Personal Failure and Decentralized Digital History
Large collaborative projects, huge datasets, computational power, and spiffy visualizations tend to get the lion�s share of digital history press. Such attention, however, especially when coupled with explicit calls to abandon individual work as the default scholarly production model, can alienate those who work in circumstances that effectively discourage large grant funded projects and interdisciplinary collaborations. Furthermore, many people who pursue a career in history actually prefer working alone or with a few like-minded (and similarly trained) colleagues. Digital history must equally encourage collaborative and individual scholarship. Towards that end, this paper presents two related arguments meant to facilitate digital history boot-strapping: the importance of personal failure in learning new skills and the power of decentralized collaborations over time.
The importance of failure has featured prominently in digital history conversations over the years, and for good reason. Given the experimental nature of much digital work, failure, if properly explained, should be considered a scholarly success because it can advance the field in important ways. This paper argues and provides examples of how we can and should also value individual failure in learning digital history methods and why, paradoxically, success in digital history is impossible without repeated, unrelenting failure. I also outline a number of techniques and resources for learning digital skills as an individual without recourse to the seminars and workshops that have helped scholars build digital skills.
Secondly, while historians should continue to encourage and facilitate humanities collaborations, we must also enable historians with very few resources at their disposal do engage with their own digital work. I also suggest how such efforts can be loosely coordinated over long periods of time to leverage the untapped power of a decentralized, distributed digital history that resembles more a grassroots, bottom-up effort than the predominant top-down grant model.