Impact of the internet on historical research

The rise of the internet has profoundly changed historical research.  This paper will analyse the two main aspects of the internet’s impact on historical research.  Increased accessibility is the main advantage across both sections whereas there are a myriad of different problems with respective digitisation processes.  The first part of the paper will analyse the digitisation of existing sources.  Whilst this encompasses a wide range of sources, archival digitisation is the most interesting and relevant and so will be the focus of this paper.  There are three main disadvantages to this process: contextualisation, potential edits and poor reproduction, and the sensual nature of the archive.  The drawback of contextualisation is the most threatening to valid historical research and thus this paper will focus heavily on this section.  However, there is a lack of academic focus upon contextualisation.  Therefore, analysis on this section will rest heavily upon Vajcner’s paper yet this was proved academically sound after examination.    The second facet to this study will address the development of new ways to present existing information and the increased use of informal sources.  Both aspects are already changing the nature of historical research yet the latter section could have a profound impact upon the profession itself.  It should also be noted that the impact of informal sources has not yet been analysed and thus this part of the paper is largely hypothesising and philosophising about its importance and potential impact.  A final note on the literature is that it is important to use current literature on a quickly changing topic such as the internet.  However, there is not a wealth of studies in this field and thus sometimes it is necessary to use older papers that still contain explicit relevance to this thesis, such as the survey in 2004 by Duff, Craig and Cherry that surveyed 400 historians at degree-granting institutions in Canada.

Screenshot of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database (18/03/2013)

Digitising archival material and finding aids is and will have a profound effect on historical research.  The main advantage of digitising the archive is increased accessibility to archive resources.  Duff, Craig and Cherry’s survey results show how accessibility is a major issue for historical research.  A question stated thirteen problems of archival research and asked the respondents to check all that applied.  The two largest problems were access to sources due to their geographical location, applicable to 63% of the respondents, and a lack of finding aid, highlighted by 50%.  Additionally, they were asked how this affected their research.  They were mainly financial and research-afflicting, with 58% stating the former and 39% the latter.[1]  The process of digitising finding aids and archival material looked to tackle the problems facing historical research as explained above.  To a reasonable degree this process has worked.  As explained by Cruikshank et al and Emmett, there has been increased the level of accessibility to sources by providing online finding aids to stop wasted trips by historians to archives and to direct researchers easier, and by widening those who can access archival material by digitising it.[2] For students of African History, the Internet African History Sourcebook is clearly a perfect example.

Accessibility has also been increased with the introduction of e-journals and Google’s work to digitise our libraries.  The current debate on Open Access in the United Kingdom is clearly a consequence of this technological evolution. Technically, it would be possible to give access to material published in journals to everyone. However, who should pay for it? Taxpayers, research universities, students’ fees? Different attitudes have been adopted by countries such as France or Germany. One clear conclusion is that knowledge should be freely accessible to anyone.

The increased levels of accessibility can be demonstrated by the rather extreme case study of Nigeria.  Previously to digitisation, this developing nation would have struggled to access material in Western libraries and archives.  However, as explained by Audu, the digitisation process has provided a round the clock access to global sources of information.[3]  Kamja confirms that the internet is having a profound impact on the research process and dissemination of information in Nigeria.[4]  The importance of the internet in Nigeria for historical work led to two surveys assessing the level of internet use and accessibility to the internet at Covenant University in Ota[5] and the Delta State University[6].  Both empirically confirmed the arguments above: the internet was vital to historical research.  However, there are also drawbacks to digitisation.

Firstly, most of this material concerns Southern Nigeria. In addition, there are many potential problems to digitising both finding aids and archival material and often these problems are often interlinked.  In 2002, Stout envisioned that an advanced virtual finding aid will be used not only as a tool to search through masses of archival material yet to provide contextualisation to the source[7], an issue that Vajcner tackles in his paper.  He argues context should be built into these finding aids that are being created now as we cannot rely upon future Google searches to provide it.[8]  Both academics highlight the need for context yet why is it so important in historical research?

