Do Digital Methods Change History?

Obviously I’m being provocative with the title, but hence my point which I’ll get to a bit later.  Also, of course I realize that this is a topic that has been discussed to death in multiple journals, but I’m really just trying to reflect on larger issues here as they apply to my own work.  So, on to the meat of what (I apologize) will be a fairly long blog post.  As I’ve been thinking about my own digital project, I wanted to take a step back and think about how I initially approached the project, where I am now, how things have changed, and what exactly what it all means, especially for people like me who are doing both history and information science (and thus am at a kind of fringe between the two groups).

I started out my project on the Journal of the American Chemical Society thinking about the books I had read on the history of scholarly communication (which admittedly is a relatively small literature).  In those works, authors seemed to agree that the late nineteenth/early twentieth century was a time of transition in scholarly communication.  The system was moving from a “republic of letters”in which individual scholars communicated to each other via a correspondence network.  Because of the explosion of scientific information, the changes in American higher education (and presumably change in other countries), industrialization, and any number of other factors to complicated to get into for a blog post, the system of scholarly communication switched to a journal system.  However, according to historians of scholarly communication, scientists and academics still relied on that earlier method of identifying journals by using eminent professionals within their fields.  In other words, the editorial board was the primary way to determine what journals were important.  If Professor Jones was on the editorial board and was picking the articles that got into the journal, it must be good.  Over time, people began to identify less with Professor Jones, and with the journal itself, and thus the system changed.

This makes for a good story, but at least with my journal it appears to be wrong.  I originally thought that the authors would be the most prolific contributors or that you would see particular prominent authors (whom I could hopefully identify) appearing within the pages of the journal.  I did not find that happening.  There are large numbers of authors who publish in the Journal of the American Chemical Society who appear only once and, at least based on limited research, I cannot figure out who they were.  Second, if that didn’t work, perhaps I could determine who the author network is by the topics they were discussing.  I’m still working on this, but it seems the topics are chaotic and the authors who talk about certain topics are also chaotic.  So, when I was hoping to try and find an author network via topics, that method also failed (although like I said I’m still working on it, so maybe there’s hope).

I hesitate to come to a grand conclusion about digital methods in history based on very preliminary research, but here goes (with all of the appropriate disclaimers and calls for civilized discussion).  Through digital methods have I actually disproved earlier scholars theories?  Or, have I just not read enough?  Or, could I have come to the same conclusions by just reading all of the journals in question?  What does all of this have to do with digital history?

I can offer only some preliminary thoughts to all of those questions, but I want to begin to answer those questions by asking some different questions.  Are digital methods simply a tool for finding interesting things to investigate in more detail (with more traditional historical research)? Alternatively, are digital methods a way to prove hypotheses created through more traditional historical research?  In other words, is it easier to do a small scale historical study, come up with a hypothesis, and then test that hypothesis against something like the Hathi-Trust corpus, thus making your hypothesis have more impact if you can say that I discovered something that is true across thousands of books and sub-disciplines?  Or, the last question, are digital methods something else?

Personally, I think digital methods are something else.  Relating my work to these larger questions about the Journal of the American Chemical Society, I think I probably could have come to these conclusions via some other means (like more extensive reading).  On the other hand, I think the methods helped me think through these issues in ways that do make me ask different questions than if I had just used more traditional historical research.  What do I mean by that?

I approached this topic with a particular hypothesis (editors are significantly influencing journal content), and particular digital methods I wanted to use (network analysis).  Had I just started doing lots of reading and manually mapping out the network, it would have taken me a great deal of time and would have simply been a slower way of arriving at the same conclusion.  Score one for the digital, its faster.  Having said that, there are other digital methods out there that traditional scholarship would probably not have allowed (i.e. topic modelling).  Basically I was able to further disprove my original hypothesis via topic modelling because there does not seem to be (at least as far as I can tell) a connection between topics and authors.  Score two, digital, it provides more ways to disprove bad hypotheses.  Finally, though I’m still working on getting a larger corpus, at least theoretically I can test these hypotheses across roughly fifty years of journal issues and thousands of pages all within a matter of minutes.  Furthermore, as I move forward with this research, I will be able to test the same hypotheses against other corpora (like other journals).  Score three for the digital, it can scale well.  Despite those advantages, I will probably still have to resort to old-fashioned manuscript studies of the journal editors and closer reading within particular parts of the journal to understand what is happening.  Score one traditional, you still have to do it (and since that is still a lot of work it should probably count for more than just one score point).

Coming to the end of what has been a long rambling blog post.  Here’s my take on my project and its relationship to the larger debate of whether digital methods change history.  I believe that they do.  I want to add a caveat to that, though.  I think the two methods (traditional research and digital) are complementary.  First, I think digital methods are a great way of scanning a large corpus, testing hypotheses (perhaps even quirky or strange ones) very quickly.  Doing this can allow historians to find anomalies or places to look for further research.  Also, if one has a hypothesis that has already been proven via a smaller scale historical research study, digital methods could be a great way to see if that hypothesis is true more broadly.  Thus, digital methods can be either a way to form a hypothesis or to further prove one.  This is not a particularly controversial point (at least I don’t think so), but for scholarly communication, I think that it is a highly relevant one.

As we think about ways to talk about the research process and how it works, particularly in the future, we need to find ways to integrate the kinds of exploration that I have discussed here, along with new ways of showing what scholars have done, how they have changed course, and why they are thinking of doing things differently.  Traditional scholarly communication, particularly in history, has not done this.  When we publish a finished (often print) monograph with our arguments, people don’t see the ways that we have changed course, different ways that we formulated our process, and how history is just as much a journey as it is a final result.  I think students often don’t understand this.  They assume things happened in a certain way and that historians have most (if not all of the answers).  Perhaps digital methods and more importantly the ways we document and disseminate them, can change the way we think about and communicate history in the future.

Now I’m done, and I look forward to hearing if others have better ways of talking about this than my ramblings.

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