lead by making an updated membership database available. Either of these upgrades would help foster connections between society members with similar interests. The Society also might consider hosting some of its own digital projects and resources related to the Civil War era. Interested scholars and graduate students might collaborate on such projects. Digital projects would provide both fresh content for the site and experience in the digital humanities for young Civil War scholars, something which is increasingly important for today’s job market. Adding Civil War resources, updating the site regularly with blog posts, and fostering collaboration would make the website the place to go for news on the scholarly study of our topic. It also might help bridge the gap between popular and academic historians of the war, creating a shared space for dialogue and exchange about the war and its larger consequences for American society.

(4) A Civil War Collaborative Blog

The Junto: a great blog covering a variety of topics about the academic study of Early America.

While there are a number of useful Civil War blogs already, there is no single blog that caters to academic historians. Again, like with my first two proposals from last week, I think that we can look to Early Americanists for inspiration. A number of young scholars and graduate students in this field have created a very popularly blog called The Junto. Regularly updated, the Junto provides its readers with a wide variety of content, from traditional book reviews, to interviews with scholars, to engaging with representations of Early America in popular culture. Other posts include digital humanities how to articles as well as career, research, and writing advice. Instead of relying upon a single person to produce content, the Junto has wisely adopted a collaborative approach, enlisting the help of a core group of contributors while soliciting outside contributions as well. There are a number of Civil War scholars with their own personal blogs who I think might be willing to become regular contributors in exchange for the opportunity to get their work in front of a larger and more general audience. There are almost certainly a large amount of interest among graduate students for a chance to work on such an endeavor, which would let scholars try out their ideas in front of their peers in shorter, less formal means than the traditional conference proposal or much longer journal article. The Society of Civil War Historians might consider adding such a blog as part of an update to their site mentioned in (3) above. Perhaps submissions could even be accepted from historians outside of academia, giving both popular and scholarly historians a shared space to collaborate on the study of the war.

(5) Crowd Sourcing and Engaging the Broader Public Online

The Library of Virginia’s excellent transcription platform for its manuscript collections, including those related to African American and Civil War history.

As all Civil War scholars know, there is a sharp division between the popular, military-focused history of the war and what academic historians write about. We also know that the public does not subscribe to our journals, our books can have relatively small print runs, and that non-academics do not frequent scholarly conferences. One of the many advantages of the internet is its ability to reach larger audiences than can be done by print based sources alone. All of my first four ideas would be opportunities to make academic scholarship and work on the war more accessible to the public. There are also existing projects bridging this gap that Civil War historians should support and encourage.

There are many successful crowd source based historical projects that have allowed thousands of people to participate in the process of preserving and providing easier access to our nation’s historical treasures. The War Department Papers at George Mason, which uses Omeka to provide a transcription platform, is one famous example from the Early Republic period. There are also several other transcription projects that have large user bases that have transcribed tens of thousands of pages of Civil War documents. The Library of Virginia’s Making History: Transcribe boasts thousands of images of letters and diaries from Union and Confederate soldiers, with more being added every day. More recently, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum launched its own transcription project, inviting users to transcribe thousands of documents about Lincoln or the Civil War in its collections. Both projects require that transcriptions be checked by another user before they can go live. Even if the transcriptions have a few errors, they are accurate enough to make keyword searching possible so that users can easily find high-quality digital scans of the letters that contain information pertinent to their own research or interests.

Ultimately, crowd sourcing can help academics do their work more efficiently by harnessing the power of keyword searches. But just as important, crowd sourcing has the ability to sustain interest in the Civil War for years to come by giving the public an important role to play in in the process of preserving history while making it more accessible to scholars and future generations alike.