What will the future history of today look like? Digital literacy for the next generation.

by Ian Milligan on September 26, 2011

The network of links stemming from ianmilligan.ca (activehistory.ca alone was too big!). This gives you a visual sense of the power behind hyperlinked information!

We will need to make dramatic changes to history undergraduate curriculums by aggressively implementing digital literacy programmes. This will benefit both our students and the historical profession.

Why? Let’s imagine how a future historian will tackle the question of what everyday life was in September 2011 – today. She will have a tremendous array of sources at her fingertips: the standard newspaper and media reports and oral interviews that we use today, but also a ton of added sources that would help give a sense of the flavour of daily life. Two hundred million tweets are sent every day. Hundreds of thousands of blog posts. Incredible arrays of commentary, YouTube videos, online comments, viewership and readership numbers will all hopefully be available to this historian.

But how will she read it all? Realistically, nobody is ever going to be able to get through all the tweets for even just one day: let alone categorize, analyze, and meaningfully interact with it. She’ll need to use digital tools. We are at a crossroads. This sort of history won’t be the be all and end all of future historical research, but I believe that somebody is going to do this sort of social history. Let’s make sure our future students are ready for it!

Using Mathematica, I have been able to track the rise and fall of the terms "war" (red) and "peace" (blue) across a comprehensive Top-40 Lyrics Database.

We need to begin thinking about how we are going to train historians of the future, today. Somebody is going to do this work. They are probably sitting in high school or elementary school classrooms today. When they show up at the university, let’s make sure that we’re ready to train them to write the history of today.. tomorrow. This is not simply for historians who fashion themselves as social scientists, as opposed to those who see themselves as pure humanists. It’s about deploying a tool which can provide information through which we can drape our stories, our interviews, our human anecdotes, etc.

Historians need to begin thinking about digital literacy and writing programs that will help access these sources. What’s going on right now? Tons. I have previously discussed one of the biggest current projects, the Culturomics project and their accessible Google n-gram viewer. You can see the rise and fall of a word or phrase (an ngram) and see how much it has been used across several centuries. It’s an incredible project, albeit not without some caution needed in how it is approached. There are also several digital history projects ongoing, some of which has garnered considerable attention (such as the Criminal Intent project in the New York Times).

This is just a hint of what’s to come. We need to be able to populate these future projects with even more historians. Which means thinking about how to train them today. Training these people by graduate school is simply too late, however. We need to begin training undergraduates in their first year. Indeed, as a recent study carried out at the University of Rochester indicates, students won’t adopt new technologies by the time they get to graduate work – the risks are too high. Let’s get them as undergrads.

What could a digital literacy programme look like for the next generation of historians, so that they’re ready to begin thinking and tackling these issues?

  • We’ll need a firm grasp of the historiographic context of this shift – i.e. the old school quantitative historians, who crunched the census of Hamilton for example, or poured considerable time and effort into understanding demographic shift.
  • Basic digital tools: What is cloud computing? How can we secure and backup our data?
  • How can we digitally organize conventional sources? I’ve discussed this before in my post on Zotero.
  • Grasping the SHEER SCOPE of large digital depositories. It’s one thing to say that Google Books has fifteen million books. It’s another to really grasp this. And to further realize what a drop in the bucket that is compared to other repositories of automated data being collected every day.
  • Basic programming? The ‘Programming Historian‘ is a great start. What most of us will have to do won’t be so complicated and we need to be able to do it ourselves. While well-funded projects may be able to raise the funds to recruit teams of programmers to join them, or others may form collaborative and interdisciplinary work-teams, many historians will not be able to do so. They should be self-sufficient in this regard, at least for more simple and routine data mining exercises.

Our students should be able to come out of undergraduate history programs and be truly equipped for our knowledge economy and for the future demands of the profession. This will help teaching, research, and labour market outcomes. Information is increasingly being generated by the internet, written on the internet, and being consumed by internet users. People need to be able to create it, interact with it, in a fluent, comfortable manner.

What do you think? Should historians make this shift? Or are there disadvantages that I’m overlooking in my enthusiasm for this field of research? I’d love to hear from you all, especially as I begin my next project (a digital history of postwar English-Canadian youth).

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