FYSM 1405 A: Digital History

My first course at Carleton this year will be part of the first year seminar series. I’m exploring a subject dear to my heart: Digital History.  From the course calendar…

Instructor: Shawn Graham


3000 years ago, literacy and the power to record history were the privileges of the few. To record the past was to control it. 3000 years later, and the inverse is true: literacy is widespread, and every voice has an outlet on the internet… or does it? We will look at what Digital History is, the ways it changes the questions we can ask, the way digital methods change what it is even feasible to ask, and how we communicate this research to a wider public. Given that many digital tools are also new media tools, the practice of digital history is also often a kind of public history. This course will survey various concepts and tools currently being used in Digital History. Topics to be discussed include data mining, agent based modeling, geographic information systems, and serious games. These topics will be set in their broader historical contexts.


Each week, we will use the first session to set up some of the major themes and questions we will want to explore; in the second session we will look at current research projects, websites, and other materials in the light of those themes. Come prepared each week by reading and investigating the weekly materials, which will be posted on the course website.

The syllabus is divided into parts to illustrate the broad thematic goals. We begin in Part I by examining the sheer mass of historical materials now available on the internet. How do we find our way through these things? How do we visualize or otherwise identify what is important?

This leads to the observation that in digital work, everything is an argument (Part II). We never observe the past directly; we are always building models to fit what we ‘know’ into a system of explanation. In digital work, these models are explicitly written in computer code. Understanding how the code forces a particular worldview on the consumer is a key portion of becoming a ‘digital historian’. Computer games are another kind of model of the world; historical computer games are some of the best selling games on the market today. How do they represent history? Can we subvert or challenge these representations?

Some of the most interesting discussions about history on the internet occur in the game fan-sites; this leads us to Part III, the ‘wisdom of crowds’. We will take a close look at the way ‘crowd-sourcing’ is used to write history and pseudo-history: what is the difference? How ‘true’ is a crowd-sourced history anyway – is Wikipedia good or evil?

In Part IV, we look at some of our local ‘crowds’ – digital history in the Ottawa Valley & the local new media and heritage industries. What face are we presenting to the world? What stories are being told – or not told? Who has access to digital media, and does it matter?

Finally, in Part V, we draw the various strands together to understand the current state of Digital History, where we stand, where we are going, the potentials & the pitfalls. The map is still being drawn; there are still places marked ‘here be dragons’.


Digital History is rarely produced by a single individual working in isolation; accordingly, the major project in this course will be a group project to create a work of digital history centred on some aspect of the Ottawa Valley’s human heritage that needs promoting or protection. The groups will document their work publicly using a research blog. At the end of the project, each member of the group will assess the contributions of the other members’ of the group. Each group project will also be assessed by the remainder of the class. These peer reviews will form a substantive portion of the final grade for the project. There will be no final exam.