Review of: Sport History in the Digital Era

Osmond, Gary and Murray Phillips, eds. Sport History in the Digital Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xii + 279. Notes, Index. $60 Clothback.

Reviewed by Andrew McGregor

Digital history and the digital humanities often seem like opaque buzzwords conceived by young, tech-savvy scholars trying to gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive academic world. The constantly evolving field appears frightening and complicated to many. It’s full of gadgets and devices, tools and apps, and those scary things that so many of us historians have spent our lives trying to avoid, numbers! Just when we think we’ve figured something out, it changes again. Because of this, some find it easier to ignore digital history, viewing it as just another fad that will go soon away.

9780252038938The reality of the digital world, however, is becoming increasingly present in our everyday lives. Paper is rapidly disappearing. So much so that most AARP members don’t even write checks at the grocery store, and the old card catalogs from our libraries have become quintessential hipster furniture. In this new digital world, our research and teaching practices are evolving too.

In Sport History in the Digital Era Gary Osmond and Murray Phillips set out to explore what sport history looks like in this digital world. Their collection of essays seeks to start a conversation about the potential of digital history to alter the way we engage with sport history. Unlike other digital humanities books, each essay directly relates to sport history offering glimpses of someone’s current reality. The text is divided into three sections: Digital History and the Archive, Digital History as Archive, and Digital History is History, plus an introduction and conclusion.

The editors begin the book by attempting to define digital history. While many historians use digital tools, Osmond and Phillips suggest that digital history is something more: “digital history uses the digital tool box to create or analyze particular forms of online historical representations”(4). Indeed, for them, digital history is dynamic and almost always acts a form of public history that invites audiences to interact and, hopefully, better understand history. But they also view digital history as transformative and the essays in the volume hint at ways those transformations might change the history making process.

The first section (chapters one and two) reflects on the relationship between libraries and archives, and the creation of digital history. The essays address the issue of archives and digital technology from opposite ends: creators and users. The first essay explores the changing role of libraries, suggesting that they are not under attack, but vitally important to the digital era because of the important role they’ll play in mediating the digital future. Libraries and librarians will serve as portals and meeting places to gain access to vast digital collections and the experts to help us navigate them, particularly because they are playing a vital role in shaping the construction of digital archives and databases.

Though daunting, the challenge of technology is not particular new for sports and sports scholars. New inventions such as radio, TV, and the Internet have always been a part of media coverage of sports, forcing scholars, librarians, and other interested parties to master new technologies. Creating repositories and archives of these documents has always been a challenge, but in the long run we (mostly) benefit from these transformations by gaining an ease of access and proliferation of sources. Institutions benefit as well due to the public fascination with sports. Digitized historic images and documents can help improve marketing and branding.

While libraries are working to gather and digitize materials, scholars are thinking of ways to harness the power of the abundance of new digital sources. More sources make it more difficult to read everything, but if the user interfaces of digital archives are designed well (which is not always the case) they provide us with the ability to ask new, larger questions. New methods, that rely on the searchability of digital sources, such as text mining and distant reading or “culturomics,” allow scholars to run textual analyses on large databases that would be impossible for one person to ever read. These methods allow you to “visualize broad cultural trends and identify areas for closer exploration” (62).

This opening section highlights ways in which new technology force us to change our approach to sources as researchers and repositories. An abundance of sources creates new challenges just as the impermanence of the digital present creates issues for preservation. These dueling concerns will affect how all historians conduct research moving forward.

Digital History as Archive, the second section, comprises the bulk of the text (chapter three through eight). Here the contributors offer their expertise and experience navigating various types of social media. The essays explore the possibilities of social media and Web 2.0 not as mere communication platforms, but as research and teaching tools as well as source material. A common theme throughout these essays is the concept of virtual engagement that operates either as a form of public history or collective memory building (sometimes both).

