History and the Digital Age: Boon or Bane?

Mass communication has come a long way since Gutenberg’s printing press. History is now being recorded in 140 characters, thanks to Twitter. But the job for historians in this digital age has advantages and disadvantages, said FHSS associate Brigham Young University history professor Christopher Hodson.  “In a lot of ways the Internet has transformed the possibilities for our research. We can do things faster. We can be more accurate,” he says. But there’s a catch. We’re at a crossroads of sorts.

Boon…or Bane?

One of the advantages the internet provides historians and its students is the much-widened breadth of available data. Places like the National Archives in the United States, the British Library, and L’archives Nationales in France are starting to digitize documents that are healthy enough to withstand the digitization process. Sources like Evan’s American Bibliography, is an online database that makes accessing historical documents easy and efficient. It’s a database of everything published on a printing press, excluding newspapers, between 1639 and 1820. The primary documents are keyword searchable and super accessible to both scholars and students.

history in digital age
Photo credit: Pratt Library

“We are getting more eyes on more different types of topics and that can only be good for the way we pursue scholarship,” Hodson said. The database links on BYU’s library website is a fantastic resource with lots and lots of information. For example, there is a database of early American newspapers. There is no better way for students and historians alike to get a sense of the texture of life in the eighteenth century than to read the newspaper.

Even with the endless options for historical hunting in the new age, there is a downside to all of this. “If students become too reliant on digital databases and sources, they forget to read the books. This is a problem for us [educators] and one we have to combat in our classes,” Hodson said.

“It’s great to be able to look things up online. Everybody uses Google and Wikipedia and those things are fine so long as you don’t ask them to do things they aren’t capable of doing. They aren’t capable of the deep proper research and that you get in actual scholarship.”

Since everything does come back at some point to print, the other problem, according to Hodson, is the inability to discriminate among digital sources. “All websites look alike. There’s a sense that if it’s on the internet, it must be okay. That really isn’t true.”

Could You Be a Historian?

Prof. Hodson; Photo by Cheryl C. Fowers/BYU Copyright BYU PHOTO 2007 All Rights Reserved
Prof. Hodson; Photo by Cheryl C. Fowers/BYU
Copyright BYU PHOTO 2007
All Rights Reserved

Hodson says its important to be discerning about what you are looking at and understand the difference between good and bad scholarship. For example, a peer-reviewed article that appears in a scholarly journal or book is different than a post in someone’s blog.

For those looking for the difference between a great historian and an average one, we asked Professor Hudson what skills a historian for our time should have. Here are the top three tips for a novice historian:

  • Learn how to write clearly, and recognize that ability in what you read: Whether you are going to be a historian or going into a field related to history, it’s crucial to be able to process some information and analyze it clearly in writing.
  • Remember how to read deeply: Our brains, if we spend a lot of time on the internet, become less habituated to sitting down and reading a book and thinking about it contemplatively. Hodson recommends reading “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” and thinking about its application, or lack there-of, in your life.
  • Maintain an active imagination: It may seem counter-intuitive for a historian to have an imagination because they have traditionally been bound by traditional sources. To an extent, everything a historian does is held in check by what people in the past wrote down. But, the best historians and the best people who use history in their fields are able to use their own creativity to make interpretative connections between sources that might seem like they don’t have anything to do with each other. Imagination separates great historians from lesser historians.

What are your on-line go-to resources for historical information?

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