Searching for the right word(s)

This weeks readings have left me in a very contemplative mood. While the topics (databases, digitization, search-ability) were very practical, I am thinking about the theoretical implications of the field. I found myself questioning and examining my own basic understandings of the history and what a historian is and does. Taking that thought process a step further, I thought about the field of history as a whole and where it could be in 10, 20, 50 years.

I found Lara Putnam’s statement in  The Transnational and the Text‐Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast about source anchoring interesting. She outlines how in the past, historians have been anchored both by the availability of their sources and to the places where they could access them. Having grown up with the computer and the digital age, as well entering the field of history recently, I never experienced that. The limitation that geography played in the type of scholarship that could be produced is intriguing to me. The change of accessibility to sources not only allows for greater ease wit historians but also allows more historians access to those documents. Then to connect this with Caleb McDaniel’s article The Digital Early Republic ,the field needs to cite the digital documents in their writings. It is sad that a historian utilizes the digital resource for a document but does not give that digital document credit in their footnotes. Instead they cite the physical document (I am guilty of this as well.) This vast accessibility needs to be recognized and given credit.

The next step in this process is to establish some sort of system to present the work the historian did in the digital resource. In the hard sciences they speak so much of repeatability. We should, as historians, attempt to present our research in a way that someone can repeat the process and arrive at the same results. McDaniel’s example of repeating the same search in the same database as Caroline Winterer yet he came up with 300 more hits is an issue that needs addressing. We should seek after the rigidity in citation that our footnotes have within the digital resources as well.

In connection to accessibility is our understanding of what the digital resource is. James Mussell in his article Doing and Making: History as Digital Practice articulates how we view these digital resources as tools. In this way we often ascribe them a secondary nature to the original document. In doing this, historians as well as the general public can under value or under sell the digital. Towards the end of his article he states “[I]f digital resources (and what researchers do with them) are understood as constitutive parts of the framework through which historical objects become primary sources, then digital technologies and methods become part of historical studies more broadly.” I must say that I am one that views digital resources more as a tool. However, as Dustin Hoffman would say as Captain Hook in Hook, “I just had an apostrophe…lightning just struck me brain.” Suddenly I could see the digital resource as part of the primary source. No longer just “useful for access or analysis but unworthy of study in their own right.” I am then brought back to Mussell’s discussion of viewing the document as data. I thought that, that section was very interesting. Understanding that the document, while important in its own right, provides data that is just as important and of high value. That we need to “defamiliarize” ourselves with the digital form in order to see how we can use it more fully. I highly recommend reading this article.

This blog post seems more like I am wandering through my thoughts rather than engaging the reading fully. However, this represents my reaction to the readings. I was left at a theoretical crossroads for how I understand the digital resource, the importance of repeatability and standardized documentation, and about the digital document as more than a tool. These readings really pushed my boundaries for digital history and digital humanities.


Searching for the right word(s)
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