Intro Blog: Living History

My name is Cindy Allingham. At the age of 63, I have a slightly different viewpoint on digital history than many Brock students might. I attended University of Toronto in the 1970s studying European Medieval and Renaissance history, and continued to take part-time courses through the 1990s and 2000s towards my goal of a BA in History.

It is likely hard to imagine, but in the late 1970s a university education was not needed in order to easily secure a good job. I dropped out of school reluctantly to work in the Information Technology field, where employment was instant and lucrative. Initially I was trained as a COBOL programmer, but moved into middle management, where I built a career on anticipating technology trends, obtaining and implementing the right tools and equipment, and helping business people apply technologies to what had been manual work. I helped facilitate the use of mainframes, PCs, database tools, LANs, email and eventually the Internet in large organizations such as Canadian banks. Information management for corporations remained a lifelong specialization. Eventually, however, my knowledge became stale, and the market for my skills changed, and I wanted to learn something new.

My husband and I retired to Welland, and I am pursuing a degree in History at Brock. We are both interested in playing music in groups, and enjoy the peace and quiet in a smaller town. I have loved and listened to jazz and blues my whole life, and love to read. These interests often intersect, as I include an interest in American racial history and how music dominated its culture.

Last spring I began to research my great-uncle Sidney Edward Dudley, who died in WWI in France in 1917. Before he was shipped overseas he married Margaret Maud Haldenby; very little is known about her, but she did have 2 illegitimate children before she met my great-uncle. Their descendants have made contact with me and we have been pooling resources to try to find out more about her. This has sparked my interest in historical research at the turn of the 20th century, and shown me that digitized information can revolutionize the study of history, personal and public. For instance, I located an analogue photograph of the couple and was able to share it with Margaret’s descendants too. They never had a picture of her.

The Digital History Introduction reviews the question of whether technology applied to history is a good thing or a bad thing, and it examines the “promises” and “perils” of digital history in order to argue that, overall, the former outweighs the latter. Among the advantages mentioned are quantitative and expressive “promises” such as capacity, accessibility, flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity and hypertextuality. The “perils” seem to be fewer: quality, readability, passivity and inaccessibility. These seem to be possible negative outcomes of the “promises”.

This kind of argument has taken place in many areas of technology over centuries of human development. I am old enough to remember a world in which digital technology did not exist, so it is easier to observe and understand its effect on the way we live and the way we think. For example, studying History prior to the 1980s required the ability to manually search thousands of card files at the university library for relevant books and journal articles. Compiling a bibliography and creating footnotes for essays were done completely by hand. Essays had to be written by hand or, for some privileged students, typed on a typewriter.

card-catalogelementary-4-638

Doing these things required skills that most students no longer possess. Searching a card file has been replaced with sophisticated search engine software on a database; it can now be done anywhere provided electronic access is available, so it no longer requires students to travel to the library. Gone are the gruelling nights spent scouring the card drawers, retrieving books from the stacks, nursing paper cuts, and taking supper breaks. It can all be done easily from the comfort of home.

Bibliographies are created using software tools, and even basic word processing software automates the process of inserting footnotes and applying formal style standards. On the up side students can spend more time on reading and thinking about the content of their essays, rather than on the form. On the down side, dependency on electronics to provide form leave the student with little understanding of how it is done or why form is important. Some of my former colleagues would argue that this dependency causes lack of investment and ultimate lack of knowledge among users.

Perhaps a simpler illustration of this conundrum is the switch from pen to keyboard. Using a pen mainly requires penmanship,  a skill which was taught in grade school in the 1960s.  Many have argued that penmanship has become obsolete in favour of keyboard skills. Some students don’t use writing or printing because everything they do is on digital keyboards. Is it lamentable that the skill of penmanship (being able to draw letters correctly) seems to be disappearing? Or is it just that the skill, like that of trimming a quill pen, is being discarded because it is no longer needed? How will education change when keyboard skills are no longer necessary because brain implants will allow us to transmit thoughts?

If we accept that digital history is inevitable, and that it is making profound changes in the way we think about, research and share history, we must also accept our own role in shaping the way information is managed, stored, arranged and used. We must also realize that we can contribute in dealing with the challenges of information management only so long as we recognize what those are, and this course will help us explore these challenges.

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