- Irish History Online and in Real Time:Century Ireland and the Decade of Centenaries
In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences offered the following view on the potential for academic engagement with the digital realm: "Online resources offer unprecedented opportunities for scholars to frame topics of public interest, to participate in a wider community of public intellectuals, and to reach general audiences. The digital world offers vast new possibilities, not only for delivering instruction but also for facilitating research and for making the past and future possibilities come alive to students of all ages."1 While there is little to challenge in the view that access to online audiences offers scholars significant openings for presenting their work, one might question how far academia has actually embraced that potential. There is also the issue of what type of scholarship has gone digital, what the audience has been for that scholarship, and how successful and innovative the project of digital research has been to date. The answers to those questions need not concern us, and there has been a significant amount of research that has teased out the history of digital scholarship, particularly in the areas of digital humanities and (in the context of this essay) digital history.2 The contention here is that the digital humanities have largely been the preserve of a network of self-motivated scholars in various countries. These scholars responded [End Page 269] in their respective fields to the potential of digital scholarship, and over the years professional societies, research centers, and specialist journals emerged in reaction to these developments. As the discipline (or perhaps rather the methodology) became a norm within scholarship, so national research-funding bodies began to support the work of those in the digital humanities.
However, by and large the digital humanities have been centered within the confines of university-based researchers, state-funded grant-giving bodies, and various archives and libraries that hold the materials that are to be digitized and analyzed. While such digital scholarship has been important, and there have been obvious gains in terms of the use of digital content in the lecture hall and in the initiation of public outreach on many projects, the whole endeavor has been driven by the needs of the scholarly community over other concerns. Writing in the early days of digital history in 2005, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig offered the opinion that "all of us have a responsibility to ensure that the new digital history is a democratic history, one that reflects many different voices of the past and the present, that encourages everyone to participate in writing their own histories, and that reaches diverse and multiple audiences in the present and future."3 This is a key point in the context of this article, as it highlights some central concerns and questions about digital history. Is it democratic? Is digital history open to all? And how does digital history encourage a dialogue between the multiple voices of the past and those of the present? Effectively, how can digital history move beyond the scholarly environment and into the public sphere?
For all the many excellent digital-history projects that exist, I would argue that too many are still the products of students working with their faculty advisors and archivists working with subject-specific experts. Digital history has not often, as Bill Adair asked of the museum community in the digital age, "let go." According to Adair, "What the museum 'lets go' of is not expertise but the assumption that the museum has the last word on historical interpretation. … This scenario involves letting go of the notion that one can or should [End Page 270] control all outcomes in the museum."4 It is arguable that a specific opportunity in Ireland—the centenary commemoration of the 1912–23 period—allowed historians and others to "let go." In an age of digital opportunities that coincided with a peak in the public's engagement with the past, digital history moved outside of the classroom and the research environment and stepped into the genuinely public sphere where curated web projects did not control...