What is Digital History?

Screenshot of the video "Deaf Mute Girl Reciting 'Star Spangled Banner'"
Screenshot of the video “Deaf Mute Girl Reciting ‘Star Spangled Banner'”

This is a question I’ve been trying to answer since I was accepted to the History program at GMU. Former history professors and thesis advisors, friends and family have all cocked their head to the side with a quizzical, “That’s great… So what is that?”

I’ve struggled to find an answer that satisfies, lingering instead on areas where I envision it’s application. The readings for this week’s class have moved me closer to developing my own, more complete, answer to this question, but I’ll reserve the crafting of that response until the end of the course.

For now, I’d like to consider how Digital History has already begun to impact the field of Deaf History in ways that we’ve yet to fully address. I’ve been thinking about Christopher Krentz’s article in Signing the Body Poetic, in which he examines the role of the camera in recording and preserving the expression of American Sign Language. It’s important to note that for many deaf people, sign language is the first and primary language. While we have numerous examples of Deaf writing, it is often difficult to access culture and community when one is mediated through another language (in this case written English). As with other oral cultures, embedded in the signed stories of Deaf community members was important historical and cultural information, passed between generations. As Krentz suggests, “the advent of film has striking parallels to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.” [pg 51]

Given technical limitations, the earliest preserved moving evidence of ASL is a 1902 film [available online through the Gallaudet University archive and the Library of Congress here] and a film project initiated by George Vediz of the National Association of the Deaf, from 1910 to 1920, recorded “sign masters” giving formal addresses, describing literature, performing and storytelling [Veditz is seen here and other videos are available in the Gallaudet Video Catalog]. The importance of film technology is immeasurable in that it has preserved what had been entirely ephemeral. And as Cohen and Rosenweig noted in Digital History: A Guide, as we’ve moved into a digital age, what was relative scarcity (prior to the interconnectivity of webpages and video sharing) is suddenly excess as the web has exploded with video narratives by deaf people. Websites have sprung up for the purpose of “vlogging” [examples here and here].  A cursory youtube search, for instance, turns up countless videos of deaf people (or, increasingly) hearing students of American Sign Language, eager to share.

The question will become, as Cohen and Rosenweig suggested for future historians, how to address this abundance of information. I can think of no current efforts in the field of Deaf History to begin this process or to address the preservation of vlogs.