When I was doing the research for my dissertation, I spent three months sitting at one table in the university library combing through every single issue of Ebony Magazine for articles or letters about interracial marriage. While sometimes tedious, the task was also fascinating. Even as I scoured the magazine for mentions of intermarriage, I constantly found myself exploring other articles or ads that had nothing to do with my topic. In the end, immersing myself in the source holistically helped me better understand and contextualize the material that I found on interracial marriage. The historical context was all around me, right there in the pages of Ebony. Many years later, I again turned to media sources to find historical sources, this time articles about civil rights era murders. But now, given the digital revolution, I could do targeted word searches of digitized magazines and newspapers. I found hundreds and hundreds of articles from newspapers around the country and was able to access material that I certainly would not have been able to find in an earlier period. But I traded ease and quantity for a kind of textured understanding of the past. I wasn’t reading through entire magazines or seeing how the articles I found related to the rest of the content of the source. The ease of finding sources—often taken out of the larger body of work in which they appeared—can make it harder to understand those sources in historical context.
This is just one small example that highlights both the challenges and opportunities of doing and teaching history in the digital age. As an educator, I have found that my students can easily find books, articles, and primary sources because of digitization projects. Even with subscription databases and firewalls, students today can access vast collections of materials without entering a library, submitting an interlibrary loan request, or entering an archive. Digitization and text recognition have made it possible to search a huge body of material and to find sources from the comfort of a desk or a dorm room. But at the same time, students often have no idea how to sift through all the material they find, how to decide which things to read or sources to use, or where the primary sources they find might fit in a larger picture of the past. The sheer quantity of information can make it more challenging for students to sift through it in a way that helps them see patterns or make generalizations.
Then of course there is the issue of how easy digital tools make it to manipulate information. A recent article by Sam Smith on the American Battlefield Trust website discusses the oft-repeated myth of Black Confederate soldiers. While some Confederate heritage organizations and supporters claim that black soldiers voluntarily fought for the Confederacy as part of their case that the war was not about slavery or racism, there is almost no reputable historical evidence to back this up. But doctored evidence–that’s easy to find, like photos of black Civil War Union soldiers that have been cropped to make them look like they were actually fighting for the South. Digital tools have made it easy not only to spread “fake news,” but to create faked evidence.
Perhaps the biggest challenge we face as history educators is that the very ease of access to the internet means that students are encountering information about the past that can be hard to “source.” They may find historical information or collections of sources without knowing who produced or created it. They may have trouble determining whether the author or organization that created a site is reliable or whether it is promoting a particular version of the past as part of a political agenda. They may not even know whether a historical site was produced by someone with some expertise or whether it a History Day Project done by a group of middle schoolers (not that middle schoolers can’t do fine history projects, but those projects probably shouldn’t turn up in bibliographies of college student papers, as I have seen more than once…). There is, of course, a lot of wonderful historical material online, like that on the “Teaching History” site, but unless a student is directed to it, they are unlikely to find it on their own.
In his 2016 essay, “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History,” Sam Wineburg points out that basic web literacy skills have a lot in common with historical thinking skills. A good history education teaches students that they have to ask questions of every source of information rather than taking it at face value. They must weigh who wrote something, why it was written, what kinds of evidence an author uses to back up an argument, and whether others view the work as reliable. But that can be hard to do with material on the web and most students aren’t taught how to do it well (I’m not sure most faculty know how to do it well either—I didn’t know how to do a “Whois” search or to search for who linked to a website before reading this article!) The digital age has unleashed rapid change in how we read, find materials, and do research and as educators, we need to develop new tools and practices that recognize and adapt to these changes.