January 20, 2015 by Alexandra Troxell
I had many insights and takeaways from this weeks readings on research in the digital age, but one title sums it up pretty well for me. Chapter Four of History in the Digital Age is called “Doing and Making: History as Digital Practice.” This succinct title encompasses so much for me.
Some essays, like “Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies,” focus on navigating the new sources the internet provides. Amanda Seligman compares the newer digital resource with its analog predecessors to help her students and readers understand “how to critically evaluate the sources they encounter—wherever they find them.” She shows that primary, secondary, and tertiary sources all have their merits, and that analog or digital, good scholarship included careful evaluation and comparison of sources.
Others, such as “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,” focus more on the new means of ‘publishing’ that the digital era has created.
Several, though, including Chapter Three of History in the Digital Age, “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive,” discuss the entire process of researching and creating histories in the digital realm. This gets closest to what the aforementioned title elicits in my mind.
A Digital Practice is not simply switching in digital resources or tools into more traditional methods of scholarship. Nor is it taking non-digital research and publishing it using digital means. A truly digital practice is studying and researching history with the digital format in mind all the way through the process. How can digital tools such as those discussed in the Dirt Digital Resource Tools be utilized to their fullest in new and innovative ways? How can digital resources lead to new ideas and arguments? How can digital platforms be used not just as a substitute for paper publishing, but with all the unique opportunities they provide?
Jim Mussell begins to describe in his “Digital Practice” chapter the differences between using digital forms as stand-in or mere replicas of analog materials and the intentional use and creation of born digital materials, digital objects in their own right. To truly embrace the digital era is to embrace this distinction. As William Turkel, Kevin Kee, and Spencer Roberts discuss in “Navigating the Infinite Archive,” it is increasingly important for historians to be “more mindful about their methods.” Similarly, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and Sarah Manekin conclude their essay suggesting not that everyone embrace every aspect of their method or even all of digital scholarship practices, but instead that everyone should embrace as much digital method as works for their personal practice. Each scholar must figure out their own methods- and for some, this means inventing and reinventing new digital methods.
Digital History Practices can benefit historians and students of today in so many ways- allowing streamlined searching, cataloging, database management while simultaneously allowing scholars to spend less time on these tedious tasks and more time answering questions, drawing conclusions, and forming arguments. Computers can now do in mere moments tedious tasks that would have taken researchers hours of searching and comparing- not to mention in would have to be done in person at who knows how many libraries, whereas searching and comparing can now take place almost anywhere with access to the internet. With all these advantages and possibilities, it would be foolish for historians, who have long accepted that the narrative of history is constantly changing, to be unwilling to change their methods for such an array of benefits.