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Digital History Group Book Review of the Month #1: Toni Weller's History in the Digital Age

Digital History Group Book Review of the Month #1: Toni Weller's History in the Digital Age

Ed. Toni Weller, History in the Digital Age (Routledge: London and New York, 2013).

To see the full contents of the book please click here.

At the outset, the editor Toni Weller claims that this book targets the “traditional” historian, that is, the historian who does not need to learn how to code and need not be abreast with all of the digital tools and methods that are currently available. However, the book recognizes that even the least computer code savvy of historians need to at least begin to discuss the changing parameters of their trade.

As such, HDA is divided into three parts, a) Reconceptualizing history in the digital age, b) Studying history in the digital age, c) The future of history in the digital age, and nine chapters. The contributors, whose expertise lie mostly on the post-nineteenth-century world, come from institutions solely from the two of the leading countries in digital humanities, namely Canada and the UK, with the editor, Toni Weller, serving as Senior Lecturer at De Montfort University in the same country. The issues discussed in the book, however, have resonance for all historians, especially for those who reside in the digitized Western world, regardless of their nationality, area of expertise, and level of comfort with computer science. These issues include preservation, migration of information into different formats, cost of access and dissemination, stability, ownership and copyright, teaching with digital tools, and assessing/awarding the best practices in the field—such as the Cliopatra Award given to the best history blogs.

Below I focus on selected points of interest based on some of articles in the book. If you would like to see the contents page please follow this link.

Discussion topics:

Historical GIS (Geographical Information Systems): David Bodenhamer (Article 1) discusses GIS and issues with its application in historical analysis. The most important problem, he argues, lies in the difficulty for GIS- software to accommodate levels of uncertainty that the historical materials bear (p. 28). Bodenhammer asks, “how do we as historians make GIS do what it was not intended to do, namely, represent the world as culture and not simply as mapped locations?” (pp. 30-31). When historians learn to do this, he argues, this powerful software will shift our way of knowing, and will complicate our understanding of the past—not replicate or model it.

Preservation and Continuity: Shifting Conceptions on What Constitutes an Archive:Luke Tredinnick, David Thomas and Valerie Johnson’s articles (Articles 2 and 9) focus on the life of digitized materials. Luke Tredinninck observes that digital documents, unlike traditional documents, “will not be preserved in central repositories, but  that in our use and exchange of information and knowledge,” the digital archive is all of the world wide web. Tredinnick argues that when a document is digitized, it becomes part of the historical narrative; the digitized material is a historical documents as soon as it is created. (pp. 42-43). He also points out that in the digital age, the sheer number and the diversity of accounts have multiplied. The ability to watch a historical event as it had actually happened, on-line discussions, and the ability to comment on events, reduces the distance between historical events and their discussion and analyses. Digital media seens thus to have altered the way we learn history, the way we preserve and interact with it. Today we interact with the past in novel ways; we do not only read about history but we often have the ability to watch and listen the related material as well as learn about others’opinions.

While Luke Tredinninck focuses on the benefits of digitization, David Thomas and Valerie Johnson  (Article 9)write about the challenges of digital media. First, they point to the issues regarding compatibility and accessibility given the speed at which technology is evolving. They argue that the born digital materials will not be subject to a complex selection process before they are “archived” like paper records are. The word “archive” might become obsolete, because everything in the digital corpus will be preserved. The end of the record as we know it, could also be the end of archive as we know it, as everything collapses into raw data (p. 183). The authors argue that the consequence of a multi-streamed approach to digitization of resources for humanities has been a lack of coherence in the resulting corpus of digital material in this field (p. 177). They ask, “where is the large scale vision in the humanities?” Apographeme is a database of all written material from the classical era, begun as the Cybereditions project at Tufts University. Classicists, in other words, have begun to collate “a complete record of every surviving linguistic source for a particular corpus.” (See, “Changing the Center of Gravity: Transforming Classical Studies Through Cyberinfrastructure”). The authors rightfully complain about the lack of vision among historians to collect and organize their data, no matter how varied and distinct their primary material may be. Classics and archaeology are unique among fields that study the human past. In terms of moving their discussion and resources on-line, these two fields have been closer to the world of core sciences where the entire means of working and scholarly discourse has now gone online (p. 183).  We historians have to build a system to link together our materials and databases so that we can spawn our own inter-connected digital galaxy, which eventually can be connected to other galaxies in the universe of human knowledge (pp. 188-189).

William Turkel, Kevin Kee and Spencer Roberts in “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive” (Article 3) show how digitizing books have altered the size of archives we have at our fingertips: Google books digitized 15 of the approximately 130 million books available in the world. The authors of this article have first applied new tools in their own research and writing, before applying them to their teaching, requiring students to learn and use tools like Evernote, Zotero, DevonThink and OCR that helps them organize, relate, sort, and use their data in novel and powerful ways. The authors conclude that with new digital tools, not only more information is available but there are new tools to survey and access what we need (such as Feed43 to set up RSS feeds for webpages and Pipes for combining and processing RSS feeds) which in turn allow historians to focus on “questions and interpretation, rather than bean counting” (p. 68).