Websites and digital platforms, Geoffery Kohe suggests in his analysis of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s website, enable us to create more personalized experiences not possible in traditional museums or halls of fame. The combination of historians trained in digital, sports, and museum studies offers endless possibilities for innovated new approaches to public history.

These same forces are at work in variety of digital spaces. Holly Thorpe’s chapter explores virtual memorialization of sports figures, such as Andy Irons, forcing historians to ask questions about the process of creating, reinforcing, and stabilizing cultural memories. Similarly, Matthew Klugman analyzes fansites to unearth the intersection of history and memory with our passion and desires as sports fans to reveal rituals of seasonal memory that are imbued with emotions. These rituals allow us to analyze the link between emotion and memory to better understand the role the past plays in the lives of sports fans.

Engagement with fans and their creations is promising but requires an awareness of your tools, goals, and possible ethnical and legal issues. Not everything on the Internet if free! In his essay “Dear Collective Brain…” Mike Cronin addresses these challenges while comparing his experience using Facebook and Twitter as research tools for an Irish Sporting Heritage project. The title of his essay comes from his conclusion that is often easier to access previously collected information from peers than harvest new data on social networks.

If your audience is mostly composed of digital natives, such as students, Tara Magdalinski explains, the interactivity provided by new technology is particularly useful for exploring innovative pedagogies. The digital world offers flexible and multidirectional information channels where students can collaborate in a constructivist, student centered environment. Tools such as blogs, wikis, and social media allow students to learn-by-doing, curate their own discovery experiences, and engage with peers as well as the public.

Blogging serves a similar pedagogical purpose, according to Rebecca Olive. It allows scholars to transform the traditional writer-reader relationship into an active dialogue. Bloggers are able to start, frame, and moderate discussions about important historical people, events, or issues. These conversations allow writers to access more and varied interpretations and perspectives, serving as a type of public history and collaborative review process for the audience and the author.

The final section of the book Digital History is History consists of two essays that offer alternative views of sport and history. While the first two sections of the text focus on more practical and applied applications of digital history and how it alters traditional practices, this section highlights the disruptive nature of digital history delving into hypothetical and theoretical alternatives.

Synthia Syndor begins the section by reflecting “on the nature of sport” and digital culture. Sport is “a universal institution of human community,” she argues, asserting “the primacy of play and human stories” (209, 216). From here she suggests that sport and stories (which is a building block of history) are trans-historic developments that have adapted to different technologies throughout history and will do the same for the digital world. While she makes clear they have unique cultural and temporal variations, it is their universality that positions them as essential elements of humanity and allows them to conform to new settings. In this way she challenges us to see the “universal nature of play, sport, and the Internet” (24).

Focusing on historical methods, Fiona McLachlan and Douglas Booth, outline different approaches to studying history (reconstructionism, constructionism, deconstructionism, and reconfigurationism). Digital sources allow the possibility of reconfigurationism, which, they suggest, allows alternative understandings and organization, such as the possibility of nonlinear narratives. Historians likely won’t abandon their current methods and embrace new technology or sources that allow for their disruptive methodology, McLachlan and Booth admit. But, “the Internet will remain a site of contested meanings among the spectrum of…historical practice[s]” where scholars gradually adopt new practices as they recognize their impact in changing their methods, possibly moving closer to their end goal (242).

Collectively, each contribution to Sport History in the Digital Era presents a different perspective on what the digital era means to sport historians and how it might look. Each essay is thought-provoking and grounded with examples or connections to sport history that challenge us to consider the utility of digital technologies – and our relationship to them – moving forward.

Osmond and Phillips are wary of making any predictions about what impact digital era might have on history, but they suggest that it has the potential to be immense. They explain:

“Digital history, at its maximalist end, engages with the best practices of experimentation by denaturalizing every dimension of traditional history: the dominance of qualitative research, traditional source materials, the practice of sole authoring, one-way scholarly communication, peer-review, filter-then-publish models, linear narratives, intellectual property, and … the viability of the monograph as the gold-standard, professionally approved, artifact” (263).

