Digital History

If you are interested in reading more about digital humanities, check out my other blog at http://stumblingfuture.wordpress.com
Person looking at Trove Australian Newspapers online on laptop

Digitisation of Australian Newspapers

During this year I have become increasingly interested in how technology and new media can assist historical research.  As I said in my acknowledgements for my thesis, I owe a great debt to the digitisation of Australian newspapers currently being conducted by the National Library of Australia (NLA).  While I was researching the NLA was digitising The Brisbane Courier, an important source for my thesis. Each week I logged in to find more issues had been digitised for the period I was researching, 1906-1910.  None of the researchers who had explored my topic before me had this resource available to them.  Most of them did not even have the advantages of a word processor.  They were working with pen, paper, and if they were lucky, microfilm.

The ability to do something as simple as a word search on primary sources such as newspapers is revolutionary.  Before the advent of the Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program the only way that those researching Australasia’s religious instruction debates could determine which newspaper issues to review for articles was to refer to other sources such as Parliamentary Debates (which has an index), work out when the issue was debated in parliament and then refer to the newspapers of that date.  But this meant that articles published outside the dates referred to in other sources would not be referred to by the historian.  It was a time-consuming task finding articles.

As I found this year, many relevant articles were published outside the dates referred to in other sources.  Other historians had quite naturally missed reading them.  Not only could I read these articles but also find them very quickly.  The depth of my research increased markedly as a result of the digitisation programme and I did not have to put anywhere near the time into it that previous researchers had to.

However, one does have to be careful.  Not all newspapers have been digitised.  The National Library of Australia has set the following criteria for selecting newspapers to be digitised:

  • The newspapers must not have copyright restrictions i.e. anything before 1955 is suitable.
  • The newspaper must exist on microfilm.
  • The microfilm to be digitised must be of suitable quality and completeness.
  • Each State and Territory must have equal representation.
  • Newspapers with wide geographic coverage published before 1900 are of highest significance i.e. ‘State’ titles.

National Library of Australia, ‘Title Selection – Overview

This means that other newspapers that were significant for my thesis such as regional and newspapers linked to the labour movement, were not digitised (although a few regional titles are being digitised now and will be digitised in the future).  It would have been easy to rely entirely on what was available online but this would have skewed my interpretation of what was a complex debate.  So I still had to spend many hours in front of a microfilm reader covering these newspapers.

Digital History

Digital History is the term used to describe the use of technology and ‘new media’ by historians.  If you are interested in the history of the use of computers in the discipline, Paul Turnbull gave a good overview in the June issue of the Australian Historical Studies journal this year.  Online databases are only one element of digital history.  I am sure that social media will be able to assist historians to find sources that may be held privately.  There is growing use of the web to impart historical knowledge and to debate historical issues.

I have not described anything particularly innovative or unknown, however, I am continually surprised by how slow some historians are to embrace and explore the enormous opportunities that are opening up to them. The Quintessance of Ham has written an interesting post based on the analysis of  the usage of various forms of technology by historians written by American Historical Association’s Robert B. Townsend (unfortunately Townsend’s article is not freely available).  While over 80% of historians were using basic technologies such as primary sources online, search engines, library-supported databases and word-processing software, only 37% used spreadsheets, 27% used citation software and a paltry 6% used social media.

Over the last few weeks there has been considerable discussion about the upcoming conference of the American Historical Association and the fact that so few presentations (and therefore discussions) will consider issues surrounding digital history (see for example, Dan Cohen and Drew VandeCreek).  The possibilities offered by digital history are immense but the pitfalls are many.  Maybe historians do not embrace the tools available in the digital era because they are so wary of the problems that could arise?

The poor engagement with technology by historians was brought home to me by Robert B. Townsend.  Townsend refuted the assertion of Patricia Cohen in the New York Times that only one of the the 296 sessions at their upcoming conference will explore digital history – there will be seven sessions according to Townsend.  He expresses his disappointment at this and makes the pertinent observation that ‘the history profession has always tended to avoid or ignore process discussions’.  As he says, the discussion about methodology is usually tucked into papers focussing on particular historical topics rather than being in a paper focussing on methodology alone.

It was the addendum to Townsend’s post that really caught my attention  He said, ‘More than half of the sessions (182 out of 296) will be using A/V’.  The fact that this statistic is even mentioned is any eye-opener into the attitude of historians towards technology.  In what other profession would a statistic such as this even be raised?  I have been researching Queensland between 1906 and 1910.  In this era A/V was cutting-edge and the prominent advocate of religious instruction in state schools, Rev. D. J. Garland, and other members of the Bible in State Schools League were using ‘magic lantern slides‘.  My teachers at school in the 1970s were using A/V regularly.   The way most people use Powerpoint is just another form of over-head projection.  Using A/V in a conference has been normal for 30 or 40 years.

This debate has caused me to think hard about my own practices and encouraged me to take time out to explore the plethora of possibilitie thrown up in the digital age.  How are you using technology in your research?

References

Find Out More About Digital History

  • Poyntz, Nick, ‘The Future of the Past‘,  The Digital History Blog hosted on the History Today website.  This is the first of a series of articles about digital history for those who are not familiar with this field.  Make sure that you read the subsequent posts that Poyntz has written on the same site.

Added at a later date:

Townsend’s article referred to above is now publicly available on the American Historical Association website.  It certainly gives some food for thought.

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