Using Technology to Gather & Manage Historical Evidence

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Think that historians do research like they always have? Think again. This lesson shows how the work of the historian is rapidly changing and how your picture of a dinner out could one day be a primary source.

Away from Dusty Shelves

When you close your eyes and imagine someone doing historical research, chances are that you see someone surrounded by books. After all, libraries just seem like logical places for historians to do their work. Truthfully, a good library is still an important asset to any historian. However, in the past few years, a number of new sources have emerged that are starting to change the way historians approach their sources. While some of these sources are little more that scanned copies of earlier works, other documents are taking fuller advantage of the changes in technology.

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  • 0:01 Away From Dusty Shelves
  • 0:39 Digitized Books
  • 1:36 Online Databases
  • 2:24 Surprising Sources
  • 3:42 Current Events
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Digitized Books

One of the easiest ways that historians can use the advantages of new technology while still utilizing the vast knowledge held in traditional libraries is through the use of digitized books. Numerous organizations have made it their mission to digitize massive amounts of the printed word. However, the advantages of these digitized books vary greatly. Some are little more than scanned PDFs of the documents in question, although they are now available anywhere. However, others have searchable text, meaning that someone can literally type into a search box for any relevant passage. Needless to say, this is a major advantage.

In fact, it's not just books that are becoming digitized. All manner of historical documents are now available online. In fact, with some of the higher-profile documents, you can even search handwritten text for information, such as with U.S. Census documents.

Online Databases

Digitized books aren't the only tool for those who want to keep their work online. In fact, a surprisingly large amount of information would be missed if only books were digitized. After all, many scholars prefer to publish articles instead of full-fledged books, since articles can discuss a specific point in 20 pages, whereas a book requires hundreds of pages and sticks to more general topics. Virtually all scholarly articles now are available online through a number of databases. Perhaps the most well-known of these are JSTOR and Google Scholar, but a number exist. Again, here the differences between a simple image scan and a fully searchable document exist as well, but unlike books, much more specific research can be obtained in a shorter period of time.

Surprising Sources for Historians

Historians should be wary of relying only on books or articles, whether digitized or not, as both are usually examples of secondary sources. However, new technology has given an increasing amount of access to the primary sources that have helped to change history. A great example of this comes from the old cassette recordings, now all available on MP3, of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini preaching revolution to the Iranian people. In fact, the word 'cassette' was deemed so important as to have its own entry in the Encyclopedia of Islam, a preeminent secondary source on the Islamic world.

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