Historians and the Technologies of Research

Robert B. Townsend, October 2017

Editor's Note: This article is the first of a two-part series analyzing historians’ use of digital technologies in their research. As digital tools proliferate in our discipline, it’s important to gauge which of them we use and why, what kind of support we receive from our institutions to do so, and what sorts of tools might most benefit historical research in coming years. The second article in the series will explore attitudes toward various forms of publication.

Age generally wasn't a factor in historians' use of technology. dschap/Pixabay As Lara Putnam observed in the American Historical Review last year, historians over age 40 have experienced a revolution in the way they do their work, thanks to the introduction of seemingly mundane digital tools (including online search tools and bibliographies as well as digital cameras).1 While research and writing practices have changed, Putnam notes that only a small portion of the professoriate is using digital tools to open up new areas and new forms of research. A recent survey of history department faculty backs up those assertions: even as historians seek and assemble their information in new ways, their work is still largely limited to traditional documentary evidence.

The survey was sent to a sample of historians listed in the AHA’s Directory of History Departments in fall 2015; 1,266 historians responded. The responses represent a cross-section of faculty (cutting across all generations, ranks, and specializations) at four-year institutions. To track changes in the use of particular technologies for research and teaching, the survey largely replicated a set of questions sent to historians in 2010, providing two data points five years apart.2

The Technologies of History Research

In keeping with Putnam’s observations, some tools are nearly ubiquitous—almost all historians use library-­supported databases, online archives, and digital cameras (fig. 1). The increase after 2010 was largely due to a modest generational shift: almost every historian under age 56 reported using these tools.

But these were the only three categories in which more than 80 percent of surveyed historians reported that they used particular tools for research. Beyond these, there was a sharp drop-off in the adoption of other software and tools. Half of the respondents who had engaged in active research were using spreadsheet software, but fewer than 40 percent of historians reported using the other tool types surveyed, including citation software, databases, and image-editing software.

While the survey did not ask about the benefits of using particular software or tools, some respondents were voluble about the matter. One observed, “What I’m using now works quite well for my current needs, and I continue to learn new tricks with current software.”

The survey responses provided some evidence for a lack of institutional support for acquiring digital tools.

A small portion of the respondents indicated that they used a more advanced digital tool, such as text-mining software, geographical information systems, computer-­aided design, or statistical analysis software. In all, less than one in five reported using one of these types of software, and in almost all cases, they were using just one of the tool types offered. As a handful of respondents observed, their “use of software is problem-driven,” which seemed to reflect a key criterion for tool adoption more generally, even among those expressing reluctance about learning and using new technologies. The vast majority of historians adopt digital tools when they find that there is no other way to resolve an issue in their research.

Conventional wisdom tends to highlight two problems about the use of digital tools—a lack of institutional support for acquiring new tools and providing training in their use, and more senior historians’ reluctance to adopt them.3 The survey responses provided some evidence for the former but very little for the latter. When viewed by institution, almost a third of the faculty at elite private colleges and universities were using at least one type of advanced tool, as compared to less than 20 percent of the faculty at other types of institutions. In other words, the lack of institutional resources has a more significant impact on the adoption of advanced digital tools than does a “Luddite” tendency in the professoriate. (Faculty at two-year institutions were not included in the survey due to low representation in the AHA’s Directory of History Departments.)

While the institutional differences were clear, the differences among the age cohorts were relatively narrow: around 20 percent in each cohort from age 36 to 75 were using one or more advanced digital tools. The exception was among the youngest cohort, aged 26 to 35, where 23 percent of the respondents were using an advanced software tool. This cohort also tended to use a larger than average number of these digital tools.

FIG 1: Share of Historians Using Particular Software or Technology for Research, 2010 and 2015Between the 2010 and 2015 surveys, there was also a small but significant increase in the shares of faculty in each age cohort who were using one of the more advanced software tools. In the 2010 survey, 13 percent of the respondents were using at least one of the advanced tools, with the older faculty more likely than their younger counterparts to use them. While the younger cohorts are now more likely to use the tools, faculty members in the older cohorts were also more likely to be using the tools than their counterparts five years earlier.

There was only one tool—statistical analysis software—that older historians (age 56 and above) were more likely to use than their younger colleagues, by a difference of 12 percent to 5 percent. However, 58 percent of young and middle-aged historians reported using spreadsheet software, as compared to 40 percent of their older colleagues.

Impediments to Tool Adoption

Despite the range of tools being used in the discipline, only a few historians said they quickly adopted new software and other digital tools into their research. Almost half reported that they integrate such tools into their work only “after it has been tried by others for a time,” and nearly a quarter responded that they adopt such tools either “only when required” or “never.” Only 16 percent said they adopted such tools either “as soon as it becomes available” or “after reading a review.”

Given the range of tools on the survey, this is a rather crude measure, as respondents might offer different responses for software or tools they value. But the overall response indicates high levels of caution. On this measure there was relatively little difference between the age cohorts among historians.

The primary barrier to the adoption of technology tools appeared to be competing demands on time. Almost 60 percent cited lack of time to learn new programs and new technologies as the primary reason for slow adoption. Slightly more than a third blamed a perceived lack of utility to their research as a reason for slowly adopting new software. As one respondent observed, “I generally like the way that I do things and don’t want to potentially invest a lot of time learning something that isn’t as good as what I currently do.”

One survey respondent observed, “Even as a relatively young scholar, I find new technologies to be intimidating.”

Despite the increase in the shares of faculty using advanced software tools noted above, the percentage of historians who indicated they were generally resistant to new technologies (and declared they would never adopt them or do so only when required) was higher in 2015 than in 2010—even among historians under the age of 55, where the share rose from 15 percent to 22 percent. One of the early career respondents observed, “Even as a relatively young scholar, I find new technologies to be intimidating.”

Historians cited a range of institutional factors as impediments. Some noted a lack of financial support for the software, others noted limited or poor training opportunities, and still others cited a lack of credit for doing any form of digital work.

The overall takeaway is twofold: historians’ adoption of digital technologies has been gradual, but this has as much to do with a lack of resources and awareness of how technologies can help in their research as stereotypical fustiness and fear.

Robert B. Townsend oversees the Washington, DC, office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Humanities Indicators. An earlier version of this analysis was presented at the March 2016 conference “Crossroads: The Future of Graduate History Education.”


1. Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (April 2016): 377–402.

2. For information on the earlier survey, see Robert B. Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?” Perspectives on History, November 2010.

3. See, for instance, Jennifer Rutner and Roger C. Schonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” (New York: Ithaka S+R, 2012).

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