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A Tour of the Virtual Stacks

  • Cameron Blevins


Rows upon rows of “virtual stacks” now stretch as far as the eye can see. From JSTOR to the Library of Congress to, unprecedented quantities of historical material are being added to the digital ether. In fact, you are probably reading these words on a screen right now. Search-box interfaces allow historians to instantly query vast quantities of historical material in order to pull out information about individuals, events, institutions, and locations. With just a few strokes of a keyboard, a historian can sift through millions of digitized pages of newspapers, government documents, or books. A process that would have once taken a lifetime of flipping through microfilm or archival folders can be conducted in just a few minutes. As historian Lara Putnam notes, this now “feels as revolutionary as oatmeal.” But, she argues, the “mass digitized turn” has nevertheless had a profound impact on the practice of history in ways that the discipline is only beginning to understand. This is especially true for a field like modern American history, where an abundance of easily scannable English-language sources has generated a wealth of online material.

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1 Journals like Law and History Review, Modern Intellectual History, Journal of Sport History, and The Public Historian have all published roundtables, overviews, or special issues about the impact of digital history on their particular subfields. See Dale, Elizabeth, ed., “In This Issue: Digital Law and History,” Law and History Review 34, no. 4 (Nov. 2016): vvi; Edelstein, Dan, “Intellectual History and Digital Humanities,” Modern Intellectual History 13, no. 1 (Apr. 2016): 237–46; Sterling, Jennifer J., Phillips, Murray G., and McDonald, Mary G., “Doing Sport History in the Digital Present,” Journal of Sport History 44, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 135–45; Bryans, William et al. , “Imagining the Digital Future of The Public Historian,” The Public Historian 35, no. 1 (Feb. 2013): 827.

2 Putnam, Lara, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” The American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (Apr. 2016): 377402, here 380.

3 Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable.” See also Laite, Julia, “The Emmet's Inch: Small History in a Digital Age,” Journal of Social History, doi: 10.1093/jsh/shy118 (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

4 James Somers, “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” The Atlantic, Apr. 20, 2017, (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

5 Jessica Rohr, “HathiTrust Research Center Extends Non-Consumptive Research Tools to Copyrighted Materials: Expanding Research through Fair Use,” Perspectives from HathiTrust (blog), Sept. 20, 2018, (accessed on Mar. 29, 2019).

6 E. Thomas Ewing et al., “An Epidemiology of Information: Data Mining the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” White Paper (Washington, DC, 2014), (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

7 Moravec, Michelle, “‘Under This Name She Is Fitly Described’: A Digital History of Gender in the History of Woman Suffrage,” Women and Social Movements 19, no. 1 (Mar. 2015),; Michelle Moravec, “Network Analysis and Feminist Artists,” Bulletin 6, no. 3 (Nov. 2017),; Michelle Moravec, “The Endless Night of Wikipedia's Notable Woman Problem,” Boundary 2, Aug. 1, 2018, (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

8 Micki Kaufman, “‘Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me’: Quantifying Kissinger,” (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

9 Underwood, Ted, Bamman, David, and Lee, Sabrina, “The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, Feb. 13, 2018, doi: 10.22148/16.019; Kraicer, Eve and Piper, Andrew, “Social Characters: The Hierarchy of Gender in Contemporary English-Language Fiction,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, Jan. 30, 2019, doi: 10.22148/16.032; So, Richard Jean, Long, Hoyt, and Zhu, Yuancheng, “Race, Writing, and Computation: Racial Difference and the US Novel, 1880–2000,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, Jan. 11, 2019, doi: 10.22148/16.031 (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

10 Knowles, Anne Kelly, “GIS and History,” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, eds. Hillier, Amy and Knowles, Anne Kelly (Redlands, CA, 2008), 127.

11 Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” in American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

12 Sarah Bond, “How Is Digital Mapping Changing The Way We Visualize Racism and Segregation?,” Forbes, Oct. 20, 2017,; Mara Cherkasky, Sarah Jane Schoenfeld, and Brian Kraft, “Mapping Segregation in Washington DC,” Prologue DC,; Monica Martinez, “Mapping Violence,” (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

13 Lingold, Mary Caton, Mueller, Darren, and Trettien, Whitney, eds., Digital Sound Studies (Durham, NC, 2018).

14 Bench, Harmony and Elswit, Kate, “Mapping Movement on the Move: Dance Touring and Digital Methods,” Theatre Journal 68, no. 4 (Dec. 2016): 575–96, doi: 10.1353/tj.2016.0107.

15 Lauren Tilton, “Towards a Visual Turn in (Digital) History” (Quantitative Analysis and the Digital Turn in Historical Studies, Fields Institute, 2019), (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

16 Tilton, Lauren and Arnold, Taylor, “Distant Viewing: Analyzing Large Visual Corpora,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, doi: 10.1093/digitalsh/fqz013 (accessed April 12, 2019).

17 Noble, Safiya Umoja, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York, 2018).

18 Fuentes, Marisa J., Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016); Johnson, Jessica Marie, “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads,” Social Text 36, no. 4 (Dec. 2018): 5779, doi: 10.1215/01642472-7145658.

19 Os Keyes, Nikki Stevens, and Jacqueline Wernimont, “The Government Is Using the Most Vulnerable People to Test Facial Recognition Software,” Slate Magazine, Mar. 17, 2019, (accessed Mar. 29, 2019).

20 Muhammad, Khalil Gibran, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA, 2010); Gross, Kali Nicole, “Policing Black Women's and Black Girls’ Bodies in the Carceral United States,” Souls 20, no. 1 (Jan. 2018): 113; Hernández, Kelly Lytle, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017); Ngai, Mae M., Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ, 2005). See also the 2015 special issue “Historians and the Carceral State” in the Journal of American History: Hernández, Kelly Lytle, Muhammad, Khalil Gibran, and Thompson, Heather Ann, “Introduction: Constructing the Carceral State,” Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (June 2015): 1824.


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