Digital History

Reflection on Digital History

Mirror Against A Wall

This image was taken from PublicDomainPictures.net. Photographer: Lynn Greyling. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=59258&picture=mirror-against-a-wall This image falls under the Public Domain License.

This may sound really naïve but it never occurred to me that I would need a sound knowledge of how the internet worked for a digital history module. Being computer literate and having grown up with the internet I thought the module would be a walk in the park. But within the first week I realised I would need to research and understand how things such as the search function really worked. Because even this simple feature (which I have used without ever once wondering how it worked) can have an impact on the usefulness of a digital history project and has an even greater impact on how easy it is to use.

This brings me to my other misconception. I thought the module would consist of essay writing on historical topics using only digital history projects as research sources. I’m pleased that I was wrong. Had I not learned how to create a digital history project, I would never have thought to evaluate their usefulness for historians. Considering there are loads of digital history projects available than I initially thought, the ability to identify which project is more useful and easier to use is essential when thinking about the way historical research is carried out and how technological advances shape historians research methods.

The role technological advances have in shaping digital history projects impressed upon me the problematic nature of digital history. When weighing up the best method of digitising primary sources, the basis on which method is selected seems to be determined by expense. Discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of digitisation and representation methods highlights how historians are trapped between wanting to create a detailed and useful tool and the lack of funding to enable them to use the best digitisation methods available.

I’ve come to realise historians (and historical institutions for that matter) have moved towards social media as a way of getting around this problem. Take for instance the British Library’s Flickr account. The move to hosting their digitised images on a social media site has many advantages for the British Library. Firstly, they only had to create a page image as the images can be tagged and searched for by the tags. No need for OCR, advanced search features or even XML or API. Secondly, by placing it on a social media website there is no hosting fees, no need to update their software or buy more servers to host all this digital data. Flickr does this all for them.

Personally, I think there are issues with hosting the images on Flickr (removing the image from its original context is just one of them). But hosting the images on Flickr allows for open access to images otherwise withheld from the public domain and the encouragement of tagging by Flickr users has created a crowd sourced project. Public engagement is often a stipulation for project funding, yet the expensive nature of digital history methods can make this difficult. I think this is why so many historians have taken to Twitter and blogging to disseminate their research. I was quite surprised to see historians had a sizeable presence on social media. Who knew there were so many Twitterstorians!

An online historical community has many benefits for the academic historian. Research can be shared as easily as a retweet, it allows historians to perfect their writing skills and can give valuable feedback not only from other historians but from the general public who can often be a untapped source of knowledge. Personally, I’m pleased to know that once I have left university my involvement with academic history doesn’t have to stop. I can still interact with and follow historical research.

Bibliography of Links

‘Big Data for Dead People: Digital Readings and the Conundrums of Positivism’, Historyonics – Tim Hitchcock’s Blog, http://historyonics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/big-data-for-dead-people-digital.html; consulted 27th March 2014

Cohen, Daniel J and Rosenzweig, Roy, ‘Becoming Digital’, Digital History, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/appendix/1.php; consulted 27th March 2014

‘Historians on Twitter’, Active History, http://www.activehistory.co.uk/historians-on-twitter/; consulted 27th March 2014

‘The British Library’, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/people/britishlibrary/; consulted 27th March 2014

‘What is Public Engagement?’, National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, http://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/what; consulted 27th March 2014

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