How Will Digital Methods Effect History Research?

In this blog I will be discussing how the advent of digital tools and methods will change how history is done and how historical research is carried out. In a sense this discussion is the opposite of what historians traditionally discuss: normally we focus on what happened in the past (and how/why/when/where it happened), but in this post I am somewhat speculating on the future. Perhaps this question is easier to answer for those historians who did their upper-level (i.e. college and professional) research before these digital tools were around.

The most apparent way in which digital methods will change (and indeed already have changed) historical research and practice is by making sources more accessible to people. Digitizing sources allows people to be able to access them from the internet instead of actually having to visit an archive that can be halfway around the world. Digital technology also allows these sources to not only be accessible, but they can also be keyword searchable, so that a researcher can simply type a word into the file and see all the times that word is present, instead of actually having to look for the word. This saves the researcher time, but could make it less likely for that researcher to “stumble” upon other information. One downside of internet technology as compared to an archive is that with an archive a researcher knows when to stop. Once the researcher gets home from the archive, if the archive is far enough, that visit will suffice and it will be time to do the writing. But with the internet it is so easy to search for sources, that the researcher may wind up always having “one more” source to find and read (or skim), and the project may stagnate.

One specific technology that is changing historical research is optical character recognition (OCR) technology. This technology allows archivists and other people to scan documents in such a way that the computer recognizes the written or typed letters and other characters (like numbers), instead of just taking an image of the scanned document. OCR is important because it allows those who look at the source electronically to search for specific words and phrases within the document. This is a big help to researchers. It also eliminates (or at least reduces) the need to actually transcribe a document in order to make it more legible. This is important considering that some documents, like books or diaries, could be quite long.

The use of digital tools will change how history is practiced. Some changes may be predictable, others may be more surprising. And of course, there will be those things that will not change. Historians will still be tasked with having to sort truth from untruth, having to find sources, and having to present their information – to tell their story- in a way that is interesting.

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