Doing Digital History

How does the medium of the World Wide Web change the practice of doing history? Is Digital History qualitatively different from History? Explain.

The traditional method of researching history  was, and still is, like poking a hole in a fence and then identifying, analyzing and reporting upon what you may be able to see through the hole. The guys holding the tool to poke and look through the fence are the ones who report to the rest of us what they see.

In a sense, the world-wide web has knocked down the fence and so the entire panorama of information on the other side  is now available to everyone. Just eliminating the fence is not necessarily a sign of progress. If an ocean is on the other side, just dropping the fence will mean that most of us will drown. But if access to the ocean of information is supplemented by ways to control and direct the flow, it’s possible that web-based research can effectively replace the traditional approach – like a light switch replacing a candle.

I see “doing” history digitally as inevitable, and envision a day when those who insist on only approaching history the traditional way will be left by the side of the road. By analogy, I recall meeting an engineer from Kodak who tried to convince me of the advantages of taking pictures with traditional film over using a digital camera. That was a decade ago and my guess is that he is now working with digital or is in another field.

One might guess that some traditional historians trying to make the transition will experience something like this: Monk Calls Desktop Support

I do not see the democratization of writing history as a threat to academic or public history. Rather, I see the use of blogs and similar media by serious historians as complementing and supplementing more rigorous, peer reviewed writing of history. And I see blogs as read or contributed to by amateur historians as a way of reviving and continuing interest in the field.

When I first began working with historical journals, whether bound hard copy or online, I was surprised to find that, at least as far as I could tell, there is no intentional way to connect one article to a subsequent related article. In this sense, legal research seems a few steps ahead. For example, if I have a statute or a court decision, looking back I can fairly quickly identify the history of the document, and looking forward I can just as easily identify later documents that have relied up, or attempted to refute, the one that I am working with. And that’s not simply because of advances in technology. Even before legal research moved from the library to the laptop, there was a “bookish” version of this process that facilitated matching a document both to its history and to its subsequent reference by others.









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