Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Limits and Implications of Abundance: Blog Assignment

After seeing that Dr. Turkel had given the class a blog assignment this week, I found myself directly confronted by my own stereotypes about the nature of historical writing and how it should be conducted. The word "essay" immediately put me into my traditional university writing mode, terrified of contractions and disgusted by the thought of writing in first person. I began to panic about which online sources I could link: heaven forbid I use a website with any spelling mistakes or factual errors!

My break-through came when I stepped back from my fretting to consider why I was having that visceral reaction. Blogging has forced me to reconsider the strict format universities and professors have programmed me to follow. By expansion, not only blogging but the entire Internet and its abundance of sources has put me in a position where I have to challenge the confinements of my stereotypes about what a historian should be and how he/she should conduct historical research. With that in mind, I reread the questions Dr. Turkel suggested for our consideration and discovered that my mini-crisis dealt directly with many of them. This blog will investigate how the Internet is changing the nature of sources and the wider implications this phenomenon will have on historical research and writing.

The nature of primary sources is being drastically changed by the digitization of books and documents. Scarcity has taken on new meaning in the historical world. Previously, primary sources were scarce in the sense that there were few copies of them. I am conducting research for Fanshawe Pioneer Village this term, and my subject is eighteenth century farm tools and manufacturing in Middlesex County. Inevitably and in spite of the vast amount of information on the Internet, I will be heading to the library, looking through township books and sifting through microfilm, because said records are not readily available; the traditional definition of scarce resources.

If every bit of information written about farm tools in Middlesex County was digitized and put on the Internet, a few key word searches would provide me with a wealth of information at my mouse’s beck and call. If the digital world offers such potential for almost limitless access to primary sources, what could possibly be scarce about this future?

Roy Rosenzweig points to the frailty of online sources. Computers can breakdown and data can be lost. Not only that, but computer software changes radically and quickly. When my father threw out his floppy disks and I was distressed by the loss of games such as The Incredible Machine from 1992. I searched online to see if this game could be downloaded and could not find any original versions. Classic Gaming Presents did have a revised version for Windows XP and Vista which could be purchased for $4.99; however, the graphics have been completely redone and the game has been revised from its original conception. Playing this new version of The Incredible Machine would be like reading a farmer’s diary from 1820 that has been edited and changed; the very nature of the source is altered and it becomes much less useful, especially to historians whose research projects sometimes depend on nuances and turns of phrase specific to my 1820 farmer. If in one hundred years a historian wants to research the nature and significance of computer games in 1992, will they even be able to play the games anymore? Or will their only access be sanitized and revised shells of the 1992 originals? The pace of technological change and new software developments threatens the integrity of computer primary sources, many of which will become scarce in the future.

The computer revolution offers historians the chance to access more detailed records than could possibly have been imagined. The future historian may look back on Facebook pages if he/she is interested in studying trends in pre-teen behaviour in 2007. The sheer amount of information available on the Internet and the potential historic record that is being constructed is daunting. That being said, everything that passes through the Internet is not necessarily preserved in a manner that will be helpful for future historians. Emails are deleted every day. Facebook profiles are revised and edited depending on an individual’s mood. While movements such as the Internet Archive record much of what transpires, the online world will never be fully saved and documented to be totally accessible to scholars in the future. Even the Infinite Archive has limitations and the potential for gaps in the historic record.

What does this massive and yet oddly incomplete collection of documents mean for the future of historical research? There is already a crisis of authority that has shaken academia. The Internet is a massive forum where any inclined individual can not only make their own webpage about any given topic but also serve as contributors and editors on sites such as Wikipedia. Margaret Conrad, board member for the Canadian Historical Association, noted in her article, “Public History and its Discontents or History in the Age of Wikipedia” that Wikipedia is remarkable because of “the sheer volume of reasonably good material that is available in multiple languages.” Wikipedia gives any individual a chance to chronicle historical events, as opposed to traditional publishing processes.

The hyperlink phenomenon has created an extensive community whereby individuals can connect their work and refer endlessly to each other. This branching community is an exciting step forward for academia, which has traditionally seen individual scholars working on primary sources largely in isolation of each other instead of together as a team.

The Internet opens a floodgate of opportunity for publication and new ideas from anyone outside the university elite. Historians used to control the fabrication and interpretation of the past; now, the general public can also assert their ideas, and that work can be readily accessed. The role of the professionally trained historian is being challenged, and the profession needs to adopt new methodologies and goals to keep pace with these changes.

In order to be influential and have their work taken seriously in the digital world, I think that historians need to write in a way that is captivating and relevant to a wider audience. If historians turn their academic noses away from the Internet and refuse to engage with the digital community, the past recreated online will be devoid of their voices. However, if historians can fascinate the digital audience and transmit their ideas in an accessible manner, enthusiasts conducting Google searches for biographies of famous politicians will be rewarded with a much deeper and more significant account of the past than the fact-based Wikipedia offerings. The professional historian’s voice needs to echo not only through the library but also through the Internet, where his/her ideas have the potential to influence and enlighten a much larger audience. Good historical scholarship needs to be on the Internet, and it needs to tap into the growing public interest in history by writing in an accessible manner. Name dropping and jargon need to be replaced by human interest in order for the general public to get excited about the professional historian’s interpretations of the past.

In dealing with online sources, historians are faced with challenges in selecting theoretical frameworks to analyze the wealth of texts that are instantly available. Rosenzweig suggests “methodical sampling in the manner of, say, sociology.” Sociology employs the scientific method, often working with patterns, numbers and statistics to gain insight into societies. Historical researchers sifting through thousands of online primary sources may very well require sociological methodologies in order to make sense of the massive amount of data that is available. Diverse discplines can influence and assist each other in this new digital world by sharing research methods and communicating; the academic isolation that has traditionally pervaded universities needs to change.

A new sense of historical consciousness is arising, and it will continue to develop as more sources are digitized and more historians begin to realize the Internet’s potential for scholarship. Historians need to be able to present their work in an accessible manner, make that work visible and accessible on the Internet, and look to other disciplines for new methodologies and research tactics. There are limits to the Internet’s wealth of sources, but in spite of those limits and the scarcity that accompanies said abundance, historical research has changed and will continue to evolve.


  1. "The professional historian’s voice needs to echo not only through the library but also through the Internet" - I think that is an excellent way to put it!

  2. It seems that I agree with Tim. This is one part of your post that stands out for me:
    "The professional historian’s voice needs to echo not only through the library but also through the Internet, where his/her ideas have the potential to influence and enlighten a much larger audience."
    I see myself as a part of that "larger audience."