On Digital History-
Okay, it’s a massive subject. In fact, it’s a bit like trying to think about how big the universe is and just when you have your mind around one theory that might sort of sum it up, there is goes, spinning off into the darkness again.
I have been termed a ‘digital historian’ more and more often over recent months. Whilst I have pointed out variously and repeatedly that I’m not actually an academic historian, the success of Georgian London means the term has stuck. Perceptions of the digitalization of history range from the hugely positive feedback to (and indeed, collaboration with) Phil Gyford’s decade long project to blog
Sam Pepys’s diaries, to the retired editor of an academic journal who said to me this weekend, ‘Well all you do is use Google, surely?’*
Last month, I was struck by this blog post
on how ‘digital is dead’. Yes, it’s about selling things to people, I know, but the message is clear: the established structure of not only where and how we choose to spend our money, but how we learn is changing. Any person who can access the internet can now choose to educate themselves on almost any subject under the sun (and including the sun) and the cost is no more than the ownership of a computer and an internet connection (available free in libraries). The internet has introduced a level of free will regarding what we put into our brains in a way never possible before. A person might choose to educate themselves on which fridge-freezer to buy next or they might choose to learn more about African-American history. The information on both of these subjects is brought to the viewer by ‘channels’. The channels for consumer goods are different to academic or educational channels, but they work in the same way and they all want to be better than their competitors. The agenda of every shop or website selling fridge-freezers is to convince you theirs is the best. Likewise, the agenda of every piece of academic print or digital media is to convince you their ‘reading’ is the best. You, as the consumer have to educate yourself enough, by reading around, to make sure you are buying the best advice. Previously, these channels were reliant upon feedback, either negative or positive, to allow them to evolve and find their target more successfully. Now, they are increasingly based upon interaction and the constantly emerging platforms (such as individual websites/blogs and social media) faciliate the forming of relationships, more than a drip-feed of biased information. More than ever before, the responsibility to use available online resources to make informed decisions lies with the consumer, whether they are consuming white goods or an education.
Academically, new channels for conveying information have been created such as JSTOR
, (please see Katrina Gulliver’s comment below about JSTOR’s availability) which when paired with Zotero
, work together to provide access to thousands of academic periodicals and a free bookmarking service for easy tracking of viewed articles and also allows the reader to build a bibliography. The interwebs abound with other secondary sources, but increasingly, primary sources are being made available. The Old Bailey Online
project provides an instant window into speech, behaviour and the actions of those in a tight spot over the centuries. The London Lives
project is both ambitious and admirable. Old news from all over the world is constantly building at the Newspaper Archive
(not free of charge). Beyond reading material, pioneering work is being undertaken to ‘visualize’ history in remarkable ways: from infographics that work as well for the history of South Park
as the history of Britain
, to Stanford’s brilliant video mapping
of the Republic of Letters. Some of these digital resources take only hours to create, some years, but they all convey information quickly and efficiently that would otherwise have been laborious to wrangle.
Are digital historians bridging the gap between academia and the popular? In some ways yes, in some no. A digital education is not the ‘new answer’ and does not replace traditional learning. Digital resources however, will continue to proliferate - some good, some not so good. Time and care must be taken to know the difference. There may come a time when, in our quest for knowledge, the term ‘digital’ is
redundant, when online resources will form part of the holistic experience of education. Until that time, purveyors of both televisions and educations might do well to remember that the essence of the internet is and has always been ‘a meritocracy out there: no one much cares unless you’re interesting’.