When the Monograph Is No Longer the Medium: Historical Narrative in the Online Age

Over the last fifty years there has been much discussion about the value of narrative in the production of historical knowledge whereby it is generally assumed that "narrative" is a given and that the only thing at issue is its epistemological value. This article critically examines this assumption. It shows how conceptions of "narrative" have mutated in response to changes in cultural practice and, as importantly, how they have been implicitly modeled on the particular medium envisaged for telling stories: the stand-alone monograph. The belief that history's natural form is a book written by an individual historian has thus informed most discussions of narrative in the twentieth century, meaning that the primacy of language, the autonomy of the author, and the finished, self-contained character of the work have been taken for granted. The "naturalness" of the stand-alone monograph can no longer be taken as a given, however, in the new media ecologies. Digitization and the internet offer new technologies for producing and disseminating historical knowledge and, in the process, present both opportunities and challenges to professional historians. Beyond their practical implications, the digital media also provide a new theoretical model for viewing historical narrative in terms of its social production by multiple agents across different platforms, and this changes our understanding both of past and of future practices.