History in a Digital Age: Accessibility

One theme from Cohen and Rosenzweig that many of you picked up on in your response papers was that of accessibility, that they expected (rightly, it seems) that digitization would make history (and historical sources) more widely available to more people. Here are Sarah and Collin’s reflections on that theme. Did you resonate with their experiences as you perused other digital history projects? Do you see downsides to — or limits on — accessibility as Cohen and Rosenzweig describe it?

Upon examination of the various collections in Bethel’s digital library, the theme of accessibility continued to define my perception of the merits of the digital displays. Largely composed of primary sources instead of narrative secondary essays, many of the documents and images associated with Bethel’s history are now easily accessible, whereas a few decades earlier, one may not even know where to begin to find a particular publication or image. In the past, finding a particular primary source required a great deal of time and financial investment to travel to the one physical archive of interest (C&R). Despite claims of the new interactive, multilinear, and flexible nature of digital collections, the major peril of increasing passivity is epitomized by narrative attempts found on projects like the Bethel at War project. The nonlinear setup of this website may inhibit the reader’s understanding, as it lacks the opportunity the linear expositions give to truly gain access to the “thoughts and experiences of others” (C&R). The screen format where readers can move quickly from one page to the next of interactive displays tends to put more focus on what individual reader himself is experiencing (C&R). Although written over ten years ago, the majority of the promises and perils still apply today.

– Sarah Sauer

A simple search on the Bethel Archive for “Scandia Baptist Church” will give over one hundred results in the Bethel collection alone, ranging from pictures to the articles in the Clarion. Now anyone doing research can peruse private collections that only a privileged few had access to in the past. Sadly, these advancements in the storage and accessibility has also led to increase in ease of forgery. Programs like Photoshop can easily place someone into a photograph when they were never there. Then it is possible to upload that photo to a database and eventually it could be accepted as true. This seems to go in the opposite direction of idea of historical narratives. Cohen and Rosenzweig predicted a future where historians would have easy access to whatever they needed. As technology continues to develop this is true, but each advancement has its unique constraints.

– Collin Barrett


14 thoughts on “History in a Digital Age: Accessibility

  1. The increased accessibility to the past is good for many things, but I also believe that it cheapens history. When we work very hard for something, whether it is an object or a piece of knowledge, we tend to value it more highly than if it was just handed to us. When we have to search through archives to find the right source we take the time to carefully study that source. On the other hand, when we need only to open up our computer and passively scroll though a couple websites to find what we need, we take everything at face value. We do not study these sources as thoroughly as sources found by hard work, and this means these forgeries that are easier to make are also easier to pass off as real.


    • Aidan, I agree with you that the ease of access to so much information can cheapen history. It does not force one to dive into a subject and discover new things slowly as their research continues. This slow process cultivates a love and connection to the story one is researching.

      However, on a positive note, the ease of access may also propel ones interest and passion. If one is already invested in a topic, the ease of accessibility and preservation of so much information may aid them in researching this topic in more depth. I know that if I found an online database full of information I am passionate about I would be thrilled, even thought I cannot physically experience it in the same way. The ability to preserve so much information with little cost is a huge benefit!


      • I believe the benefits of accessibility outweigh the negatives. Being able to further our overall understanding and expand interpretations is what sticks out to me with accessibility. I think there is value in having the information directly in hand. However, it is oftentimes difficult to navigate those sources and they aren’t being used in the best possible way. I believe with how advanced technology is our resources are finally being maximized.

        I do agree with Aiden that it could be problematic to take the information available at face value. However, I would take that possibility and the chance to use resources to full extent over cluelessness with resources and a physical copy. Accessibility is not just limited to historical information. It also allows us to discuss opinions and interpretations with one another. Having this tool of condensing information in a central location ultimately can progress our understanding of history like never before.


      • “This slow process cultivates a love and connection to the story on is researching.” I love this statement! I am a firm believer that one will value something to such a high extent when its something they have worked their butt off for. The amount of hours and times of frustration, I think, are what really connects one more intimately with their work. Afterwards, thinking back to the effort it took to get to where they are makes one appreciate and cherish their work that much more.


      • I agree Mikalah, the ease of access allows one to really dig deep into a topic of interest. The deeper someone digs they often find more topics that branch from the initial topic that are also of interest. Personally I have found some of those branches to become more interesting than my initial query. However I do agree with you Aiden that one of the best ways to fight the passive nature that can be inherited from such easy access to information is to have to dig through piles of sources.


