(Hidden) Implications of Working in a Digital Environment

AHA Session 164
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Clinton Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Chad Gaffield, University of Ottawa
Chad Gaffield, University of Ottawa

Session Abstract

While digital history and the digital humanities are forming as a discrete field of study – witness panels at the American Historical Association, large digital humanities conferences, and job postings – this can sometimes obscure the methodological changes brought on by digital tools that are applicable to almost all practicing historical researchers. Historical work is increasingly mediated through discovery interfaces, the lens of a digital camera, bibliographical software, transforming the sort of scholarship that we can do. While historians realize that digitized sources are reshaping the sorts of projects that can be – instead of flying to an archive for research, we can often access it via the Internet Archive or the Hathi Trust – there are other implications that are less apparent.

These implications have impacts on how we conduct historical research and writing. Whereas twenty years ago, a scholar would find themselves reeling through microfilm or weighing the budgetary implications of visiting an archive on a potential wild goose chase, many can now work at computers and explore the ever-growing body of digitized historical material. Even when historians travel to archives, their work with primary documents is increasingly mediated through the lens of a digital camera or phone, creating personal digital archives which will be consulted upon return home. There has been some work done on this, but this dramatic shift to historical workflows is still largely understudied. Crucially, professional training of graduate students and other historians has not incorporated this. Our panel hopes to change this by beginning a conversation around how historical research is being reshaped in non-obvious ways.

Our panel, “The (Hidden) Implications of Working in a Digital Environment,” brings together scholars who will draw on their diverse historical backgrounds to tackle these questions. Each speaker will focus on a particular “big issue” that’s witnessing digital tools transforming the work of historians, digital and traditional alike. Lara Putnam discusses that while historians are now in the age of “overabundance,” with ready access to exploring historical sources at scale through digital tools, we are largely unprepared for this shift due to our disciplinal retreat from statistical training and quantitative analysis. Her presentation explores both the cost to this shift as well as how the historical worldview impacts our understanding of the digital environment. Drawing on a profession-wide survey of historians working in Canada, Ian Milligan explores how digital photography is impacting historical scholarship: how scholars create their photographic corpora, the pressures and lack of training under which they operate, and the uneven landscape of archival policies. Michelle Moravec explores the implications of how historians create their corpuses, and the ethical landscape that they encounter: from weighing the breaking of copyright regulations to the erasure of historical individuals through optical character recognition errors. Finally, the chair/commentator, Chad Gaffield, will provide connective tissue and mediate on the technological, methodological, and interpretive issues that are connecting these scholars’ work and that are confronting historians – all of us – in the digital age.

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