How does the digital change the nature of historical research?

  1. How does the digital change the nature of historical research? (Assignment) 

The nature of historical research has drastically changed and evolved (especially within the last decade) and will continue to do so as time progresses.  This is undoubtedly due to the implementation of the ‘digital’ having profound effects on changing the whole nature of historical research in a variety of different ways.  The introduction of the digital has encountered ‘road blocks’ and perhaps has some limitations, however in analysis of its overall impact, it can be determined that the digital change has not only made historical research easier and more accessible, but has an will continue to innovate and create variety in the way people undertake and interpret historical research itself.

In attempting to interpret the changes that the digital has had is complicated, not least due to the constant changes that happen within the digital world itself, this also presents the difficulty in defining the term ‘digital history’ for the same reason.  However, in categorising the different and most identifiable reoccurring forms in which the digital can take, allows an interpretation of the definition in the broadest sense of the word.  Therefore, the term digital history can be defined as the representation of all information available online, regardless of the format or the way in which it is presented.  In its most recognisable and basic forms, this would be online archives, libraries and journals, as well as the more recent formats such as social networks and online communities.  In examining the advantages and disadvantages of these formats allows us to greater realise the extent to which the digital change has changed the nature of historical research, both from a practical standpoint, as well as a philosophical standpoint.

Firstly and most obviously, the digital change has meant that historical data, including all different types of sources, have been accumulated and made accessible through the internet, meaning that historical data had become more accessible to the masses as a result.  This, combined with the introduction of the concept of ‘big data’, meant that if left untouched, would leave users facing ‘historical archives of almost unimaginable abundance’ [1]. As a result, the digital offered and continues to offer new ‘sophisticated methods for finding trends and anonymities’ [2] and therefore solutions in dealing with big data and then portraying that data in a variety of different ways.  An example of such a large archive can be seen in Google books, which currently contains more than 50 million books [3].  The majority of such books (previously classed as analogue) have been scanned and digitised using OCR technology.  This is just one of many examples that highlights the extensive ‘possibilities for online research and teaching that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago’ [4], and will continuously develop as time progresses, both in scale and nature.

However, there have been some people who have been wary in embracing the digital change over in relation to historical research and research in general.  Abby Smith suggests that ‘we should be cautious about letting the radiance of the bright future blind us to the limitations of this new technology’ [5].  This is in reference to digital data being only a sample of the original data, (in relation to analogue) which is not necessarily the case anymore, however is still a viable limitation in terms of the impact that the digital changeover has had on historical research.  This limitation is arguable due to the fact that digital data need not be any different to that of analogue data and can be just as ‘continuous’; it just depends on the amount of digital data gathered, although scale has become less of an issue.  Although not perhaps suggested, but still in relation to this limitation is the on going issue of ‘open access’ versus ‘paid access’, where the latter does in its very nature enforce limitations on the digital in relation to accessing data online.  However, this is really no different to the problems faced prior to the digital age, where ‘in traditional scholarship, scarcity was the problem, travel to archives was expensive, access to elite libraries was gated and resources were difficult to find’ [6].  As a result, the digital change over has in reality, highlighted an already existent problem of restricted data, be that analogue or digital, but the fact that so many resources are now available, those that are restricted in access become more and more recognisable.  This in turn has led to the ‘emergence of new rights regimes (open access, open content and open source), and the explosion of new information are manifestations of these changing costs’ [7].

It seems that the possibilities in terms of historical research through use of the digital are vast.  The new structure of the web has allowed for a more advanced and alternative ways in which students can approach historical research and has had and will continue to do so.  When first introduced, historians had recognised that ‘computers’ healthiest influence in history thus far has been the deepening and broadening of professional conversation’ [8], however, it seems it has now reached a new peak, not just in its influencing more debate and conversation, but it has (perhaps not deliberately), created a new type of historical source, through social media.  The way that people in general have begun to use social media will and is in the process of changing the nature of how historians’ will undertake historical research in the future.  This is evident in the British Library’s attempt to in a sense, archive the web, ‘in a bid to preserve the nations digital memory’ [9].  The British Library has expressed it’s urgency in providing the archive, and that the fact that they had not yet done so ‘ever since people began switching from paper and ink to computers and mobile phones, material that would fascinate future historians has been disappearing into a digital black hole’ [10], which in turn suggests just how important that the digital changeover has become to historical research, and in the of archiving web pages and social feeds, allowing for useful historical resources in the future and In doing so creating a new type of source.  This in turn also highlights some of the problems brought by the digital change and attempts to cater for the future can be difficult due to the ‘inherently unstable nature of the web, and that information constantly mutates, and search engines’ algorithms can change results and prices in an instant’ [11].  There are therefore arguable difficulties in embracing the digital change, and with that in many ways attempting to predict the future and new innovations by keeping up to date and current, not to forget the costs of such projects.

There are also issues raised in terms of the digitisation of text.  In relation to the digitising of text and the issues that come with OCR technology (however much improved it may now be), does not solve the problem of being wary of the ‘density of data collected’ [12] and the ‘digitisation’ from an analogue state.  This is in relation to what has been termed as ‘faithful representation’ of the original text or source, this could be inclusive of hand written notes, or card catalogues[13] which were often disposed of and therefore not an accurate representation of the original source.  However, it is also true that technological advances have ‘improved greatly in the ability to make faithful digital surrogates whilst in reducing the costs of doing so’ [14] and due to the very nature of the digital will continue to improve, until there will be and are identical digital copies to that of their analogue counterparts.

