What is New Media Doing to Historians?

Is the advancement of new media technology within the field of history helping or hurting the work of historians?  I think the answer to that question is a resounding yes in favor of helping.  The benefits of new media within history far outweigh the drawbacks.  However, in order for these benefits to be seen the technology must first be used.  I recently read an article titled “How is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?” by Robert B. Townsend that examines the question of whether or not historians are using new media in their research.  The results (identified in bar graphs and pie charts which I thought was rather symbolic of changes in the study of history) showed that a majority of historians are in favor of using new media technology to aid their work.

Not all historians are as tech-savvy or willing to learn new tools as others.  But for the most part, historians seem to be open to the idea of using technology to improve their research.  Prior to reading this article, I succumbed to the stereotype that older generations are against technology in all forms.  However, upon reading the results in this article, it’s quite obvious that that is certainly not the case.  On the whole, the numbers show that only 2.4% of 4,182 faculty members at four year institutions who were polled are considered “avoiders” of new media.  That seems like a pretty low number, especially when it still notes that these “avoiders” do use word processors and online searches.  I don’t think it’s possible to completely avoid technology in the field of history in this day and age.

Among all of the results listed, I found the most interesting to be that 68.9% of the historians in the poll consider themselves “active” users of new media technology.  This seems like a very high number for a profession that sometimes has the stereotype of the old professor with elbow patches and chalk dust on the jacket.  That stereotype certainly doesn’t lend itself to the image of a man or woman who actively uses technology to aid their research and teaching practices.  I think this high percentage symbolizes the overwhelming benefits that proper utilization of technology can have on the study of history.  As time goes on, I think this number will steadily increase simply because it is becoming easier and easier to use technology.  The “active” user will become the “common” user as a younger generation who has grown up with an inherent familiarity with technology becomes part of the profession.

Townsend’s article also raises some critical issues about the future of new media and its role in the historical profession.  There is a heavy focus on online publishing of scholarship.  While it seems many historians are open to this possibility, there are many who are wary of it because of the apparent lack of “scholarly recognition and prestige of print publication.”  This is a valid reason to shy away from online publication, but given the advantages of online publishing (wider audience and speed to publication) this concern needs to be addressed.  There must be a way to provide the same credibility to online publications that exists for printed publications.

By addressing this issue more historians could be confident in publishing online, which in turn benefits the public.  We have frequently discussed the ideals of open access throughout the semester, and publishing online is a great way to achieve greater open access.  If one of the main drawbacks is the idea that online scholarship may not be held to the same standards as printed scholarship, then obviously this must be addressed.  I think as time goes on, more historians will publish online and gradually this will challenge the notion that online scholarship is not as credible as its printed counterpart.

Overall, Townsend’s article provides some very interesting data to describe the direction of the historical profession.  It’s evident that history is moving in the direction of increased technology to improve the profession.  As more scholars become open to the use of technology, the issues such as online publishing will be resolved.  The future is coming and for a profession that spends much of its time looking back, there is also much to be gained from looking forward.


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