Brave new world

by Nick

Reading my way into some of the history blogs I’ve found, it’s made me very aware of the vastly increased uses historians are making of the internet compared to when I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 2001.

My graduating year was one of the first in the university to have e-mail addresses as standard, and to actually use them for things like submitting essays; and I remember a lecturer excitedly telling us about a new project called Early English Books Online where we could look up lots of pamphlets prescribed for the course. But beyond that the internet featured very little in my studies. Blogging had barely taken off. If I wanted to look up a journal article, it meant going to the faculty library or, for the more obscure ones, to the university library. Every time a reading list was issued, it meant a mad scramble for the one copy of the relevant book in the faculty library. (I remember running to get there early the day holiday loans for the spring vacation started, to guarantee getting hold of a book for my 2nd year dissertation…)

A recent experience writing a reasonably lengthy paper has been rather different. I was able to access every journal article from computer while sitting in my dining room. Clicking references in JSTOR took me to other articles that were relevant. I was able to get hold of whole books – David Underdown’s Pride’s Purge, for instance, which normally features on most history libraries’ heavily borrowed/”there’s no way in hell you’ll ever be able to check this out, because some muppet has sprinted to the library to check it out before you” lists. Pamphlets and news-sheets were all available to me from EEBO. I also drew heavily on some articles in the DNB Online. In fact thinking about it, I didn’t actually set foot in a library or archive despite the paper being heavily based on primary sources. This was partly due to circumstances – full-time job, Open University-only access rights (from a separate course I was doing), and lots of other stuff going on. And I was perhaps lucky that everything I needed to access, more or less, was online. But I think it does reflect a gradual change in the way we access and research our sources.

And what strikes me is that none of this was making particular use of the web’s capabilities for historians. No user-generated content, no links between content sources, and so on. Just on the bus home from work today I was able to think of some interesting ways the sources I accessed could have been made much more powerful. To give one example, through EEBO I was able to cross-check a very unique phrase in an unattributed pamphlet with other contemporary publications, and discovered the identical phrase in a news-sheet dating within a few weeks of the pamphlet. Doing so was a major “eureka moment” in coming up with some ideas on who the author might have been. But despite the fact I was able to do this from the comfort of home, it still took me the same time as if I’d trawled the microfilms in a library. Imagine if I’d been able to search the text of everything on EEBO. Or if I’d been able to annotate the two texts with a link connecting the two, so that future people looking at them could see the connection. And if I’d been able to add the pamphlets to my RSS feed, so I’d find out about future annotations.

These are all just vague ideas. But thinking about them has excited my imagination about the new uses the web is being put to for historians. One of the things I’ll be doing over the next few months, as a result, is trying to find out who’s leading the field, and what I can learn from them. I’ll be posting more here as I find it.

This post was partly inspired by Investigations of a Dog, where some really interesting thoughts on the internet and history have been posted. Thank you also for adding me to your blogroll!