Digital Scholarship

The ever-changing development of digital scholarship in history opens up many possibilities for locating sources, grouping information, and analyzing data. The availability of digital tools drastically changes the ways in which historians do research by offering many searchable databases and programs for visualizing and manipulating data. Some of the great advantages of digital scholarship is the accessible and unchanging nature of online archives. Especially valuable for me, the ability to return to a text multiple times is crucial as my research projects are constantly evolving. For many, not all of the sources that they need to complete history scholarship are within close distance, so having searchable, annotatable, and savable digitized documents available allows for an easy process as projects change.

Same Data, New Tools

Also helpful, digital tools that allow historians to manipulate data can reveal larger patterns and processes that are otherwise undetectable. While experimenting with the features of Public Tableau earlier in the semester I watched as seventeenth century burial records that I had previously struggled to find meaning in revealed greater patterns of migration, age distribution, and gender attitudes. I tested a single data set within different graph, map, and table structures to consider the various ways of finding meaning in quantitative data. Using digital tools in historical scholarship allows academics and students to expand the questions being asked and the processes through which they find answers. However, those wary of new technologies might be agree that computation and visualization tools can only contribute so much to the research process. Because the numbers, percentages, and categories represented in graphs, maps, tables, and trees are only representations and calculations about people, places, distances, time, and objects one cannot separate the conclusive trends these tools reveal from the specific examples highlighted within the original sources. Because of this, historians will likely continue to devote significant amounts of time to studying examples and outliers alike. For instance, while the graph I produced about how individuals entered within the burial records displayed relational identifications, this generalization obscures the few young women who were identified simply by name.

You Can Always Return to the Details

Another way in which I have already found my own work transforming because of digital tools is through search tools. Some of the sources that I rely on the most are colonial land records and proprietary minutes which span many volumes, each hundreds of pages. In “Googling the Victorians” Patrick Leary argues that the ability to visually scan analog sources remains essential to the discipline. Many of these sources I have consulted in at least their print forms, because much important data is not searchable such as specific land features and events without known dates. However, the value of being able to turn toward a computer to sift through thousands of pages is immeasurable, especially when focusing on specific towns or persons.

Digital tools enable students of history like myself to save large expenses of time and immediately understand a source before delving too deeply into its content. In “No Computer Left Behind”, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig propose that history classrooms encourage students to use technology to find easily answerable historical questions and devote more time to deeper learning. Specifically, while researching land disputes in seventeenth century East Jersey the ability to quickly locate land records allows me to dedicate more time to analyzing the systems in which these transactions took place and their impacts on inhabitants of the region. Relying on search tools does not mean that historians do not read extensively into texts but rather that they read more efficiently.

2 thoughts on “Digital Scholarship”

  1. One of the points I liked in this post was your saying scholars can return multiple times to a document. I had not really thought about this aspect explicitly but it really is a game-changer. Once you leave a physical archive, you had better make sure you have physical copies of anything you want. This limits what you are able to take back to the office and work with and prevents scholars from re-referencing works they might not have initially thought useful but which over time would prove vital to their developing work.

  2. Search tools certainly do make historians’ reading much more efficient! Although I think I can imagine someone pessimistically countering that it means people only scoop out of books what they want to see now, and don’t bother with the rest. That may be true, but that never prevented writers from producing generous indexes. Sometimes a whole volume of a series is dedicated to the index. This is impressive, but when you’re writing about something that the authors didn’t care about, the indexes become much less useful. I’m interested in women and fashion, and the 19th century writers whose books I read were markedly not interested in these things, and of those who were, didn’t think that these topics merited appearing in an index. The search function brings the index to newer and sometimes marginalized historical interests.

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