Learning and Teaching Digitally:

Mark Sandle (Article 7)writes that the digital age has created other problems, (such as unstable websites) of access even though it has removed some other problems such as the physical impediments for accessing historical materials (p. 132). Overall, they argue that in terms of teaching, both the teachers and students find the on-line discussion boards, wikis, blogs and journals very helpful. Most of all, communal search and learning as well as criticism gives historians access to other minds, together with the opportunity to criticize each other’s views. Students on the other hand, overall, think that the use of Virtual Learning Environments (Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT) has given them more confidence to respond and debate. Charlotte Lydia Riley (Article 8)puts Mark Sandle’spositive analysis into a  broader perspective: we learn which students and scholars of the world has more access to digitized materials and digital databases. Riley writes that in the UK 75% of 9-19 year olds have access to internet as opposed to only approximately 17% of the world’s population having access to digital technologies. Even though these statistics do not compare the same variables, they still give a good sense about the wide gaps between the West and the rest of the world in terms of accessing the internet. Another related and interesting point Riley makes is that the high accessibility to internet among western kids “homogenizes the experience of Western teenagers” (p. 153). In other words, the traditional, national, country-specific educational methods and tools still dominate how the youth of the rest of the world is educated. The possible global repercussions of this observation is open to discussion.

According to the survey Charlotte Lydia Rile’s team conducted at University College London History department, the surveyed TAs expressed regret that more academic historians did not post their lectures online. In the survey, both undergraduate students and graduate TAs insisted that the web page itself should be treated as a source, that is, “it should be used the same way as any other source” (p. 160). Students complained that they had no guidance beyond JSTOR and the Virtual Learning Environment used at this institution (Moodle) which online resources were permissible to use and which were not. Plagiarism, therefore, appeared to be the biggest concern for the majority of the surveyed teachers even though part of this problem could be addressed via anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin.                                      

Brian Maidment’s article (Article 6) on the things we lose when we digitize material is quite illuminating: if it is a digital collection we don’t usually see the purpose, the mind behind the collection, or we are prone to overlook it. Maidment also discusses, without concluding, the options for digital repositories whether they should offer free access to scholars or ask for fees and charges. The main question he leaves the reader with is: “can small libraries and collections afford to give free access to their content?”

More interestingisMaidment’s take on the issue of the loss of context when we are faced with historical images. He writes that the past is not “an endless succession of similarly sized pictures that cascade down the computer screen, as they have lost their physical qualities through which they reveal and explain themselves” (p. 119). Digital images are artificial and mediated. Color and size are some of the ways in which digital reproduction misrepresents its subjects (p. 119). Maidment analyzes the extent to which cataloguers need to develop and build into their websites search patterns for visual material that are significantly different in their construction and approach to those familiar with printed material. He wisely points out the need for a new vocabulary for describing and interpreting visual content. There already is at least one starting point for this purpose: The Library of Congress has developed a specialist vocabulary for curators and cataloguers which could be a start. Maidment also advises curators to ponder about the near impossibility of objectively and comprehensively tagging, describing, and naming illustrations. He notes that it is these same operations that inform the way search engines make searches (p. 121).  The computers cannot do the interpretation of the context any visual material was born into, thus, “the overwhelming screen presence of web-based images, and especially their profusion, their accessibility, and their amenability to digital manipulation, tends to lead the historian [and the student] away from thinking through and questioning” their historical context (p. 123).

By way of conclusion, in terms of new, experimental digital projects that open our minds to new possibilities in historical learning and teaching one should look at the website for the UK RED Reading Experience from 1450 to 1945 which claims to contain over 30,000 searchable entries. Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey (Article 5) focus on this interesting database that intends to capture the reading habits of women and men in the UK from the mid-fifteenth century to the end of the Second World War.

In short, this book offers an excellent overview of the main challenges and the yet unforeseeable potentials for our trade as we historians transition from the analog past to a digitized past that holds copies of everything in the former. It also has the potential to relate and analyze aspects of this past. The task ahead is to decide now and forge a path that defines how we get there.

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3 comments

Thanks for kicking off our series with such an excellent review Ece!

I particularly appreciated the way you organized the many contributions of this volume around the core issues of mapping and uncertainty, changes in the archive, accessibility and cost, teaching with digital tools, and best practices. As I read your review, I was struck by some questions related to these major themes.

I wonder...

In what ways Johanna Drucker’s notion of a “captabase” changes our thinking about databases?

How our discussions of “access” can also be conversations about participation (Henry Jenkins, in his work on “convergence culture” and “transmedia storytelling” suggests the former tends to focus on tools and the latter on social processes)?

If the loss of context with digitized historical images you discuss might suggest ways of studying the newer contexts for the production and reception of these same images (along the lines of old cultural Marxist approaches to studying images, like Allan Sekula does in his 1981 essay “The Traffic in Photographs”)? Or, if they might be manipulated in such a way as to accentuate, rather than detract from, the study of the historical context of their production? 

There were a million other things your thought-provoking review brought up, but those are the questions I’m mulling over at the moment.

What thoughts and questions did this review raise for others?  

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I am fascinated by Thomas and Johnson's assertions that we need to use digital networks to link our archives and create a more comprehensive historical record.  For my initial dissertation research, I have visited over 10 archives because the archival materials that speak to my topic are scattered among these institutions.  I often spend a lot of time thinking about all of the amazing materials out there that would continue to inform my project but that I may never know about because the document is tucked away in an archive I may not visit.

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Hi Ashley,

Thanks for making these points.  I'm wondering if you have devised any ways to "digitally link" your archives. Were you talking in terms of social media? Zotero? Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Thanks

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