Digitization and the Historical Profession

If last week was about defining digital history as methodology, a frequent theme in this week’s readings was using digital methods in common historical tasks to research without thinking through some of these choices. Last week was about characterizing what “digital” historians “do” and why they do it. This week’s readings frequently reminded me how different historical work now looks from twenty years ago, but how unacknowledged these differences are among those who don’t define themselves as “digital historians.”

Ian Milligan’s work on Canadian historians indicated many ways in which historians were not thinking about how online access affected their research choices. Newspapers which were not online were ignored significantly more. This even prioritized Toronto history over that of other cities without digitized newspapers. Historians have long acknowledged the danger of prioritizing the metropole at the expense of regional voices and perspectives, yet here was another example happening in twenty-first century historical work. 1)Ian Milligan, “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997–2010,” The Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 94, no. 4 (2013): 540–69. Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner of the OCLC have argued that a focus on maximum digitization (access over preservation, quantity over quality) will allow institutions to see which types of material gets the most researcher eyeballs and this can help drive future investment as well as reducing the impact that lack of access has on certain research. 2)Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner, for OCLC Programs and Research, “Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow,” 2007.

Milligan noted that historians likely missed some examples due to a reliance on full text search. As Simon Tanner, Rosenzweig and Cohen have noted, OCR is far from perfect and digitalized text  can be created in a variety of ways. Other scholars have noted the error rates of computer programs, particularly when creating OCR text for historic newspapers. Bob Nicholson and Nicole Maurantonio, argue that using digital databases is and should be a different mindset than merely using full text search to replace old microfilm methods of visually scanning in a chronological fashion. Sarah Werner and Marlene Manoff provide further examples of how the digital is very different from the physical. Both in the ways in which technology can obscure meaning from physical objects, but also the ways in which technology can illuminate texts in new ways. 3)Marlene Manoff, “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives,” Portal : Libraries and the Academy; Jul 2006; 6, 3; 311-325

This week’s readings also attacked the authority of historical professionals as the arbiters of public historical work. Besides the previously discussed criticism from Milligan, Roy Rosensweig and many of the authors writing on crowdsourcing indicated the skills and abilities that the educated public can bring to cultural heritage and knowledge projects from Wikipedia to the Papers of the War Department. As long as guidelines were clear, project goals aligned with best practices of crowdsourcing, and cultural professionals were willing to cede some flexibility and discretion to “the crowd”, then engagement and labor could be brought to traditional institutions of cultural heritage used to knowledge only moving in one direction from professionals to the public. This was well described by Sheila Brennan and Mills Kelly as History Web 1.5. Not as fully unmediated as web 2.0, but more so than traditional historical practice.

I expect we will discuss many similar problems alluded to by Milligan in next week’s readings on search and databases, but professional historians need to learn that even when not “doing digital history,” they need to approach digital sources with respect for the public’s contributions and new appreciation for how research into digital sources is very different from that in paper or even microfilm.

References   [ + ]

1. Ian Milligan, “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997–2010,” The Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 94, no. 4 (2013): 540–69.
2. Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner, for OCLC Programs and Research, “Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow,” 2007.
3. Marlene Manoff, “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives,” Portal : Libraries and the Academy; Jul 2006; 6, 3; 311-325

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