Thoughts on the Digitisation of resources for Historians


In September 2011 I entered Maynooth University as a first year history student. In my mind I envisaged that the three years which lay ahead of me would involve many hours trawling through volumes of dusty old books in darkened archives at the far reaches of the beautiful and historic Russell Library. The stereotype of a history lecturer who was as old and dusty as the history and books being studied was firmly in my mind, albeit slightly exaggerated for my own romantic purposes, and seeing history as the study of the past I expected, and hoped, it would be conducted primarily by examining and using the tools of the past. The study of history through stacks of old books and manuscripts was an experience I was looking forward to embracing, allowing those in other fields to pursue their studies using laptops, e-books and other tools of the expanding Digital Age. Yet within weeks of my first lectures one particular assignment would quickly turn my thoughts towards the advantages of digital resources in history. That October I was set an assignment to review an online digital resource, a website called The Valley of the shadow: Two communities in the American civil war.

The Valley of the shadow was an idea conceived in 1991 and although meant for publication as a book, it developed as a digital resource before going live in 1993, an early example of a digital history resource. It resembles in presentation a traditional archive with depositories of contemporary letters, diaries, images and newspapers from two communities on opposite sides during the American Civil War. It does not however remain silent, as would a traditional archive, as it does contain what Cohen and Rosenzweig call ‘implicit interpretation of the materials’, so while the site resembles an archive it may be better described as an edited collection. However it still functions as a valuable collection of source material which allows the user to study independently primary sources as part of their own research.

In constructing the site this way the project allowed the user to enter an archive that looked familiar in the traditional sense, but the site had several of Cohen and Rosenzweig  seven qualities of new digital media such as capacity, containing ‘tens of thousands of newspaper articles, 1,400 letters and diaries, full census records from 1860, 45 Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps, and more than 700 photographs and images’ (Cohen and Rosenzweig), which would have required vast volumes in printed form. The digital format provided global accessibility for an audience who otherwise may not have had access to these historical documents, and it also provided flexibility and options for content such as the ability to add sound and video files. For this student it opened up the possibilities which digitisation can provide for much wider access and utilisation of primary source materials.

In the following years of my undergraduate degree a lot of time followed my pre-conceived method of studying history, whereby many hours were spent in Ireland’s National Archives in Dublin. Opening boxes containing 17th century land grants with the seal of King Charles II provided a great thrill to a budding historian, yet it also made me consider the condition and availability of these resources. While these documents were well maintained, many came with archivist notes attached which rightly highlighted the care needed to be taken with such old, valuable and irreplaceable resources. It also reminded me that while my topic and these documents may have been of interest to many historians, they were only accessible by attending the National Archives personally, and so access came at great expense to those based outside of Dublin and indeed Ireland. I began to consider what resources lay scattered in various archives I myself was unable to access, and furthermore if I was able to access these archives would my physical handling of these resources contribute unwittingly to their deterioration for future historians?

With these concerns in mind digital resources such as the The Valley of the shadow seemed to answer a great need. This digital format allowed global access to these documents, while the ability to study a digital version allowed the original documents to lie in a more constant state of preservation. The Valley of the shadow therefore stood as an early example of what Roy Rosenzweig set out to accomplish with the establishment of the Digital Public Library of America: “To use digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”

Yet in the digital format, by which the user can quickly search archives and collections by using keywords to access targeted information, might the digital historian be in danger of missing a greater narrative? Might information be missed or misrepresented in the digitization process, but still be contained without interpretation within those dusty old archives? Might digitization result in a field of study overly reliant on resources which Cohen and Rosenzweig pointed out can contain ‘implicit interpretation’? In The Human Presence in Digital Artefacts, Alan Galey opens with a passage from a letter by Erasmus to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

‘The reader wanders at leisure over smiling fields; he plays and runs and never stumbles; and he never gives a thought to the time and tedium it has cost me to battle with the thorns and briars, while I was clearing the land for his benefit. He does not reckon […] how great the discomforts that secured his comfort, how much tedium was the price of his finding nothing tedious.’

While Erasmus writes of the lack of appreciation for the extent of his work, his research and his editing, the passage also reveals his work had removed what he considered tedious material. This passage shows that as Erasmus sought to produce a work to benefit the reader, ‘thorns and briars’ were removed and thus his work was an interpretation of a greater body of information. This is a long standing process of information management which Ann Blair identifies as the four S’s: storing, sorting, selecting and summarizing.

In conclusion, while digitization can allow for a great body of original sources to be made accessible and contribute to further study and preservation, it still involves a process of information management as described by Blair. Therefore while it may be argued that the digital resource can certainly be a valuable component to historical study, it must be noted that implicit interpretation may be present and that the ‘thorns and briars’ of the compiler may in fact be vitally important to another student of the information. The process of constructing and using digital editions, archives and collections therefore entails a great deal of consideration and responsibility.

Works Cited

Blair, Ann M., Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Yale, 2010)

Cohen, Daniel J, “The Digital Public Library of America, Me, and You.” Dan Cohen Blog, 05 March 2013.  Web. accessed 23 October 2014.

Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.  Web. accessed 22 October 2014.

Galey, Alan, The Human Presence in Digital Artefacts. Erasmus, letter to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. Web. accessed 23 October 2014.

 The Valley of the shadow: Two communities in the American civil war. Web. accessed 22 October 2014.