While my reaction to last week’s readings was to focus on some of the negative aspects of digitization, this week’s readings opened up some benefits of digitization and new media that I had not previously considered. The use of new media has often been recognized as, at least to some extent, democratizing history by allowing a wider audience access and the ability to interact with history, not the least of this being thorough the widespread digitization of primary sources. Several of this week’s readings, however, highlight other ways in which the use of digitization, databases, and keyword searches have broken down barriers in research practices.
In his article on the role of digital history in re-formatting historical knowledge, Timothy Hitchcock points out the role of digitization and key word searches in decreasing the hard lines between disciplines with the result that “historical conferences are becoming more literary, and literature conferences are becoming significantly more historical.” As Hitchcock points out, the ease of keyword searches makes it possible for historians and other scholars to quickly and profitably engage with the corpus of work available digitally in other disciplines that is related to their work. This provides increased context on all sides without requiring significant additional inputs of time and research, greatly improving the end product through tangential research that would have been prohibitive in the analog age.
This idea is similar to the idea of “side-glances” as described by Lara Putnam in her article covering the intersection of transnationalism and digital history. For Putnam, the rise of digitized sources, and especially key word searches, has been instrumental in helping historians discover connections across national boundaries. What once would have been an impossible effort to chase down intriguing leads and scattered connections is now the matter of minutes of work at a computer. This digitization “makes whole new realms of connection possible,” with the end result of a sea change in the way historians, and especially transnational historians, do research.
A large part of this is digitization’s role in making what Putnam describes as “fishing expeditions” cost-reasonable. In the pre-digital age researchers were forced by the constraints of time and money to focus on archive visits to locations where they KNEW they could find usable material; with the digitization and searchability of increased numbers of archival sources these expeditions are now possible and even imperative.
The use of key word searches has also reduced the institutional bias that both Putnam and Hitchcock noted in the use of traditional archives. Archives, predominantly speaking, are the product of organizations and states, and have thus embedded into the sources most valued by historians a bias towards the perspectives of institutions and the organization of history around nation-state boundaries. The use of digitized key word searches allows historians to see past this by developing connections not visible in analog archives.
This is not to say that key word searches and database are without their pitfalls, as noted in many of both this week and last week’s readings. Some of these issues, as pointed out by Patrick Spedding, are not related to the failures of OCR or other technology, but to the nature of the sources themselves. Taking the example of his own research in 18th century references to condoms, Spedding points out the usefulness of peripheral text searches, using a combination of terms related to the original search topic to turn up sources unmarked by the original term. While Spedding used this mainly to get around the 18th century reticence in mentioning sex topics, this technique can also be applied to help alleviate some of the errors caused by OCR mistranslations, although at the risk of creating many more false positives while uncovering a small number of false negatives.
For all of the benefits deriving from the “digital turn” and the digitization and searchability of sources, it remains a tool for historians like all of their other research techniques. And like their other tools, historians must recognize the drawbacks and flaws inherent in the use of key word searches, while making the most of the new opportunities they provide.