Adoption of “New” Media by Historians

Rob Townsend recently published some fascinating analysis of historians’ usage of digital content and tools. I think the overall takeaway message has to be unequivocally grim: historians are not, by any stretch of the imagination, actively engaging with new materials and methods. Before I dig into the study, let me say that any criticism which emerges is in no way directed at Townsend, who teases out a remarkable amount of valuable data from a group that comes across as not only reluctant to adopt technology but often deeply suspicious of it.

Townsend’s analysis is divided into three key areas: user type, tool usage, and online publishing. I’m just going to look at tool usage here since those results intersect most closely with my own research interests. That said, I’m going to do away with the original analysis’s categorization according to user type, which when represented graphically tends to paint a rosier picture of technology usage than is in fact the case.

The original chart

In the original chart, the tiny category of “power users” (less than 5% of the total survey) props up the chart bars all the way across the list. For example, their “social media” usage exceeds 30%. The effect is a chart that, while showing a decline in usage as technology becomes more sophisticated, obscures just how precipitous that decline actually is:

My revised version

We see here that the actual overall usage of social media is just under 6%.1 With the revised chart, we also find that technology usage breaks into three distinct categories. The first group includes: word processor (99%); library-supported databases (94%); online search engines (88%); online archives or primary sources (81%); and scanners/digital cameras (65%).

All of these tools find rather high levels of usage across the board, but then again, I imagine that so would things like “telephone” and “automobile.” Indeed one would be hard pressed to find anyone in higher education (or indeed in the developed world) who does not make at least occasional use of a word processor, a search engine, and a digital camera. Library-supported databases and online sources have been growing dramatically in recent years, but to date these have largely served as substitutes for traditional media. In other words it’s not at all clear that these last two resources have yet had any more transformative effect on historical scholarship than, say, “photocopier.” I think that we can all agree that these are not specialized tools in any sense at all.

The next category follows a steep drop in usage. Here we find: spreadsheets (37%); citation software (27%); and databases (25%).

While we’re now beyond the everyday, nothing here is particularly “new” in this “new media.” We’re talking about tools that have been widely available for not just years but decades. Are three-quarters of all historians really not using a database to organize any aspect of their research? And what about this “citation software”? What historian doesn’t use citations? Just over a quarter of this study’s respondents acknowledged any use of citation software, which has been around in a variety of really solid and usable forms for over a decade (and is often purchased institutionally by universities and supported by their libraries). Do historians really savor a hand-crafted Chicago footnote like some morsel of artisanally-cured salume? Yes, yes they do.

This last lack of adoption is so bizarre as to boggle the mind. If our colleagues elsewhere in the university had any idea that we as a discipline write our own citations, they would rightly think us insane. Sure it’s not particularly difficult to draft your citations manually, but it’s also not especially hard to write your manuscript longhand or to take notes on 3x5 cards or to make your own soap or grow your own food or build a fire from twigs.2 But shouldn’t we be investing our time more profitably, say, in reading things or writing things that can’t be computer-generated in an instant?

Returning to the survey results, after another dramatic decline in usage, we find: statistical analysis software (9%); Geographical Information Systems (7%); social media (6%); and text-mining software (1%).

Now we’re in the zone of tools that are quite clearly barely used at all, but this is also finally the area that really seems to include newish things, excepting of course stats packages, which in a cool finding Townsend discovers older historians are more likely to use.3 Still, I have to wonder what 6% of historians are doing with social media in their research and writing. While it’s a little disturbing — though not particularly surprising — that the vast majority of historians remain resistant to new technology, I would be extremely interested in learning more about what this tiny minority is doing with these tools and what kind of scholarly value they’re deriving from them.

  1. I don’t have access to the raw data set, so my chart figures may be slightly off. []
  2. Okay, the fire is tough. []
  3. No doubt a sort of Stockholm Syndrome resulting from the trauma of quantitative history []

38 thoughts on “Adoption of “New” Media by Historians

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  29. mIke o'malley

    I’m ever astonished at this, myself but I have to say that I still do the footnotes by hand. I never figured out how to get zotero to do it in a way that I could use. Now clearly that’s my fault, not zotero’s. But there you are–in most respects I was an early adopter and a heavy user of digital tech. It’s just a question of relative time value–will the time required to learn this new medium cost me more than it saves me?

    But it’s a not a field people go into because they love innovation, it’s a field people go into because they watched “dead Poets society.” Most historians HATE innovation, witness the zombified corpse of the academic conference, still staggering around looking for brains.

  30. Shane Landrum

    Here’s the thing: most citation software does a really, really poor job of handling historians’ idiosyncratic, hyper-detailed citation styles. Print sources are pretty standard, but manuscripts and special collections have huge variation: letters, diaries, typescripts, photographs, etc all get cited differently, and different collections need different levels of citation detail. No citation software I’ve found handles this well, especially for those of us who don’t want to be tied to MS Word. (At the moment, I use a combination of Bookends and Zotero.)

    I’m intrigued by the high percentage of users for digital photos, since every historian I talk to seems to have a different idea about what to do with them, and we’re all struggling to figure out the best tools for working with gigabytes of material we bring back. I know what I do (and I’ve written about it, but I’d love to read more about the practicalities of what other people do.

  31. Sean Post author

    Shane: I think we’re on the same page. For many archival and other idiosyncratic citations, I often write notes by hand, though these are usually extremely brief, e.g. “AN T/391/2″ or something. But for the hundreds of notes in any book manuscript that refer to standard, published journal articles and books, it’s just plain crazy to type “Shane Landrum, Really, Really Poor Jobs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 22.” And then remember to shorten that to “Landrum, Really, Really Poor Jobs” when you cite again. Not to mention “Ibid.” And of then there’s generating a list of works cited. We can argue all day about edge cases, some of which may never be solved by software alone, but there’s still no reason not to eliminate a major time sink. I suspect that historians feel productive when writing citations, the way that I feel productive when I clean my office, which is to say, not productive at all. It just provides the illusion of accomplishing something important.

  32. Sean Post author

    Mike: The larger cost of not using something like Zotero is not having one’s research in a database. Automated citation generation is convenient, but being able to organize endlessly and full-text search notes and documents is pretty much essential, at least for me.

    I like all this talk of zombie historians and brains as we approach Halloween. You’ve given me a great idea for a costume: “Zombie AHA Panelist.” Also, have you seen Dead Poets Society lately? It’s appalling, truly appalling.

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