Why did the pioneers cross the country in covered wagons? Because they didn’t want to wait 40 years for a train: Defining Digital History

What does the title have to do with defining digital history? Not much. But much like how the invention of the train changed how people travelled, the world wide web has changed the practice of doing history.

The 1990s saw the emergence of webpages, which meant that all sorts of information started becoming more accessible to people. With the rapid advancement that we’ve seen in the past couple of decades, many disciplines were changed, including history. The digitization of materials allows for more exploration, access, and preservation- ranging from newer sources to older, more fragile ones. However, like Toni Weller brings up in her book History in the Digital Age, it also raises a whole new set of challenges and questions surrounding preservation. The web is fast-paced and always changing, so in order for a historian to get the full effect of a webpage, there has to be a way to save the original page before it changes or is deleted. But there is such a large number of sites available, so how does a historian know what to save? And while a person can scan a set of letters to be accessed online, that can take away the other sensory experiences. Weller gives an example of a medical historian in Portugal doing research on a cholera outbreak. He was in the archives and rather than reading the letters, he was smelling them because the letters were disinfected with vinegar to prevent further spread of the disease and he could use the smell to chart the outbreak. While digitizing these letters allows for the content to be shared, the tangible experience is lost.

Digital history seems qualitatively different from history, but in reality, I do not believe it is. The internet allows for the mass sharing and receiving of information, so it seems like there is a lot more information. There are historical artifacts all over and in archives across the world, that one may never have access to. As historians, we take in and sift through a lot of information determining what is and is not useful. The internet can make it easier to fake documents and photographs, for example, but just as historians learned to recognize it in older sources, they have to do that with the advancing technology. Digital history makes information easier to obtain, but one still has to be critical of the information they are receiving.


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