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How does the digital change the nature of historical research?

            With the creation of the World Wide Web in 1992, Tim Berners-Lee saw it “as not merely a mechanism for information retrieval from a global creative. Rather it offered the potential of a new inventive relationship to knowledge that overcame the hierarchical relationship found in the traditional archive”[1]. This shows that Berners-Lee saw the potential of the digital age to not only revolutionise how historical evidence was stored, but how people related to it. We have come to see in the past few years that historical research has changed from searching the endless walls of books in the library, to the use of many online resources. In this essay it will be essential to see how current and future historians have been affected by this, and to show how the digital has changed the way historians carry out research. It will argue that the basic principles historians use to critique and analyse sources has not changed, but the amount of and ease of finding information has given the new historian a revolution in the way research is carried out. Through the use of search engines and online archives it has been made infinitely easier to find the information needed to produce a thesis. However there are problems, that will be highlighted, which we must face in order to make sure the digital becomes a totally reliable resource. It will show how crowd-sourcing and large online databases have changed the way the historian builds up an argument. Looking at whether or not this changes the way the historian goes about their work, and answer the question whether, “this really demonstrates a fundamental shift in engagement or is it simply a new way of presenting the same information?”[2] Arguing that historians have to change the way they find resources, but not the way they build up their argument. One of the key changes coming from the emerging archives of ‘born digital’ information. By looking at the way the historian researches now, we can compare this to how it would have been done before the digital age and look at the ways in which historical research has changed.

    When looking at how historical research has changed we must look at how it has moved from the archives to the laptop. Katrina Navickas has considered this and suggests that historians are not anymore restricted by the number of texts available to them, “This number was often circumscribed by various factors including the particular library the researcher uses, the collection held by the library, the amount of time taken to make notes from those books, and the intellectual capabilities of the researcher to make connections between those texts”[3]. This shows that historians have a larger range of resources available than ever before, however the historian is still restricted by the intellectual capabilities, and arguably more restricted by the time taken to make notes. This being because they can become bogged down in some of the irrelevant and unreliable work which is on the World Wide Web. This then suggests that fundamental research techniques used by historians have not changed. Being that they must still carry out analysis of digital resources the same way they would look at a resource in a library or an archive. Working with online resources must come with the same evaluation given to a book or primary source, the historian must question who made it, when it was created, where was the information gathered, has there been any changes made, is there an agenda behind what they are looking at. These skills have not and will probably not change for many years.

      One of the problems created by the use of digital resources is the problem historians may have with search engines, Edward Hampshire suggests that, “an ability to text message or download music does not guarantee an understanding of how to get the best out of even commonly used search engines such as Google.”[4] This suggests that we need to rethink how historians use the searches available to them; historians need to be taught how they can utilise these resources correctly.  As without being able to search the various archives properly the historian may lose the ability to access tens if not hundreds of essential materials. This is a particular problem when looking at how Google will return your search results, as it would customise results to show the pages it predicts the user is most likely to click on[5].  Being that this information is shaped by previous searches and knowledge of websites visited it may demote important information to the bottom of the list. This is a not a problem faced on websites such as the national archives, but as the number of searches available to the historian multiply, so does the chance that they are going to miss a vital piece of evidence.  This can be shown as archives grow larger, the complexity of advanced search functions grow also, making it harder to return correct results. The historian may tend to give up on a lead if they are faced with a screen which returns no results.

     It seems that through digital resources the historian has been provided with a greater wealth of information which makes it more difficult to research everything possible. But through the same way it has been created, it can be solved. Crowd-sourcing is one of these ways in which the historian has been given access to large amounts of information, through websites such as Wikipedia; the ordinary person has been given a platform to add to known histories. However it has become notorious in scholarly history, as it is seen as being extremely unreliable. Most universities will fail or cap essays which reference its information, but this does not pay attention to the actual accuracy achieved. For basic facts the website can arguably be more useful than an oxford dictionary, because even the most obscure subject can be explained in great detail. In fact the site does not get caught up in debate, “one of the key contribution policies is to present a ‘neutral point of view’ (debates are described, represented and characterised but not engaged in), as attempts to avoid accusations of bias”[6]. This suggests that in fact the knowledge of the crowd should be embraced, given that it provides a basic foundation which can be elaborated upon by the historian through further research.

