What I’m about to say is probably near heresy in the digital history world, and the irony that I’m talking about it on a blog has not escaped me. But I have to say that the mass-digitalization of history may be a mixed blessing. There are some good pints, but also some bad, and the rosy future of digital history which Edward L. Ayers paints in his article is, in my opinion, a far cry from reality.
Online, word-searchable digital databases are a historian’s dream. Yet, Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss the future possibility of having every new written record, spoken word, photograph, song, speech, and so on being saved digitally for future generations to search and see. The thought of having almost everything saved is both exciting and frightening; it will simultaneously make the job of future historians exponentially easier and exponentially difficult. Can there be such thing as too much information. And, as the authors point out, the mind-boggling extent of digital storage space can also lead to a large amount of fakes and frauds in terms of sources, many of which already exist on the web.
Even scarier is the thought of fake and fraudulent historians taking over the web, which Marshall Poe rightly discusses. Anyone can say anything on the web, and Poe writes how “that may sound wonderfully democratic, but it also may spell trouble.” Easy accessibility to sources means more people can have access to historic documents and archival holdings. In the same way that blogging has made everyone a pundit and citizen journalist, the internet can make it easier for anybody to become a citizen historian. Will there be wiki-history?
Yet, no doubt, even though there are some bad things, digital history also presents many benefits which should not be ignored. Despite its flaws, which Robert Townsend identifies, Google books presents a future of easy book searches for historians. The digitized books really do need publication information, though, which is often frustratingly lacking.
The Library of Congress’ American Memory website is also an example of beneficial and proper uses of digital history. Because the site has been created by the LOC, the accuracy and validity of what’s on it should be guaranteed. Searches yield a wide variety of sources which can help any historian, including Congressional records, Presidential papers, WPA interviews, photographs, and maps. National, state, and local sources can be found- I even turned up maps of my own hometown with a simple search.
The future of digital history presents us with many good things, but also many bad things. In the end, the ratio of good to bad will rely on how the resources are used, and also on the historical literacy of a rising citizen-historian population, which will be born along with digitalization and easy access. That area, of course, can be influenced and improved by public historians and educators.
Cohen and Rosenzweig: http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/introduction/