How important is technology in our professional lives? That is one of several questions that my course here at the Naval War College considers, but I have been applying that question from the realm of military and diplomatic history to the contemporary practices of historians. And my answer—not that much.
We essential do the same thing we did a century ago. We collect primary documents, preferably those that were written at the time by the historical actors we are studying, and we put them together in a narrative that becomes a book. The questions we ask about the past these days are the function of social, cultural, political, and intellectual changes in society. Technology has not driven too many of the big systemic changes between 1914 and 2014. To give but one example, African American history is a legitimate issue for investigation these days, whereas few historians of a hundred years ago would have spent much time on this topic. (Case in point, The Journal of Negro History which is now The Journal of African American History had not even been founded in 1914).
Don't get me wrong technology has helped and helped in some big ways. Word processing programs make it much easier to write; easier even then would have been the case in the 1970s when scholars would have been using typewriters or hiring people to type their handwritten manuscripts. E-mail has facilitated communication between scholars—think about what it would take to put together a conference panel in the mid-1980s given the communication technologies of the day, and remember long distance phone calls were expensive back then. The photocopier was a huge boon to scholars. Before then research trips required careful note taking and that is a slow process. The photocopier and then later the scanner and digital camera have made it easier for us to copy more information accurately. The internet has helped a lot too. In the 20 years that it has been around (as far as the general public is concerned) a lot of content has been pumped into it. You can now do library catalog searches from the other side of the country and you do not have to methodically go through the card catalog system in the first floor of a library, but can use search terms and find stuff fast. There are now many databases where you can do similar searches and pull up journal articles, or primary sources. I have been using the ProQuest Historical Newspaper Database like crazy for a current project and it has complete runs of newspapers like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for the World War II years that I am investigating. Many archives are putting electronic scans of important collections on their websites, making it possible to do primary research in your office or home.
As important and useful as those tools are to writing and researching, they are just means to an end. We still communicate via the written word primarily in journal articles and books. Although the publishing industry is having a difficult time in this economy, it is not going away anytime soon.
All of that might seem fairly straight forward, but last month, Emily Van Buren, a Ph.D. student in history at Northwestern University, posted a blog entry on the Gradhacker blog at Inside Higher Ed with an extremely clear title: "Should You Blog Your Dissertation Research?" She is apparently considering doing so.
My answer: Hell, no!
There are a lot of reasons for my answer, but to be concise: you do not want to give away your findings and research in a venue that will give you little credit. Putting all your interesting findings in a blog, will rob the dissertation (and the book that should flow from it later) of its importance and original contribution. If all findings are available on-line, why should a publisher spend money putting into print? In addition, the internet is a mighty perishable media format. I have tried getting copies of articles from various media outlets in which I was mentioned (I still have the exact address) with no luck—they are gone. Books and dissertations might be old school, but they will endure.
Then again, I might be wrong—a bit.
The Winter 2013-2014 issue of Columbia Magazine has a cover story on Matthew Connelly, professor of history at Columbia University. Connelly believes that a major new tool awaiting historians in the future lies in using computers to analyze and assess massive numbers of documents. Connelly has put together a team of computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians working on a multimedia research project called the Declassification Engine to tackle the failure of the U.S. government to declassify documents in a timely manner. To be more specific, this team is using data mining to infer what the government is not declassifying and in the process they are picking up statistical indicators of events and episodes that historians have missed up until now.
In a big way, this use of data mining could change history—but the ultimate product of this effort will probably still be books. We might be entering a brave new world, but it looks a lot like the last one. Technology is a means to an end and the objective has not really changed.