Just Blog About It! (Part 1)
What do digital historians think about blogs? Can we take it like a source? Does Digital History change the way that we write history or the way that we use our sources?
These questions are all important to academic historians and those who teach history at every level, and they’re worthy of separate answers. I’ll address two in this post, and the final question in the next post.
We need to start with what we mean by “blog.” Though the term began years ago as a way to refer to personal online journals, blogging software such as WordPress has made it incredibly easy to publish text, images, and video about a wide variety of sources, including history. There are lots of different kinds of blogs out there that are perfectly good sources of information for teachers and students doing research on historical topics. Archives and libraries and museums often use blogs to advertise and publish primary source materials from their collections.
One great example of that is the Today’s Document blog at the National Archives. Another group blogging in its area of expertise is the National Park Service historians in the Fredericksburg area. They have two blogs going right now: Fredericksburg Remembered is about public history in the Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania area, while Mysteries and Conundrums is about ongoing research on the Civil War in the region. Both are excellent examples for students and teachers of cutting-edge historical exploration in progress. Other historical scholars are also blogging their research, which can be incredibly valuable for students to learn about the research process and for teachers to find out the newest scholarship. Such bloggers include Shane Landrum’s discussion of his research on the history of birth certificates in the U.S. Some history teachers are blogging about their classes, teaching techniques, and research. One such example is this blog on teaching and public memory by high school history teacher (and Civil War scholar) Kevin Levin. Meredith Stewart’s In For Good blog discusses her teaching of World Cultures and U.S. History in North Carolina.
Undergraduate students are working with faculty and using blogs to create historical resource projects as well. See for example, my own students' blog-based projects on the state historical markers in our area, and the history and memory of Mary Ball Washington. More and more college-level faculty are using blogs to make syllabi and class information accessible not only to their students, but to larger audiences as well. For more on teaching with blogs, check out this series of posts at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The history blog roll at George Mason’s History News Network contains many, many examples of historically oriented blogs, sorted by content area (U.S., Ancient World, etc.) and focus (e.g., primary sources, K-12, and public history).
This is really a question of the credibility of online sources. The flip side of blogging’s easy publishing is that anyone can publish their research, ideas, or perspectives. Theoretically, before the web, if something came out in print, chances were that it had gone through some kind of vetting process that likely increased the accuracy of the information. Now the bar to publishing is much lower (which most digital historians view as a good thing), but that means teachers need to work closely with students to identify credible online sources.
Of course we want to teach students ultimately to look at all sources with a critical eye, to evaluate the credibility of an author and the worth of the materials, but there are particular things to look for when evaluating the credibility of blogs. In addition to the normal questions we would ask of any source (intended audience, author’s expertise on the topic, use of sources/citations/bibliography), it is reasonable to judge a blog as well by its design, proofreading, use of other forms of digital media (links, images, videos, audio), and history (how long has it been around, are there other posts, etc.). By themselves, issues of design and new media use are not definitive, but they do provide some insight into the attention the author has focused on the blog, and, combined with more traditional questions, allow for an evaluation of a blog’s credibility. Beyond just evaluating blogs and other online sources oneself, there are also a number of other places one can turn for help in finding and evaluating historically-oriented blogs and other online sites. The Scholarly Resources Tutorial from the University of Richmond’s Library is a series of videos that is intended to get students to ask questions about audience, credibility, and expertise for all sources in general. Librarians at Cornell and UC Berkeley have created useful guides for evaluating online sources. And SUNY-Albany has a great starting point for evaluating blogs and wikis as part of their broader guide to online sources. Traditional locations of historical peer review have also begun to step forward and evaluate online sources as well. For example, the Journal of American History now has a regular section entitled Website Reviews. Evaluating blogs is also something more easily done with the help of others. If you have a network of people whom you trust, ask them which blogs they read or use with their students. Such questions can be done in person, or via email, listservs, twitter, Teachinghistory.org, and from the blogs or blogrolls of reputable institutions or people. I tapped into my email and Twitter networks (made up of academics, librarians, archivists, museum professionals, and K-12 teachers) for the sources that they use with their students to supplement my own resources for this article. Don’t be afraid to do the same.