Posted by: Ellie Kutz | June 14, 2012

Doing History in a Digital Context

There are many ways in which faculty are integrating traditional pedagogy and digital technology in their teaching. In the presentation, “Doing History, Doing Research: A Faculty-Librarian Digital Collaboration,” Lynnell Thomas (American Studies) and Anthony Viola (Library) described how Lynnell has been using the online database, History Engine, and a Library Research Guide created by Anthony to guide students through the process of “doing history” in AmSt 211—US Society and Culture 1860-1940.

Lynnell has been exploring the question of how to help students gain a richer understanding of the practice of history—to become better readers and writers of history, to appreciate history, and to gain a sense of the difference between “writing a history paper” and “doing” history. In her exploration of resources for the teaching of history for a CIT seminar on the Scholarship of Teaching in Spring 2011, she discovered History Engine, a powerful site for engaging students in the work of historians.

History Engine offers an online database that helps students place texts and artifacts in historical context.  Students learn to use their work with primary and secondary sources to write and publish narratives of historical episodes that contribute to the larger database.  The creators of History Engine, a project housed at the University of Richmond, describe their work as an attempt to answer the question: “What would a [history] writing assignment look like in a digital age?”  They wanted to maintain the goals of the traditional assignment that asks students “to make sense of disparate pieces of evidence, organize their thoughts, and then defend their argument on paper.”  But they found that such assignments presented few opportunities for students to link their own discoveries with those of their peers. Creating a database to which students can contribute essays identified by common elements, such as historical dates and locations, allows their work to be combined into a “rich historical portrait,” providing “interpretive windows into the past” (

Student contributors to History Engine prepare 500 word essays on historical moments–episodes that reflect their study of a primary sources from university and local archives, with analysis that is supported by secondary sources. Students then post their entries to the History Engine database, building, with others, a more complete picture of historical periods and events.  With their posts, they add metadata about location, date range, and themes.

As Lynnell has developed her own series of assignments with this resource, her AmSt 211students complete the following assignments:

  • Searching the database, learning how to refine their search and work with the results, and summarizing one episode about the Civil War and how it fits with the knowledge they’ve gained from the course.
  • Considering what a successful episode looks like, identifying a topic for their own episode, and creating an annotated bibliography of relevant primary and secondary sources
  • Researching their episode through the History Engine database and the resources gathered in the Library Guide prepared for their course.
  • Creating their own episodes, which are peer reviewed, revised and posted with appropriate tags for metadata.
  • Preparing a final presentation about the process of doing history, drawing on their own examples.

While students are thus engaged, in a small way, in the sort of work historians do, they are also coming to new understandings about research and the use of databases.   One of the most significant changes to recent scholarship involves the availability of digital databases that use metadata to support advanced searches and allow connections to be made across vast amounts of material.  We can teach students search techniques, but their understanding of how such databases work (and thus their own ability to use them effectively), can be enhanced by teaching them to be contributors to as well as users of a database.

With resources like History Engine, students can become, like their professors, digital scholars.


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