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Reflections on the Field: History and Technology in 2020
02 / 13 / 20 | By: Scott Vierick
Alexis C. Madrigal’s article for The Atlantic, “The Way We Write History Has Changed,” is a timely reminder that historical methods have evolved considerably since HAI’s inception in 1981. The rise of digital technology has provided historians with new ways to approach their craft, while also exposing new concerns and challenges.
In our early years as a company, we traveled to archives with a pen, paper, and change for the photocopier. We mailed or faxed collected documents to our clients and stored paper mirror copies at our office. Our computers were rudimentary and did not connect to the internet, which had yet to become widespread.
The advent of laptops and digital cameras allowed us to go digital with our research, making document collection and review more efficient than ever. We now communicate with clients and send files digitally, and most of our files live on the Cloud. Instead of reading physical documents or scanning through reel upon reel of microfilm, we often use databases to perform specific, systematic searches. The digital revolution has allowed us to be more targeted and thorough when it comes to our work.
In his essay, Madrigal argues that archives have mostly resisted digitization. While he’s correct that most archival material remains in the physical realm, many archives have undertaken ambitious digitalization efforts. Many organizations now boast impressive online catalogs of materials that can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection. The digital collections of repositories like the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Maryland Historical Society, and the Smithsonian have provided HAI with incredible images for our exhibit projects.
While many archives will maintain their physical collections, as digital files become the norm, these repositories will necessarily become more digital, too. As my colleague Laura Starr discussed in a recent webinar, NARA recently mandated that all federal records be transferred to the archives in electronic format by 2022. Depending on how NARA processes and shares these records, this could dramatically change how future historians conduct research.
As Madrigal notes, digitization has made historical research more accessible and elevated previously unheard and underrepresented voices. Digitized primary sources have helped us feature the accounts of migrants, refugees, enslaved people, and other historically marginalized groups in recent exhibit and education projects. On a recent project for a new visitor center at a National Park, digital photo sharing platforms allowed us to connect with and feature not only professional photographers in the exhibit space, but also talented amateur photographers who are dedicated to the park and have captured stunning images.
To be sure, the digital world offers risks as well as opportunities. Not every archive or repository has funding for digitization, and decisions by archivists about what to digitize might reflect unconscious biases, potentially reinforcing the marginalization of certain groups and narratives. Many digital archives and databases are locked behind paywalls, potentially pricing out many would-be researchers. Other concerns exist as well. Fake documents and doctored images can easily spread online. Historians will need to exercise discretion and skepticism to separate fact from fiction and determine what information and perspectives are missing from their research.
Ultimately, while the “job of doing history has changed,” some aspects of the historian’s work remain consistent. Even as online resources continue to grow, there will still be a place for physical archives and repositories. The collections of the National Archives are so immense that it would be virtually impossible to digitize all of its holdings. Despite the growth of digital archives and databases, our historians frequently conduct research using physical records and microfilm. Still, there is no denying, as Madrigal writes, that “history works through screens now.” At HAI, we’ve embraced this notion for years, and we look forward to being active participants in this ongoing evolution.