The Good and Bad of Digital Media

How can historians effectively use the Internet to enhance both their research and how they present that research to a wider audience? Daniel J. Cohen’s and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web attempts to answer this question by examining the potential possibilities and pitfalls digital media presents to historians. Within their introduction, Cohen and Rosenzweig define the seven major positive aspects of digital media as:

Capacity: Digital media gives historians the ability to exponentially expand storage space for object or archival research. This expanded space also allows archives and museums share collections not on display in their institutions with the public.

Accessibility: By using formats such as online exhibits, web sites, and digitized archives historians can reach larger academic or non-academic audiences than ever before.

Flexibility: Digital media has allowed historians to move beyond the use of text sources to include other forms of media such as sound and moving images.

Diversity: The openness of the web has given beginning, amateur, or hobby historians that may not be able to publish in scholarly journals an outlet to present their work to a broader audience.

Manipulability: The use of search engines lets historians search across broad swaths of sources in a short period of time, this makes the research process much quicker than only using print sources and microfilm.

Interactivity: By creating online sources, historians can directly and conveniently interact with a larger audience.

Hypertextuality: The broad scope of the web provides an expanded ability to move from narrative to narrative quickly.

These seven aspects of digital media remain particularly useful for historians because they expand our research options, broaden our audiences, and give us the opportunity to engage in direct conversation with other academics and the general public. In contrast to these positive aspects of digital media, the authors also warn historians of the more negative aspects of digital history, including:

Quality: Because of the openness of the web anyone can publish low quality or historically inaccurate work.

Durability: As technology rapidly changes, archivists struggle to keep track of and preserve born digital material.

Readability: Online scholarship can reduce the readability of articles by overloading readers with images and sound clips in addition to an already dense argument.

Passivity: Many of the more interactive components in digital history have trouble using the computer to detect “gray” areas.

Inaccessibility: Many scholarly databases only allow access to institutions able to pay the subscription fees. Also, there is a substantial “digital divide” between those who can and cannot access the Internet.

After Cohen and Rosenzweig detail some of the pros and cons of digital media within their introduction, they go on to give a history of the field that uses several links to web pages to illustrate advances made in historically relevant sites. This first chapter not only provides useful information on the history of digital media, but also provides more specific examples of the pros and cons discussed in the introduction.

Throughout the reading, I thought the authors most effectively demonstrated the positive side of digital media by noting the ability to increase public accessibility to history through the use of the Internet. By illustrating how online archives, exhibits, and articles, can provide both historians and the general public with access to historical materials that otherwise may have been unavailable to them, Cohen and Rosenzweig make a very persuasive argument encouraging the use of digital media. In regards to the darker side of digital media, the authors best argue that as corporations become more involved in history on the web, the accessibility praised above becomes limited. This seemed particularly relevant in regards to databases such as JSTOR or Project Muse that offer incredibly useful services, but only to those institutions that can afford to pay the hefty subscription fees. By illustrating both the pros and cons of digital media, and by providing a background of the digital history field, Cohen and Rosenzweig’s work helps technologically inept historians ground themselves in the basics of digital media.

To build on this week’s reading, I have included below three links that illustrate ways in which historians, archives, and museums, have used digital media to reach a broader audience. The first link to the Valley of the Shadow Project discussed in the reading illustrates how historians can use the web to bring their research to the general public. The next link to the National Archives Digital Vaults demonstrates how online programs can help archives reach K-12 teachers. Lastly, the National Museum of American History’s site on their collections illustrates how museums can use the Internet to show the general public larger parts of their collection unable to be displayed in the museum. Happy browsing, and please share a few of your own favorite history sites as well!

Valley of the Shadow Project

National Archives Digital Vaults

National Museum of American History

– Kelsey Fritz

4 Replies to “The Good and Bad of Digital Media”

  1. I'd like to focus more on the problem of "durability" in digital history. I can remember using a few sites a few years ago that, at some point, just disappeared from the worldwide web. It's clear that the Internet allows for significant strides in presenting research to wider audiences and with newer technologies, but what happens if that research is never put into print and isn't placed into some archive online that preserves the material for generations to come? That's what I worry about.

    Can you imagine what would happen if future historians were trying to look back for sources in our day and those sources existed at one point on a university server that was destroyed or damaged thus losing all that data? In my opinion, durability is one of our most important concerns as we move into the digital age.

  2. Thanks for the comment Dennis! I agree that durability is a substantial issue of digital media. What concerns me most is the fact that technology changes so quickly that items saved in one form may become inaccessible later (for example, how do you access items saved on floppy discs today?). However at this point since digital media is obviously not going anywhere, I think the best thing archivists can do is attempt to quickly adapt to new technologies and learn how to best preserve born digital materials.

  3. I would like to explore the positive and negative aspects of accessibility of sources. While pursuing my Master’s degree a couple of years ago, I took a research seminar class. The sources I located were not only housed at the Maryland Archives but were also available in digitized form through the Maryland Archives Online. On a positive note, this meant that the records were available to me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week enabling me to utilize them whenever I needed to without worrying about when the archives were open to the public or having to fill out forms, make appointments and justify your reasons for using the records. On the other hand, as I discovered there are also limitations to using digitized records. I found it difficult to locate specific information within the records by searching specific words – the information was limited by spelling discrepancies (phonetic spelling) and what the transcriber determined was important enough to include in the index. Attempting to read the records page by page also proved tedious because it took several minutes for each page to load. I am currently taking a research seminar (PhD level) and conducting research using an e-reader. While this makes reading the available records easier it does not allow me to print relevant records for later use. I would love to have the convenience of using my e-reader along with the ability to print relevant pages as allowed by some archival websites. Sometimes actually going to the source and using the actual “physical” records/sources is preferable.

    What does this mean for future generations? Will technology eventually provide the ability to read and print from e-readers taking the actual “physical” sources out of the equation? Or will historians and researchers always find it necessary or preferable to travel to the sites which house those records?

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