When tackling the importance of contextualisation, Vajcner makes a comparison to the rise of government publications, called blue books, in the pre-WW1 period.  A.J.P. Taylor explains that ‘in comparison of these selections with the archives will often bring out those aspects of policy which the government wished to stress, and those which it wished to conceal.’[9]  This example highlights the importance of contextualisation when assessing a source.  Vajcner argues that archivists can be equally as selective as the pre-war government officials.  He states that they ‘sift through a body of records, select key, seminal, or interesting documents, scan them and present them on the internet for all to see and hopefully use.’[10]  Thus, these sources are taken from their archival context, i.e. their collection.  If historians do not question the sources context they cannot determine the validity of it, which could damage the validity of their argument.  However, Vajcner explains that the internet has the potential to solve the problem of contextualisation.  He argues that to contextualise a source should be an easier feat to accomplish in a digital world and eventually ‘the researcher should be able to engage in the cross-checking of documents or a further search for information with a few keystrokes.’[11]

There are two additional problems to the digitising of archives, as highlighted in Duff, Craig and Cherry’s study.  First, Duff et al explain that the main feeling was that original materials are the best stimulus to the historical imagination.  This aspect is an interesting, yet not pertinent factor so it will not be explored further here.  Second, one respondent to their questionnaire stated that ‘I would love to have documents in other formats…but the [reproduction] is poor’ and many others expressed a concern with editing of these sources.[12]  These two issues are important yet the problem of contextualisation is the major draw-back in this digitising process.  Whilst the internet provides increased accessibility, it presents a dangerous set of sources that, if not combined with traditional archival research, could seriously damage the profession.

The organisation of existing sources into new platforms that did not exist before, and the use of new sources used by historians are changing the nature of what a historian actually is.  Wa He’s paper is a prime example of the former.  He outlines the development of a new platform to study Central American History by Old Dominion University.  Whilst the sources for this database existed before its inception, the way in which the sources were presented was new.[13]  He explains that before their ‘project started there was no searchable database on the internet that included biographical data on the heads of state of the five extant Central American countries… since the region’s separation from Spain in 1821.’  The information was spread across books, archives and journals in both Spanish and English so students found it difficult to access the information. Thus they found it hard to learn about Central America’s political leaders.  As argued by Cohen and Rosenzweig, historians often do not understand how to effectively communicate over the internet.[14]  This was accounted for in the project.  Thus the interface for this website is extremely accessible and effective.  This online searchable bilingual database and other similar projects have been enabled by the rising use and understanding of the internet.

For those interested in African and American history, both databases Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2007 reached the same objectives. By aggregating different sources of historical data on the European slave trade between Africa and America (1500-1900), these databases managed to foster a new scholarship on slave trade, slavery and its abolition. The information which used to be scattered in Brazil, Cuba, the United States, Europe or different African countries became accessible very easily. One of the main problems is that the second database (Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice) is not free.

These projects do not only digitise existing sources yet they also provide a new platform in which to present them.  There are definite advantages to these projects.  The most prominent is the increased accessibility, epitomised by the bilingual aspect to the website.  However, He warns that there are many problems with creating a bilingual database.  As Lee explains web designers have to consider ‘the learners who will use their sites, the objectives for presenting the materials and the type of interaction they wish to facilitate on the website.  In response to this objective, the project introduced a Latin American web designer into their all-American group.  This, He argues, was extremely influential in providing a successful database.  This serves as a warning, and a lesson, to future projects.  If existing sources are being placed on new platforms, these new platforms need to fulfil their objectives and make the site as accessible as possible.  What is remarkable about this database is that it is public, much like the Google Scholar project mentioned earlier.  This means that existing information that would have generally been attached to an educational institution is now available to anyone with access to the internet.  The concept of the ‘public historian’ will be analysed in the next section, discussing the rise of informal sources in historians’ work.

Eithne Quinn’s seminar, ‘Black Stardom in Conglomerate Hollywood: The Case of Will Smith and Tyler Perry’, is an example of how historians are increasingly using informal sources.  Whilst Quinn’s work is only one example, it represents a much broader trend in historical study.  Her work consisted almost entirely of individualistic narratives in press reports found on the internet.  This type of informal source has a myriad of problems.  Personal testaments in press reports are generally pre-planned and often designed to deliberately create a certain image of oneself in the public eye.  To use this type of source in conjunction with other more traditional evidence can form a solid basis for an academically sound thesis.  Quinn’s paper, however, did not have this source diversity and so the validity of her argument must be brought into question.

