How is Digital Media and the Internet Changing How We Present the Past?

While it is clear that technology is changing many aspects of our daily lives, as historians and educators, it is important to explore some of the ways that the Internet and digital media have impacted the way we present the past to the public and to our students.

First of all, the Internet has made the presentation of history much more malleable. The growth of blogs, easy-to-create websites, and crowdsourced information delivery, like Wikipedia, are only a few examples of the way that Carl Becker’s notion of “every man his own historian” has really become a reality in our society. Technology has made it possible for history to be presented to the world not only by scholars, but also by everyday people. Therefore, as historians and educators, we must embrace this concept and make it our mission to teach others how to think like historians. Then when they are creating their own history website or editing a Wikipedia article, they will have the basic historical thinking skills they need in order to ask good questions, find quality sources, analyze and compare those sources, and form their own interpretations.

Historians and educators also must be aware of this increase in everyday historians, as many people are now getting their version of the past from personal blogs, films and commercial websites instead of from scholars or museums. This means that scholars and museums are running into many more people who are having trouble getting past their deeply held stereotypes (or what Bertold Brecht calls “alienating the familiar”), even when those stereotypes or misinformation have been learned through non-scholarly blogs and websites. Because more versions of history exist than ever before (propagated by scholars and non-scholars), educators or museums now have to work harder to break down these common assumptions through their presentations of history. One way to do this is to show students or museum guests the historical research process one must go thorough to investigate the historical fact or artifact in question. This is an ongoing challenge though, because many people, even when they are presented with clear evidence that contradicts their belief, will still refuse to give it up.

Another way that technology has completely changed the way we present history is through the amount of information and the ease of access to materials on the Internet that can be utilized in our presentations. John McClymer, in “The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media” describes technology as pulling us into an era of abundance and out of an era of scarcity. The internet, unlike a book or a library, is not limited in the amount of information it can hold. Technological tools like keyword searching has given us the ability to easily find thousands of digitized sources such as documents, images and films. As these sources are now easier for us to access, it also makes it easier for us to use these sources in our presentation of history to others. Before digital media, a teacher might have been able to show her students one or two examples of Renaissance paintings that were in the students’ textbook or in a class set of slides. Now, a teacher can create a website with links to hundreds of examples of these art pieces and allow students to pick their favorites to explore. The abundance of materials and examples is allowing us to present a richer and more nuanced version of the past than ever before. It is also allowing us to utilize these resources to teach students historical thinking skills, as mentioned before.

Finally, as John McClymer also points out, technology has allowed us access to material which helps us put the sources we are using in context. In the article, McClymer relates the story of Thomas Jefferson’s desk, which had a rotating piece that allowed him to have several books open at one time. Then when he was reading one book, he could look up all the references that author made to other works and find and read those references in the original books. McClymer believes that the Internet acts like Jefferson’s desk, allowing us to easily connect the source we are reading to other relevant sources. Not only does the internet give us the ability to search and find other relevant material, by digital media has provided us with tools like Zotero that help us easily collect and organize that information electronically so that we can easily go back and compare what we have found.

Technology’s ability to help us organize our sources and see how they fit into a greater context is not just beneficial to historians for their own research projects; it can also help those who are presenting history to students or a public audience. Digital media such as websites and film also allows us to present the historical connections and context we have found to others in an engaging way. Websites in particular, are especially good mediums for offering a Jeffersonian-like experience to the public or students. For example, we can incorporate video clips, digitized documents or artifacts, images as well as contextual information all in one place, while at the same time, linking our audiences to other webpages or sources for their further exploration. This gives them the virtual experience of sitting at Jefferson’s desk, allowing them to make connections between sources and seeing the wider context that their particular book, document, image or film fits in.

I will be interested to watch how technology, the Internet and digital media, will continue to impact the teaching, learning and presentation of history in the future. But one thing is for sure: it has already created a significant change in the way historians “do” history and the way the public interacts with history. While we are mindful of many of these changes, the impact of technology on history as a subject and a profession is so monumental that we will be dealing with repercussions of it (some that we are not even aware of yet) for years to come.

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