Computational History

William Turkel, author of the excellent Programming Historian, has recently published a provocative post on his blog, Digital History Hacks. He writes there,

To some extent we’re all digital historians already, as it is quickly becoming impossible to imagine doing historical research without making use of e-mail, discussion lists, word processors, search engines, bibliographical databases and electronic publishing. Some day pretty soon, the “digital” in “digital history” is going to sound redundant…

Turkel’s post, well worth a read in toto, eloquently states what was decried last November by Anthony Grafton in the New Yorker:

The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating. Over time, as more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could never have known previously. Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database. Neither Google nor anyone else will fuse the proprietary databases of early books and the local systems created by individual archives into one accessible store of information. Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention. (p.4)

Grafton and Turkel agree on the point that learning how to navigate the seas of digital information will be a crucial skill for any successful historian in the future (or even in the present). I wonder, however, if younger scholars raised on the Google, IMBD, and Facebook will find it so challenging as Grafton suggests to combine the results from multiple sites and search engines. In fact, the disjointedness of the internet is one of its few universalizing aesthetic qualities. Few people involved in the digitization of major research libraries are in favor of a single search to rule them all. Google is trying that and has met with fierce opposition, both from publishers and from libraries unwilling to cede control of their freedom to act independently. Grafton is obviously aware of this and makes a number of important points about Google in his article. I wonder, however, if Turkel’s knowledge of the technologies behind the current transition to digital libraries isn’t a sign of things to come. Is it conceivable that fluency with Python and archival APIs could become a prerequisite of creative scholarship in the next decade? In other words, as pithy as Grafton’s criticisms may be, could he be vastly underestimating the scale of the humanistic revolution at hand?