By Gunja Sarkar
Although digital history is not yet well-known in mainstream academia, most people have likely encountered it without realizing. Digital history is both a methodology and a framework  – in the production of historical knowledge, it is the use of computer technologies and techniques to analyze historical sources. In the presentation of historical knowledge, it is the use of computer technologies to display historical arguments for people to experience, read, and follow. Thus, digital history ranges from using computer systems to model historical situations to the digitization of historical archives and virtual museum exhibits. Digital history has revolutionized history as an academic area to the extent that it allows for historians to use vast numbers of resources and has made historical knowledge widely accessible to the general public. Digital history is only beginning to scratch the surface of how computer science techniques and ideas can be used in historical thinking. That being said, it is overly simplistic to claim that these changes have only benefited historians and the discipline as a whole.
The presence of online archives is a blessing and a curse for historians everywhere. On one hand, digital archives allow historians access to an absurd number of sources , which means that historians can find information on just about any topic, regardless of where they are in the world. This alone has powerful implications – the scope of the historical field seems limitless with digital archives since anything and everything can be included. However, the long-term effects of digital archives can seem less fortuitous. For one, historians no longer need to have any physical contact or relation with their subject of study – it might seem curious that someone could be an “expert” in Canadian history, without ever actually visiting Canada. Some scholars have also argued that digitization may actually harm the prospect of long-term preservation since digital copies can be less stable than physical objects and digital formats quickly become obsolete or unreadable . Furthermore, the massive size of digital archives means that a historian could find evidence to argue just about any point of view or perspective , regardless of its validity. As a result, historians no longer need to be as selective about what evidence they use to support their arguments, leading to weaker historical arguments.
For history students, the presence of digital archives makes it possible to draw from thousands of primary source documents, the “raw materials of history,” offering them the opportunity to construct a more personal understanding of history . However, as many history students can attest, digital archives can be overwhelming due to both the sheer quantity of resources available and the conflicting perspectives offered by the different sources . Further exacerbating this issue is the widespread acceptance of the “expert researcher” model cultivated in the social sciences; a pedagogical approach to research that emphasizes the importance of practice, experience, and trial and error without providing students with significant guidance . This ready access to digital archives pushes historians to produce faster, more immediate research results, which when combined with the lack of guidance about using these sources is likely to lead to a deterioration in the quality of historical research.
Moreover, the way historians navigate digital archives creates significant bias issues from a methodological perspective. Many historians locate online resources through searching for a few specific keywords in a full text search in a large database . This creates a powerful confirmation bias as historians find evidence containing what they already know or were searching for to begin with. The historian in question would never have the opportunity to discover evidence that is relevant to their topic if they did not already know to look for it. Furthermore, the way that search algorithms filter results by sorting in order of relevance filters out alternative theses and creates an artificial prioritization of sources that may be damaging to the historian’s research. Most people are likely to use the first relevant resources that are discovered by their search, neglecting ideas and possibilities that the search algorithm – which the historian does not control – deemed irrelevant. Thus, while digital archives are unimaginably powerful in the many sources they house, they also inevitably alter the way we do research and what we are likely to find. Without proper attention to the biases caused by the use of digital archives, our historical scholarship could neglect alternative perspectives and ideas.
The development of digital history offers the opportunity to both experiment with new historical pedagogies and to address educational deficits. In today’s digital age, unprecedented numbers of people have access to the Internet and electronic devices, enabling more people than ever before to learn about anything they choose. Equity in access, though, has remained elusive. The term “digital divide” came about early in the Internet Age to refer to the disparities in Internet access along socioeconomic lines . As digital systems become more complex, a lack of education and training in these new systems has further exacerbated this disparity with low rates of computer usage and Internet connectivity among lower-income populations and the elderly, who are often still unable to fully engage with these online resources . As digital tools become increasingly advanced and convoluted, this disparity will only increase. Thus, to realize the full potential of the accessibility of digital history, we must first address initial disparities in digital education itself.
