Wednesday, 31 July 2013

So what does digitisation mean for history?

I took part in a public debate that 'digitisation is the death of history' at Curtin University on 29 July 2013 #digideath13. I had the honour of arguing against the motion alongside David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia. In favour of the motion were Lise Summers and Meg Travers, who both work at the State Records Office of WA. David spoke about ensuring preservation and usability of digital files into the future while I touched on a host of other considerations including access, democracy, analysis, exposure and involvement. Following a few requests, below is the basis of my arguments.

So what does digitisation mean for history? 

For one, it means access, and not just access to some – but access to the masses. Since my two opponents and my fellow teammate all work in archives let’s use that as a somewhat awkward example. Archives typically open late, close early, are often open only a few days of the week and are normally never open on weekends. The normal person would find it difficult to visit without taking annual leave from their job. Furthermore, the normal person would probably be too intimidated to visit an archive in the first place, or wouldn't actually know what they’d find if they went to one.

This landscape is dramatically changed with digitisation, especially when coupled with the internet. It makes access more democratic allowing more people access to history 24/7 irrespective of their location. They could be in Perth, rural WA, the other side of the country or even the other side of the world.

Not only does digitisation make history more accessible but it also makes it easier to find because it is increasingly searchable. Back in the olden days of the 1990s both amateur and professional historians would spend hours trawling through pages and microfilms searching for an elusive mention of their research topic. In an increasing number of instances they’re now able to search the same content in a matter of seconds. Not only is digitisation making research easier and quicker, but it is improving the broadness, accuracy and quality of both research and the historical works that are produced from it.

Digitisation is also leading to the development of tools that allow for automated and less biased research. Tim Sherratt’s QueryPic is a great example. For those who aren't familiar with QueryPic it’s a tool that searches digitised Australian newspapers in Trove for mentions of keywords or phrases and then produces tallies and a graph of the results. It can be particularly useful to pinpoint changes and to track trends. Mapping results for “unemployment” for example, pinpoints quite accurately when unemployment increased – as our headlines and editorials began talking about it more frequently.

A more unique example which was used by Tim himself was to compare the results for Father Christmas and Santa Claus. The general assumption was that Australia was traditionally a nation of Father Christmas. The results, however, produced in a matter of minutes, reveal this has been the case during some periods, but that Santa Claus actually topped the list quite comfortably from the 1880s through to the mid 1910s. Unexpected jumps can then be investigated to potentially find the cause.

But digitisation doesn't just improve the landscape for the consumer of history. It also improves it for the producer – and in an equally democratic way. It has never been easier or cheaper for individuals, family historians, or local historians such as myself to share history. Digitisation and the internet provides everyone with the same opportunities and allows all of us to share history with a massively larger audience.

I can speak first-hand to the example of the Carnamah Historical Society. We began sharing history in a digital capacity ten years ago and never could have imagined how incredible the outcome would be. Our history has risen from relative obscurity to taking a permanent place at the National Museum in Canberra. I’d love to say it’s because Carnamah’s history is deeply significant but the truth is that it carries no more or less weight than that of any other district in Australia. So how did this happen? How did Carnamah end up at the NMA? Well a curator at the National Museum went to – which is the same way 30,000 other people discover connections to our history each and every year.

One of the true benefits of digitisation is exposure. A lot of the people who discover and engage with Carnamah’s history were not actually looking for Carnamah. In fact, for one three year period, most traffic to our site was from internet searches and only 3% of those searches included the word Carnamah. What of the rest? Well they were the name of a person, cemetery, historical event, item and so on. This pulls in and connects people who weren't looking for us but value what we have.

But digitisation isn't a one-way road. For Carnamah the exposure from digitisation has led to us being asked to routinely speak on 6PR radio and has also resulted in inclusions in books, magazines and other publications – including this one by the National Museum called A History of Australia in 33 Places, or as we prefer to say – that’s Carnamah and 32 others.

