Discovering history and memory on the Web

A good piece by Allan Kulikoff in the latest Common-place, on Early American History on the web. It’s relevant beyond American history: for a start, his description of the process of tracking down source materials should be useful for teachers and students looking for useful online primary sources in any historical field. One thing that stands out is how surprised Kulikoff was at just how much he found:

The Internet contains everything from newspapers and magazines to travel accounts, from maps to sheet music, from woodcuts to oil paintings, from novels to critical essays, from the proceedings of governmental bodies to the intimate details of family life. Searchers can find materials on every imaginable topic: Civil War hospitals; the Salem witchcraft trials; Revolutionary and Civil War battles; proceedings of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the U.S. Congress; slave resistance; Indian battles; the abolition and proslavery movements; the beliefs and religious practices of Evangelicals and Unitarians; the Lewis and Clark expedition; westward migration; economic development and immigration; and the writings of Cotton Mather and Walt Whitman, to name but a few. In sum, there are far more primary sources on the Web than in public libraries (except the greatest) and community college libraries, though many fewer than in the libraries of research universities.

But, as the discussion shows, these can still be difficult to find. Information multiplies endlessly on the Web; we have rapidly gone from scarcity to abundance. But locating that abundance is often a hit-and-miss affair.

Moreover, there is a thoughtful rumination on what these primary sources, the choices made in digitising history, tell us about history and memory.

Putting materials on the Web is a time-consuming process: they must be discovered, digitized, indexed, and uploaded. Historians, archivists, librarians, curators, genealogists, and institutions like the Library of Congress all put historical sources on the Web. These individuals and institutions have competing interests and hold widely contrasting views of American history. As one looks in detail at Web primary sources, one senses great conflict and contests over the meaning of our past, over the historical memories they wish to sustain or suppress. Who holds the keys to our history—historians, archivists, preachers, politicians, ordinary citizens?

Kulikoff notes how – unsurprisingly – trends in historiography influence the sources put online. The unfashionable, such as ‘quantifiable’ materials like probate inventories, doesn’t get as much attention as images and narrative texts. (Mind you, it doesn’t help that digitising sources like these in a way that will be of real use for quantitative analysis is one of the hardest tasks going: it’s easy to put images of manuscript sources online, but converting them into searchable texts or databases is difficult, labour-intensive and expensive; and you can’t just dip a toe in the water: you’ve got to do them en masse.)

The long 18th century is well represented online, which reflects its popularity among various different kinds of historically-engaged audiences – scholars in history, literature, art, philosophy, as well as on the ‘popular’ side, from re-enactors to Jane Austen fans to the political commentariat scrapping over what the Founding Fathers really thought. It’s distant enough to be intriguing yet not so distant as to be utterly alien, and its cultural and political legacy makes it always relevant to present concerns. (And I’m sure there are many more reasons.)

This is not a bad time for historians to be giving more thought to these issues. The Web has achieved some maturity as a serious academic resource, although on the technical side there’s a long way to go. It seems strange to me that you can still encounter people whose understanding of what’s available seems not to have changed since about 1995 (I don’t know whether this is a failure of outreach or whether these are just the unreachable); still, the dinosaurs are in the minority.

Nonetheless, there are many historians who need to become more savvy about how to make history digital; what is possible and may become possible, how to get it done, how to get the money to do it. Learn these skills and you have the opportunity to influence public perceptions of your field as well as contributing to scholarly research.

Digital History: a few Essential Resources

Digital History: a guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web (also in dead tree format)
Digital History Hacks – Bill Turkel’s indispensable blog
Center for New Media and History
Dan Cohen

X-posted, slightly revised, from Early Modern Notes.

3 responses to “Discovering history and memory on the Web

  1. Sharon, thanks for putting up this very useful post.

    I’m running some college-wide discussions about undergraduate research right now, and a university like ours really needs to know how to use these kinds of digital resources if it wants students to do this kind of work. This means educating faculty (like myself) as much as educating our students about these kinds of resources.

    I’ll be passing this along to our historians as well as our librarians.



  2. Thanks for posting this. How is your project moving along? One of the most useful “digitization” projects for my own work has been the Old Bailey Online. What a wonderful resource, not only for the empiricists, but also for the cultural historians!

    As Dave said, the ability to navigate digital archives is an important skill for students and faculty alike. And they’re only getting more sophisticated. At some point, though it’s not our century, try the European Navigator, an online collection of documents relating to the history of the EU.

    All Best,

  3. Both our projects are going well – the 19th-century CCC proceedings (finish off the Old Bailey online through to 1913) and Ordinary’s Accounts (which cultural historians are going to love) are well on the way and will go online in about 6 months’ time. The 18th-century project is nowhere near as far along, but what’s good is that the transcription process is going far, far better than we’d expected. Lovely lovely texts ready for markup…