During the month of May, Bill Turkel wrote a series of provocative posts about what digital history is and isn’t. Given how busy I’ve been, I’ve only just now gotten to those posts and I would argue that they should be required reading for historians–not just digital historians.
In particular, the second post in the series, which focuses on information costs and the swelling ocean of historical information that will inundate our profession over the next couple of decades, raises issues that we all need to grapple with. As of today, the historical information that is available online is still idiosyncratic, but within two decades it will, as Bill writes, reasonable to assume that the vast majority of historical archives in the developed world will be online and searchable.
When that happens, the only way that historians are going to be able to grapple with this ocean of content will be something that we might call computational history–Bill likens this concept to bioinformatics.
What Bill has in mind is not the same thing as the quantitative history of the 1970s when so many historians believed that access to mainframe computers would generate new insights into old data. To be sure, quantitative analysis will be part of the new computational history, but only a part. As Bill points out, “Having nearly frictionless access to vast amounts of source material makes it possible to undertake projects that hinge on attested, but very-low-frequency evidence.” When we have virtually full access to virtually all the material in virtually all the archives in the developed world, we are going to have to have new analytical tools for working with that data–tools that we’ll have to develop in collaboration with colleagues in the computational sciences. In addition, we’ll find ourselves faced with all sorts of data mashups that will constantly reinvent the way that data is used and understood.
For more on the development of some of the technical tools that will begin to make these new research methods possible, see Dan Cohen’s recent post on the “Million Books Workshop” at Tufts.
You may have noticed that I keep emphasizing “the developed world” here. That’s because I am not as optimistic as Bill that all the archives of the world will go online in the next two decades. I’ve been to archives in the developing world and they have more pressing concerns–keeping dry rot, looters, and squatters out of their facilities, being able to actually pay their staff, etc.
Because I think Bill is right in general about the unprecedented and almost frictionless access that we’ll have before I retire, I worry that historical study beyond the developed world will become ever more marginalized. It’s hard enough to do archival work in Cambodia, Bhutan, or Malawi today. Imagine what it will be like when places like these are essentially “off the grid.”