      • I agree with you Mikalah on the positive side of accessibility. The ease of access on a topic actually motivates me to want to learn more about it. It sparks an interest for me whenever I find a topic quickly and I don’t get as easily frustrated. With the ease of access, there is so many sources filled with information for me to look from and it is much less time consuming.

        On the other hand, I do agree with Aidan’s statement on how the ease of access can cheapen history. We often tend to get lazy when it comes to researching on a topic, especially ones we aren’t as passionate about. Since we have the easy access to many different sources, we often don’t check if the source is reliable or not. We don’t go in depth with our researching as we should since the information is right in front of us and we never bother to check the reliability of it. Overall, I do think that accessibility is a great thing. Agreeing with Jake, I’d say that the positives definitely outweighs the negatives.


    • While I do agree with you Aidan that if history is easily accessible that it can cheapen history due to it being just handed to us. But my question to you is what where do you draw the line of building on others’ work and doing your own work? As Dr. Gehrz mentioned in class one of the luxuries of history is that we have the privilege of building on others’ work and we’re not alone in our field.


  2. I think that the ability to access the past more quickly is very helpful for many reasons. It gives us a variety of different sources that we are able to choose from and helps us find sources that we otherwise may have missed. It also helps us speed along the learning process with how quickly we are able to find new information. With that being said there are some negatives as well. It is hard to tell what sources are reliable when you reach them so quickly. Most people will use the first source they find and not bother looking deeper for a better source. That also can take away from getting the best knowledge possible. Being able to reach sources so quickly takes away from diving into what the material is telling us. I really enjoy how fast we are able to find new sources of history but we need to be careful we are still getting the best information


    • Excellent points made here John. History through digitization has put at hand more information a historian / student researcher could ever want. Some of which they may either would not have had access too or even know it existed! But on the flip side to that positive, I feel like one could come to feel overwhelmed when sorting through the mass amounts of sources to find it is what they are looking for. In other words, it could get to a point where it may seem as though they’re doing more picking through research, than obtaining actual research. I do agree with the point you made on reliability and peoples researching efforts. In a weird way I see that challenge with digitized history as almost a test on historians. Who is really willing to buckle down to find those raw, reliable sources that will further them in their field? And who is satisfied with mediocre, surface level information?


      • Really interesting points, John and Madeline. In response to the idea that having history so accessible results in more work for the historian, I wonder how accessible good historical artifacts or ideas really are. Are we now running into a lack of accessibility because it feels like everything on the internet about a certain historical topic is surface level? Does this surface level tertiary information hide deeper secondary and useful primary sources from a historian seeking them? And to add in Collin’s observation that the historical information we find online can be easily manipulated or forged, can we trust anything online as true? Is this a form of an accessibility crisis? I don’t necessarily think this is a new problem as forgery has been a practice for a long time. However, is the ease of accessibility really just causing more problems for historians?


  3. I agree Aidan, that there is a downside to having easy access to information. I agree and liked how you talked about value, and when someone works for something and puts in the time, they value it more. However I tend to see accessibility as more of a positive thing. One reason I think that it is a positive thing is how it can make sources for research accessible for younger students that are studying history for the first time, or just wanting to learn about a topic. If someone was watching a movie and reading a book that talked about a historical topic but not in detail, they have easy access to find out more, that kind of access could make that person fall in love with the topic and dig deeper.


    • Logan I really like the point you made with accessibility. Having research be more available can, like you said, make a young student fall in love with history because they have access to an event or subject they are interested in. I would like to take it a step further and say that having such accessibility can benefit anyone, not just students. Perhaps someone is just interested in a particular event or era in history, the accessibility makes it readily available to everyone. Additionally, one does not have to travel to “X College” or “Y University” to find a document they are looking for; instead it is readily available online.


  4. I agree that the accessibility of digital history can cause a problem and provide the ability to simply skim a number of sources without digging deep. It also provides a vast number of unreliable or weak sources that some people take as Aidan said at “face value.” Although this problem exists I believe that the accessibility is ultimately more helpful because if a researcher puts the a similar amount of time researching online as they would tracking down a physical archive they can get so much more depth and information out of their research. I think the researcher will value this information more than traveling to a physical archive because they are still investing a lot of time into researching and will arguably get a more complete understanding of the topic they are researching due to the vast amount of information and ideas accessible to them.


  5. I’ve been quiet on purpose: you all are doing a fantastic job on this thread and the one related to “passivity,” and I want to stay out of your way. If I could just add one more wrinkle to this particular discussion… How equal is access to digital resources (hardware, software, networks, bandwidth)? Have you encountered the idea of a “digital divide” before? What does this mean for historians? Do we have a responsibility to work on reducing such inequities?


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