Historians and Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

About a week ago, historian Vũ Đức Liêm published an article in the online journal Tia Sáng on “‘Small,’ ‘Brief’ and ‘Narrow’ Histories or a Crisis of Historical Scholarship?” (Những lịch sử “nhỏ”, “ngắn”, “hẹp” hay khủng hoảng của sử học?).

In this article, Vũ Đức Liêm notes that we are living in a time when there are many people who feel that historical scholarship is facing a crisis as students do not seem to be interested in studying it, and historians have little prominence or influence in society. He examines this issue and suggests that there are types of historical scholarship that Vietnamese historians could produce that would be of more interest to the public.


Tia Sang Liem2

In making this argument, Vũ Đức Liêm is building on (actually, more like “localizing” to the Vietnamese context) ideas that historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage put forth in a 2014 book entitled The History Manifesto.

Guldi and Armitage argue that over the past few decades there has been a trend on the part of many historians (in places like the US and the UK) to focus on “small” and specialized topics that do not necessary address the interests and needs of the larger society, a society that they argue increasingly focuses on the “short term” in making decisions about the future.

These two authors call on historians (I think they were mainly addressing historians in the US and UK, but their ideas apply to other places as well) to counter the “short-term” outlook of people in society today (particularly policy makers) by producing scholarship that examines issues of importance to our current world (like climate change or economic growth) from a more long-term perspective (the longue durée).

Further, they argue that the digitization of information and digital tools can enable scholars today to produce fresh new perspectives on these issues, and that by producing new “longer-term narratives” historians will be able to contribute to society and to be heard by policy makers.

H man2


Vũ Đức Liêm likewise argues that Vietnamese historians have been producing work over the past few decades that is, as he writes, “small” (nhỏ), “brief” (ngắn) and “narrow” (hẹp).

In using these terms, his point is not to say that there is an ideal “length” or “size” for a work of history. Instead, he is making a more general argument (following Guldi and Armitage) that Vietnamese historians are not producing work that can speak to the larger society in meaningful ways and that can help policy-makers contextualize the issues that they face today.

Further, he is also making the argument that in the digital age when information and ideas are easily available, there is no excuse for not producing new forms of scholarship that the public can appreciate. Here he makes the point that many people ARE indeed interested in history, just not the type of historical scholarship that professional historians currently tend to produce.

Tia Sang2

I became aware of this article because 1) it was published in a (semi-academic) online journal that attempts to reach a more general audience and 2) someone posted it on Facebook.

As for The History Manifesto, I had never heard of it before. . . Upon looking it up, I found that it apparently caused a bit of an “academic sensation” when it came out, but then I also saw that the discussion of this book was largely confined to highly academic journals, and that made me think of another issue.

While I agree that historians, wherever they may be (and myself included), can do a much better job of producing work that can be of interest to the public, at this point in time (as we speed through the Digital Revolution) the way that such scholarship is transmitted is as important as the scholarship itself.

Not only is academic scholarship “too academic” (or too “small,” “brief” or “narrow” in scope) for people outside of the small world of academics to appreciate, the way that it is disseminated (through academic journals and academic conferences) never reaches them in the first place.

My point here is not to say that we historians must “dumb down” our scholarship or to stop publishing highly academic works that move our fields forward. Instead, it is a call for historians to “be smart” about what we do with our knowledge. There is just no need for all of it to be restricted to academic forums and in so doing to increasingly isolate the field of history from the dramatic changes that the world is undergoing in the Digital Age, as that clearly does not benefit anyone.

So having been inspired by the ideas that Vũ Đức Liêm brought up in his article (indeed, they are ones that I think about often), I made a video to push his ideas further.

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