Digital Tools and History Research

Digital technology’s ability to acquire, sort, and search through large amounts of data has the potential to augment many aspects of historical research. In the first place, it makes it possible to access publicly available information, like census data and national archives without having to travel or acquire a physical copy of the material in question. While digitized copies are not always available, many collections and archives have digital finding aids, allowing historians to quickly locate relevant information without the assistance of a librarian or archivist. This freedom does, however, come with some potential downsides. When access and browsing is trivially easy, researchers have less of an incentive to scrutinize objects and texts closely; why spend time carefully weighing the wording of diplomatic letters when you can conduct a quick keyword search and move on? By eliminating the bias of the archivist, digital technology also amplifies the flaws and biases of the researcher. If historians do not update their practices to cope with these tools, the discipline as a whole may become increasingly atomized and compartmentalized.

On the other hand, the ability to acquire such huge amounts of data also creates the potential to conduct research on an enormous scale. One example is the emerging “history of capitalism” field, where historians like Sven Beckert (Empire of Cotton) have been able to combine large data sets from other fields and specialties and create a compelling synthesis of the global and the local. The field’s collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach is itself a product of the internet age; without digital communications and online access to journals, many of these scholars would never have been exposed to the others’ work. Thanks to the internet’s ability to overcome geographic, political, and linguistic barriers, we can now see the potential for a truly global history community.

While my own research up to this point has been conducted mostly in the analog world, there’s no denying that technology has influenced what scholarship I am exposed to and how I process it. In my mind, the best technologies are the ones I forget I’m using, like the quick Google search to remind me of a forgotten date, or the Amazon free-fall that helps me land on a book full of relevant citations. However, the only reason those things¬†feel¬†automatic and natural is because Google and Amazon have spent tens of billions of dollars gathering data and developing sophisticated algorithms to guide and profit off of people’s browsing habits. As privacy and consumer protection laws continue to erode, more and more of what I see will be governed by algorithms I never notice; as more and more of the public sphere becomes privatized and commoditized, the pool of information I can draw from will get narrower; as surveillance programs become more invasive, I will feel less safe researching or writing on politically sensitive topics. In short, I’m not optimistic about the future of digital scholarship, even if I do enjoy some of its conveniences in the present.


3 Replies to “Digital Tools and History Research”

  1. I understand a lot of your concerns, especially the one concerning the keyword searches. It is impossible to understand a full text or book just by searching for a word or two. I think that technology has certainly made this research method much easier and is potentially making researchers lazier. I also agree that the lack of privacy and the rise of surveillance on the internet is scary but I don’t think it has gotten powerful enough to prohibit people from researching and writing about politically charged subjects.

  2. Your use of Beckett as an example is great, as it really demonstrates the use statistics, data and visualizations will have on the field in coming years. This relates directly back to Graphs, Maps and Trees and what that author hopes to do for literary history studies.

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