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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Digital Revolution and the Problem of Context

As a scholar and teacher working at a small university with a limited library, I embrace the worlds that the digital revolution has opened for both researchers and students. The growing array of digitized sources, from political documents to personal letters, and from art to vintage advertisements, has provided a multiplicity of new avenues for creative assignments that engage history students with primary source materials. And for a scholar who slogged through countless rolls of microfilmed newspapers for my first book on holidays, the ability to do full text searches in historical newspaper, magazine, diary, and letter databases is sheer heaven.

Despite all this, I have some reservations about the digital cornucopia. For one thing, the serendipitous find while plodding through a diary or reels of microfilm has been (virtually) eliminated. As a historian, however, I worry most about the loss of both historical context and what might be called the physicality of history. To take the second issue first, just as art historians know that looking at a digital image is nothing like looking at the actual work of art, so looking at a digitized diary or dress is a poor substitute for holding said artifact in one’s hands. I can show my students dozens of digitized calling cards, but it just doesn’t provide the same glimpse into Victorian lives as would seeing and handling the actual cards in the scrapbooks where women pasted them next to other mementoes.

The scrapbooks begin to provide the material context of these historical artifacts. There are many wonderful web sites that do include a good deal of physical, historical, and/or contextual information on their digitized images, but there are, nevertheless, countless digital “orphans” out there as well. Moreover, the methods of online searching can easily slight historical context. For instance, when I can full-text search to find every mention of birthday or wedding gifts in a group of diaries, this is a boon to my research on gift giving. Yet it has the potential to privilege quantity over quality and insight into the larger context of lives. Why did Daniel give Edna a gift for her birthday? Who was he, and how did he fit into Edna’s life? Was he a beau, a brother, a neighbor? Why did he give one kind of gift and not another? To begin to answer such questions, we have to read well beyond the paragraph on Edna’s birthday gifts.

As a professional historian, I am, of course, much better equipped and more motivated than my students to fill in the context of my digital sources, and I also have more opportunities to study actual documents and artifacts. My conference paper will explore some ways to introduce more opportunities for students to experience the physical side of history, as well as ways to help students restore some of the historical context to digital “orphans.”

Ellen Litwicki
SUNY Fredonia

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