      As archives become more available online, so does access to raw-data. This raw-data gives the current historian an ability which was not available to those who did not have access to digital resources. That is the ability to analyse and consider information without the need to read through another historian’s argument. Previously if a historian had wanted to do this they would have had to produce their own raw-data from large scale studies. Now however there are online resources such as the Old Bailey Online, which a historian can trawl through and create original ideas and arguments. Although one of the main problems faced again is that one historian would still find it difficult to analyse this data themselves. Stephen Mihm suggests a solution for this, “by aggregating the grass-roots knowledge and recollections of hundreds, even thousands of people, ‘crowdsourcing,’ may transform a discipline that has long been defined and limited by the labors of a single historian toiling in the dusty archives”[7]. This concept has been used already with websites such as trove.nla.gov.au, who use the crowdsourcing model to allow its users to translate, edit and comment on scanned copies of Australian national newspapers. This contribution then gives the historian a greater insight into the resources available on there.

       Another of the areas where the digital will change the nature of historical research is in the field of ‘born digital’ information. This would be the records of information such as, electronic communication, Images and company databases, which all exist online but not in the material or physically exist[8]. The problems which face the future historian is whether or not this information is going to be stored and also how this will change the nature of analysis. This information is going to prove vital to any history which is going to be written about today’s world. Almost everyone carries a mobile phone with image capturing capabilities, and the question is how the historian will be able to record or find these images and communications. In this age we are going to be faced with unprecedented amounts of information, which could arguably create more or less debate surrounding the areas in which we study. Could the historian find and analyse text messages and phone calls made by the London rioters of 6-10 August 2011, to pinpoint the exact moment or motive which sparked the series of events. This example is probably taking the idea to extremes but they are questions which need to be asked to establish how the digital twenty first century will change historical research.

       One example that has taken the potential of crowdsourcing, and used it to create history as it happens is the September 11 Digital Archive. The Archive uses, “electronic media to collect, preserve, and present the history of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and the public responses to them.”[9] This is one example of many which seeks to archive the electronic information produced during and after events and is going to be a key resource to any historian looking at modern history. It is however still unclear as to how they are going to be utilised to create history effectively but the availability gives the historian the possibility to access them. The main questions are over its reliability as the information archived could be doctored or changed as the submitter wishes and it would in fact be difficult to assess the quality and source. However all the evidence suggests that this kind of resource is going to be used more and more in the coming years.  

         We can see that through the digitasation of primary sources, we are now faced with problems surrounding the privilege of access. Because of the large cost surrounding the digitisation of materials, some providers which are underfunded must charge for access. This would suggest that only those historians with access or the money to buy access would be able to analyise this resource[10]. There are also problems with the fact that digital records lose the physical and visual aspect of handling a resource[11], which could affect the way the historian interacts with this. However one of the positives that has come out of the digitisation of materials is the ability to collaborate. This comes not only through crowd-sourcing but also through the interaction of academics. Along with this there are various kinds of digital resources which have been aiding the modern historian, programs such as zotero, make it easier to store and record the information found online. As it gives you the ability to store relevant research in one place and is even able to format footnotes and references correctly, giving the historian greater time to focus on research. In the same sense the digital camera has given the historian an opportunity, “by taking advantage of these new technologies, students will find their primary research transformed”[12].  It gives the historian the ability to take the archive out of the archive, as they are able to take digital images of primary resources, therefore taking away the restrictions of opening hours.

    From the evidence shown in this essay there is no doubt that the digital has changed the way in which the historian conducts their research. It has given the historian access to huge amounts of data that would never have been available before. The digital age has also even created its own primary resource through ‘born digital’ information which opens up a whole new area of research. However one of the negative aspects of this has been highlighted by Valerie Johnson, who suggests that there is a loss of expertise, “Where once editors spent decades producing scholarly editions of texts, building up expertise and making intelligent connections, these are now done by computers”[13]. This then suggests that the historian as a person is being distanced from the information which makes up the foundation of all historical knowledge. However this disadvantage could be made up through the introduction of crowd-sourcing and collaboration. Combining this with new tools could give the historian the ability to analyse larger sets of data in more detail than ever before. 

     One of the themes of this essay has suggested that in fact the way in which a historian looks at a resource has not changed, as they must still ask the same questions to ensure the reliability of the research they undertake. But there still are problems which have been highlighted about the reliability of online resources, and these have been one of the reasons why academic history has not embraced digital history as quickly as the advantages would suggest they should have. Some academic historians also worry about its sustainability as it has been shown that through the digitisation of archives, as much as ten percent of primary sources are lost in the process[14]. The problems of this would then suggest that the process is not worth the loss of such precious materials. However one of the key advantages and changes in nature of research comes from the ability to collaborate with other academic and amateur historians. It moves the historian away from the individual research of the analogue years, and into the future where large scale research carried out by numerous people is becoming the norm. The consequence of this could arguably lead to even more accurate research and a complete revolution in the nature of historical research.



