New Worlds for Old: To Conclude His Series on the Opportunities Offered to Historians by New Technology, Nick Poyntz Looks at How Recent Developments May Help to Bridge the Gap between Academic and Public History

Article excerpt

Digital history stands at a crossroads. Practitioners, whether programmers, archivists or bloggers, are still in a minority. It is not clear whether digital ways of working will become an everyday part of a historian's skills, or the preserve of a small band of experts. The fate of digital history will depend on how key aspects of it, many of which are currently in flux or only just beginning, develop in the future.

One of digital history's early promises was that it could expose the past to a much wider audience, building bridges between academic and popular history. Parts of this optimistic vision have been fulfilled. Social media such as blogs allow historians to connect with readers across the world and digital versions of sources, such as genealogical records, mean that part-time enthusiasts have, in theory, just as much access to the archives as academic historians. Yet an increasing number of digital sources are now locked behind 'paywalls'. For a number of years the Royal Historical Society (RHS) maintained a free online bibliography covering nearly hall a million secondary sources relevant to British and Irish history. From this year it has only been available through subscription. When grant funding ran out, the RHS was faced with the choice of abandoning the project of making it pay its way. It is better that such projects survive, but paywalls limit access mainly to universities.

Although digital formats can be easily reproduce& they are not necessarily any less fragile than analogue sources. A famous example is the work carried out in 1986 to digitise Domesday Book, which produced files that could only be read by BBC Micro computers. The subsequent development of common programming standards for digital history projects makes another Domesday scenario unlikely. However, even common standards do not guarantee that digital material will be preserved. The historian John Ramsden, for instance, used his own website to provide detailed footnotes for his book on Anglo-German relations in the 20th century. His excuse for not including them in the printed edition was that it allowed him more space to develop his arguments. However, Ramsden died in 2009 and his website no longer exists. Luckily, the footnotes were archived by another site, but many other websites that run out of funding may not be so lucky.

Digital history will also have to find the right balance between text and other forms of media. Many of the archives and libraries, whose holdings are being digitised through projects like Google Books, are collections of the written word. …