About ten thousand years ago, we were introduced to the phrase “time shifting” by a decade-long lawsuit over the right to use VCRs to tape TV shows for later viewing. Today’s DVR has of course made this process far easier and probably more widespread, but the idea remains the same: rather than watch something right now, with no snack breaks, we instead put it off until some later time. Other than the occasionally self-serving gripe about having “a lot of TiVo to catch up on,” time shifting is a settled and dead issue, a non-story. Or it would be, if it were not for the troubling case of historical research.
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. Continue reading
My colleague Mike O’Malley recently wrote an excellent blog post on rethinking historians’ use of evidence in the digital age. In an era where digitization and search tools have largely erased the evidentiary constraints that defined earlier scholarship, how should historical practices change?
Mike argues that digital abundance has rendered obsolete the litany of superfluous evidence that historians often deploy to bolster their arguments. Just a few years ago, limitations of of time, evidence, and access drove historians to lard their work with as many examples as possible, a “parade” that “demonstrated the historian’s triumph over scarcity.” Mike suggests that in the future, a historian might spend more time describing her “information architecture” than stacking up evidence like so much cordwood.
Although I am entirely guilty of the crimes Mike describes, I’ll plead for leniency by fully agreeing that more does not necessarily mean better. Moreover, I’ll add my worry that the new environment of abundance might actually compound the problem that Mike describes, rather than relieve it.