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Digital history broadens historical research
Author :  ZHANG JIE Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2016-12-21
The information revolution is changing the ways historians research, analyze and present information about the past. In many ways digital history is driving this revolution in historical research.
Compared with conventional history, digital history can show more clearly the relationships and interactions between aspects of history. Digital history can also shed light on spatial and temporal changes while changing the way historians approach traditional history.
The rise of digital history is not only driven by the increasing scientism in Western philosophy but also fueled by rapid development of Internet technologies, said Wang Tao, an associate professor from the School of History at Nanjing University.
Mou Zhenyu, an associate research fellow from the Institute of History at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out three characteristics of digital history: more emphasis on space, multidisciplinary international cooperation, and popularization.
Primary sources of information are more easily accessible for historians working in digital history in comparison to traditional history, because the biggest advantage of digital history is that it provides efficient vehicles for historians to connect with as well as analyze longterm and large-scale historical problems that traditional tools cannot approach, Wang said.
Digital technologies can automate some aspects of historical studies that originally had to be done manually, thus saving time and labor for researchers, said Yuan Lin, a professor from the School of History and Culture at Shaanxi Normal University. For example, it is impossible to calculate the disaster cycle by hand when conducting research about disaster history in northwest China, but this can easily be done by a computer, Yuan said.
In addition, digital history is also promoting the development of metrology history. Metrology history has been a weak point in China’s historical research because of insufficient quantitative data collection and weak measurement tools, Yuan added.
Traditional history can use tools and methods of digital history to find more hidden information, to better achieve the goal of disentangling truth from falsehood, and making value judgments in line with the historical realities, making the discipline of history more scientific level, Wang said.
Yuan said digital history is still considered a form of traditional historical research because it neither changes theoretical frameworks nor research paradigms of historical research, nor does it provide new historical theories, new historical data or new methodologies in most cases. It just enables historians to use new digital tools. The power of digital history, therefore, cannot pose pressures or threats to traditional history but create conditions for its development, Yuan added.
Mou pointed out that historical research has come down in a continuous line from traditional practice to digital history, so there are no contradictions involved. Digital history is challenging the ways historians practice their craft and allows historians to present their information in more precise and visual formats, such as images, maps and videos, by utilizing Internet technologies. Despite these advances, digital history has not abandoned traditional methods of historical research, like qualitative descriptions. On the contrary, it means there are even higher requirements needed for those traditional methods.
Yuan emphasized two major barriers that are hindering the development of digital history. On the one hand, a great deal of fundamental work has not been conducted due to staff shortages, particularly in relation to establishing basic databases. On the other hand, digitization requirements of historical research are not well served by academic circles of computer science, because this development requires specialist participation by historians.
Although digital history imposes thresholds on researchers, which requires them to learn a wide range of cross-disciplinary knowledge, such as computers, statistics, sociology and other related disciplines, it does not indicate that every historian must become versatile, Wang stated. He said historians should change their methods from working alone to working together so as to solve those technical problems, because the development of digital history relies on interdisciplinary exchange and cooperation. The discussion of digital history should not be too entangled in theoretical issues, but be problem oriented, Wang said. Its strengths as well as limitations could be examined in conducting historical projects to improve digital history, he added.
Mou offered two suggestions for improving digital history. Universities should pay special attention to the recent developments in research and technology and enable students to master basic skills of digital history. In addition, crossdisciplinary research between history and computer science should be strengthened.