On Roy Rosenzweig and his work

A friend recently drew my attention to Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age by Roy Rosenzweig (1950-2007) who was professor of history and founder of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

In this book (which is a collection of essays), Rosenzweig addressed both the advantages and the problems with doing history online. It is a wonderful book that I highly recommend – one of the few scholarly works I have come across that talks about the impact on the digital media on how we think and do our research. There are many books out there on the democratizing potential of the digital media – their importance for teaching and for the dissemination of knowledge. But not many writers have analyzed what the digital media will do to our research in the humanities.

Rosenzweig was very positive about the New Media – but not before discussing some of the problems involved too. His scholarly work was a weighing of positive and negative and in the end, he came down on the positive side.

One of my favorite quotes concerns the possible need for different methodologies within the discipline of history:

The historical narratives that future historians write may not actually look much different from those that are crafted today, but the methodologies they use may need to change radically. If we have, for example, a complete record of everything said in 2010, can we offer generalizations about the nature of discourse on a topic simply by ‘reading around’ ? Wouldn’t we need to engage in some more methodical sampling in the manner of, say, sociology? Would this revive the social-scientific approaches with which historians flirted briefly in the 1970s? Wouldn’t historians need to learn to write complex searches and algorithms that would allow them to sort through this overwhelming record in creative, but systematic, ways? The future gurus of historical research methodology may be the computer scientists at Google who have figured out how to search the equivalent of a 100-mile-high pile of paper in half a second…

In a new digital world, would historians then be held to the same standard of ‘reproducible’ results as scientists? (pp. 23, 25)

For cultural historians such as myself, is this good or bad news?

About the reluctant digital humanist

A humanities scholar who is interested in American history, human rights, copyright and digital humanities.
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