The Rise of Digital History: From Pioneer to Sedentary Farmer

Convert-Documents-DigitalIn an age before digitization, historians had no choice but to travel to the region they were studying. This meant footing large travel bills and spending weeks at a time locked up in uninviting reading rooms. They risked Carpal Tunnel Syndrome as they flipped through endless pages of manuscript and manually spun the microfilm reader. Oh yes, and they walked uphill both ways to the reading room.

All jokes aside, research is time consuming and expensive. A researcher’s inability to access documents might hold up a pending project until a sabbatical or long leave of absence allows for travel. These types of research trips are inevitable for the historian, however, some of the materials they used to travel for, they can now browse from their couch. Rapid advances in technology have changed the way that historians do their work.

Not everyone was excited about the “digital revolution” though. Techno-skeptics spoke out against the web because there was no gate-keeper to make sure that scholarly integrity was maintained. Meanwhile cyber-enthusiasts advocated for technology infiltration in all aspects of life. According to Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web the rapid development of technology was not a revolution, it was just change. The authors claimed that “new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past.” (Digital History, Introduction)

Historians confronted with all of these new tools can be confused on when to use them and how to use them most effectively. Digital History is a blueprint to guide historians in the ways in which new technologies can be best used. The authors identify seven positive outcomes of digital history and 5 dangers that the digital historian needs to be aware of. The 7 positives are “capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity, and hypertextuality” and the dangers are “quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility.” (Digital History, Introduction)

Dan Cohen tackled some of these issues head on in “Is Google Good For History?” He questioned the value of google as a historical research tool and resource, and he determined that Google is absolutely good for history. The many aspects of the web service “provided us with free research riches” and a “direct challenge to our research methods.” Cohen emphasized that Google books has increased accessibility to materials, one of the seven positive outcomes of digitization. Cohen exclaims, “Google Books is a savior, enabling research that could once only be done if you got into the right places.” The digital book repository substantially levels the playing field for historians from all reaches of the globe competing in historical research. (Cohen, Google)

Digitization clearly has vast benefits, so we should digitize everything right? Well, no not exactly. Digitization is a very expensive and time consuming process. Digitizing one page of decent quality text in a searchable format could cost anywhere from $0.20 – $2.00 per page. (Digital History, How to Make Text Digital) That is not cheap and in many cases cost prohibitive, nonetheless “hundreds of millions in federal, foundation, and corporate dollars have gone into digitizing a startlingly large proportion of our cultural heritage.” (Digital History, Becoming Digital Intro) But with dwindling funding and an infinite amount of materials to digitize, historians need to select their digitization projects carefully to make sure that they are worthwhile. We need to remember that not every digitization project is worth the cost. (Digital History, Costs and Benefits)

A digital historian is regularly using scanners and fiddling with web pages. He has to be familiar with techie terminology like OCR and XML, but last I checked historians do not get much if any technology training. Rapidly changing technology demands that historians learn how to use these new tools effectively. However there are some things that the historian will not be able to do on his own and to overcome these obstacles he must collaborate, “an essential skill for any digital historian.” (Digital History, To Mark Up)

Changing gears slightly to focus on how digital repositories can most effectively make their newly digitized materials accessible on their website. What should the home page look like? Is there a menu bar, browse function, or link paths? We all frequent websites daily but it is hard to recognize the really good ones, because they do not get in the way of the task at hand. But the bad ones, boy do they stand out. They are hard to navigate, clunky, and sometimes their purpose is unclear. When historians build digital projects they need to be hyper-aware of the ways that the website aesthetic and navigation structure will affect the end user. Fortunately, digital historians today can look back on the “the rough-and-tumble wilderness of early digital history” for examples of what to do, and what not to do. (Blevins, Valley of the Shadow)

The Valley of the Shadow project is considered the “pioneer” of digital history. However 23 years after its debut, it has begun to look more like “just another farmer in the Ohio Valley.” (Cebula, comments, Valley of the Shadow) By reflecting back on this project and others we can determine the best course for developing digital history web sites in the future. Planned analyses of digital history websites have taken place as well. Interaction in Virtual Archives analyzed the Polar Bear Expedition Collection’s online repository to determine “what features facilitate accessibility and what features hinder it?” Ultimately, the sample size for the study was very small and solid conclusions could not be agreed on. Much more analyses needs to go into the ways that researchers most effectively interact with online repositories and again collaboration with web, archive, psychology, and other experts may provide valuable insight. (Krause and Yakel, 295, 312) “Farmers” can grow great things when they work together!

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One thought on “The Rise of Digital History: From Pioneer to Sedentary Farmer

  1. I also thought Cohen’s “Is Google Good for History?” article was great. I liked how he addressed skeptics and naysayers concerns about google, “truly bad books can be rescanned or replaced by other libraries’ versions. I find myself nonplussed by quality complaints about Google Books that have engineering solutions. That’s what Google does; it solves engineering problems very well.”

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