Problems of the digital sort

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armchair-leather-tub-chair-vector-523902Many of our complaints revolve around the fact that users are not digitally literate – which is to say they can certainly use digital tools, but they may not be aware of how they work (or even that they need to be). The digital heightens certain problems – ie it shares many problems with traditional research yet digital interfaces present things in a different way that make particular assumptions more likely. First of all, digital tools present very finished user interfaces which belie the underlying uncertainty and incompleteness of their databases and searches. The historian, however critical, is often not trained in using computerized search engines. Like any other user, he also (or primarily) collects his information about computers in other areas of his life. Even for those who have made a study of computer aided humanities, computer based archives much more easily bleed into other activities than analogue archives, the consultation of which generally takes place in the distinctive environment of a library or archive. In contrast, nowadays, the historian can simply switch, sitting in his armchair, between Google and Delpher. This situation which holds the danger that the historian will assume that the two search engines use similar principles and have similar access to data. However, digital data from historical sources, mostly based on paper sources, are very different from digital data from contemporary sources ie. sources that are ‘born digital’, so such an assumption is misleading at best.