Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Changing Face of History, or How the Internet is Revolutionizing our World.

As Roy Rosenzweig argued, historians are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Where primary sources particularly, and secondary sources to a lesser extent were once in short supply, digitization projects, not to mention born digital documents are making history more accessible than it has ever been in the past. The Internet is for all intents and purposes revolutionizing history. Historians have blogs, they use twitter, books are published concurrently online and on paper, and most university students and professors can now read court records from The Old Bailey online at 3 in the morning if they so desire.

This shift will change the way we do history, how can it not? That’s not to say that the public archives will be empty, or publishers are going to have to start closing offices and hosting their authors work online instead of printing it. We might, however, find a few more computers at the archives, and publishers certainly should consider publishing digitally as well.

In my opinion, the sheer accessibility of sources will change what we as historians do more than anything else. As I said earlier, most academics could, if they wanted to, read the records of The Old Bailey from home in their underpants. The days of traveling to ones sources may be numbered. Projects like Early English Books Online, and Early Canadiana Online have made it easier and easier to find and use primary sources from the comfort of our own homes. Where once, we might have had to buy a plane ticket, book a hotel, and perhaps actually experience England in order to write a thesis based on English primary sources, we can now open a browser, access one of these pages and start keyword searching for the information we need. This level of accessibility is, I believe, both a good thing and a bad thing.

I would argue that the documents I mention above should be publically accessible, and digitization is perhaps the best way to ensure that they are. It would be almost impossible to store physical copies of everything contained in the National Archives (the UK government’s official archive) in all of the commonwealth countries, let alone to ensure that these documents could be made widely available. Think about how much paper would be required, and how much space that would likely take. Digitization solves the problem of space. Documents that are digitized need only be housed in one place, and the digital copy can then be stored on a hard disk drive, cd-rom, dvd-rom, or solid state drive in a specialized facility. At this point it is a simple task to make the documents widely available.

Once the documents are widely available, we need a means of accessing them. Just like traditional archives have indexes and catalogues, online archives need a search engine. Search engines allow anyone to search the indexed documents for keywords, subjects, and phrases, some will even go so far as to let the historian limit the search dates. The downside however is that search engines are only as good as the system upon which they are based, be that a system of indices and categories, or an algorithm. To add a second factor to the efficacy of search engines, search engines are only as effective as the people using them. So, search engines are effectively limited by the questions we ask them. We as historians must learn how to use search engines effectively or no matter how accessible information is we will be unable to access it in its entirety if we do not know how to effectively search it.

Likewise, what we search can too easily be randomized to create a recombinant view of history, where concurrent events and movements are related randomly to create a picture of our historical past. Steve Anderson gives the example of the Recombinant History Project’s Terminal Time. Terminal Time is an AI based system that reconstructs history from a broader history of the past 1000 years based on audience choices. It illustrates quite clearly how different viewpoints can change the way history is understood if it is sampled randomly without, for example, an understanding of place. Terminal Time more specifically illustrates the involvement of our cultural biases in our research in a rather extreme fashion.

As I said above, the accessibility of information is both a good thing and a bad thing. Recombinant history is a good example of the bad. Another concern of mine is in actual fact the accessibility itself. As accessibility changes the way we do history I worry that we are perhaps losing the visceral experience of digging through the past. If we no longer have to leave home to search many primary sources, are we losing the sense of discovery we might have felt had we weeded our way through an archive? Likewise, if we for convenience sake limit ourselves to items that have been digitized, who then will tell the story of the items that have not been digitized? I worry that we will soon find ourselves only studying convenient history; we’ll stop discovering new pre-internet sources, and instead focus on the myriad emails, web pages, and digital records available to us. Perhaps, even more alarming is the potential that we will allow the sources that have been digitized to become representative of the past.

The Internet is revolutionizing the practice of history, as more and more sources are being digitized or are born digitally daily. In order to survive in a digital world, historians need to learn a new set of skills. We must learn how to research again, and we must learn how to use the Internet to our advantage. Historians in a digital age need to know how to work with digital files, search digital databases effectively, and we need to know when the convenience of the digital is not enough. If we learn those skills, the Internet can be our friend instead of our enemy.


Lutz, John Sutton. “ Digital Literacy: What Every Graduate Student Needs to Know.” Canadian Historical Association. Retrieved October 6th, 2009 from

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance: Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” American Historical Review. 108 (3). Retrieved October 6th, 2009 from

Turkel, William J. Digital History Hacks: Methodology for the Infinite Archive (2005-08). [Weblog.]

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