Historical Research in the Digital Age – Part 1: ‘We Are All Digital Now’

by | Nov 30, 2022 | Guest Posts, Historical Research in the Digital Age | 0 comments


With this post we begin a new six-part series — ‘Historical Research in the Digital Age’ — which explores historians’ use and understanding of the digital resources and sources that shape modern research culture. The series is hosted by Professor Ian Milligan from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, whose new book, The Transformation of Historical Research in the Digital Age, is now available as a free Open Access download from Cambridge University Press.

Later in the series we’ll hear from historians who are builders and users of digital resources; from university archivists and librarians who are responsible for mediating and interpreting digital resources for students and researchers; and from those researching with limited access to digital infrastructures or resources.

In Part One of the series, Ian Milligan considers the profusion of resources which have led many of us to become what he terms digitised historians, even if our understanding and appreciation of digitally-enabled research remains partial. While aware of these limitations, Ian’s post and new book strike a positive note. We cannot resist the digital age (‘we are all digital now’), and there are practices we can adopt to better incorporate digital technology into our research. 



Digital abundance and technology has transformed all historical research. Many individually small changes – a digitised finding aid, a search query across a database, an iPhone in one’s hand in an archive – have cumulatively revolutionised the practice of historical research. Like the apocryphal frog in the boiling pot of water who does not notice the changing temperature until it’s too late, historians haven’t fully theorised and understood the degree to which historical research has changed. We are all digital now.

That does not mean we are all ‘digital historians’, the subfield of historical scholarship concerned with the use of new and emerging technology for both public scholarship and research itself. But as all historians now use computers to do their work, from search engines to digitised documents to publishing, it can be unhelpful to silo historical engagement with technology as the province of a particular field. If we are not all ‘digital historians,’ we are all digitised historians.

This is the core audience of my recent book, The Transformation of Historical Research in the Digital Age, which is available Open Access in the Cambridge Element series. In the book, I explore this transformation through examinations of libraries and databases, archives and access, and approaches to scholarly publication.




Familiar Yet Distant: transformations in historical research

My framing metaphor is to imagine a historian in the year 2000 versus one in 2022. While at 40,000-feet the process looks similar – literature review, finding primary sources, reading them, writing, revising and publishing – I argue that all steps in that process are now provided and made possible by digital technology.

Our literature reviews and much of our primary source research is now subject to the mediating layer of the database: what has and what has not been digitised, how the platform operates (does it allow for skimming or does it require you to keyword search?), the quality of the image scan, or how the optical character recognition (OCR) algorithm works. For archives, we consult digitised finding aids and carry out ‘surgical strikes’ with camera in hand. We take thousands of photographs to read at home, involving quick and hasty choices about what to include and what not. And then when it comes to publishing, we share snippets of work in progress on social media or other online platforms, engaging in a process of collective peer review.

This is neither a wholly negative nor wholly positive transformation – no such transformation could be. Previously-unimaginable projects are now possible, from global histories (as Lara Putnam charts in her inspirational 2016 article, ‘The Transnational and the Text-Searchable’) to expanding the scope and scale of existing projects thanks to keyword searching. New frontiers of historical research have now opened up, as scholars find themselves able to search across decades of periodicals, digitised books, and even archival collections, enabling them to draw connections that would have been impossible if they were limited to physical travel and the slow crank of the microfilm reader. We can also all fly a bit less, critical for a better work-life balance, lowering barriers to research, and helping manage carbon emissions.

Yet this extraordinary (though be no means uniform) digital access comes with a cost: loss of context; the use of platforms that we do not understand (what dates were not digitised, for example, or which  ‘hits’ are missed by faulty OCR); and the gravitation towards digitised sources and topics at the expense of the (still) ‘great undigitised.’



We need now, therefore, to understand these transformations and to consider how to make sure the next generation is conscious of the digital environment in which they work.

There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Even if we were, on balance, to take the position that the negatives of digitised history outweigh the positives (and this is not a position I hold), the historical profession has spoken with its shift in research behaviours. But it’s equally clear that we’ve not been sufficiently alert to this shift and its implications for our practice as historians.

We need now, therefore, to understand these transformations and to consider how to ensure the next generation is conscious of the digital environment in which they work. We should think about the active role that algorithms and technology play in shaping our research. Given that historical training is based in part on an apprentice model – we do what our supervisors do, and they in turn did what their supervisors did – conscious engagement with the digital is necessary if we’re to better appreciate the contemporary research environment.



Builder, User, Intermediary: diverse perspectives on this shift

If you just wanted to learn what I think, you can certainly read my new book. But such a pressing transformation requires multiple perspectives.

