The Malleable Past

The increasing prevalence of digital media has made it easier to teach about the past in several ways. Primary source material is more widely accessible (bearing in mind that the digital divide continues to exist) and so students can engage with it much more often. I recall my American history class in high school, where our only access to primary sources was through print collections, and think about how different it might have been with the types of materials that are available online (whether in commercial or open databases) today. Most of the undergraduate classes I work with in my current position have to find and closely engage with primary sources. Working directly with primary sources is closer to what historians actually do, and I think helps students practice “historical thinking” as well as become more comfortable with the “jagged edges” of the past.  

On the other hand, the increasing prevalence of digital media also makes it more difficult to teach about the past. Primary source materials disappear from the web; they have crappy metadata and so are impossible to find. They are siloed in expensive commercial databases or in hundreds of separate institutional collections. And the fact that some primary source materials are online often leads students (and some faculty) into thinking that *everything* is online, even though the bulk of these materials have not been digitized, will never be digitized, and will be lucky to get cataloged. This sense that anything that’s important is digital leads to reductive assertions that studying books digitized through Google is studying “human culture,” which leaves out so, so much. This is also seen in the how Wikipedia (while good for many things) tends towards superficiality and the erasure of controversy, disagreements, and debates within a field (this concerns me more than the malleability, frankly). And finally, the mere presence and accessibility of primary source materials doesn’t automatically lead to good historical thinking. Students still need the procedural knowledge, in Lévesque’s terminology, to be able to meaningfully work with those primary sources.

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