What should be considered important are the new perspectives of looking at and analysis data, which could not have been done without the digital change.  Many of the most successful and useful projects have been those that use traditional methods of comparing and contrasting data within archives, and using the technology available to them to extract accurate and useful data that would have been near impossible to retrieve from the actual physical archive itself.  Examples can be seen in projects that use text mining, in which ‘high-quality information is typically derived through the devising of patterns and trends through means such as statistical pattern learning’ [15].  Large scale examples can be seen from Google’s N-gram viewer, which extracts data from it’s Google books archive, to portray the frequency or rate of appearances of words or phrases, termed as ‘n-grams’ occurring in over 6% of books ever published, therefore ‘capable of precisely and rapidly quantifying cultural trends based on massive quantities of data’ [16].  Based on the data projected, interpretations can be made resulting in many different conclusions that would have otherwise been unobtainable.  This is also evident in websites such as the ‘Old Baily Online’, in which ‘197,745 criminal trials’ are archived and that text mining allows users to ‘compare patterns of persecution over time and further examine changes in court behaviour and procedure’ [17], which would have been an impossibility without the project and therefore a direct consequence of the digital change, highlighting it’s importance in changing the nature as well as the outcome of historical research.

The digital has arguably made history more adaptable to the public, as more people can undertake research that they themselves are interested, in a much easier and more interactive environment, which can also allow users to have a greater understanding on sources or data,  as well as the immense amount of data available, theoretically all in one place.  This along with digital searching, which is overlooked as advantageous to many who have all become well accustomed, as ‘digital searching most dramatically transforms access to collections. This ‘finer grained’ access will revolutionize the way historians do research’[18], and allows for access to the relevant data immediately and has changed the very nature in which historical research is approached and completed.  Disadvantages if any exist can be the sheer amount of data available can perhaps in some circumstances overwhelm users, and in many cases, through using the search functions to highlight key words or phrases, can make the context of the history more difficult to understand, however this is not always the case, and due to the amount of material available, there is also a varying level of secondary source material, resulting in many secondary source material being better or worse than others.

As a result, the digital change has had and continues to have an immeasurable impact on the nature of historical research, not just for the tangible advantages that are brought as a result, but for the fact that it has and will continue to change the very culture of historical research itself, both in the way that historical research is approached and in the way that data is being perceived, as well as resulting in an increased popularity in digital humanities, [19] whilst simultaneously making research easier and more interesting, despite the road blocks that have been met and will occur along the way. There is no doubt that the digital change has impacted the nature historical research for the better, whilst maintaining the key fundamental principles that are embedded in the way in which historical research is undertaken and will therefore be interesting to continue to observe the new innovations which will continue to impact the nature of research as time progresses.

(Word count: 2200)

References

[1] – Dan Cohen blog, http://www.dancohen.org/2012/02/08/digital-journalism-and-digital-humanities/ (digital journalism and digital humanities).

[2] – Dan Cohen blog, http://www.dancohen.org/2012/02/08/digital-journalism-and-digital-humanities/ – accessed 01/04/13

[3] – Google books (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Books#2013) accessed 01/04/13

[4] – Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History, A guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/1.php accessed 01/04/13

[5] – Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Roesenzweig, Why Digitize the Past? Costs and Benefits, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/1.php, accessed 01/04/13

[6] – William J. Turkel, Going Digital, http://williamjturkel.net/2011/03/15/going-digital/

 

[7] William J. Turkel, Going Digital, http://williamjturkel.net/2011/03/15/going-digital/

 

[8] – Edward L. Ayers, The Pasts and Futures of Digital History, http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html

 

[9] – Time Tech blog, British Library Sets Out to Archive the Web
http://techland.time.com/2013/04/04/british-library-sets-out-to-archive-the-web/#ixzz2QMRfU1fb

 

 

[10] – Time Tech blog, British Library Sets Out to Archive the Web
http://techland.time.com/2013/04/04/british-library-sets-out-to-archive-the-web/#ixzz2QMRfU1fb

 

 

[11] – Time Tech blog, British Library Sets Out to Archive the Web
http://techland.time.com/2013/04/04/british-library-sets-out-to-archive-the-web/#ixzz2QMRfU1fb Tenner quote.

 

 

[12] – Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Roesenzweig, Why Digitize the Past? Costs and Benefits, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/1.php, accessed 01/04/13

[13] – Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Roesenzweig, Why Digitize the Past? Costs and Benefits, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/1.php, accessed 01/04/13

[14] – Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Roesenzweig, Why Digitize the Past? Costs and Benefits, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/1.php, accessed 01/04/13

[15] – Text Mining,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_mining

 

[16] – Culturomics, http://www.culturomics.org/Resources/A-users-guide-to-culturomics

[17] – https://historyspot.org.uk/podcasts/digital-history/text-mining-old-bailey-proceedings

[18] – Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Roesenzweig, Why Digitize the Past? Costs and Benefits, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/1.php, accessed 01/04/13

[19] – Geoffrey Rockwell, Inclusion in the Digital Humanities

http://www.philosophi.ca/pmwiki.php/Main/InclusionInTheDigitalHumanities

Bibliography

–       Dan Cohen blog, http://www.dancohen.org/2012/02/08/digital-journalism-and-digital-humanities/ (digital journalism and digital humanities).

–       Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History, A guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/1.php

–       William J. Turkel, Going Digital, http://williamjturkel.net/2011/03/15/going-digital/

–       Edward L. Ayers, The Pasts and Futures of Digital History, http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html

–       Time Tech blog, British Library Sets Out to Archive the Web
http://techland.time.com/2013/04/04/british-library-sets-out-to-archive-the-web/#ixzz2QMRfU1fb

–       Culturomics, http://www.culturomics.org/Resources/A-users-guide-to-culturomics

–       https://historyspot.org.uk/podcasts/digital-history/text-mining-old-bailey-proceedings

– Geoffrey Rockwell, Inclusion in the Digital Humanities

http://www.philosophi.ca/pmwiki.php/Main/InclusionInTheDigitalHumanities

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