About the September 11 Digital Archive’, http://911digitalarchive.org/about/index.php, consulted on 17/04/2012.

Johnson V, Thomas D, ‘Does the digital change anything’, http://vimeo.com/34775862, consulted on 17/04/2012

Mihm S, ‘Everyone’s a historian now’, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/05/25/everyones_a_historian_now/?page=1, consulted on, 15/04/2012

Navickas K, ‘From Traditional to Digital History’, http://historytoday-navickas.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/from-traditional-to-digital-history.html#!/2012/03/from-traditional-to-digital-history.html, consulted on, 15/04/2012



Groot J, Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture, (2009, Oxon), P 97

Pariser E, The Filter Bubble: What is the Internet Hiding From You, (New York, 2011)



Hampshire E, Johnson V, ‘The Digital World and the Future of Historical Research’, 20th Century British History, (20, 3, 2009), p. 401



[1] J Groot, Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture, (2009, Oxon), P 91

[2] Ibid

[4] E Hampshire, V Johnson, ‘The Digital World and the Future of Historical Research’, 20th Century British History, (20, 3, 2009), pp. 396-414.

[5] E Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What is the Internet Hiding From You, (New York, 2011), p 1

[6] J Groot, Consuming History, (2009, Oxon), P 97

[7] Everyone’s a historian now, Stephen Mihm, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/05/25/everyones_a_historian_now/?page=1, consulted on, 15/04/2012

[8] J Groot, Consuming History, (2009, Oxon), P 92

[9]About the September 11 Digital Archive’, http://911digitalarchive.org/about/index.php, consulted on 17/04/2012.

[10]K Navickas, ‘From Traditional to Digital History’, consulted on 15/04/2012

[11] Johnson V, Thomas D, ‘Does the digital change anything’, http://vimeo.com/34775862, consulted on 17/04/2012

[12] E Hampshire, V Johnson, ‘The Digital World and the Future of Historical Research’, 20th Century British History, (20, 3, 2009), p. 401

[13] V Johnson, D Thomas, ‘Does the digital change anything’, consulted on 17/04/2012

[14] Ibid


Born Digital Information

After researching for the digital history essay, I came across information which I had never really considered before. As a historian I am focussed at looking into the past, taking little interest into the future of the profession. But this is one area I have really been opened up to during the current module. With this I have been introduced into the concept of ‘born digital’ information, which I feel will realy revolutionise the study of history. With recent technological advances, most if not all correspondance between people is completed over digital platforms, meaning that we will have no physical evidence of these if they are not preserved. This is going to change the way archives are put together when considering the study of modern history. There are going to be more and more digital archives introduced, one of which is the http://911digitalarchive.org/, which looks to compile digital information which relates to before, during and after the terrorist attacks of sempter 2001. There are however numerous problems with the study of born digital information. How are we going to change our research techniques to enable reliable history projects which take into account these sources. Are we going to have to try and preserve every text message sent by our prime ministers, or compile internet history records from all members of parliament to make an informed decision as to why decisions were made. This subject really intrigues me as I feel it will change the way historians are viewed in coming years, and one which needs further consideration.

Critique of Google’s Ngram Viewer:

Google Ngram provides its users with the ability to create a graph showing the frequency of words in a corpus of Google’s digitised books. It allows the user to search around 5million books for a particular word or phrase. Letting the users’ search books from 1500 to 2008, letting you narrow this search by inputting a period year by year of which to search. After doing this it produces a graph which shows the frequency of each word or phrase in the time period searched. You can enter multiple terms to compare the frequencies of up to five phrases or words. It also gives you the option of choosing which corpus to search, ranging from different languages such as English, Chinese, German or English Fiction. The website is very easy to use as it takes you straight to the inputting stage without the need to scroll through or search for anything. There is a detailed page labelled ‘About Google Books Ngram Viewer’ which gives a good insight as to how the website works and also provides us with a view to its limitations. There has been some debate as to how these limitations affect the potential of this tool. One of the first and most important limitations would be that the Viewer is only able to give us an idea of frequency and “there is no way of telling how words were used, in what context or in what form.”[1] This shows us that when using the information in an historical context it would be very difficult to form a thesis as we have no way of knowing how words were used. One of the biggest problems being that language changes over time and this could lead to incorrect interpretations of the data produced. In the same vein it has been shown that the Optical Character Recognition system used by the Ngram Viewer also has its problems. This being mainly with the medial or long ‘s’ as this has been shown through the analysis of the words ‘fuck’ and ‘suck’. Leading us to believe there is in fact language trends with the use of these words, when in fact it is only the incompetence of the OCR to recognise the difference between a medial ‘s’ and an ‘f. Dan Cohen has also highlighted limitations, “the biggest problem with the viewer and the data is that you cannot seamlessly move from distant reading to close reading”[2]. This relates to the inability to move from looking at the graph and the ‘big’ data, to looking at individual uses of the words in the individual books, giving us even less ability to consider the usage or context of words. The tool is one which has a potential to be used in a wider context and when even larger datasets can be produced this will be even more powerful, with the greatest benefits being seen in the study of language. However the information produced by the viewer can only really be put into context and used in an historical academic sense when paired with wider studying and reading so until it is combined with an ability to measure how words are used and the OCR is improved it will remain a supporting tool in the study of History.