In January we digitised a number of images as part of a project to share more of our collection with greater audiences. One of those images is now the cover of the current edition of Inside History magazine. This image hasn’t exactly died from digitisation. It’s now on the cover of 7,000 magazines around Australia and New Zealand and has gone out to some of Inside History’s 10,000 registered digital users. It’s also been seen by thousands of people on the Facebook, Twitter, blogs and websites of both Carnamah and Inside History.

I could easily talk about Carnamah for a very long time but I best move on!

Another big benefit of digitisation is increased community involvement. There has never been more opportunities for people to be involved with, contribute to, and interact with history. This could be as simple as leaving a comment, sharing a photo or a personal perspective, or helping tag or transcribe records.

Virtual volunteering is a focus area in the National Volunteering Strategy and history organisations are actually leading the way in this regard – especially through crowdsourcing. This includes the National Library’s Trove where people can tag and text-correct newspaper articles and also the National Archives of Australia’s arcHIVE where people can help transcribe handwritten documents. These kinds of projects not only get people engaged with history but they will also fundamentally change the usefulness of these collections. Increased searchability will allow valuable information to be found in the most unexpected places. Once you could only search files by title or if you were lucky, by description. The road of digitisation, and born-digital records, means we will one day be able to search across the entire contents of files and archives.

Digital involvement is also pulling people into history who don’t have a generic interest. The University of Iowa Libraries in the US crowd-sources the transcription of historic hand-written cook books on their DIY History Transcribe site. This activity attracts people who have an interest in cooking and helps put their hobby into a historic context.

Another example, that is closer to home, is the Carnamah Historical Society who last year received $100,000 from the State Government’s Social Innovation Grants program to further develop our concept of virtual volunteering. This project has already resulted in both expected and unexpected results. As expected, we've got a lot more work done thanks to more helpers, but quite unexpectedly, virtual volunteers have thanked us for the opportunity of being involved. To date the ages of our virtual volunteers have ranged from 19 to 97 and they are located throughout Australia and overseas – including one lady in rural Victoria who upon retiring decided to replace her 2-3 days of work with volunteering for us! Some of virtual volunteers have local connections while others had never even heard of Carnamah before.

It’s an interesting concept for historical societies, who are often the cornerstone of local history. They are plagued by cries of dwindling memberships and falling capacities, especially in rural areas where aging and decreasing populations take their toll. Digitisation offers a new angle on sustainability that is only just starting to be realised. The removal of geographic constraints has the potential to dramatically change the local history landscape.

Speaking of sustainability, there’s also that sticky point of money and funding. Digitisation is expensive – whether it’s maintaining born-digital content or digitising records or other physical-items. If approached correctly this is actually more of an opportunity than a problem. A number of funding bodies including Lotterywest and the Department of Culture and the Arts, now encourage and are keen to support projects that include digitisation as they are seen to be more inclusive and reach more of the community. 

The world is now digital. Already we are facing the hurdle from the public that if it isn't online then it probably doesn't exist. For history to survive, be used and appreciated it needs to change and evolve. Let’s move forward, tackle the obstacles and shortfalls and keep history living in the lives of the present. Digitisation won’t kill history. It will help keep it alive.

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  1. Interesting thoughts. The dilemma we face though, is that in a time of digitisation, everyone suddenly expects everything for free - which is what highly funded archives and libraries can do as part of their role, but for historical societies, just getting something digitised takes a lot of work - then many expect it to be freely disseminated. (Not to mention those who come in with USB sticks and want to lift it while you are not watching). There needs to be acceptance of a middle road, where users should expect to pay for what they use, as part of supporting organisations that would then be able to digitise more.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Linda. There are so many dimensions to this subject! I agree that a lot is expected to be freely available and that the expectation is often very unreasonable. Larger organisations have digitised a lot more but in most instances it is still only a fraction of their total collection.

      I feel that historical society collections, if possible, should be freely available to the community as in most cases it was the community who donated the collection in the first place. I totally acknowledge, however, that this doesn't help finance the cost of digitisation. The consolation is that funding bodies are more likely to fund organisations who provide free access and that the dividends of free access come from more people using and interacting with the collection (which in turn also increases the chances of funding support).