Digitalisation is transforming historical research – and history itself

As the materials, tools and methods available for use change, researchers must learn to ask new kinds of questions and argue in new ways.

A notion prevalent in historical research suggests that research is conducted alone, slowly and laboriously going through sources in the archives. The findings are compiled into a thick book which reveals the key trends of the research topic. Digitalisation is changing this notion.

The digitisation of materials that accelerate the transformation of historical research has been going on for roughly 20 years. The conversion of content into electronically readable data has been particularly extensive for newspapers and parliamentary documents. Then again, for example in Norway, all published books have been digitised, while the same applies to roughly half of all books published in the 18th century in the United Kingdom. In Finland, the National Library has published in digitised form all newspapers printed in the country before 1929.

“Data can be accessed through databases on your personal computer, which has an impact on research. What used to be arduous and difficult is now easy and fast,” says historian Jani Marjanen, PhD.

“This is evident, for example, in the fact that all current research focused on the 19th century uses newspaper data even if the research topic does not concern the written press. This change has come about after 2004, the year when the National Archives of Finland published a text corpus of the 19th century written press.”

Historians need new skills

Previously, the professional skills of historians were based on being well-read. However, the analysis of new and extensive digitised datasets requires something quite different: you need to be numerate.

“At the very least, you need to be able to use spreadsheets,” Marjanen notes.

Not everything has to be done independently. The historians of today work in groups. Marjanen himself works in NewsEye, a project under the Helsinki Computational History Group, which, in addition to historians, employs computer scientists and computational linguists. In Marjanen’s part of the project, the focus is on the political conceptual history of the vocabulary of the nation on the basis of newspaper data.

“Ten years ago, not a single historian worked like this. Now, research is conducted collaboratively and across disciplinary boundaries.”

The aim is to take these new needs into account in historical education as well. Historian Kati Katajisto, PhD, has worked as a coordinator in the digital leap in education project for the discipline of history, during which consideration has been given to how to instruct students in the skills needed in the digital age.

“For instance, students have a range of international materials at their disposal in an entirely new way, and they are also happy to use digitised data in their theses. However, teaching must increasingly emphasise source criticism, or the consideration of which material is reliable and which is not.”

Over the course of the digital leap project, courses teaching digital skills have been organised. Katajisto too stresses the importance of cooperation.

“You certainly don’t have to be able to do everything yourself. You have to consider what you should learn to do independently and when you should ask the coders for help. However, for individual historians in particular, obtaining the resources needed for cooperation with data scientists remains a challenge.”

And the tools used also matter.

“The historical past is so complex and multidimensional that easy-to-use digital tools easily produce self-evident results. On the other hand, adapting the tools and modifying their code takes a lot of time and money.”

“The tools developed by the National Archives and other similar memory institutions are, however, quite promising,” says Marjanen.

At the same time, new kinds of argumentation skills are needed.

“Historians have to learn to justify their claims also with figures,” Marjanen adds.

Data guides research

The digital revolution is not the first revolution affecting historical research materials. The last time a similar revolution pertaining to materials took place was in the late 19th century when countries established national archives, bringing national documents and material considered important under one roof.

“Deciding what was important, or worth preserving, was based on ideology and politics. Correspondingly, what is now being digitised is based on politics and affects historical research,” Marjanen points out.

Even though digitising efforts have been extensive, they are only just beginning. There is an enormous amount of non-digitised data in the world, and not all digitised data has been processed in a way that optimally serves historical research.

“Ideally, digitisation would be part of research projects, with memory institutions that conduct digitisation, like libraries and archives, involved. This way, scholars would get to have a say in what is digitised and how from the start. However, this requires new forms of funding, since I’m not aware of any parties currently funding such long-term projects,” Marjanen says.

Big questions

Digitalisation has also expanded the research topics taken on by historians, which has far-reaching effects.

“Earlier, it was impossible to manage extensive source datasets, but now we can examine periods of, say, 300 years in terms of a certain concept, such as gender. This may result in the reassessment of currently accepted takes on history,” Marjanen sums up.

Therefore, digitalisation is transforming not only historical research but history itself.