Digital history and teaching the malleability of the past

In a course on teaching and learning history in the digital age that I am taking through George Mason University, we have been reading and thinking about the concept of malleability of the past.1 History is the interpretation of the past and it always has been subject to change as new evidence and new perspectives emerge. As with other disciplines, the increasing use of the digital environment has made that change more pronounced, leading to both challenges and opportunties.

Doing historical research used to mean visiting libraries and archives to read books and documents. It still does, but now it is easier to locate those artifacts as memory institutions increasingly provide online finding aids. And, increasingly, those institutions are digitizing artifacts, resulting in time and cost savings for researchers. Several years ago while researching the Latvian anarchist press of the early 20th century, I learned of a periodical published in London called Cīņas Balss (The Voice of Struggle). From what I could determine, only two institutions had copies available. One was a library in Rīga, Latvia, and the other was the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. In either case, at the time a trip to Europe was out of the question, but IIHS was able to provide digital copies for a fraction of the cost of airfare.

While this is of great benefit for historians, it is a challenge for audiences such as university undergraduates who may operate under the assumption that if it isn’t on the internet, it doesn’t exist. I recall a student a number of years ago who was puzzled about why she could find no records about a specific topic dated before the early 1990s. Could it be that the topic wasn’t part of public discourse before then? Of course not. The problem was that the records she was expecting to find had not yet been digitized and made available via the internet. To uncover the earlier public discourse, she would have to venture to a physical library and examine physical documents.

The increasing availability of evidence in digital form means that those who study history potentially have more material available. For educators, it provides opportunity in guiding students in how to interrogate documents that may come from various sources and from differing perspectives. This has the benefit of allowing students to comprehend the complexities of history, to show how multiple narratives may make up a larger story. Learning how to evaluate a digital facsimile compared to its physical original also allows students to consider the relative merits of both formats and what is gained or lost in terms of analysis.

At the same time, the growing availability of digitized documents and of digital tools for historical analysis creates the potential of perhaps too much complexity. More people than ever before are able to engage in historical research and bring their findings to the public through digital platforms such as blogs or Wikipedia. For educators, the challenge becomes not just teaching how to perform historical research, but also how to evaluate the work of others. A traditional scholarly literature review typically confronts only other scholarly literature published as books or as articles in academic journals. But what about that narrowly themed blog that someone writes about your topic of interest, or that Wikipedia entry that has become a site of dispute between different ideological factions? Some historians may scoff at them, but the fact is that the public — and especially students — often visit these sites in search for information. Unlike books or articles published on paper, history presented in digital form may be modified quickly as new evidence or perspectives come to light. Knowing how to evaluate these sources is a critical skill that should be taught to students, as Sam Wineburg suggested two years ago to a conference on state and local history.2

The past has always been malleable, but that malleability has quickened. The digital turn in the study of history has created both new opportunties and new challenges for researchers and educators.

1. Malleability of the past has been addressed by historians, psychologists, and others. On the malleability of individual memory, which makes up and is informed by collective memory, see, for example, Adam D. Brown, Nicole Kouri, and William Hirst, “Memory’s Malleability: Its Role in Shaping Collective Memory and Social Identity,” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (July 2012),, accessed July 4, 2017.

2. Sam Wineburg, “Why Historical Thinking Is Not about History,” History News 71:2 (Spring 2016), pp. 13-16.