History Tech Tips #3: Top 5 Indispensible Digital History Tools

Digital and online-based technologies have changed the historian’s craft. Within the past two decades, these technologies have enhanced our abilities to research, analyze, communicate, and teach history. While the current generation of students is commonly referred to as “digital natives” or the “net generation” the assumption that young people are inherently knowledgeable about digital technologies and the internet is largely misplaced.

Next year I will be leading a session at a history education conference at Mount Royal University called “Teaching Digital History Skills”. As I plan that session I thought I would post my short list of the top five digital tools I consider indispensable to my work as a historian and history educator:

1.) Google

As digital historian Dan Cohen remarked last year at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, “[w]e historians are searchers and sifters of evidence. Google is probably the most powerful tool in human history for doing just that.” As a historian, the remarkable search technology provided by Google has, on numerous occasions, opened up entirely new avenues of research and broadened my research abilities far beyond what I would be able to achieve through traditional analog search methods. As a graduate student I was fortunate enough to experience this transformation in research first-hand as Google’s search technology matured over the first years of the 21st century.

It troubles me to read about educators rejecting the use of this technology in the classroom. This strikes me as the worst kind of pedagogy. Rather than closing our classroom doors to technology that is very obviously transforming the information economy we should be teaching our students (and ourselves) how best to utilize these tools for better research. Using a search engine like Google requires a very specific set of skills for a historian that are built up over time. History educators need to instruct their students on how best to take advantage of the new research abilities such a powerful technology offers. By abdicating this responsibility as educators, how can we expect students to learn how to master Google?

2.) Bibliography Database Software

Whether its Endnote, RefWorks, or Zotero, bibliography database software has certainly helped me manage that ever-increasing flow of information in my research. The databases that I started many years ago are invaluable tools that I continue to use to this day. I’m not even sure how an analog version of my bibliography databases would even work. From keeping your citations straight to maintaining current knowledge of the literature in your field of study, this software has certainly proven itself useful to historians.

3.) Word Processor Software

This might seem obvious and I know that word processing software has been around for a very long time, but if I were to make a chart of my computer usage as a historian, Microsoft Word would definitely stand out as the most heavily used software. History is a narrative craft and writing consumes a great deal of our time and labour. Word processing software has changed significantly since the days of Wordstar in the late 1970s and we should do our best to help our students keep current with these changes. I recently noticed that many of my students did not know how to insert footnotes into a Microsoft Word document. We cannot assume that students will know how to use what many consider to be basic functions of modern word processing technology. We need to teach these digital skills in the classroom as part of writing and composition for history essays.

4.) Digital Photography

The first time I used a high resolution digital camera to digitize archival documents for my research, I knew the days of the exorbitant photocopy fees at libraries and archives were over. No longer would I need to include some outrageous budget line on a grant application for basic photocopying fees. As long as the archive would permit me to use my digital camera I could freely capture all of the archival material I wanted. Of course, this meant that the amount of material I came home with from the archives grew exponentially. With the ability to digitize archival material on the fly, no longer did I need to dig through materials with a spoon; I had a backhoe!

Capturing digital images of fragile documents, however, is a tricky thing. It takes practice and training to get a perfect shot of a nineteenth century health department report or hastily scrawled correspondence from the 1920s. Our students likely have more experience with casual point-and-shoot photography than with the finicky work of digitally photographing historical documents. Moreover, taking the picture is just the first step in the digitization process. Students must also learn how to process, edit, and organize digitized documents, using photo editing software and data management tools, including Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Excel.

5.) The Internet

This almost seems too obvious, but the internet has taken digitized information and made it widely accessible. This has fundamentally transformed the historian’s craft in ways that we are still struggling to understand. From expanding the range of our ability to communicate ideas to providing nearly infinite repositories for digitized archival documents, the internet has changed the nature of information retrieval, analysis, and communication, the very core of our work as historians. The scope of historical material available on the internet is astounding. For instance, the Early Canadiana Online project has already digitized over two million pages of historical primary source documents that can be searched online. That I can access all of these sources any time of day from my living room has inarguably changed the nature of my own historical research. I can then write an article based on that research and distribute a near infinite number of copies to every continent on Earth (and even the International Space Station). If the internet has come to play such a central role in historical research, it is essential that we teach students how to use this incredible technology effectively.

So that’s my list of indispensable digital history tools that I use as a historian and that I think we should teach in the classroom. What is your list? Please post your list in the comments section.

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