Historical Research in the Digital Age: Opportunities and Challenges

Amina Marzouk Chouchene


Since the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, digital technologies have revolutionized historical research. Historians are increasingly relying on computational and digital tools to delve into and write about the past. This paper deals with the potential and challenges of digital techniques to historical inquiry. Digital technology offers historians access to a vast number of sources with a simple click of a mouse. New sites of digitized archives burgeon every day. Manuscripts, letters, photographs, periodicals, books, artifacts, diaries, travel accounts, and newspapers have been published online. Unsurprisingly, historians access a wealth of primary sources from their desktops and save the time and money of tiring archival trips. This abundance of digitized archival sources poses, however, myriad challenges to researchers. Using a “born digital source” raises concerns about the loss of context which is vital to historical research. By relying on digitized fragments of archival material, researchers are increasingly worried about ending up with a decontextualized and invaluable analysis. Digitization implies selection and is not therefore a neutral process.  Transcriptions of archival material are often poor and inadequate. There are also increasing concerns about inequalities of access to sources and the longevity and authenticity of digitized archives in an ever-changing digital world. The increasing reliance on digital tools is a direct challenge to the practice of digging around in archives through dust-covered files which is part of the historian’s art. Many historians are still not adept enough in advanced digital search techniques.


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