Another consequence of greater accessibility means that as more people can learn history on the Internet, more people can teach (or claim to teach) history on the Internet as well. The massive capacities of digital storage means that unlimited perspectives, points of views, and arguments can be housed on the Internet. While this certainly increases nuanced understandings of history, one is left to wonder when the endless discursivity of the Internet becomes adverse to producing meaningful historical discussions. This is further complicated when different arguments directly contradict each other, leading to another difficulty: the lack of fact-checking, peer review, and credibility of writers on the Internet. Open-source projects like wikis have long wrestled with the question of how to guarantee the credibility of information on the Internet . While print formats certainly face issues of legitimacy as well, the Internet makes it significantly easier to spread misinformation and exploit good faith.
The massive scale of the Internet also leads to the tendency for collective information about a topic to read more like a long-winded definition or an encyclopedia entry, rather than a concrete historical argument. Rather than encouraging more in-depth interactions with sources and the synthesis of materials between different historical sources, greater accessibility tends to lead to a focus on providing larger and larger quantities of information. Although the greater accessibility of digital history has indisputable benefits, there is much left to wonder about how this greater access to digitized materials and the development of increasingly complicated databases shapes historical scholarship and learning. Edward Ayers, the pioneer of digital history at the University of Virginia, points out that while other fields have engaged in discussions about epistemology, narrative, and audience about the advent of digital media, the way that academic history is written has remained unchanged .
The current state of digital history suggests that the full potential of the use of digital technologies in the production and dissemination of historical knowledge is unexplored and that professional historians could often benefit from a more formal computer science education. Initial efforts at producing digital history were able to integrate different forms of digital media into historical writing – pictures, sounds, and videos were suddenly presentable mediums. Yet while multimedia formats lead to more effective pedagogical engagement and more creative historical perspectives, to limit digital history only to the integration of digital media neglects the broader ways in which the ideas and techniques of computer science might be applied to historical scholarship. For instance, oral history could be much more easily transcribed through the help of artificial intelligence. Data mining algorithms which analyze large sets of data looking for specific trends and statistics are directly analogous to the process by which historians search digital and physical archives for phenomena and evidence . Historians with the ability to program and control their own search algorithms could more effectively and efficiently make use of digital archives. Geographic information system technologies (GIS) contain software that allows a user to manage, analyze, and visualize geographic data. The use of GIS would allow historians to visualize geographic patterns and examine historical evidence at different layers and scopes . Other forms of geovisualization can be used to recreate various historical settings both to better connect with viewers and to create a more concrete understanding of historical settings and situations . Some scholars have gone so far as to imagine 3D simulations–enabled by artificial intelligence–in which users would engage with historical actors and influence the course of events. Network analysis, which refers to a set of methods and techniques to analyze relationships (edges) between different data points (nodes) represented by a graph, can be used to represent different relationships between people, places, objects, ideas, and events . Those graphs can then be analyzed through centrality algorithms to identify the most influential nodes. It is of note that computer science as a discipline is still looking for algorithms that can better handle multiple types of nodes and edges – which historians would use to represent different categories of evidence. Through encouraging historians to explore computer science techniques, we might find that historians, too, contribute to the field of computer science. In short, there are a plethora of ways in which computer science techniques might help historians become more innovative researchers and effective teachers, and there is much to be gained from encouraging historians to gain a more formal background in computer science.
It is perhaps a mistake to say that digital history would revolutionize history as an academic field – as Edelstein and Findlen found in their Mapping of Letters project, these new methods do not produce radically different historical conclusions . Rather, digital history gives us new tools to access and analyze unprecedented numbers of sources, refine insights, identify both large-scale trends and previously neglected microhistories, and point us in new directions to explore . Nevertheless, the age of the Internet has undoubtedly transformed history as an academic field. The ways in which digital technology has opened up history as a field – making it more accessible for anyone to read and write, regardless of their physical location or background – certainly changes the kinds of histories being written, for better or for worse. The digitization of records and democratization of information access has opened up new platforms for historical discourse, changing the types of histories being written, and challenging conventional notions of historical knowledge. Technologies such as augmented reality, 3D printing, mobile podcasting, holographic reconstruction, and more  are changing what we envision as history, challenging conventional notions of what we consider a unit of historical information . That technology is constantly evolving and changing has become a given in our daily lives. That academic history will learn to adapt with it remains to be seen.
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