I have to admit: I had a bit of trouble trying to navigate this week’s blog question for my DIGH 400 course. As it stands, the question asks if the digitization of historical data brings with it a wider horizon or weaker sources. While I first leaned towards the reliable cop out of “it depends”, when I pressed upon the issue, I found that I wanted to answer this way due to a subconscious discomfort with the phrase “weaker sources”. Instead of navigating why it made me uncomfortable, I wanted to sweep it away and ensure that I was giving consideration to the question as a whole. However, it’s my blog: might as well explore what makes me uncomfortable.
I find the phrase “weaker sources” to be most perplexing in that a source can be multiple things (a person, a document, a photo), and in the context of digitizing a source, what does the process of digitization do to make that person/document/photo weaker than when it was a material object (if it was ever one)? Additionally, what makes the source weak? Is it the material within the source? Is it the place that the source is coming from (which I think it is fairly obvious how this line of questioning might become problematic)? Is a source “weak” because it’s not reliable or because it’s not relevant to the project looking for digitized historical data? The implication is that, because a digitized source is coming from the vast and unregulated Internet sphere, that there must be some question called into play as to whether or not a source is reliable.
I don’t think this is bad. However, I think the issue lies in how, since the amount of data on the Internet is so vast, if material sources were on the same scale, there would also be a significantly higher amount of less reliable sources. In this case, a wider horizon can be argued as the impetus for creating a source that someone has deemed weak. Therefore, I think the question of digitizing historical data bringing wider horizons or weaker sources lies in pitting two parts of the Internet’s whole that are not mutually exclusive, but inextricably linked. A wider horizon provides weaker sources, yes, but what makes a source weak depends, I think, on the digital history project. While there are some objectively weak resources (if I were to put on a mustache and take a photo of myself, I would be remiss to state that I had a photograph of Charlie Chaplin), in the context of digitizing historical data, I think the strength of a source lies in the eye of the beholder.
This brings me to the point where I think there are methods around redefining what makes a source less reliable in the context of a project. I ground my thinking in the article “Crowdsourcing Public History” by Jason A. Heppler and Gabrielle K. Wolfenstein. I was completely fascinated by the process of crowdsourcing being used to create such massive projects like the Oxford Dictionary. What might be considered a “weak resource” (the Everyman) is vital in creating digital history projects like StoryCorps. StoryCorps is a project based solely on listening to people’s personal anecdotes and uploading them to the StoryCorps site. Giving people the opportunity to tell their own history is integral to the kind of project I would hope to create in the future, and it’s only possible by redefining what a “weak resource” is in the face of so much digital historical data. In conclusion, I think digitizing historical data provides a wider horizon that can yield weaker sources, should one choose to see them as such.
Check out some of the articles/projects I referenced!
Crowdsourcing Digital Public History. https://www.oah.org/tah/other-content/crowdsourcing-digital-public-history/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2022.
StoryCorps. https://storycorps.org/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2022.