Diski J., ‘Short cuts’, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n02/jenny-diski/short-cuts, consulted on 14/03/2012


Cohen D, ‘Initial thoughts on the Google Books Ngram Viewer and datasets’, http://www.dancohen.org/2010/12/19/initial-thoughts-on-the-google-books-ngram-viewer-and-datasets/, consulted on 14/03/2012

[1] J Diski, ‘Short cuts’, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n02/jenny-diski/short-cuts, consulted on 14/03/2012

[2] D Cohen, ‘Initial thoughts on the Google Books Ngram Viewer and datasets’, http://www.dancohen.org/2010/12/19/initial-thoughts-on-the-google-books-ngram-viewer-and-datasets/, consulted on 14/03/2012

History dissertation project: The Battle for Monte Cassino

As part of my final year Undergrad Degree I am currently undertaking the dreaded dissertation, and for my project I have been looking at the effect of troop morale on the battle of Monte Casssino. For this I have had to listen in great depth to numbers of one to one interviews. The battle for Monte Cassino took place in a four month period from January 1944 to April 1944, and was broken down into 4 main attacks. It was critical in the war for Italy, as it was seen as the last obstacle on the road to Rome and liberation. ‘Mountain Cassino’ was a large mountain which overlooked a wide valley covered with harsh muddy rivers and flood plains.  On top of the mountain was an ancient Monastery which had been occupied by monks for hundreds of years, but the position made it one of key military objective in the area as it commanded such a panoramic viewing post. It made up part of the Gustav line, which was the Germans last and strongest defensive position; it stretched 100 miles from coast to coast of Italy, meaning that it made it very difficult to outmanoeuvre the enemy.  Being that Italy is so narrow and has a spine of high mountains, which made any sort of flanking movements impossible. This is why the battle holds such significance and it is ideal for looking at troop morale, this battle meant that enemies had to take each other on face to face and as a consequence reached a stalemate much the same as the battle of World War One with casualty numbers which also were similar. There was great debate as to whether or not the campaign should have been started at all in the first place, Britain and in particular Winston Churchill saw that an attack through Italy could have made it possible to enter ‘fortress Europe’ up through Austria and into Germany. However the Americans were less reluctant as they could foresee a difficulty in terrain and manoeuvrability of troops all of the way to Germany, seeing that the Italian and Austrian Alps lay in the path to Germany. It was decided however that the benefits of opening up this front would mean that troops would have to be diverted giving the Russians much need assistance and also provided the possibility of a landing in northern France as the lines would be thin. For this reason the Italian campaign became somewhat of a backwater to many and as a consequence the men fighting there became known as the ‘d-day dodgers’. As many in Britain and America thought that this was not an important mission, one MP in the house of commons even suggested that those in Italy were “somewhat having a paid holiday”. This however could not have been further from the truth. The conditions in Italy and in particular in the Battle of Monte Cassino could not have been worse, Italy was suffering one of its worst ever winters and conditions meant that soldiers were constantly cold, wet and hungry. This is where it is critical to look at troop morale, the key question being was that if they knew that they had gained a reputation as being ‘d-day dodgers’, how might have this affected their ability and desire to fight  for a cause they were not being appreciated for? For the moment I have found no mention of the soldiers knowing during the fighting, as it was very difficult for them to gain an understanding as to what opinion was like back in England and it was not until they got home that they realised this. It could be crucial however if any troops had known and so this is where I really need to focus research. There is however a wealth of information surrounding how they felt about the conditions and also the style of fighting which meant that this was possibly one of the hardest fought battles of World War Two. 


