Doing history in the digital age: history as a hybrid practice

In reading up on various topics to prepare my lectures for a digital history course I am currently teaching I am struck by the extent to which a dichotomy is created between supposedly new ‚digital’ ways of doing history versus traditional, or if you will analog, historical practices. Whether the focus is on data as a new type of source, digital methods to analyze it, new forms of academic publishing or calls to change our narrative way of writing in order to better integrate and explicate our methodology, the suggestion is invariably that we face a fundamental break with past practices.

To be sure, in many ways the possibilities and challenges facing historians in the digital age are new: we do face an unprecedented abundance of materials which necessitates a radical shift with ‚traditional’ practice in terms of analysis if we are to realize its potential for new questions to be asked and answered. Yet it seems to me that an awareness of continuity and a historical contextualization of ‚new’ practices is often missing. Part of this situation is not caused by conviction but economic necessity: many digital projects require significant investments ands allocation of resources, investments that can only be justified by emphasizing discontinuity from traditional historical practices.

    Nevertheless, in terms of the development of data and tools as well as the current practice of doing history there is no radical transition. The shift from traditional/analog to new/digital historical practices has been taking place over the past 60 years or so and has therefore been more gradual than often suggested, especially when considering that history as a modern academic discipline is less than two centuries old. It is true that the advent of the PC, Internet and WWW constitute a watershed moment but even there we can already look back on two decades of developments. What is new is that computers have become inescapable and their use no longer the preserve of a few technologically-minded historians. One can also ask what exactly is so new about ‚big’ data’ (leaving aside to issue of whether or not we can actually speak of big data in a humanities context). Indeed, it is important to historicize big data

    Be that as it may, a majority of historians will likely not embark on purely digital projects in the foreseeable future. They will combine traditional/analog with new/digital practices. Indeed, hybridity is the new normal. Even considering the very real (and potentially dangerous) possibility that future historical research will be mostly driven by the availability of historical sources and data that are available online, there will not necessarily be a radical shift to pure digital practice and new methodological approaches; even nowadays many historians working with online sources treat them purely as the digital substitute of analog materials without a clear awareness of the data mining possibilities that this substitute might offer, or a consideration of the ways in which it differs from the real thing and how that affects their analysis. 

    The latter is obviously an educational challenge but most historians will continue using non-digitized materials in addition to digitized sources. The true challenge is not in creating ever bigger sets of data and developing new tools, important as these are. It is to be hybrid and to integrate ‚traditional’ and ‚digital’ practices. It is to engage more critically with ‚the new’ and develop a source criticism for the digital age which is still too much focused on external source criticism to the detriment of factors affecting internal criticism, such as loss of materiality and context. The point of all this is not to deny the new digital aspects of historical practice. But it is imperative to achieve a historicized notion of what constitutes ‚the new’ and realize that hybridity is likely to be the future for most historians in the years to come.