Archive for April, 2008

Digital History And All That Chaos

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

One of the articles I read was “Strange Facts in the History Classroom: Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wiki(pedia)” by Christopher Miller. Wikipedia has been a hot topic in every academic department since it became a popular resource. I think Miller’s approach to the subject is the most even keeled way to look at the matter. One major point he hits on is that it is not necessarily about Wikipedia or online sources, but the skills that the researcher has when evaluating and analyzing them that are most important. Just as with every source that a historian uses they must compare it to others and check its sources. I think the root of the problem lies in people’s fear of the internet as a whole and anonymity and ever changing face of it. Anyone can post online and say anything and this scares a lot of people and it raises many questions, e.g. who and what defines an expert or a scholar in a certain field?

            An important aspect of Wikipedia is that it is community moderated and as stated in the article Wikipedia tends to have just as many errors as any encyclopedia, which, is impressive given everyone’s fears about how it is not a trustworthy resource. I believe Miller’s approach to teaching his students about sources is a step in the right direction. We are no longer in an age where scholars are in charge of history and the way it is interpreted. Miller’s point was not just to discuss Wikipedia, but the changing face of scholarship in the twenty first century. Like I said before what is most important in all of this is the students develop a sort of digital fluency in dealing with this relatively new way of researching. Even more basic than that students need the fundamental skills of critical thinking and analysis, skills that are apparently just supposed to happen while you are a college. Some people can pick up skills like this intuitively and from lots of experimenting and practice, but I think we are doing students a great disservice by not addressing these issues head on and more than one class a semester.


While reading Barbara Weinstein’s “Doing History in the Digital Age” it was interesting to see some of the problems we read about in our book and some of the problems we actually faced while doing these project she too also faced. The digital age has made process more transparent. Questions of how and where do we store things especially for long term.

            Like Miller she also addresses the fact that it is not just about being digital and while this important we need to make sure we are not going with technology for technologies sake. When discussing money distribution for projects in the humanities she notes the unfair advantage projects that met certain digital guidelines had over those that did not, she states:

“In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, they would have to reduce the time and resources devoted to the crucial processes of transcription and tracking down references in order to ensure digital accessibility. The result would be a devaluing of an artisanal/scholarly process in favor of an industrial/technological mandate, with the likelihood that quality would be sacrificed.”

            This brings to mind the whole industrial knowledge of education and the standardized tests that plague the schools of our nation. In the abstract it looks like a good idea, but put into practice and in the long run it is helping very few people and probably hurting the overall cause. So, sometimes the question is raised, what is more important technological standards or quality? Now this doesn’t always hold true and it would be a false assumption to see these two on opposite sides of the spectrum, but this case shows us that we are not done answering all the questions the digital age has for us and it will be by thoughtful thinking, analysis and bit of trial and error that we determine answers for the digital age.


While reading this article I also thought about copyright issues and so this is a bit of a tangent. While ideally everyone would have access to everything published freely and easily the truth is money makes the world go round and when publishers already make small profits there isn’t much incentive to make items electronically available. So where is the balance and how can we get all this information that should be available to the public with little cost, but still maintain the systems that produces these books that we want to read? Personally, I think a lot of the issues come from the length of the copyright period. Right now copyright laws are skewed in favor of the copyright holders while the public has to wait a lifetime (and then some) to have open access to these sources. One of the most obvious solutions would be to limit the copyright term to something reasonable in which the copyright holder still can make money off of it, but people also aren’t at a disadvantage because of the wait period. This seems obvious to me (and probably to you) but we have that whole silly government that seems to not want to agree with popular opinion, its not like we are in a democracy or anything…oh wait. Well, like I said money makes the world go around and to quote one of the major corporations who has helped extend the copyright, “It’s a small world after all”.