Having finished reading Cohen and Rosenzweig as well as Weller, I had never considered before the true impact the digital age would have on the study of history. The World Wide Web changed history in ways that I was never aware of until now. Each author describes many of the advantages and disadvantages put forth that alter the way we approach and study history.
Cohen and Rosenzweig list many changes that have happened as a result of the web. Historical sources found on a museum website, archive, or database are much more accessible now. Today, you don’t have to physically be at the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Smithsonian in D.C. to have access to a part of their collections. Not even that, but the capacity of information available on the web is staggering. A simple Google search or Yahoo Search for a topic or a historical figure brings up thousands of “hits”, far more than the creators of the earliest web pages may have ever realized at the time. Another important feature is diversity, allowing history authors and the like from a variety of backgrounds to create blogs and website, publish articles and books, and much more. It is far easier to analyze and access historical sources using the World Wide Web now than it ever has been. Content is easier to interact with, and the ease of moving from website to website establishes links that fundamentally shift the way we look at and interpret history.
This leads us to another important question: what is the difference between our engagement with “digital history” versus “history?” While reading Weller, her point that a shift in medium can change everything really stuck out to me. She points out that “context is everything” and seeing the original document can offer valuable information. When that document is changed or taken out of context and digitized for a website, the original experience is lost. Strangely, I was reminded of an old episode of the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In the episode, the character Giles repeatedly clashed with the high schools computer science teacher on the use of computers and scanners to scan the library books onto the computers. At the end of the episode, they have this exchange:
Ms. Calendar: Honestly, what is it about them [computers] that bothers you so much?
Giles: The smell.
Ms. Calendar: Computer’s don’t smell, Rupert.
Giles: I know! Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there
is. A certain flower or a, a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences…
long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The
knowledge gained from a computer, is, uh, it… it has no, no texture,
no, no context. It’s, it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last,
then, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should
be, um… smelly.
The tension between the more traditional Giles and the new computer science teacher Ms. Calendar is apparent, and only at the end of the episode does Giles reveal what bothers him about the whole of knowledge and information being completely digital. The original experience of reading is altered for him, the context is gone. It’s not a perfect example, but it hearkens back to Weller’s anecdote about the historian smelling the letters from a Portuguese archive. Bringing up this issue about preserving the original experience exemplifies one of the fundamental differences between “digital history” and “history” to me, the change in how historians engage with primary sources and the interpretations made in the course of interaction. That is one issue that historians must examine and reconcile as they try to adapt to doing history in the digital age.
Reference: Gable, Ashley, and Thomas A. Swynden, writers. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer “I Robot You Jane”.” Transcript. http://www.buffyworld.com/buffy/transcripts/008_tran.html