With this aim, our five-part RHS blog series, ‘Historical Research in the Digital Age’ (December 2022-February 2023), brings different perspectives to these questions. You are reading the first. The others taking part in the series will address this technological transformation from different standpoints:

  • our next contributor, William J. Turkel, will consider the perspective of a digital builder. Turkel is both a builder and a teacher of digital builders. His forthcoming post provides hands-on experience of developing digital infrastructures for historians, and offers us a wealth of cautionary notes as well.
  • Anna Mcnally is a university archivist who’ll offer the perspective of a digital resource provider. What is digitised? What is not? How is metadata constructed? Why can’t we just put everything on the Internet?
  • Jo Guldi will continue our series as a user of digital resources. What can a historian learn from the use of digital resources? How does it inform traditional historical research? What do we need to be aware and cautious of, when engaging with digital resources for research?
  • we conclude with an alternative perspective: Gerben Zaagsma considers ‘digital disparity’ and the limitations many historians face when digital infrastructures and / or digital resources are less abundant than they are in the Global North, or for those working with Anglophone print cultures. The ‘Digital Age’ is far from uniform. We need to appreciate this and consider the implications: what does this mean for historians lacking the digital wealth many now take for granted? What’s the longer-term future for research in areas where digitisation is patchy, piecemeal or of little interest to commercial providers?

Each of our contributors has been invited to reflect on a common set of questions: what would you teach undergraduate students or researchers about the problem of historical research in the digital age? What has worked, and what has not worked so well? What recommendations would you give to a student or researcher starting a research project when it comes to using digital resources?




We should seek to be more digitally literate. This means being conscious and alert when using an online platform or technology. We should ask questions.


Learn about technology so you can control it

At a recent digital history conference, I was reminded that I’d advised colleagues to ‘learn to code’ at a previous presentation I had given in Denmark in January 2016. Ah, the naivety of youth.

Today, if I was asked the same question, I would certainly be more circumspect – but not entirely so. For nearly six years, I’ve been helping to lead a large software development project, Archives Unleashed. I am now much more cognisant of the barriers facing the adoption of coding. It’s an unrealistic expectation and often relies on so much implicit knowledge. In my case, I benefited from a middle-class white kid upbringing, with extensive access to a computer. This is a point the UCLA historian Miriam Posner made over a decade ago and one I should have taken to heart then… mea culpa.

Instead, asked now what I’d recommend to help face the challenges of historical research in the digital age, I would recommend the following three things:

  • First, we should seek to be more digitally literate. This means being conscious and alert when using an online platform or technology. We should ask questions including (a) Why was this created? (b) How does this work? and (c) What might I be missing in a source when its mediated via digital technology?
  • Secondly, we should be aware of how the use of technology shapes our research practice. When holding that iPhone in your hand and taking photographs of documents, consider what you might be missing. How is this method of record capture changing your work? Given that you will read all your documents (as digital images) at home, is it possible to book a follow up visit to see the physical archives again? If it’s not possible for this project, be explicit about the need for this in your next grant proposal.
  • Third, we should be transparent about technological mediation. Perhaps because historians learn their craft via an apprenticeship model, most historical scholarship is silent on methodology. Compounding this, citational practices focus on the document itself rather than its mediation – whether a newspaper article is found, for example, in a clipping file, a microfilm reel, an archival collection, a library, or a database, the article is cited with no reference to its context. Wherever possible, we must be clear about where articles and documents are found – either in the citations or through a brief methodological discussion. This will enable those who follow to locate and engage critically and, in turn, for understanding of the topic to develop.

Above all, we need to be alert to being digitised historians. How this is manifest, what it means, and how we respond form the subjects of the posts that follow in this series. I hope this first article, and those to come, help us all approach digitised history with greater critical awareness and confidence. After all, the future is bright. Many new avenues are presenting themselves thanks to the use of digital resources.



About the Author


Ian Milligan is Professor of History and Associate Vice-President, Research Oversight and Analysis at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. His primary areas of research and teaching focus on how historians’ use web archives, and the impact of digital sources on historiography and historical practice.

Ian’s publications include The Transformation of Historical Research in the Digital Age (Cambridge Elements Series, 2022), History in the Age of Abundance (2019), and Rebel Youth (2014). Ian also co-authored Exploring Big Historical Data (2015, with Shawn Graham and Scott Weingart) and edited the SAGE Handbook of Web History (2018, with Niels Brügger). He is also principal investigator of the Archives Unleashed project.



Ian’s new book The Transformation of Historical Research in the Digital Age (available Open Access via CUP) is the prompt for this short RHS blog series: ‘Historical Research in the Digital Age’. Next in the series (Thursday 15 December), we have Professor William Turkel on a historian’s experience of building digital projects.








Part One‘We are all Digital Now: and what this means for historical research’, by Ian Milligan




Part Two‘Tools for the Trade: and how historians can make best use of them’, by William J. Turkel




Part Three‘Why Archivist Digitise: and why it matters’by Anna Mcnally




Part Four: ‘Researching with Big Data; and how historians can work collaboratively’, by Ruth Ahnert




Part Five: ‘Digitising History from a Global Context; and what this tells us about access and inequality’, by Gerben Zaagsma






The Society’s blog, Historical Transactions, offers regular think pieces on historical research projects and approaches to the past. These include several previous series, addressing wide-ranging questions concerning historical methods and the value of historical thinking.

Recent contributions to series include ‘Writing Race’ and ‘What is History For?’ We welcome proposals for other short series of posts, bringing historians together to discuss topics, practices and values. If you’d like to suggest a RHS blog series, please email: philip.carter@royalhistsoc.org.


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