How does the digital change the nature of historical research?


There are advantages and disadvantages in terms of the effects of the digital on the nature of historical research. This view is reflected by digital scholars where Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig state: ‘Even the ancient discipline of history has begun to metamorphose…new media and technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research…the past.’[1] This essay will discuss the following five beneficial qualities in relation to digital media, as well as showing how they have changed historical research. They are as follows: capacity, accessibility, flexibility, manipulability and interactivity. The following disadvantages, and why they are so, will also be discussed. These flawed areas of the digital in relation to historical research which will be focused on in this essay include: quality, readability and accessibility. Overall it seems that the digital has brought more in terms of advantages than disadvantages to historical research, hence the weight of this essay focuses more heavily on its positive and what they bring to the discipline of history.

The changes seen in historical research in relation to digital history can be seen greatly in terms of the increased storage capacity now accessible because of the digital. Storing large amounts of information is not always possible in a museum or archive where space is tight. A positive effect of the digital on historical research is the capacity provided by digital storage, which allows for greater research possibilities. The amount of data in Google Books, for example, amounts to: ‘…2 trillion words from 15 million books…’[2] Cohen and Rosenzweig show just how important increased storage capacity is where they state: ‘…digital media can condense unparalleled amounts of data into small spaces. A 120-gigabyte hard drive that sells for $95…can hold a 120,000 – volume library.

Instant access to online archives for academics and amateur researchers alike shows just how much the digital has changed historical research for the better. For amateur historians and those interested in family ancestry, increased access to online resources and genealogy websites such as Ancestry permit historical research in the comfort of their own home. Ever increasing in popularity, family history or genealogy accessed through the internet can only be of benefit to the discipline of history as a whole because of the increased amount of research taking place. Hence the benefits of increased access are far reaching and ‘The instantaneous access to primary and secondary sources…will likely alter historical research and writing in ways that we haven’t yet imagined.’[3] Another benefit is the depth of historical research and tracing of generations of family members or groups who have migrated. Cohen and Rosenzweig show this positive where they state: ‘A genealogical web page can bring together the descendents of a family who started out in County Cork, Ireland, but later scattered to London, Toronto, San Francisco, Cape Town, and Melbourne.’[4]

Flexibility of digital data has changed historical research because large data can be recorded in databases or Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) and then used for research purposes. This is useful because: ‘…digital information organized into databases or marked up in XML…can be instantly reordered or combined into new forms. Acting on the pieces in a database or XML document…computer programs can pull together disparate materials in a way that compares, contrasts, and enhances them.[5] This adds to research by allowing historians to see long term patterns or trends over a period of time. It would take much longer to physically pull together all of the research and analyse it, hence the digital benefits historical research in this case.

The digital also benefits historical research through manipulability: ‘…the possibility of manipulating historical data with electronic tools as a way of finding things that were not previously evident.’[6] This is similar to the case where Google n-grams was used to uncover new and never seen before information found in long term trends. An important element of historical research provided by the digital is text searching using Boolean search capabilities through databases such as JSTOR.[7] JSTOR and other journals are somewhat problematic though because they charge subscription fees which are not always affordable for historians. The advanced search options of websites such as the Old Bailey Online also allow for increasingly refined and detailed searches, creating better results and historical research.

Digital history encourages interactivity between academics and amateurs, students and teachers through online blogs and websites. This allows for collaboration, debate, discussion and feedback on historical research and findings. Social media such as Twitter is also a very popular online forum where historians and amateurs can share research and discuss issues about digital history among other things. One digital collaborative project between Google Books and a mathematician named Erez Lieberman Aiden has led to a breakthrough in digital research. Instead of having to gain copyright permission from all of the authors on Google Books (which is a consistent problem), the young scholar was able to take all of the data from the n-gram database. In his article John Bohannon states: ‘

The researchers have revealed 500,000 English words missed by all

dictionaries, tracked the rise and fall of ideologies and famous people,

and…identified possible cases of political suppression unknown to

  1. [8]


