Asking New Questions About the Past

Digital technology is playing a more integral role in humanities research of all types. Noah Goodling explores how these tools are altering the way historians conduct their own research and analysis into the past. Noah is a third-year graduate student in the Public History program at IUPUI.

The introduction of digital technology into historical study has already begun to have interesting and far-reaching effects on the field.  Historians have reacted in various ways to the new tools at their disposal—some have maintained “a print mentality when it comes to information,” while others have embraced the new arena of digital technologies that emphasizes practices like hypertextuality and collaboration.[1] Moving forward, it seems that it will be increasingly important for historians to be familiar with, and to utilize, digital technology in their projects and research.  I believe that the field of history today is undergoing a paradigmatic change towards embracing the power and versatility of digital tools to find new interpretations and to disseminate that information to as broad an audience as possible.

Digital technology has already begun to pervade the field of history.  Many datasets that were extremely difficult to study in their original format have found new expression in the digital realm.  For example, the massive Bayeux Tapestry depicting English history was a nightmare for researchers to study due to the fragility of the source material and the difficulty of closely analyzing scenes in the tapestry that were not directly adjacent to each other.  Digital tools have greatly assisted the study of this artifact by providing a place in which the entire tapestry is readily available to view, accompanied by multiple scholarly interpretations, links to sources of other relevant data, an indexing of the events depicted in the Tapestry, and other useful materials.[2]  Other digital projects have utilized historical information in new areas, such as the use of the papers of Abraham Lincoln to study word origins and the terminology of the nineteenth century.  In both of these cases, historians were unsure of what would happen when digital technology was introduced into the equation, but have been able to find extraordinary results through its application.  Tim Hitchcock, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, has noted that oftentimes when using digital technology, we “have no idea what [the end result] means,” but the data “suggest[s] different ways of thinking.”[3]  This is the crux of what makes digital technology so exciting—it provides a flexibility in historical research to answer questions about data that would be practically impossible without it, but it also provides a place to discover questions that no one has thought to ask.

The ability to play with data by using digital technology demonstrates how historical practice is changing with the advent of these new tools.  Questions that would have previously taken months of research to answer can now be found in the course of seconds through the use of powerful search algorithms that mine aggregated datasets for selected information.  For example, the Old Bailey Online project provides access to a massive amount of English trial data from the 17th to the 20th century.  This information can include date ranges, gender, type of offense, profession, age, name, verdict, and punishment received. Having this metadata at the user’s fingertips can lead to new questions being asked about the past: how many goldsmiths in the 18th century were found guilty of creating forged products?  What proportion of women were put to death in the 19th century compared with men?[4] Although the immediate search results are not necessarily historical breakthroughs, the accessibility of the data in the hands of experts has led to new analyses about social and material culture in England during the available period.  Even simple visualizations of data and metadata have led to new insights into what historical information is available through a selected source.  The Republic of Letters project conducted at Stanford University simply maps out the exchange of letters between Enlightenment thinkers.  This tool allows a trained historian to trace the exchange of information and ideas through Europe and America throughout the course of the Enlightenment.  Just by observing the flow of letters, historians have already begun to question assumptions that have been made about which authors originated which ideas.[5]

After looking at some of the exciting applications that digital technology has already had within the field, I think it is obvious that these tools have a future within the field.  Perhaps the most important realization, then, is to note that historians will not be able to proceed alone.  Although many historians have already begun to garner new technological proficiencies, the rate of technological increase and the logistical complexity of digital projects–for example, creating code for a text mining software program–necessitate opening the field to outside perspectives and skillsets.  Rather than being viewed as a tragic necessity, however, I believe that the historical field serves to benefit from collaboration.  As historian William G. Thomas III has stated, “digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication,…[it] encourages readers to investigate and form interpretive associations of their own.”[6]  Opening the gates of history not only encourages new interpretations, but it also assists viewers in finding personal connections with the information being presented.  Beyond engaging other disciplines, digital technology also embraces the idea of shared authority, allowing the public to interact with professionals online means such as discussion forums and crowdsourcing historical research projects.  Bringing the public to a closer understanding and appreciation of their history should be a goal of all historians; digital technology provides new tools to make that ideal more feasible.

Digital technology, then, has a lot to offer to the field of history.  New methods of exploring and visualizing data have led to innovative discoveries that would have been nearly impossible to notice in the pre-computer era.  These discoveries have opened the door for different projects that embrace interdisciplinary perspectives and strive to include the public.  It will be interesting to see what emerges from this technology as digital media continue to permeate historical expression and thought. ~Noah Goodling

[1] John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012).

[2] Martin Foys, “The Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition: Online and CD-ROM,”

[3] Tim Hitchcock, “Textmining British Studies: an Overview of Recent Developments,” History Working Papers (2012).

[4] “The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913,”

[5] “Mapping the Republic of Letters.”  For further information, this video shows project leader Don Edelstein discussing the results of the project:

[6] “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008),


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