Historians in Digital Society

Our final section of our four part series takes everything we have discussed already – history, historiography, and the utility of history – and applies those ideas to the historian of the 21st century.  What has changed? What remains the same?

Today historians exist in a digital world, whether they like it or not.  Many consumers of history interact with it online in some way, be it academic or otherwise. History books can be found on Amazon or Chapter's websites and for e-readers.  Massive, online open courses are being created at universities around the world. “Twitterstorians” talk about history in 140 characters.  Students send their professors emails, rather than go to office hours, and some courses have an online system to post documents, lectures, or have discussions.  Many academics have opted to sign up for an academia.edu profile, effectively an online CV or academic Facebook.  H-Net has been a long running forum for email discussion of history.  Of course, some have started blogs.  Digital society seems to have grown up around us and suddenly we're all hooked in to the digital age.  This is not unique to historians, but certainly some professions have adapted far more quickly than we have.

So what does it mean to be a historian in a digital society?

Let's review what we've discussed over the last week and a half. We underlined the historian's role of trying to critically understand the past, but not judge it. Historians are scholars who have the skills to examine the sources that form our knowledge of the past.  Unlike non-historians, they have been trained to ask questions of the past and where to find answers.  They write books or articles which engage with a larger body of literature, asserting the authority and originality of their topic. Communicating the past to others is how it becomes a part of the collective memory of a larger group.  Historians help others accurately remember the past, sometimes through their publications, but more often through classes and public lectures.  In this way, we can understand how non-historians such as journalists, other academics, politicians, or writers act as historians – by discussing history in ways  that contribute to that collective memory, even if they aren't necessarily trained like historians to ask questions and find answers.

The digital world offers new ways to think about the craft of history. We have all the tools necessary to help fulfil our roles as historians.  We can find books and articles through Google Scholar or a variety of digitized primary sources. By searching for a title or author, we can find where they have been cited and parts of the literature that would have escaped our notice in the past (though readers should note that Google Scholar is not a depository for everything ever written, yet, so such searches should not be considered 100% reliable).  We can use computer programs to quickly and efficiently organize information.  There are programs which help us keep track of citations and footnotes, like Zotero.  We now use programs to track down plagiarism.  As we've mentioned here before, there are entirely new fields of history studying the digital world, which will only continue to grow.  How we, as professionals, do history is undergoing incredible changes.  History students of tomorrow will approach our craft in ways that we are just beginning to understand.  It is an exciting time for the study of history.

One of the areas we find most exciting is our ability to communicate with others about history online.  If you accept our premise that historians have a responsibility to communicate the past to others, then the digital age is a blessing. Communication has never been so integrated into our lives, let alone in such quantity.  The internet is accessible through computers and mobile phones anywhere in an urban area and almost anywhere in a populated area.  We send text messages, access Twitter or Facebook, browse websites, all through personal computing devices.  Most of us probably have not been more than 10 metres away from a computer for more than a decade at this point.  In 2013, we can talk to others all day, every day, without ever leaving our computer chairs.  This has had a drastic effect on our society, both negative and positive, but one which leaves historians in a unique position.  We can communicate history to hundreds if not thousands of individuals without ever leaving our office.  We can talk about the past with historians and non-historians alike through twitter, blogs, or email.  Contacting a historian across the globe who happens to be an expert in your field has never been easier.  Recently one of the authors of this blog participated in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit about Canadian history.  There, people from across the country and around the world could ask their questions about Canadian history to an expert.

Through sites like Reddit, the internet offers historians the ability to talk with individuals about history. They can do it in a one-on-one interaction, often on a far more personal level than what we encounter in lecture or office hours. Previously most encountered academic history in classes or, if they were supremely interested, in books they bought on their own. Historians in a digital society can directly interact with non-historians about the past, from anywhere in the world.  We can assert our authority to discuss the past, in ways that are more accurate than how journalists or politicians discuss it. But now, we have almost equal opportunities to engage with the public as journalists thanks to the digital age. Our position in the broader public discourse as authorities on history is one which seems to have gone out of style as of late, so the rise of the internet is an invaluable opportunity to engage with larger society about history once again.

Ultimately the world wide web is a place for historians to share their passion about history.  We can connect with others who are interested in it, from fellow academics, to someone who never understood that one lesson from high school history. The variety of ways we can communicate history online is constantly expanding.  We have already discussed on this site the increased amount of publications in digital formats.  Historical e-books are slowly but surely growing market.  Soon they will be another widespread and normal way for people to consume history, and like the rest of the digital medium, is place where historians must establish themselves.  If historians do not, then these areas will turn towards other conveyors of history, who sometimes do not have the training to properly discuss the past.  The historian of a digital society must have some responsibility to interact with the online world, if only to present the opportunity for others to engage with them.  Like so many office hours, maybe no students will show up, but it's worth sitting there in case one does.

Still, the digital world is not entirely transformative.  Historians still must pay close attention to archival sources, to paper books, and to real life encounters. Nothing short of the complete digitization of every archival source can replace a trip to Ottawa to visit Library and Archives Canada. It's hard to imagine a world where people aren't still reading paper books, if only for nostalgia's sake.  Historians will no doubt be reading printed books for many years to come.  Conferences, meetings, or other personal interactions with fellow historians can accomplish more in a few hours than days or weeks of twitter, blogging, and emails.  Even though we are firmly entrenched in a digital age, past methods have not lost their relevance.  By no means does digital society replace “analog society” (for lack of a better term). Instead, it enhances it.  It opens up new avenues to discuss and approach the past and our profession, some of which we have outlined today. These new roads are worth travelling down, but they do not mean we have destroyed the old ones.  They just intersect and cross in expected and unexpected ways.  Which road you travel will change depending on the circumstances and we are not arguing that some should be closed off for historians.  It's more important to keep all of these paths open and see where it takes us.  As it has always been, as long as historians are moving forward while looking back, we will be doing something worthwhile.