As addressed in the first section, this trend has led to increased accessibility for materials for historical research.  However, the use of informal sources and new public platforms reliant on existing evidence in historical research adds a completely new level of accessibility to the practice of history.  Whereas the digitisation of existing sources increases accessibility for institutions to certain sources, this trend threatens to de-institutionalise the practice of history.  If a large portion of sources can be accessed by anyone across the world with access to the internet, a different type of historian may emerge.  This is potentially dangerous to the profession.  The amateur public historian will shape history detached from an educational institution.  Some would argue that this may add a refreshing approach to certain subjects and is more egalitarian as socio-economic factors, which may be a barrier to many wanting to attend an educational institution, are not an issue.  Whilst the latter is a valid argument, the optimism for the former is misplaced.  The public historian does not have access to the vast majority of sources essential in any field of historical research and they will not be trained in how to analyse the sources they can access.  The problem is highlighted by Quinn.  She, an academic, relied on too many informal sources, and in doing so rendered her argument redundant.  Therefore, the amateur public historian, with no training in an educational institution, would surely fall into the same trap.  Whilst increased accessibility for learning is obviously advantageous, the shaping of the profession of history should not be driven by the amateur historian.

A final problem with the use of the internet as a source for history is highlighted by Russell and Kane’s work.[15]  They analysed the internet references in two of the most highly respected history journals.  Within seven years of the publication 18% of web citations had decayed. In other terms, the web addresses or URLs used by these academics were not valid anymore. There is a means to preserve internet sites called The Wayback Machine, which made 57% of the missing articles available.  Stable and permanent URLs called permalinks are also perceived as a solution. However, the other 43% of the missing links were lost, seemingly, forever.[16]  This provides another counter to the advantages of accessibility that results from digitising existing sources, placing existing sources on new platforms and using informal sources in historical research.

In conclusion, digitisation of existing sources, the creation of new platforms for existing sources and the emergence of new sources have a great potential for increased accessibility to historical research.  However, there are also many problems with digitisation and the rise of the internet as a source for research.  The final section of this paper highlights that there is not much research into the impact of informal sources on the study of history.  This can partly be attested to the relatively new use of informal sources in historical research.  However, it is important for academics to carry out studies on the validity and popularity of this developing strand of the profession as this has the potential to have a huge impact on the study.

Text by Brendan Lawson. Examples on African History by Vincent Hiribarren.

[1] W. Duff, B. Craig and J. Cherry, ‘Historians use of archival sources: promises and pitfalls of the digital age’, The Public Historian, 26 (2004), pp. 16-17

[2] K. Cruikshank, C. Daniels, D. Mesissner, N.L. Nelson and M. Shelstad, ‘How Do We Show You What We’ve Got? Access to the Archival Collections in the Digital Age’, Journal of the Association of the History of Computing. 8 (2005); R.B. Emmett, ‘Surfing the Past: The Role of the Internet in the History of Economics’, History of Political Economy, 34 (2002), 245-260 (p. 258)

[3] Audu, ‘Internet Availability and use by Postgraduate Students in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’, Global Review of Library and Information Science, 2 (2006), 34-43

[4] Kamja, 2008 IN Covenant University, OTA, NIGERIA

[5] Impact of the internet on final year students’ research: a case study of Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria

[6] O.B. Adogbeii, O.D. Toyo and Delta State University, The Impact of the Internet on research: the experience of Delta State University, Nigeria

[7] L.J. Stout, ‘Reimagining Archives: two tales for the information age’, American Archivist, 65 (2002), p. 15

[8] M. Vajcner, ‘The Importance of Context for Digitlised Archival Collections’, Journal of the Association for History and Computing, 11 (2008)

[9] A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), pp. 569-570

[10] Vajcner

[11] Vajcner

[12] Duff, p. 20

[13] W. He, ‘Developing an Online Searchable Bilingual Database for Learning about Central American Political History’, Journal of the Association for History and Computer, 10 (2007) <–developing-an-online-searchable-bilingual-database-for?rgn=main;view=fulltext;q1=developing+an+online+searchable&gt;

[14] D. Cohen and R. Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)

[15] E. Russell and J. Kane, ‘The Missing Link: Assessing the Reliability of Internet Citations in History Journals’, Technology and Culture, 49 (2008), 420-429

[16] E. Russell and J. Kane, p. 429

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