Stephen Robertson

Stephen Robertson

Stephen Robertson

Director of the MA Program in History


U.S. History: 20th century US history, digital history, legal history, urban history, spatial history, history of sexuality

Stephen Robertson is a cultural and social historian of the twentieth-century United States. Since 2003, digital history has occupied a central place in his research. In 2024 he published Harlem in Disorder, a spatial analysis of a racial disorder in 1935 in the form of a digital monograph. The multi-layered, hyperlinked narrative of the publication connects different scales of analysis to foreground individual events and to make transparent the interpretations involved in the creation of data from uncertain and ambiguous sources. That project grew from Digital Harlem, a site that integrates material from a diverse range of sources to produce maps that offer visualizations of the complexity of everyday life in the 1920s. The site formed part of a collaborative project involving three colleagues in the Department of History, and the Arts eResearch unit, at the University of Sydney. Digital Harlem won the American Historical Association’s inaugural Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History and the American Library Association’s ABC-CLIO Digital History Prize in 2010. Robertson has published articles and book chapters about digital history methods and tools, digital legal history, digital publication, and the teaching of digital history.

Robertson is also the author of two books. Crimes against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960, the first large-scale longitudinal analysis of sex crime prosecutions, examines how changing understandings of age brought crimes against children to prominence and transformed American law and legal practice. Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars, is the first major study of numbers gambling, an enterprise central to African-American economic, social and cultural life in the 1920s and 1930s. Robertson has published articles and book chapters on sex crimes, modern childhood, everyday life in 1920s Harlem, and undercover investigation in journals such as Gender and History, the Journal of Social History, the Journal of Urban History, and the Journal of the History of Sexuality.

Robertson received his PhD from Rutgers University, and BA (Hons) degrees in English and History from the University of Otago in New Zealand. He held postdoctoral fellowships at the American Bar Foundation and in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. From 2000-2013 he was a member of the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. For six years, from 2013-2019, he served as director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Current Research

Disagreeable Detective Work: Private Investigation in the US from the Civil War to WW2

Selected Publications

Harlem in Disorder: A Spatial History of How Racial Violence Changed in 1935 (Stanford University Press, 2024).

Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars (with Shane White, Stephen Garton & Graham White) [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010]

Crimes Against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880-1960 [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005]

The Properties of Digital HistoryHistory and Theory 61, 4 (December 2022): 86-106.

Arguing with Digital History: Patterns of Historical InterpretationJournal of Social History 54, 4 (Summer 2021): 1005-1022 (with Lincoln Mullen)

“The Pinkertons and the Paperwork of Surveillance: Reporting Private Investigation in the United States, 1865-1940,” in Private Security and Modern States: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, ed David Churchill, Dolores Janiewski and Pieter Leloup (Routledge, 2020)

The Differences between Digital Humanities and Digital History,” Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, ed Matt Gold and Lauren Klein (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 289-307

Digital Mapping as a Research Tool: Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930,” American Historical Review 121, 1 (February 2016): 156-166

Recent Presentations

2024: "Fitting Form to Argument: Developing a Digital Publication for Harlem in Disorder," L. Dennis Shapiro and Susan R. Shapiro Digital History Seminar, Massachusetts Historical Society, March 21, 2024 [online].

2023: “History Unbound: From Book Discipline to Digital Discipline,” Digital History & Theory: An Open Conversation on the Future of Digital Scholarship (Brown University), March 2, 2023

2022: “Models for Argument-Driven Digital History,” What Makes History Digital? (Wesleyan University Virtual Roundtable), May 6 [Online]

2021: “Disorder in the Courts: Using Data, Visualizations, and Hypertext to Create a Legal History of the 1935 Harlem ‘Riot’,” Digital Methods and Resources in Legal History, Max Planck Institute for European Legal History, Frankfurt, March 3 [Online]