Consequences of Digital History

In Mapping Texts: Combining Text-Mining and Geo-Visualization to Unlock the Research Potential of Historical Newspapers, the authors set the context for their ambitious project to develop analytical models to gain historical insight into the content of 232,500 newspaper pages. One of the items they discuss is the abundance of electronic sources for research as “historical records of all kinds are becoming increasingly available in electronic forms.” Historians living in this age of abundance face new challenges, as highlighted by HIST3814o classmate Printhom who asks ”will there be many who cling to the older methods or will historians and academics see the potentially paradigm shifting benefits of technology.”

As pointed out in Mapping Texts, the abundance of sources can overwhelm researchers. In fact, being able to deal with a research project encompassing hundreds of thousands of pages of content also represents a significant financial and technical barrier for researchers. If history is shaped by the people who write it, who will be the people who overcome these barriers to producing digital history and who will be the historians and their communities who will be disenfranchised by a lack of digital access?

Digital Historian Michelle Moravec has been described as someone who “[writes] about marginalized individuals using a marginalized methodology and [publishes] in marginalized places.” Clearly her use of digital history, rather than being a barrier, has been a means to gain a deeper understanding of history, such as her work regarding the relationship of the use of language and the history of women’s suffrage in the United States.

At the same time even with an abundance of available resources, there are also choices made the determine what is available, whether or not an investment will be create a digital source and if there will be a price to access it.

Another consideration is whether the providers of digital history have an agenda beyond history. In her podcast Quantifying Kissinger Micki Kaufman quotes the former U.S. Secretary of State, “everything on paper will be used against me.” Kaufman outlines some of the controversies caused when formerly secret information was made public or, in a humorous case, when publicly available information was republished on Wikileaks. These issues point to the fact that it may be more than just digital historians benefiting from the release of digital sources. Those releasing data may have an agenda to advance, to burnish a reputation or discredit.

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