Outside the Wall

Cohen and Rosenzweig in their book Digital History, hit at one of the primary problems with modern historical research on the web: What they describe as potential positives—in terms of capacity, accessibility, and diversity can just as easily turn out to be negatives for historians in the digital era. As their first chapter clarifies, the “History Web” had grown exponentially since the book was published in 2006. Even the most mundane search can reveal thousands of hits, and can quickly overwhelm the researcher in the abundance of repetitive informational resources.

One has to know how to both ask the right questions and separate the wheat from the chafe of opinionated misinformation. I am reminded of another historian acquaintance, who (like many young PhD’s spends time working unrelated jobs) encountered a teen customer at his record shop looking for Pink Floyd’s classic 1979 album The Wall. As the young man perused the records, he finally worked up the gumption to ask my friend whether they had the album, to which he indicated it was there with all the rest of Pink Floyd’s catalog. Somewhat incredulous, the customer, replied that he had already looked under “W” for The Wall but could not find the album….

This exchange somewhat indicates the continued discrepancy between the internet’s potential capabilities and the ill-informed ways in which a supposedly tech-savvy generation surfs the web. In this case, it seems as if the teen was so intent on receiving the correct information from a Google type basic input (“The Wall” by Pink Floyd) that he lost sight of how the real world might collate the same information (alphabetically by artist).

While the internet has become the first place people go to find information, it has by no means replaced libraries and archives. A simple look at the copyright and page restrictions of Google books or the various pay walls established by the likes of Thomson Corporation and Pro-Quest make this more than evident.

At the same time, however, As Jo Fuldi and David Armitage point out in the book The History Manifesto, traditional historical research is “limited by the sheer breadth of the non-digitized archive and the time necessary to sort through it.” The ever-increasing prevalence of digital material allows for a “digitally structured reading…giving more time to counterfactuals and suppressed voices, realigning the archive to the intentions of history from below.”

The digital historian needs to bridge the gap between the plethora of archival material and the newfound preponderance of digital sources.


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