On digital contemporary history

Peter Webster is the author of a new article in a special issue of the leading Danish historical journal, Temp: Tidsskrift for historie on the subject of the Information Society. The article is entitled ‘Digital contemporary history: sources, tools, methods, issues’

This essay suggests that there has been a relative lack of digitally enabled historical research on the recent past, when compared to earlier periods of history. It explores why this might be the case, focussing in particular on both the obstacles and some missing drivers to mass digitisation of primary sources for the 20th century. It suggests that the situation is likely to change, and relatively soon, as a result of the increasing availability of sources that were born digital, and of Web archives in particular. The article ends with some reflections on several shifts in method and approach, which that changed situation is likely to entail. It ends with a particular call to scholars, librarians and archivists:

‘Librarians and archivists are in the midst of a very significant change in ways of working, in relation to their users. It was previously enough to take a thing – a printed volume, or an archival box – and place it upon a scholar’s desk; there was no need to know what was being done with it in order to deliver it correctly. Now, as material is delivered digitally, every design decision taken when building new user interfaces allows some kinds of use but may exclude others. The more far-sighted archivists have recognised that this means building a new kind of relationship with the user, at the very beginning of that process. This is then a call to historians to be there at the beginning of that process, to help design those systems to meet our needs.

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