Digital History in Research and Education

Digital history holds incredible potential for the way historians research and the way students of history learn; however, a host of challenges remain for determining how digital history should best be approached and in what ways it can be most useful.

My professor, Dr. Jeffrey McClurken, has written on this issue and the many opportunities and challenges facing digital history today. Focusing primarily on the digitization of archives, McClurken considered the great benefit to students from having primary source materials accessible online. Where distance from physical archives can be limiting especially in an academic setting, digitization allows students to pursue a wider range of topics and a broader base of primary source material, the foundation for any history student’s training.

But despite the great potential of digital archives, digital history still faces challenges. McClurken points out that not all of the digital history publishing online is up to the standards of scholarship required by publishers of peer-reviewed, printed books. Though the flexibility and mutability of the web can be a great asset, it also presents another great challenge–digital archives can simply move or disappear from the internet in a way physical archives do not. This can be especially problematic for educators, who may depend on a digital archive from one semester to the next and need consistency.

Adrea Lawrence presents another outlook on digital history in education in her article “Learning How to Write Analog and Digital History.” Lawrence focuses on the collaborative benefits of digital history, and the ways digital media can allow students to better learn and work with researchers and each other to understand the process of “doing history.” In her course, Histories in Education, students used both traditional and digital methods to publish their work, even writing and editing Wikipedia pages on their topics. Lawrence argues that the fluid format of Wikipedia, the very aspect of the site that makes scholars most skeptical of its integrity, allows historians to pursue a more collaborative methodology. Because Wikipedia pages are published but then can be edited infinite times by infinite editors, a work of historical research published in this medium will naturally be the result of many different contributions and collect various perspectives along the course of its life on the web.

Lawrence fails to address the many challenges that come with this digital approach however, some of which are discussed above. While Wikipedia certainly could encourage a more collaborative approach, its flexibility also could mean weaker scholarship and an invitation for error. The ease of digital publication is indeed an incredible asset, but brings with it a need for tight monitoring of the quality of that which is published. (Unfortunately, Lawrence’s digital article itself suffers from a few “typos,” despite its strong argument and creative approach.)

Both McClurken and Lawrence agree that digital aspects should be incorporated into the modern historian’s education, and that digitization poses great benefits to the future of the study of history. Recognizing both the benefits and difficulties that come with the versatility of digital media, historians should indeed embrace a digital future while pushing for a high standard of scholarship in digital publications as in print.

Dr. Jeffrey McClurken’s article Waiting for Web 2.0: Archives and Teaching Undergraduates in a Digital Age is published on his website: mcclurken.umwhistory.org.

Adrea Lawrence’s article is published in the Spring 2012 edition of Writing History in the Digital Age, a born-digital journal edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzk and available at writinghistory.trincoll.edu.

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