Googling History: The AHR Explores Implications of Using Digital Sources for Historians

The April issue of the American Historical Review inaugurates a new listing of digital primary sources. This feature serves as a preliminary guide to freely accessible online collections that will grow with each issue. We encourage readers to use this form to submit their own favorite digital primary-source archival collections for listing in future issues. As Lara Putnam argues in her article “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast” in the same issue, historians should be more aware of the implications of using these kinds of sources for the stories we tell about the past.

Lichtenstein1Discovery, a central part of the historian’s craft, has undergone singular transformation in the past two decades. While good historical practice will always involve assiduous research that requires physical presence in archives and libraries, the instant and ubiquitous availability of vast digitized primary source collections has changed the window through which we view past cultures. Libraries, archives, and their classificatory systems are research apparatuses that impose order on discovery. But that order is embedded in the history of a region or nation. Digital search can bring into effect an entirely different logic.

The “digitized turn,” as Putnam dubs it, “is one that all historians . . . are enacting.” The turn has happened without us theorizing the transformation of our research practice or fully understanding the implications of these fundamental changes. Keyword searching is rarely as straightforward a process as most of us think. The search terms chosen, the algorithm driving the search, the quality of the underlying data (often hidden from the searcher), and even the date of the search all have significance for what the historian discovers. As the literary scholar Ted Underwood argued in Representations in 2014, search plays an “evidentiary role in scholarship.”

Deep historiographical thinking on issues raised by mass digitization and keyword searching is long overdue. Putnam approaches the question with a focus on transnational histories, which she observes are, not coincidentally, “accelerating simultaneously with [the] digital turn.” Putnam’s argument, however, is relevant for all historians who use digitized primary source material. To provide just one of Putnam’s instructive examples, newspapers and other periodicals make up a large portion of digitized primary sources, so topics covered in these media become “disproportionately visible.” Putnam pursues the reverberations of these types of changes in greater depth, showing how this changes the stories we tell.

To encourage readers to think about these issues, and enable open debate on the questions posed in Putnam and the “Reviewing Digital History” AHR Exchange (February 2016), we have made these articles and the “Digital Primary Source” listing free and open to the public for the next 60 days. We look forward to a lively discussion.

AHA Members: To access the full text of articles, start at historians.org/myaha, then log in with your e-mail address and password. On the MY AHA page, click the link under AHA Publications for American Historical Review at Oxford University Press. Next, click Continue to American Historical Review. On the Oxford site at ahr.oxfordjournals.org you’ll see Institution: AHA Member Access at the top and can access all content.

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  1. Richard Brainard

    I am a historian that mainly produces my work on the Internet through my websites. It is necessary for me because I do not have access to the normal Archives. Thus, it is an important resource for those of us that do not have said access like College professors.

    That being said, I provide material for students and fellow historians that cannot get them due to distance or inability to access the material they need.

    Reply