I love visiting archives. I love to physically touch and smell these documents from the past. Yet, it is always a challenge to always make it to the archives that are most useful to my research. I find myself often relying on digital archives for some parts of my research.
The changes that have happened in the digital media world have connected the world in ways that one couldn’t have imagined just three decades ago. These technologies are moving at a fast pace revolutionizing how we store, retrieve and present information. One change that has come with this is the amount of data that we create on a daily basis. The International Data Corp (IDC) reported that by 2013, about 4.4 Zettabytes (4.4 trillion gigabytes) of data had been created and we are on track to create about 44 Zettabytes of data by 2020.[i] The availability of affordable cloud storage platforms from companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. have enabled us to store more and more data. This data will provide historians a window through which to look at the past.
Data that cannot be easily accessed or retrieved can pose a challenge. Even physical archives are taking steps to make sure that what they have in boxes is easily located through discovery tools on the computers. This means the creation of better metadata for their collections. The development of powerful search engines or tools is making data discovery easier. The continuous improvement and integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies with search engines means that our search is becoming smarter and more contextualized.
The historian or archivist has a privileged role to take all of this data and make sense of it. This data needs to be presented to an audience in ways that it is meaningful. Some of the digital media technologies or tools that have emerged in the last decades would help us with the interpretation and presentation of this data. These include tools such as Google N-Gram Viewer, Palladio, Carto Db, Voyant, Youtube, OCR softwares and in fact, the internet itself. These tools can be used for visualization or different forms of presentation of data. For example, Carto DB can be used to map and visualize historical events and activities in ways that text cannot fully capture. Google N-Gram Viewer and Voyant allow us to distant read and interpret a large corpus and to decipher things like word frequency trends and knowledge graphs.
The advancement in photo and video technologies has made digital scanning, recording and storage possible. Yahoo’s flickr commons is a robust medium for storing unlimited photos for free and people can comment on them. Many archives and libraries have made photos from their own collections available through flickr commons. This has become an important resource for learning and doing history. Many archives and museums are digitizing their documents and one can easily access them through computers connected to the internet. Artifacts from museums are now being brought online through some 3D modeling tools. These kinds of electronic presentation help to bring archives and museums to our classrooms. The internet itself is very revolutionary. It has placed this vast amount of data only a few clicks away.
The question is, how can we as historians use all of these technologies and resources that are available to us to effectively teach about the past? I offer four examples on how we can harness some of these technologies. The first is on the use of Youtube. This online video sharing platform has more than 1 billion users. Each day, millions of users consume millions of hours of content. This can become a place where we teach the past. We do that not by presenting video clips from the past but using the video editing technologies available to us to recreate short, attention grabbing compelling historical accounts. Historians must be aware that their videos would be competing with viral cat videos. If done properly, they would attract millions of eyeballs, numbers we would never see in our classrooms throughout our teaching careers.
Another online video resource that historians can integrate into their teaching is Netflix. This streaming service has over 6000 movies and 1500 TV shows in its catalog. Films can be picked from this catalogue to aid in the teaching of historical events. We can challenge our students to question these films as they would other historical sources and let these films become ways in which they can learn the procedures of doing history. Why not a special “Netflix for Education” subscriptions? The libraries of many colleges do not have a database of films this large and many of our students today have no dvd players (I actually do not remember the last time I used one!) Studying historical movies alongside with textual documents will expose the students to the variety of ways that we can attempt to make sense of the past.
Virtual Reality (VR) is one of the up and coming technologies today. How about being transported to the 16th Century and making the Middle Passage with the African slaves? Thanks to VR, this can be done and it has the potential to open up a new level of understanding to our students or visitors to museums. As with most of these digital technologies, it has to be done well and the goal should be to deepen the knowledge on the historical event and not technological gimmicks. The New York Times is already doing VR videos on some of its reporting. Historians can and should embrace this new technology and use it as a tool to teach about the past. This should be as much a priority to historians as it is to Silicon Valley.
Wikipedia is a valuable resource for teaching about the past. Historians need to be actively involved in editing and submitting new entries. If propagating knowledge is the mission we have as academics, we should not be afraid of sharing that knowledge in forums like Wikipedia. My entries have probably been read by many more people than any book or article I have published or would ever publish. Wikipedia ranks highly on google search results and for many people, it is their source for information on all things. In many parts of the world where there is no access to public or private libraries, Wikipedia is like the people’s library. I have my issues about Wikipedia’s restriction on the publication of original research. Perhaps, organizations such as the AHA can partner with Wikipedia to allow the publishing of original research with the articles clearly marked as such and with proper attribution. Wikipedia could still insist on its writing style in such occasions to allow for articles that could be intelligible to non-experts. As academics, we have the tendency to write for each other and not for the public. This could change and make the knowledge we produce more widely accessible to the general public.
The bottomline is that, historians and archivists must embrace these new technologies and resources and work on effectively using them to present the past. We cannot miss these opportunities to make the knowledge of the past relevant at a time when people seek for more knowledge, and yet ask, what is a history degree good for?