Web Archives and the Future of Historical Inquiry: “History in the Age of Abundance” Book Review Part II

This is a guest post from Scott Richard St. Louis, and is a continuation of this post.

What changes to the contemporary structure of the historical profession will be necessary to incentivize and empower historians to do innovative work with web archives? At the top of the list for Milligan is greater freedom to pursue meaningful collaborations at all levels of an academic career: “The historical profession still does not properly reward multiple collaborators on projects; and often does not have physical spaces on campus to facilitate such exchanges. Indeed, tenure standards – the definition of how we expect junior researchers to behave – largely adhere to the sole authored monograph as the gold standard of scholarly achievement” (pages 239-240). However, such collaboration is indispensable to the rigorous analysis of web archives: “Web archives are big for humanists and social scientists, but for computer scientists and those working in the area of Big Data, they are data of a size that they are used to dealing with regularly … Historians will not all become programmers. Rather, they must be able to implement – with understanding – algorithms designed by others” (pages 154-155). For Milligan, change is necessary. Whether such change will happen in an appropriately timely fashion is up for debate.

With interdisciplinary collaboration in mind, it is important to note that Milligan is not arguing for the replacement of traditional research methods; instead, he sees an opportunity for their augmentation with informed, appropriately scaled use of the digital sources now available: “The effect is not to create junior information retrieval specialists, or computer scientists lite, but rather to equip historians with the fundamentals of using their computers to interact with sources and to think algorithmically. Even if they are working on a team, historians will still need computational knowledge” (page 240). Just as interdisciplinary collaboration could have a positive role to play in helping historians achieve impact, so too – one hopes – might collaboration with historians provide value to other disciplines. What forms such value could take are also up for debate.

In any case, the abundance of digital sources, Milligan believes, can aid historians in shedding light on difficult-to-capture aspects of history, ranging from the extraordinary to the everyday: “When a large-scale social movement erupts, grassroots and institutionally based web archivists are on the case to ensure some records are preserved for future historians … Over two billion users are currently connected to the web … Some of them will tweet about their lunch. The aggregate records of a hundred thousand people and their nutritional preferences could transform aspects of our understanding of the past” (pages 51-52). For Milligan, the potential use cases for web archives are very diverse in nature, suggesting that historians might add value to interdisciplinary collaborations by imagining and organizing them in the first place.

What about the ethics of using web archives, comprised as they are of material that many individuals – often still living – never thought anyone would see? Toward this concern, Milligan is neither flippant nor naïve. On the contrary, he asks a variety of thought-provoking questions: “What should be shown in conference presentations and what should be blurred out? What names should be provided, and what should not be? And in publications and dissertation work, what form should citations take? Is it ‘real’ historical research if the citations do not point to the exact historical document?” (page 199). These questions have no easy answers, adding to the significance of Milligan’s contribution to the scholarly conversation surrounding web archives. Hopefully, additional scholars will contribute where Milligan has left off, aiding historians and others in handling these ethical matters with meticulous professionalism and earnest care.

Milligan’s History in the Age of Abundance? is essential reading for graduate students not only of history and information science, but of any discipline concerned with the profound “medium shift in how we document our lives, societies, and cultures” (page 4). As Milligan shows effectively, the maturing digital forces of historical abundance cannot be dismissed. What historians choose to do with this looming reality – engage and evolve, or dismiss and deny – will be of tremendous intellectual consequence.

Scott Richard St. Louis is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Science in Information program at the University of Michigan, where he focused on digital curation.

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