January 20, 2015 by jrenner1
Ah, the pitfalls of digital history. I think it’s very easy, at least for me personally, to think about digital history in terms of all of its positive values, and to neglect some of its very real and very prevalent issues. From the reading, I found two problems particularly striking. The first of which was in a shared space such as the internet, who should have the authority to produce historical content? How can we determine or evaluate what content is reliable when anyone can offer their individual interpretation? And if, as Robert S. Wolffe states: historians are “not the sole arbiters of what constitutes history,” how can we help public readers of digitized historical content to find authentic or credible sources of information? I don’t have any easy answers for the questions of authority and reliability for an increasingly digitized world. I don’t believe historians should be solely in control of the historical content found online. I think that would defeat the purpose of digitization. I want the public to be able to share their interpretations and their memories, and to actively participate in the creation of a historical narrative. But I think that means that classrooms, in particular high school and college classrooms, need to, as suggested by Amanda Seligman in “Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies,” teach students how to evaluate the credibility/reliability of digitized sources such as Wikipedia rather than pretending they don’t exist at all. I think that also means that historians must be more active participants in the digital realm, helping to dispel misinterpretations and poorly crafted theories that lack evidence-based support.
The second problem that particularly stood out to me is the issue of how historians can best use digital practices. Authors such as William J. Turkel, Kevin Kee, and Spencer Roberts in “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive” and Jim Mussell in “Doing and Making” criticize historians for embracing some aspects of digitization as mere tools with which to use in conjunction with outdated methods of research. Rather than embracing the expanding capabilities of digital history resources, historians still proceed to use traditional methods of secretive, tedious, and perhaps ineffective methods of information gathering and publishing. While I agree that these traditional methods are likely becoming more and more obsolete, especially in terms of publishing and the need for greater collaboration, I disagree that the time it takes to research is too long and outdated. The amount of primary and secondary sources that are being published online is increasing, but that doesn’t mean that everything relevant to one’s research is readily available in a digitized form. Until such a time that all resources can be seen in their original form (not just a transcript), then I think it’s unfair to criticize the length of time it takes to partake in historical research.