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Well, There are Some Big Problems


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 The first of which was in a shared space such as the internet, who should have the authority to produce historical content?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states: historians are “not the sole arbiters of what constitutes history,” how can we help public readers of digitized historical content to find authentic or credible sources of information?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 I don’t believe historians should be solely in control of the historical content found online.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criticize historians for embracing some aspects of digitization as mere tools with which to use in conjunction with outdated methods of research.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.


  1. nsakas1 says:

    I had similar questions about the readings this past week Julie. I think the issue of who should have authority in producing history in the digital world will be one that will be debated for years to come. On the one hand as historians with roots in academia, we may feel that authority for producing history should reside with those who have had the educational discipline for producing “good history.” However, as Public Historians we often strive to have the production of history as a more democratic process that allows many stakeholders to have a say. I can only agree with you and say I do not have the answer myself.

  2. Susan Prillaman says:

    I too noted the level of criticism launched against traditional historians who, having spent decades performing their work in ways required by the academy, are resistant to adopting very different and new methodologies promulgated by the history web. In my reading of the texts, the authors seem most bothered by a reluctance to adopt new digitally based research methods. Despite asserting that traditional methods (e.g. close reading) must remain part of the process, in “Navigating the infinite archive, Turkel, Kee and Roberts in particular take scholars to task for using technology in ways that make their work easier “without challenging standards or creating alternative procedures and tactics.” Resistance to change is a human characteristic, and a reluctance to adopt new technology is nothing unique. I posit however, that it is more helpful to illustrate what works and why; if a persuasive argument is made, perhaps the “old mentality” will be willing to give the “new media” a try.

  3. chuber1 says:

    Authority in the digital world is a tricky subject. I wonder how applicable ideas of shared authority are in a open and very often anonymous environment, like the internet. One part of me wants to believe the democratization of meaning making is a good thing, but as I have begun to look at the ramifications of that I have become concerned with this trend and the spaces it makes for misinformation to become accepted fact. I wonder if there is a place for public historians and other experts to function as a mediating force in the production of digital meaning making. What shape this would take, I am unsure of, but I am curious to see if it is a possibility.

  4. rjordan10 says:

    I also noticed some of the general disdain for digital history practices in the reading. I think some of it could be because most people tend to be creatures of habit, and tend to get stuck in their ways; for example, if doing their research in a library, with books, etc. (the non-digital way) works for someone, and is how they have always done it, and been successful with it, then they will probably be less likely to suddenly leap right into using digital history as a research method.

  5. Adina Langer says:

    Julie, I appreciate your focus on two main themes from this week’s readings: the role of historians as experts in the increasingly diverse and populous history web, and the question of how good historical research should be done when one has access both to “analog” and “digitized” sources. You make a good point in that just because new materials and methods are available doesn’t mean that old ways should be discarded. Historical research should never be rushed. However, I wonder what you think about the changing speed and nature of publication. Is it appropriate that publication should be faster and more frequent in the digital world than it was in the past? Is it possible to peer review historical scholarship properly and still have new information come out into “daylight” more quickly and frequently?

  6. jjackson39 says:

    It’s interesting and enlightening to see the point-of-view of someone who sees the more positive sides of digital history. From my first day in undergraduate school for my History degree I was warned against trusting anything on the internet unless I could find scholarly works which had thoroughly vetted the subject or fact in question. While I have overcome some of these prejudices I still find it difficult at times to give much weight to sources outside the strictly academic realm online. The non-academic nature of crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia certainly opens up a world of ideas from individuals who might never enter the academic realm and this is both exciting and potentially valuable to everyone.

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