Is Digital History Real History?

The advent of the world wide web (sometimes popularly called the internet, though there are some technical differences between the two terms) has changed many things, including the practice of history. Although some changes may have occurred when the web was first used, the major changes to the practice of history came about when the internet (of which the web is a part) became more popular (sometime in the mid to late 1990s). The web led to the creation of numerous history-related websites. Many of these sites were posted by “professional” groups such as college history departments and the Library of Congress. However many other sites were created by “amateur” groups or individuals without professional training. The use of the web has allowed website creators to more easily share their knowledge with an audience even if some of there knowledge is incorrect. Professors and museums can share information with pretty much anyone who has an internet connection, rather than only with students or people who read academic journals (the readers or whom are probably mostly academics). Amateurs who previously may have been unable to get printed in journals or books, and may have thus only been limited to sharing their knowledge in person, can now share there information on the web. Interestingly enough, some organizations, like the Library of Congress, originally designed some of their websites not as websites but as CD-ROMs (a term I remember mostly from my computer classes in elementary school, it seems that nowadays a lot of people just call them CDs) according to the book “Digital History” by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig which can be found here. The Web has allowed historians to more easily find primary and secondary sources without having to skim through a journal article or visit some far off archive, and it has even allowed researchers the ability to save time by searching for keywords.

But is digital history “real” history? to put it in other words (words which are not my own, but come from this site)”is digital history qualitatively different from History”? Yes, it is real history, no it is not “qualitatively different” from traditional history. It is just the latest adaptation of history to new technologies like the computer and the internet browser. While the use of these tools is relatively new to history, the practice of history has been changing and adapting to new technology for a long time. Sure historians did not use the web in the 1950s, but did Thucydides use the staples that modern “traditional” historians have used for decades such as historical journals? Did Herodotus cite his works following the Chicago Manual of Style? No he couldn’t have since their was no such thing as the “Chicago style” when he was around. What I am getting at here, is that the way historians practice history has changed throughout time in order to utilize new technology and tools. What now is typed up using a word processor, used to be typed up on a typewriter or before that written by hand. Are their new issues related to digital history that previous historians might not have encountered before or at least to the degree they do now? Yes there are, for instance the paradoxical issue of “abundance yet scarcity” ( the web allows people to more easily post and find sources and other information, yet much “born digital” material disappears overtime due to deletion or to changes in technology). Yet other, older technologies also brought along with them new issues. For example typewriters and word processors made history papers more easy for teachers to read, but it also made it more difficult to tell whether a student had written that paper or whether one of the student’s parents had written it (I am speaking here of elementary and secondary school papers, that is probably not as common an issue when it comes to university level papers).

Of course there is only so much “digital” can do, even regarding the study of history. Searching online databases may provide the sources, but the experience of being in an archive is probably something a little different. It isn’t necessarily the same to view a pdf file of a document, then it is to actually touch the document itself, or to smell it (which can actually be an important part of some research, for instance there is a story about a medical historian who smelled documents – letters – for traces of vinegar as a way to trace the spread of cholera over a certain place and time). But overall digital history, is just another form of history in the “digital age”.

 

 

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