War Diaries and Digital Humanities

The growing pace of archival digitization is creating tensions in communities of researchers and archivists. Digital Humanities projects hold great promise, but also substantial risks for today’s researchers and for future generations of scholars.

Andrew Hoskins (Interdisciplinary Research Professor at University of Glasgow) points out that “digital networks and databases appear to crush historical distance. Archives of war increasingly come to us. A simple YouTube search throws up a chaotic mix of official and unauthorised, user-generated content, from helmet cam footage to images of snipers in the field. But this immediacy, volume and pervasiveness can mean less reflection. The rawness of media memory distills a history without horizon and without hindsight. The sheer scale and complexity of digital data as primary source creates an immediate but unwieldy archive. It also hides what is really lost in paper’s demise.”

So, as war diaries and other military records are increasingly being digitized, Hoskins asks: “what are the prospects for the future of the history of warfare?”

The digitization of documents “might make records easier to find,” but Hoskins warns that: “something important is lost. The digital file strips away the subliminal context that comes with the finding, filing, handling and searching through the physical file. The mental map of the archive and its contents dissolve.”

Hoskins raises important questions on preserving, organizing, accessing, and utilizing digitized documents in archival collections dealing with the history of war and society. His own work seems concerned particularly with war diaries as a distinct textual genre. But, many of the issues he discusses are equally relevant for Digital Humanities work in other fields of research.

Hoskins’s article is available online at The Conversation.

This post is cross-posted from Brian Sandberg: Historical Perspectives.