Digital History in the MSU History Department
This semester (Fall 2012), I had a very exciting opportunity to take a History 830 graduate level seminar in the MSU History Department, “Race, Biography, and Nation Building in South African History” with Prof. Peter Alegi. We went through recent and cutting-edge readings on South African history, focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries. These readings fostered stimulating discussions and debates every Tuesday evening.
Our final assignment for the course deviated from the usual end of semester historiographical papers; instead, it was a digital assignment involving analyzing digital resources on the history of South Africa. Each student was asked to select one website from the list below and examine its content, purpose, ownership, and potential as a teaching, learning, research-scholarship and/or popular knowledge resource. We were also asked to explore issues of preservation, accessibility and provide comments on what could be done to enhance the site. The digital assignment ended with each of us presenting our findings using a digital tool of our choice.
Comments on the Sites
Although the assignment was challenging, most of us were very happy with the break from the typical final paper. In total, most of us found the sites we explored very useful; they contained various primary sources in form of audio and video interviews, documentaries, photographs, maps and written narratives on the history of South Africa. I explored the “South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid Building Democracy” repository (http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu), which I feel is an excellent tool for teaching, research and fostering public knowledge on the history of the liberation movement in South Africa.
The quality levels of the digital tools we explored varied; some were good for education, and research, and public knowledge while other were suitable for one or two of the mentioned purposes. General comments and feedback on the sites included:
- The importance of creative graphic designs to attract users
- Need for user-friendly tools such as media players.
- Simple indexes that can make the sites accessible to undergraduate students.
- Need for metadata to make the resources useful for scholarly research.
- Transcriptions for oral interviews to make them easy to use.
- Brief narratives for each resource to make them useful for public knowledge use.
The seminar ended with a thought-provoking discussion on the future and place of history in the digital world by Prof. Alegi. He asked all of us what we planned to do with the primary sources we gather in the course of our dissertation research. He challenged us, asking, “Are you going to lock them-up in your cupboards and leave them gathering dust or are you going to find ways of making them accessible to other people by putting them on line”? He emphasized the benefits of sharing primary sources as interactive digital resources, both to foster knowledge as well as to help young scholars, like myself and my classmates, market themselves for the job market.
Despite lingering skepticism among some historians about the place of digital history in scholarship, Prof. Alegi stressed that the future of digital history looks bright. This explains why the MSU History Department has been working collaboratively with MATRIX and other bodies to develop digital tools, as well as the Africa Past and Present podcast (htt://afripod.aodl.org), which Prof. Alegi does with fellow MSU historian Prof. Peter Limb. With all of these exciting developments, the future of digital history in the MSU History Department looks very bright.