I went about deciding how to respond to this week’s prompt by reviewing the blog posts I made over the weeks for Digital History and found several ways in which digital material and technology have and will continue to change the discipline of history and the research process. In the introduction of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, the authors, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig described several qualities of “digital media and networks” that could potentially allow historians to do their work differently, for better or worse. Not every bit of reading from the diverse selection of topics and authors that followed in the semester was conceptually aligned with these ideas but I frequently found myself making connections to notions like capacity, flexibility, manipulability, and interactivity. Arguably the most profound shifts for both Historical practice and general research were be the change from analog to digital born resources along with the digitization of older, more traditional sources and the correlational change in accessibility.
First, reviewing various sites and reading a variety of articles and blog posts caused me to reflect on increased accessibility, a concept described in Digital History. This major change is a direct result of the shift from analog to digital resources. Now, a researcher who cannot make a trip to Washington D.C. to visit the Library of Congress can utilize the “American Memory” website. A quick search for “Lincoln, Abraham,” on the site returns 5,000 results. Within the first five items returned by the keyword search, a researcher would find sources whose repositories are Duke University, the Library of Congress, and the Denver Public Library. The ability of a researcher to simply browse, from their home or office, these digital collections is remarkable, and their capacity to do so will only grow. Copyright over digitized collections can raise a variety of ethical questions ranging from whether or not scholarship should be free, to what should be considered fair use of someone’s intellectual property, and more. No matter where you land on these issues, it seems undeniable that digital secondary sources like the scholarly journals at JSTOR are more easily accessible than their analog counterparts. The digitization of sources has even served as a means of engaging an audience as online archives crowd source diverse groups to transcribe material. All this accessibility should mean an increase in the production of secondary material and growth in the audience of consumers of History, especially in digital forms.
Additionally, it is important to note that digital material and technology have and will continue to cause major change in terms of what Cohen and Rosenzweig call manipulability and flexibility. Using digital tools, researchers can search for, and within, materials. Computers can reduce mountains of sources into usable data sets and researchers can investigate multiple types of media in ways impossible without digital technology. Several weeks of reading show that digital technology means that history is being presented and consumed in new and exciting ways. The historical monograph is far from extinct, but it is supplemented by diverse types of media, many of which are far more interactive and will engage a more diverse audience.
In conclusion, digitization of sources that add to the growing body of digital born material means that researchers have an unprecedented level of accessibility. For both the field of History and more generally for researchers, this accessibility will have profound results as it should cause proliferation of secondary material and likely help engage increasingly larger audiences. Manipulability and flexibility are important too, but all these ideas represent the tip of the iceberg. Digital material and technology have already had a major impact on research and on History. The future impact is sure to be significant as well.