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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


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