With the introduction of the World Wide Web, individuals around the globe have experienced rapid changes in how they can access or distribute information. Historians – some grudgingly, others gleefully – have been a part of this transformation. Such changes have had major implications for all of those living in the twenty-first century (even individuals who do not have direct access to the Internet). Of course, since historians are human beings, they too are affected by the digital age. For one thing, as Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig delineate in “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” the internet and other digital media contain a set of intrinsic qualities that both potentially allow historians to do things better and may pose as dangers or hazards on the “information superhighway.” According to these authors, among the seven qualities that may benefit historians are accessibility, diversity, and interactivity. On the other hand, the five dangers include quality, passivity and inaccessibility.
While I agree with Cohen and Rosenzweig that the digital age is a net positive, it changes the practice of doing history in several ways. For instance, historians have access to databases and online archives that are keyword searchable. Generations of young scholars are coming of age in a time when it is possible to conduct quality historical research without going to a physical archive. Additionally, with the proliferation of digital archives, historians are arguably better able to preserve, compile, and share sources. Non-written and non-traditional sources benefit from historians’ widespread use of digital media. Furthermore, due the growth of the Internet, databases, and other multimedia, historians have found new platforms to reach new audiences. Specifically, in the realm of public history and museums, online exhibitions and websites provide new venues to engage the public in matters of the past.
At the same time, while there are undeniable changes to the ways in which historians conduct research and share historical information with colleagues and the public, the historical process remains relatively unchanged. Historians must still use a combination of primary and secondary sources to bolster their arguments about the past. Admittedly, hypertextuality (the use of links) might affect how historians read an article, yet those articles still need to cite their sources to be credible. Additionally, it may be easier to use and interpret multimedia sources in the digital age, but this does not mean that all historians ignored such sources in the past, or that all historians consider such sources equally valid to the written word today. For public historians, creating exhibits or educational programs that engage people in tough questions about the past should be a priority, whether those exhibits or resources are physical or virtual. As far as the challenges historians and other history-minded individuals face in the digital age, such as the impermanence of sources or certain databases being relatively inaccessible, many of them existed before the Internet came into being. Ultimately, while historians might conduct historical research a bit differently, or share that information in new ways, digital history and history in the digital age are qualitatively the same as history before the Internet.
What do you think? How has the Internet changed the way historians do their “thing”? Is digital history something completely different? Please comment below.