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Week Two: Live by the Sword…


January 20, 2015 by jjackson39

It is commonly argued by many of the best and brightest among us that we live in a new golden age of learning due to our ability to acquire and disseminate information at speeds which would seem mind-bending to previous generations. While these advancements are undoubtedly impressive and quite likely to lead to discoveries we cannot yet imagine, the growing pains of adapting to this new status quo are equally unknown. Retaining some practices and thought patterns as way points for us will aid us in not losing the beneficial skills researchers have gained over centuries of study.

Sandle makes a poignant observation in Chapter 7 of History of the Digital Age when suggesting the idea that we can look at our experiences with history and research through the lens of, ‘the past as a foreign country’. This presents the idea that historians as ‘tourists’ can affect no change on historical events and can simply observe and report back  their findings. With the exponentially expanding nature of digital research resources at the present period the argument can be made that this relationship has fundamentally changed to one of an explorer who is not restricted to the general ‘tourist traps’ for information and research when ‘visiting’ a topic of interest. These new found sources of information. as well as the variety of new ways that items such as maps, photos and oral histories can be utilized for academic purposes presents challenges to traditional methods of selecting sources and presenting a solid narrative that have not been faced in times past.

Turkel, Kee and Roberts seem to have parallel thinking on this subject when they discuss in Chapter 3 the exciting possibilities, as well as the pitfalls of the Pandora’s box of sources that are now at the beck and call of any researcher, professional or otherwise. I was personally impressed with the balance of opinions in this chapter and despite my respectable tech savviness, learned several new research tricks I’ll likely implement in the near future. DevonThink in particular is a great example of a highly useful tool that like many of the new technologies available to us, can at times be overused, obscuring a researcher from forming fully fleshed out independent ideas.

Seligman in his chapter on Wikipedia and the usefulness of it as a teaching tool is quick to praise its broad range of uses to the history student and while skeptical at first, I have been swayed to his side on this matter. Most importantly I appreciated how he emphasized students inability to determine where or even if arguments existed or were being made on Wikipedia entries. He notes that all tertiary sources feature a subtle level of argument simply based on what is presented as important enough to warrant examination, explanation and discussion in the encyclopedia or presented online in an entry.

       What proves to be the most disconcerting issue in regards to entry editing is how an individual can now easily find the sources necessary to back up nearly any side of an argument that they feel is the truest presentation of a topic. Here again we see the impact of the sheer volume of information we are now faced with being used as reason to edit a Wikipedia topic, based largely on the whims of those dedicated enough to see those changes remain on a given page.


  1. kdaly3 says:

    I definitely agree with this point of view. I think that oftentimes those who are dedicated can sort of dispel any misinformation, but they are by no means able to keep track of everything that appears online. Wikipedia is an unusual interface in that mistakes are generally quickly revised, though mistakes and revision seem to be a constant process; unlike a book, where if it is written, it is often forced to be undisputed since printed formats tend to lack the ability for commentary, or causes an uproar if there is a great variety of misinformation. Later editions can be reprinted with revisions to minor mistakes, but publishers often go through rigorous steps in order to track the validity of information. This is not possible when it comes to the vast sea of online resources. All in all, however, as long as people are willing to take into account the risks associated with digital information, it can be a valuable resource.

  2. Susan Prillaman says:

    Not long into my MHP career, I had the opportunity to take a seminar with Dr. Glenn Eskew which provided an overview of the historiography of southern history. One of the points Dr. Eskew made at the beginning of each class, passing around ten or 15 other texts written on the evening’s topic for our inspection, was that historians write against one another. Sort of a years-long, drawn-out argument between colleagues, adversaries, sometimes friends and spouses. The point I’m getting to is this: argument as a form of rhetoric is almost as old as humankind’s ability to communicate. Digital history provides new methods of data collection, organization and analysis, and better access to many resources. The ability to substantiate one’s argument, however, picking and choosing between facts that suit it best is not new. In this sense Wikipedia is not so much different than Dr. Eskew’s texts, allowing writers to argue against each other, albeit faster and within view of a much wider, if less “academic” audience.

  3. acoleman34 says:

    I like that you brought up the ability of internet users to edit freely but also use sources to back up any point of view they would like to represent. It reminds me of political elections and statistics in general. Anyone can skew statistics to form the basis of an argument. As you mention, this is in part due to the vast amount of information online but also due to the steadfastness of some users who wish to keep whatever changes or argument they make available whether it is credible or not. For me, credibility is key and there is a wealth of credible information online. It is part of our job as historians to sift through the junk and arbitrary stats to find the good stuff. Online sources can be risky to use sometimes but valuable nonetheless.

  4. jeldredge1 says:

    One interesting and uniquely useful aspect of Wikipedia is the ability to see the history of the published arguments and the sources contributors used to back them up. It gives the historian and the social scientist a new font of data to analyze the trends and processes used by the public in their understanding and dissemination of history. I think this could be a fascinating look into the wys that professional historic scholarship is consumed and responded to over time. Of course, as Wolff notes, most of the contributes to Wikipedia are male and Western-centric, which creates a less- inclusive study sample than one would like. However, I for one was a bit surprised at how fast deliberately ‘vandalized’ pages were corrected by other contributors.

  5. Adina Langer says:

    John-Joseph, thank you for your elegant attention to the varying points-of-view of this week’s authors. I appreciate how your post flows from topic to topic, considering the readings in concert with one another. Your thoughts on information abundance and its correlation with the ease of supporting various arguments are intriguing. How do you think information environments might be crafted by historians to adorn digital objects with the context necessary to enable researchers to ascertain their significance?

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