William J. Turkel: Digital history is changing how historians work

Jacques-Alain Miller has delivered unto us his thoughts on Google. In case the name does not signify, Jacques-Alain Miller is the son-in-law of the late Jacques Lacan and editor of his posthumously published works. He is not a Google enthusiast. The search engines follows “a totalitarian maxim,” he says. It is the new Big Brother. “It puts everything in its place,” Miller declares, “turning you into the sum of your clicks until the end of time.”...

For an informed contrast to Jacques-Alain Miller’s befuddled indignation, you might turn to Digital History Hacks, a very smart and rewarding blog maintained by William J. Turkel, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. (As it happens, I first read about Miller in Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution by one Sherry Turkle. The coincidence is marred by a slip of the signfier: they spell their names differently.)

The mandarin complaint about the new digital order is that it lacks history and substance, existing in a chaotic eternal present – one with no memory and precious little attention span. But a bibliographical guide that Turkel posted in January demonstrates that there is now extensive enough literature to speak of a field of digital history.

The term has a nice ambiguity to it – one that is worth thinking about. One the one hand, it can refer to the ways historians may use new media to do things they’ve always done – prepare archives, publish historiography, and so on. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) is the one handbook that ought to be known to scholars even outside the field of history itself. The full text of it is available for free online from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which also hosts a useful selection of essays on digital history.

But as some of the material gathered there shows, digitalization itself creates opportunities for new kinds of history – and new problems, especially when documents exist in formats that have fallen out of use.

Furthermore, as various forms of information technology become more or more pervasive, it makes sense to begin thinking of another kind of digital history: the history of digitality.
Impressed by the bibliography that Turkel had prepared – and by the point that it now represented a body of work one would need to master in order to do graduate-level work in digital history – I contacted him by e-mail to get more of his thoughts on the field.

“Digital history begins,” he says, “with traditional historical sources represented in digital form on a computer, and with ‘born-digital’ sources like e-mail, text messages, computer code, video games and digital video. Once you have the proper equipment, these digital sources
can be duplicated, stored, accessed, manipulated and transmitted at almost no cost. A box
of archival documents can be stored in only one location, has to be consulted in person,
can be used by only a few people at a time, and suffers wear as it is used. It is
relatively vulnerable to various kinds of disaster. Digital copies of those documents,
once created, aren’t subject to any of those limitations. For some purposes you really
need the originals (e.g., a chemical analysis of ink or paper). For many or most other
purposes, you can use digital representations instead. And note that once the chemical
analysis is completed, it too becomes a digital representation.”

But that’s just the initial phase, or foundation level, of digital history – the scanning substratum, in effect, in which documents become more readily available. A much more complex set of questions come up as historians face the deeper changes in their work made possible by a wholly different sort of archival space – what Roy Rosenzweig calls the “culture ofabundance” created by digitality.

“He asks us to consider what it would mean to try and write history with an essentially complete archival record,” Turkel told me. “I think that his question is quite deep because up until now we haven’t really emphasized the degree to which our discipline has been shaped by information costs. It costs something (in terms of time, money, resources) to learn a language, read a book, visit an archive, take some notes, track down confirming evidence, etc. Not surprisingly, historians have tended to frame projects so that they could actually be completed in a reasonable amount of time, using the availability and accessibility of sources to set limits.”

Reducing information costs in turn changes the whole economy of research – especially during the first phase, when one is framing questions and trying to figure out if they are worth pursuing....

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