Much like the transformation of transportation during the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of the World Wide Web transformed how people saw the world. In the 1990s, when web pages became prevalent
Historians and other professionals saw that the average person has more access to information.
Digitizing materials key to the field of history permits others to explore and access sources that they may not have known about prior to the 1990s. The act of digitizing also helps to preserve fragile sources as well as new more sturdy sources. Yet this act of digitizing history does come with challenges to preservation. Toni Weller discusses this in History in the Digital Age. The World Wide Web is fast and ever-changing. Just look at Wikipedia and see how one page can change hundreds of times in a short period of time. For preservationists, it is hard to keep up with the edits versus the original. Also with such a huge number of websites to choose from it would be almost insurmountable for a historian to attempt to preserve every single website on the internet before it can be changed or deleted. Historians are not unbiased so a to one a site might not seem as significant as it would to another. So the question “What is important to the history of the world and should be saved?” remains.
Something that Weller discusses is the idea that for some historians the use of scanning has actually hindered their sensory understanding of a topic. The example that immediately comes to mind is of a medical historian in Portugal who was researching an outbreak of cholera. As he was reading letters in the archives he also was smelling them because vinegar was used as a disinfectant to prevent the spread of cholera. He was able to use the smell of vinegar to determine the progression of the disease. Weller’s point seems to be that while digitizing letters and other sources can be a wonderful way for the content to be shared, for some their is an sensory experience being lost that cannot be regained.
Is digital history qualitatively different from history?
I think the quality of digital history is not as different from the quality of traditional history. Both types of history have distorted, incorrect, and sometimes unverified pieces of information. There are many times that a monograph can incorporate outdated or incorrect sources. The issues with digital history stem more from the sheer volume available. The quantity of history present on the internet is vast. There are curated sites run by professionals and then there are amateur blogs. This vastness has resulted in many unfactual pieces of evidence and interpretations. This is not an issue that only affects history, there are studies and other medical findings that are incorrect but taken as truth because it is on the internet. Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig discuss on their site “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” that the internet and other digital media contain qualities that both potentially allow historians to do things better and pose as dangers or hazards on the web. According to them, there are seven qualities that may benefit historians are accessibility, capacity, diversity, flexibility, hypertextuality, interactivity, and manipulability. These are all words that highlight how great digital history can be. On the other hand, the five dangers include quality of information, passivity, durability, readability, and inaccessibility. Just like traditional history, there are issues with digital history. However, the fact is that the digitization of primary sources has allowed for the sharing of knowledge. There are artifacts and archives all over the world that someone of limited means would never get a chance to visit. It is the job of historians to view and sift through all the information to determine what is real and can be verified versus what is fake and unverifiable. As technology advances so too do the job of a historian.