In the latest issue of the American Historical Review (April 2020) brought to us by the American History Association contains an intriguing special feature of digital history reviews. One of the goals of the reviews section, the AHR claims, is to “broaden” the scope “beyond the realm of the scholarly monograph.” In the past, this included reviews of films, historical fiction, pedagogical materials, video games and more. The five digital history projects in this review all explore the history of Atlantic slavery: The Slave Societies Digital Archive, Marronnage in Saint-Domingue, Runaway Slaves in Britain, Freedom on the Move, and The Georgetown Slavery Archive. According to the AHR, reviewers of these projects were expected to comment on the “medium itself,” the “ease of navigation and quality of presentation, the collaborative and transitory nature of such sites, and their limits as well as their possibilities.” Such standards are important for reviewing digital scholarship, the AHR believes, because digital projects “may even one day outstrip the history monograph as a purveyor of knowledge about the past.”[1]

This special feature in the Review should make us reflect back to five years ago, when the AHA acknowledged digital humanities trends in history by publishing “Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians.” These guidelines provided an important benchmark for the field by recognizing that scholarship evolves—and should be valued accordingly by peer-consensus terms. Now, in 2020, we see yet another benchmark through these reviews which evaluate digital projects using the review system that has been an important standard in the field.

Each of these projects represents immense efforts to improve data access, knowledge, and historical analysis of slavery and the Atlantic World. The reviewers carefully assess both the historical and digital contributions these projects bring to the field. One might expect these two elements to be analyzed on their own merit, but the reviews impressively weave both together to reinforce a key premise of digital humanities: that there is mutual bond between digital skills and humanities thinking. Like traditional book reviews, however, sometimes the reviewers emphasize what these projects don’t accomplish. One of the main challenges (and benefits) of digital projects is that they will forever remain incomplete. A digital platform can always expand and change—as more resources become accessible, they can be easily added. Sure, a book could have multiple future editions, but by and large a published monograph is a done deal. To me, the ability for digital scholarship to easily evolve and constantly improve is one of the most favorable arguments for its valid treatment in the field. In the business of history, traditional monograph publishing may satisfy the need for quantity, but digital scholarship guarantees quality.

[1] “Digital History Reviews,” The American Historical Review, Volume 125:2, April 2020, (Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, 2020), 579.