Digital Do’s

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Everyone who is anyone is online! But I do not know which millennials they polled, does anyone really use Yahoo anymore?

What has the digital world done for history? It has revolutionized the way historians work.

Most of that work happens at a place called Google, this company has been way ahead of the curve at developing online projects that are particularly useful to historians like Google Books and the Google Newspaper Archive. Projects like those are good for other digital projects, but they are also good for old fashioned print projects as well. As Dan Cohen noted, “the existence of modern search technology should push us to improve historical research. It should tell us that our analog, necessarily partial methods have had hidden from us the potential of taking a more comprehensive view, aided by less capricious retrieval mechanisms which, despite what detractors might say, are often more objective than leafing rapidly through paper folios on a time-delimited jaunt to an archive.” Google is, of course, good for individual research and projects, but “the scale, expertise, and investments required in large (and smaller) digital history projects can also help develop historians into better team players.” (Galarza) The internet and digital history allow us to “do more, reach more people, store more data, give readers more varied sources; we can get more historical materials into classrooms, give students more access to formerly cloistered documents, hear from more perspectives.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig)

But how does all of this information get online? A significant portion is the digitization of analog records. Virtually all archival and history related fields have undertaken a scanning project of some scale. The scanner has become a standard piece of office equipment, but “if you are contemplating a digitization project, you need to consider those costs soberly and what they might mean for you or your organization.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig) Staff time is extremely valuable, typically stretched thin, and often the most significant expense. When scanning comes into play “Steve Puglia of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration calculates that only one-third of the costs in digitization projects stem from actual digital conversion; an equal third goes for cataloging and descriptive metadata and the final third is spent on administrative costs, overhead, and quality control.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig)

Once you get all of your documents scanned, then what? Well we have seen many examples this quarter of what different institutions have done with their digital collections. Some of the excellent ones include Valley of the Shadow, Washington State Digital Archives, Polar Bear Expedition, and September 11th Digital Archive. All of these have some amazing collections and contribute significantly to historians’ research abilities. These projects are difficult to complete as we read in Blevins’ blog post and Krause and Yakel’s article. How do you organize a physical archival collection on the internet when the possibilities are only limited by your budget? Not always well, as it turns out. Many of these websites “lack the kind of flexible, horizontal experience that has become a hallmark of today’s online user experience.” (Blevins) This does not make them useless but there can definitely be difficulties when navigating the digital world.

Historians are not simply on the receiving end of digital projects. Many contribute to digital history through blogs like Dr. Cebula, Historiann, and Dan Cohen. These blogs are informative, interesting and inspiring for young historians who need to push the envelope in regards to digital projects to increase the quality of what’s out there online (see: Get the History Right). The increase in technology and the decrease in price means that we have a variety of ways we can contribute to digital history. Podcasts, vlogs, YouTube channels, and the list goes on. We truly are only limited by our imagination, and historians need to be proactive before “we fail to embrace the new opportunities to reach a public that is hungry for history, and others fill the vacuum.” (Dr. Cebula)

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