Like others around the world, I have read the essays and comments on the Writing History site with great interest. They have inspired me to reconsider my beliefs and practices relating to the writing history on both global and personal levels.
I am a historian who came of age, intellectually speaking, at the cusp of the digital revolution. I started off researching-thinking-writing (the three are, for me, a single, inextricable phenomenon) on lined notecards, using a favorite number two pencil while turning page after page of yellowed and quickly disintegrating school records in an archives reading room. Somewhere in the middle of my doctoral studies I started to use a laptop, eventually delighting in the convenience of JStor and of Endnote. Soon I became accustomed to reading full-text articles, books, and other digitized materials online, feeling not a little put out by occasionally having to go to the library to find something not (yet) digitized. Nowadays, although I continue to write and publish new archives-based research, I can remember only hazily the last time that I personally, literally set foot in an archives building – or any kind of library building, for that matter — and turned a page with my own hand.
To be sure, being able to review and analyze materials from digitized archival collections from the comfort of my own office has had its benefits, including making my research less expensive and reducing the size of its carbon footprint. And to be fair, there are also disadvantages to the availability and accessibility of digital resources. Regardless of how readily available and accessible information is, and regardless of how easy it is – with the right software — to catalogue, keyword, and cross-reference it; to read it, lose it, and find it again — the sheer volume of information we are confronted with is overwhelming. And that may be true of software and other tools as much as it is of the primary and secondary source materials to which we increasingly have access, day and night, worldwide.
The essays and comments comprising the Writing History discussion confirm my own experience of the ways in which the tools of researching-thinking-writing have been revolutionized by digital technology. What I’m not as certain about is the extent to which historical thinking (as opposed to just data-organizing, or data hoarding) has changed. Has yours? Or, in terms of the habits and skills of mind, of research and of writing, is it thus far a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”? Do we assume this to be true in the training we are giving to our students?
As a historian of education with more than a passing interest in intellectual history, I can’t help but wonder about resistance to these changes within the discipline. How many of us who entered the historical discipline before the digital revolution have yet to really embrace it in our teaching, research, or writing? Is their (your, our) work any better for this resistance? Or is all twenty-first-century historiography necessarily “digital history”?
This experiment in online scholarly discussion purposefully blurs distinctions between what is public and what is private, between what has been authored by one person and what has been collaboratively developed in ongoing asynchronous conversation. Does it work? To whom does it (not) appeal? Is it important that it is situated outside the traditional scholarly spaces of peer-reviewed journals and conference programs?
I ask all these questions not only as a way to draw together some of the threads of discussion currently on the Writing History site, but also with a view to what lies ahead for this initiative. We hope that the online forum and the panel at the History of Education Society Annual Meeting in Cambridge will serve as a joint first installment of a longer-lived multifaceted project on the topic of Writing History in the Digital Age. With this in mind, we invite you to contribute your reflections now on the wider theme as well as on the Writing History site itself, and to contact us with suggestions for future installments of the project, in whatever form.
Please share your own reflections by submitting a comment.
How to cite this page:
Kristen Nawrotzki, “Reflections on ‘Writing History’,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 28, 2010, http://writinghistory.wp.trincoll.edu/2010/10/28/nawrotzki-reflections/.
This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.