Databases and Historical Methods

This week’s readings brings up some interesting questions about how databases and what Bob Nicholson has termed the “digital turn” has impacted historical methods.[1] The most obvious problem, in my mind, discussed by Laura Putnam is the possibility that one may study the history of a foreign state without visiting it. The use of online archives places increased distance between ourselves and our subject. In an age when funding for travel grants are decreasing and online sources increasing, such possibilities are becoming greater. This is not just from possibly missing out on important knowledge of “in-country intellectuals,” but other, more pressing, failings. For instance, the Archives Municipales de Blois are online including all (or at least a majority) of the Deliberations du conseil municipale from 1565 to 1989. It is not inconceivable that someone could write a history of 17th century Blois without ever stepping foot in the municipality. I think many would find such a study problematic since actually seeing the geography surrounding the city, the lay of the land, walking the old quarters of the city may inform one’s study in very helpful ways. This is far from a cry that we should avoid such databases, but that we should not allow them and the methods they make possible to replace other traditional ones.

On the positive side, databases of newspapers and archival collections allow us not only to ask different questions, but also broader questions. Along with new methods, we are able to ask more global questions because we have greater access to material that was previously unattainable due to monetary limits. We must remain humble in this pursuit however. Certainly, growing archival databases, for instance in China and other areas around the globe, will make it easier to access and make connections in economic and cultural sphere previously incapable. Nevertheless, we must remember that as we expand our scope through databases, we have ever increasing historiographical literatures to tackle. My research topic in particular (Franco-Ottoman diplomacy during the 16th and 17th century) has been possible largely due to the growth of archival and literary databases (Google Books, Gallica, etc.), allowing me to access growing amounts of information and find previously unused sources due to indexing and keyword search. Nevertheless, the time gained from our new tools is replaced by the time it takes to master an increasingly expansive historiography. We should recognize that old frictions are replaced with new ones that come with new questions made possible by the increasingly numerous online historical databases.

1. Bob Nicholson, The Digital Turn: Exploring the Methodological Possibilities of Digital Newspaper Archives,” Media History 19:1 (2013), 59-73. DOI: 10.1080/13688804.2012.752963


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