Digital databases and digital research tools

Sep. 3

This week’s readings definitely showed me just how useful and important digitized historical resources are. I was skeptical at first because I’m so used to having a database be a library, but now I understand how synthesizing information is progressive. It also serves as a visual aid to the public. For example, digitizing maps and other visual resources allow for more comparisons to be drawn, and analytical approaches to be taken in history. Similar to a library, digitizing documents, for example, is a great tool for organizational purposes. The internet is a terrific record keeper – particularly, if I find for primary source documents. When I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Septima Clark, I wanted so badly to go to the College of Charleston and be granted access to her archives, but that is nearly impossible as an eager undergrad. It would have been so helpful if those resources had been digitized and available for the public to look at because it allows for people to connect with a certain place, person, event etc. without actually being at the location. This is the idea that Roger Launius brought forth – that digital history engages the public. And he talks about this in relation to digitizing documents, the use of digital cameras, and scanners as methods of relaying information to people regardless of their geographical locations.

I was really interested in the point that Kenneth Price brought up in that digital history allows for expansion beyond the “Anglophone culture” because it is really an outlet for people around the world to access international resources. I never thought about the impact that digitizing history would have on other cultures and there is significant benefit to this. Digital archives are crucial for our society – especially for non-library goers, and for those who simply do not have access to physical resources, but can locate documents via the internet which today, is very easily accessible. The collection of data really does impact and help historians and history in general because it enables the synthesis of quantitative information in relation to cultural artifacts. However, Sam Ford brings up good points in that we need to make sure that people don’t “start speaking of the technology as if it drives culture and humanity, rather than thinking of technology as a tool” (Sam Ford, Without Human Insight Big Data is Just a Bunch of Numbers). This is my personal fear about digital history because we will always need human insight to synthesize the quantitative information. For example, there is significant flaw in data regarding African-American’s decision at the ballots over the past century or so – considering they only recently received the right to vote, there cannot be data about whom they voted for. For matters such as this, we need historians to take the quantitative into consideration and analyze how it fits or does not fit into society. Human analysis (hopefully) is always going to be essential in history.

What is Digital History?

Aug. 27

Before being introduced to this class, I had no idea what digital history really was and why it was so essential for historians. Now, it is clear to me that over time, historians have adapted to the new technologies of their age and used them to their advantage, such as the Gutenberg printing press, the typewriter, etc. Thus, computers and the digitization of resources such as data or records are crucial for historians today because it is part of our new age. The readings from this week provide a variety of definitions as to what digital history is and its significance in society. I thought that an interesting take on the topic was that “in the past two decades, new media, new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present and teach about the past” (Cohen and Rosenzweig, Introduction). Adaptation also results in reinterpretation of history. Thus, the new digital age has altered the way that history is both taught by teachers, and interpreted by students. As the AHA recognized, H-Net for example, won the prize for being a great teaching tool, as it is a “blend of computers and history” (Orville Vernon Burton, American Digital History). Students need to learn how digital resources can serve as a tool that they/their work can benefit from, but the internet should not just be a method for easy access to unaccredited sources. This is my worry with the digital age, is that students will veer away from the resources that require significant effort, attention, patience, and interest. Instead, a simple Google search will do the work for you. Perhaps I am ‘old school’ in that sense, but there is a humility aspect to taking notes by hand, going to a library, looking through old/new books.

I was not surprised about the various debates that arose in the readings regarding digital history’s impact on society – whether it is positive or negative. I think that relying on the computer, and digital resources too heavily will compromise the methods of historical narrative that have been in effect for centuries. However, used to further historical research is beneficial, such as online archives (Stephen Robertson, The Differences between Digital History and Digital Humanities). Using computers to gather results for quantitative analysis is definitely helpful because it adds numerical depth and evidence in arguments. I do appreciate what Dr. Burton wrote in his article, that “the goal and charge [of digital history] should be to democratize education and the tools necessary for its execution” (Burton, American Digital History) because he focuses on how the digital age can benefit society, and ways for its implementation on a scholastic level.

It is interesting how digital history can be paralleled to public history, given that they are both outlets for relaying information to the public as Jennifer Guiliano writes. The reason being, digital history can be both “history published in digital form or/and history created through digital analysis” (Guiliano, Heating up History at the AHA). Because of this, digital history offers opportunities to students in academia – this is the reason why I took this class, because it will benefit me in the future if I choose to pursue a PhD. As William G. Thomas notes in “Computing and the Historical Imagination” historians don’t entirely trust the computer, similar to my theory. As a result of the digital age, there is a decline in the narrative of history, something that has been a fundamental aspect of history for centuries.