Changing Times: Technology and an Abundance of Historical Resources

Technology is changing the way we think about and do History. Generally speaking, historians have always suffered from a lack of complete source materials. Not every document has been preserved, and historians have had the job of piecing the surviving records together like a puzzle in order to recreate events and hypothesize about what happened. Now, however, there are new ways to preserve and protect historic sites and records, and the Internet and new technology makes it much easier to find and share information.

Take for example Historic Scotland‘s ongoing project: they are using lasers to scan 3D monuments around the world in order to preserve the details of these structures and to create realistic, digital models of them. The idea is that if buildings or monuments, such as Mount Rushmore, were destroyed by causes like weather or pollution, these 3D scans would be able to create accurate models of them. This would allow continuing generations to see what they had looked like, and could even help with conservation or rebuilding efforts. Instead of these monuments being lost to time, 3D modelling has the potential to preserve a copy of them indefinitely.

Mount Rushmore, featuring four former presidents of the United States.
A photo of Mount Rushmore – one of the monuments the Historic Scotland team is scanning for their project.

Instead of losing the historical accuracy of a site, this project gives historians and archaeologists lasting access to points of cultural significance and preserves a more complete record of a site. There is less to piece together when trying to figure out what something looked like, or how the surrounding landscape changed over time. By creating 3D scans of monuments and buildings, these researchers are helping to increase the historical accuracy of the records that capture these sites.

Another way that technology is helping to improve History and outreach is through monitoring data. Because historians are usually working with incomplete data, the idea of having full access to information on a subject is very appealing. By preserving not only “born-digital” sources, but also monitoring how people interact with emails, webpages, and other digital mediums, there is huge potential for capturing vast amounts of data. The problem becomes, then, how to analyze it. As the article Everything, Too Cheaply Metered points out, “…while the value of ubiquitous monitoring seems nil at first, data streams of trivial actions are often the streams that become most valuable later on.” By collecting large amounts of data, researchers are able to find patterns in the mundane and also pick out events or documents that are outside the ordinary.

In order to analyze this growing wealth of information, there are a number of tools that historians can turn to. For example, to find patterns in large quantities of data, we can use text analysis and topic modelling to pull out the key themes in anything from a collection of books to song lyrics from different decades. A couple of easy-to-use tools are Google’s Ngram Viewer, which lets you compare the frequency of different words over time, and Voyant, which lets you create visually appealing word clouds, along with highlighting the most frequently used words in a selection of text.

Diving into using new technologies can be both scary and exciting. Technology is changing the way we do history, helping to preserve more information and knowledge. Whether it’s scanning buildings and monuments, or analyzing large amounts of digitized text, new technology is creating a new way to study history.


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