In conclusion it could be said that the digital has much to offer the discipline of history and that it has changed the nature of historical research for the better, bringing many benefits  to it. These include greatly increased storage capacity for academic and amateur researchers alike when storing research, resources and data. The possibilities of storage capacity in the digital are wide and include not only text and paper documents but images and scans of pictures or even primary and secondary sources as seen on the British Museum website. The digital offers increased accessibility for research and to the discipline of history as a whole inimitably. Arguably there is nothing which rivals the access to research materials and resources like the digital does. This is reflected in the rise of online blogging and websites set up by historical researchers, as well as by the growth in popularity of genealogy for the amateur historians or those interested in their family ancestry. The digital also brings increased flexibility to historical research, with the possibility of using XML or putting information into a database and using it to discover long term trends or patterns. This kind of research would not be possible without the digital because of the large amounts of information which would need to be pulled together and analysed, hence, in this particular area, the digital has changed historical research for the better by uncovering new methods through which to research and new results. This can be seen in the case of google Ngrams viewer and its research possibilities. The possibilities in terms of manipulating data to benefit historical research are also similar to this. Websites, such as the Old Bailey Online, can be designed with extensive search engines which use Boolean phrases or advanced search to enable more thorough or definitive results. Google has much to offer in this respect, giving researchers the possibility to research using images, maps, translate, books and a blogger among other things. The digital also offers benefits to historical research, both academic and amateur because it encourages online interactivity, hence it offers scholars the ability to further their research and knowledge through a process of feedback and debate. Despite the digital bringing many positives to historical research it also has its flaws. In terms of quality not all digital resources are completely reliable. Wikipedia, for example, is unreliable because anyone can add to it. Hence it is not reliable for scholarly research which needs to be footnoted. In terms of inaccessibility, some digital resources are inaccessible and require a subscription to access them. This can be limiting for historical researchers or even amateurs who may be unable to afford the cost of accessing the journals. Overall though, the digital many positives and has improved possibilities within historical research. This is reflected in: ‘The unprecedented number of sessions focusing on digital scholarship at the 126th Annual American Historical Association…indicates that historians are active participants in a digital revolution promoting…open and collaborative scholarship.’[9]


















Cohen, Daniel. J. and Rozenzweig, Roy, Digital History (Pennysylvania, 2006).


Journal Articles

Cohen, Daniel J., ‘The Difference the Digital Makes’ Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2012), pp. 1-2.

Galarza Alex, Heppeler, Jason and Seefeldt, Douglas, ‘A Call to Redefine Historical Scholarship in the Digital Turn, Vol. 1, No. 4 (2012), pp. 1-5.

Torget, Andrew, J., and Christensen John, ‘Mapping Texts: Visualising American Historical Newspapers’, Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2012), pp. 1-4.


Internet Resources


Bohannon, John, ‘Google Opens Books to New Cultural Studies’,,; consulted 1st march 2014.


Cohen, Daniel, J., ‘Initial Thoughts on the Google Books Ngram Viewer and Datasets’,; consulted 1st March 2014.


‘Collection Online’, The British Museum,; consulted 22nd April 2014.

Sullivan, Danny, ‘When OCR Goes Bad: Google’s Ngram Viewer & the F-Word’, Search Engine Land,; consulted 28th February 2014.








[1] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History (Pennysylvania, 2006), p. 2.

[2] John Bohannon, ‘Google Opens Books to New Cultural Studies’,,; consulted 1st march 2014.

[3] Cohen and Rosenzweig, , Digital, p. 4.

[4] Cohen and Rosenzweig, , Digital, p. 5.

[5] Cohen and Rosenzweig, , Digital, p. 5.

[6] Cohen and Rosenzweig, , Digital, p. 7.

[7] Cohen and Rosenzweig, , Digital, p. 7.

[8]Bohannon, ‘Google, p. 1

[9]Alex Galarza, Jason Heppeler and Douglas Seefeldt, ‘A Call to Redefine Historical Scholarship in the Digital Turn, Vol. 1, No. 4 (2012), pp. 1-5.


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