Digital Media and Historical Research
John Sadberry, September 2009
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To the Editor:
The theme of the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History, “new media” and digital history, comes at an opportune moment in my academic career. As an undergraduate student of history and a late, self-reinventing entrant into the field, my academic future is entirely ahead of me and I’m poised to build my research upon the new media. I took particular interest in Stefan Tanaka’s well crafted article, “Digital Media in History: Remediating Data and Narratives,” since it touches on problems of the new digitally driven methods that are vital to my own approach to historical research. He laments the “more-better-faster” mindset that characterizes the information age and further laments a potential result of that approach, being the production of “longer monographs and essays over finer and finer points.” Tanaka gives us a hint of the solution to the problem, with the OLE (Open Learning Environment) classroom, which facilitates “broader connections” in the minds of student researchers. In this context, more-better-faster is weighted more toward betterment in production, without detracting from either speed or volume. If historians can view many more sources much more freely and in much less time than the “old” historian could, broader questions can be posed against those sources, not just narrower questions. We can more readily ascertain patterns in the data points because with the mere click of a mouse, we can shift seamlessly back and forth between multiple documents, from multiple sources, from multiple online archives. The kinds of questions that once required a lifetime of scholarship to explore can now, and should, be fodder for graduate students’ theses and dissertations. Ease of access to primary sources should not be an opportunity to breathe easy, but rather to match the efforts of our intellectual forebears by putting the same time and intensity into our own research, knowing that those efforts will pay even bigger dividends. This is the type of broad information absorption, along with equally broad questioning, that I believe should be the foundation of every future scholar and for anyone that would one day claim the honor of being called a doctor of history, and I certainly hope to count myself among them, I believe this to be the basis upon which the profession will remain relevant and respected in a world where information no longer comes at a very high premium.