In accordance with our current lecture I felt it neccessary to add some images, this image shows how the monastery overlooked the area. This was taken shortly after the bombing raid which destroyed the building but in fact made it easier to defend as it became a maze of walls and jagged rocks providing perfect cover.

Here is a more recent picture from the polish war cemetary, after the rebuilding of the religious building.

Google Ngram: Useful or Useless?

One of the newest editions to Google brand, is the word counting tool Ngram, it has the ability to search their database of books  and tell us the frequency in which words appear. It is able to tell us how many times per thousand a single word appears, now this all seems like hocus pocus, and it most probably is but what interests historians is how this can be used with academic research. The program is very entertaining, it provides you with that “hmm interesting” moment. It is also able to process huge amounts of data which would take a human a life time to gather, but how useful is this really. I can see how these programs can be used by marketeers and other such professions, they would be able to recognise how words may be perceived or how recognisable or popular certain words may be. To as historian though, in its current form I am unable to see how it can be considered academically useful, most of the time I search terms in relation to current historical projects, I only end up reaffirming what I could predict by knowing a few basic facts, for instance we can see that the Great War only became the First World War in the 1940’s and this helps us understand when people began to see the Second conflict becoming a World War, but this is nothing new. We do not need to count the words in a book to see changes in people’s perceptions, we can gather this information from more reliable sources.

World War, Great War search

Google Ngram also has its drawbacks in its reliability, The OCR system used has some flaws which cannot be ignored. In the lecture covering the new tool, the Lecturer uses the example of “Fuck” and “Suck”, showing us a graph which looks to show the word “Fuck” being used relatively frequently in pre-1900s literature, before dying out in 1850 or so and coming back into use in 1960, however what we are really shown is the Ngram  OCR system  misjudging the use of the long “F” instead of an “S” in 19th century literature. This highlights how the OCR can in fact misinform us and make us see a pattern or shift in language which has a completely different motive to what we could presuppose. Another drawback would be that it only uses the written word, and in this sense when looking at 19th century literature, we are only seeing what an elite part of the population has read. There was still low literacy rates and so it would be difficult to generalise shifts in ideas or changes in language which encapsulate the total population. For these reasons I feel the Google Ngram reader in its current form has minimal uses for historians, and until the OCR is reformed and until we can refine searching or create a phrase searching system then for academic historians i see it being nothing more than another form of procrastination. I mean don’t get me wrong, the system is amazing, every good idea has to start somewhere and this could be the transition phase for a project which could change the way we look at books and literature. However until we really find an essential use for this tool it remains a toy thing for Google, who seem to create things just because they have the money and brain power to do it. They are even in the process of producing a driver-less car, believe it or not which highlights the diverse nature of their business, it seems they are becoming a multi-national with a proverbial ‘finger’ in every pie. The success of this project is yet to convince me, I feel a more in-depth look at how it works and what others have been able to deduce from these graphs and figures may help me change my mind.


A Digital Historian

This is my first attempt at creating a blogpost and I suppose I should inform you as to how i got here. I am currently studying towards a History degree at Hertfordshire University. Whilst applying for university I had my heart set on a sport psychology course, with a vision of becoming a world class football coach, a dream which changed with the realisation that it was a sector which had very little oppurtunity for work. Being that the benefits of a degree in the area would not give advantage over experience. So here I am having chosen a more academic degree to pursue, after two years of student life, with seemingly unendless research and referencing of essays I have finally found blogging to be a useful part of my degree. One of the current modules I am studying is focussed upon Digital History, a subject I am a complete novice in. In this blog I shall inform you as to how I am finding the course, and will try to educate you with the information I have been learning. It seems strange to be able to speak in first person when writing for a university course, but that is the beauty of blogging in relation to a degree. It seems to give you a different use for your research, one where you can be formal and create an unedited view of the world. No need to proofread or be critical of writing style. Its a freedom which can only be realised when you enter this online world of history. But this is also the downside of using internet sites and blogs in relation to projects, they do not give you that aire of reliability that comes with a dusty book found in the darkest corners of a library. For instance I could say that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1966, and some unsuspecting amatuer historian could take that for being truth, not to say that I would be using this to mislead on misinform but I am just highlighting a point. However for this module we are actively encouraged to find and analyise these online resources we are told to stay well away from. This course seems to have engaged me thoroughly with the technology available at your fingertips. I would recommend it to any current or future history undergrad as I see History having nowhere else to expand, other than onto the internet and this really represents the future of History research and projects. With the explosion of crowd sourcing on websites such as wikipedia and history pin I really can see the beginings of a rise in popularity of History online.

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