Such radical re-envisioning of history alone, without the technological component, surely is enough to scare off a few folks. Perhaps, choosing to engage these debates now, rather than ignore them, will give scholars the opportunity to shape their digital futures.

Engaging wary scholars in these conversations and spreading the field of digital history out of its existing niche and into broader historical currents, is one of the primary goals of the book. The outlook for accomplishing this goal is optimistic. The Georgia Institute of Technology recently issued a call for papers for a Doing Sport History in the Digital Present Workshop to be held this spring. This book will likely be required reading before attending that workshop or discussing digital history with other scholars in the subfield.

Yet, this text alone is not enough to be conversant on digital history and the digital humanities writ large. Osmond and Phillips spend little time, for example, discussing the promise of mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for sport historians. This shortcoming is not an issue for this book given its intended purpose, but it does highlight the need for scholars, who might not be well versed in the field, to explore the vastly emerging historiography on digital history as they venture deeper into the digital humanities. Overall, however, Osmond and Phillips show a keen awareness of the major developments, debates, and conversations in the digital humanities and offer an important book that will serve as an accessible conversation starter for historians of sport.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter:@admcgregor85

4 thoughts on “Review of: Sport History in the Digital Era

  1. Excellent review of Digital History. The book probably discusses the point I am going to make, but the digitalization of our primary resources have vastly increased are ability to recover the past (yeah, I know that is Old School thinking). I am thinking such resources as Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com. A whole new world is opened up. My current research topic on a barnstorming African-American women’s basketball team would have been impossible to accomplish, or nearly so. The team would make annual barnstorming trips out west to every town that had a high school basketball court. The digitalized newspaper databases opened up a whole world of this activity and what it entails, considerably fleshing out our history of this whole barnstorming world.. I would never have been able to even discover this team without the newspaper databases, let alone write an essay on them. I wrote a profile of track star Tydie Pickett a year ago, in which all previous profiles omitted her basketball career. She spent a couple years on a barnstorming basketball team, and because of the digitalized newspaper databases, I was able to write about that facet.

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    • Thanks for the comment. Sorry for the slow reply. These issues are definitely addressed in the text. Chapter 1 explores digitization in libraries and building databases. Access is one of the promises of digital libraries, of course, the usability and politics behind them are things we also must consider. Too often we get excited about just having the ease of access that we forget some of what we sacrifice for that (things like reading an article in context, ads and illustrations, etc.).
      Like you, I have written almost an entire article from using newspaper databases. It means you can almost start to finish write an original piece from your office. This is an exciting prospect, but also makes history more solitary and can, perhaps, hinder or eliminate some of the collaborations we take for granted — such as asking archivists and librarians for advice and having them steers us in the right way.
      These are the kind of questions that I think this book highlights. The digital era is here, but how do we best adapt to it. How do we ensure we don’t lose the tactile and the humanness of research in our quest for more and faster access.

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  2. Andrew you raised all fundamental questions and issues regarding digital research in your reply. I think digital research was a panel at NASSH a couple of years ago. I think I should have attended.

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  3. First upon reading your review I saw the irony of what the authors might or might not have been hinting at. Writing a book about how people now are not reading book and are turning towards all online and viewable media poses big irony of the book they wrote themselves. Even though the book discusses the way people are changing the digital age with blogs, online papers, and the overall speed of information getting out. I think that they are stating that when you have a digital way of looking at the history you can get a greater connection to what is being said and have more chances to recalling the information. The speed that the information can get out is good for sports for both the fans and for the players themselves. I think that digitalizing the facts also keeps it more safe from being tampered with and or lost over the time. Having the digital archive I think it is a great creation for this century. The question for the future would have to be if they is going to be greater and more powerful way to get information out. If this digital age has been this powerful already, how more powerful could be the next creation.

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