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Week Two: Researching in the Digital Age


January 20, 2015 by cdavis132

This week’s topic was historical research in the digital age. As historians we have all faced the daunting task of choosing a topic and then the even more daunting task of navigating all the information available on that specific topic. This week’s readings highlight the many concerns and issues we face by being historians in the digital age.

I was particularly taken by the readings from in “Writing History In the Digital Age.” These essays focus their attention on wikipedia, blogs and other sorts of online sources that could potentially be an outlet for research. Author Robert Wolf writes “digital spaces offer platforms for entirely new kinds of research.”  This plays into the generational gap between those teaching history and those who are currently studying history. This issue is talked about within the context of wikipedia, younger historians, or rather students in general (studying any subject matter) have a the benefit of the web to help with their research needs. We have the luxury of google and sites like wikipedia. However, as many of the authors questioned what have we lost by the use of web sources.

For one the idea of scholarship, and what constitutes a reliable source, is now often being questioned. Wikipedia, poses an interesting case that is two fold. First you have the content of the site, who creates it, why is it created, what arguments are present. You then have the interpretation and use of the content. For many professionals, wikipedia has been brushed off as unreliable and unscholarly do to the fact that “wikipedia serves as a people’s museum of knowledge, a living repository of all that matter where the exhibits are written by ordinary folk with nary an academic historian in site.” This forces us to re-evaluate what it means to be scholarly, what is a reliable source, and who has the authority to decided on such matters.

Secondly with the increase use of web-research and sources, younger generations are losing the ability to find and use, what I call “hard sources.” (Going to the library, checking out an actual book or sifting through an archive in search of information.) Many students in the undergraduate and even some in the graduate, level have developed the idea that if it hasn’t been digitized it does not exist. The advent of the internet and digitization has led to many relying too heavily on web-based sources.

With these concerns in mind, however, the digitization of historical sources does have many benefits. We as historians and able to connect with a broader audience and gather many more perspectives than was once possible as more “ordinary folk” are writing history. The use of the internet and digital sources allows for someone who lives on the other side of the world access to archives and sources that were once unavailable to them.

This week’s reading, in sum, highlighted the many questions we have to ask of these web-base sources, how and why are people using them, what benefits are gained by their use, as well as, what has been lost in the shift into the new digital age.




  1. nsakas1 says:

    I think that you raise an interesting point Caroline about younger researchers having lost, or perhaps never gaining the ability to use as you say “hard sources.” I would also agree with you in seeing the digitizing of historical sources as a good thing. However, there are some sources that are not digitized, as well as some that cannot be digitized. The ability to find and incorporate these sources into a research process are skills that certainly should be taught and learned regardless of advancements in digital technology.

  2. chuber1 says:

    Caroline- I think you are right to address the generational gap in terms of comfort with engaging with either digital or “hard” sources. On
    e of the biggest problems facing the academic profession is how to address those gaps on both sides of the digital divide. Students need to learn how to utilize the resources of their libraries in conjunction with digital sources, while many instructors need to become more comfortable in the ever growing digital realm.

  3. rjordan10 says:

    Awesome picture! I also agree with you about how the younger researchers not learning how to do research in places like libraries; instead, just about all of their research is done online. Even to look around, many public libraries, a place where people would often do research, have closed in the past ten/twenty years, because of the advent of technology, which is sort of a double-edged sword, for several reasons: one being that people will forget, or future generations will just not learn how to do research with hard sources, and two, being that (like Nick said above,) some hard sources simply cannot be digitized. While the advent of digital history makes most things easier, there are unfortunately some sources that will be lost.

  4. acoleman34 says:

    Spot on with your assessment of younger generations losing, or perhaps never learning, the ability to use “hard sources.” The gap in knowledge between the generations is an important one to fill. Just as older generations are learning to use digital resources, younger ones should learn to use traditional resources and methods of research. I agree with Nick and Becky, some sources cannot be digitized or will not be digitized due to the lack of resources (go figure). So, shouldn’t we be teaching all generations the importance of traditional sources alongside digital ones? I think so. Growing up digital should not mean growing up without well balanced skills. What if there is an apocalypse and we have to start from the beginning? Those traditional methods would come in handy then, wouldn’t they? Just saying

  5. Julie says:

    The other day I was at the Atlanta History Center’s archives, and I was so excited because there appeared to be an entire class of upper-level high-schoolers, undoubtedly carted in for some history research project. I thought, what a cool opportunity to get the kids out of the classroom and into a setting where they can examine history hands-on. But the students weren’t perusing the shelves or asking the archivists to pull files for them. They were mostly staring at the archival computer screens. At first I felt maybe a little discouraged (although to be fair, I had no idea what the nature of their assignment was). But then I thought, okay, if hard-based sources are becoming more and more obsolete, maybe it’s okay that students aren’t trained to use them. As long as they aren’t pursing the field of history as a profession, how concerned should we be that newer generations don’t feel the need to examine sources beyond the digital form? With the advances of technology, and limited educational time and resources, maybe it’s okay that educators are more concerned with helping students find and manage good digital resources rather than teach them how to find them in print form. What is more relevant for students? What will be the most helpful to them in the real world?

  6. Adina Langer says:

    In comparing digital resources with “hard” or analog resources, you raise some interesting questions about the nature of research and information retrieval. You mention the ease of “Googling” or text-search of digitized information, and the relative difficulty of going to a physical library or archive to conduct research. How else are these experiences different? Do the different ways that information is stored and organized on the Web and in libraries and archives fundamentally affect how it can be accessed by scholars and students? Do younger researchers think differently because they access information primarily through “search” as opposed to the more “browse-like” behavior of accessing card catalogues and walking through the stacks? What is lost or gained in the shift?

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