How can digital archives create a fairer society?

The Sussex Humanities Lab explores how digital technologies are shaping culture and society. It asks questions at the heart of the humanities by drawing on expertise from diverse fields.

It can often feel as though there’s a gulf between the work done at universities and the world beyond higher education. But with the digitisation of our shared history, Professor Tim Hitchcock thinks it’s time to reassess the relationship between the academy and the public – we can all be historians now.

Tim believes that despite the potential pitfalls of using the internet as a means to share information and engage new audiences, there is a huge opportunity for bringing researchers and history enthusiasts together. Non-traditional forms of publication such as blogging, open access policies, and the visualisation of complex data allow historians to present history – with its nuances, contradictions and surprises – to a much wider audience.

Access to archives offers the public a route to knowledge about their past – dates of important events, forgotten decisions, the life stories of people who came before them, data to measure assumptions against, and history of the local area. With access to those stores of information comes empowerment, leaving people better placed to change things for the better in the future.

Many records are now archived online, opening up history to anyone interested in the topic. Digital history attracts scholars from different disciplines to look at evidence afresh now that it’s been transformed from mere words into objects and data. There are also crowdsourcing projects and research co-creation.

One example is Transcribe Bentham, where volunteers were invited to transcribe the papers of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The project aimed to break down the barriers between the public and academic research.

‘There’s evidence of a vastly expanded audience for history both online and on television. And many of these viewers aren’t just passively consuming history. They’re doing their own research and writing,’ says Tim, ‘And in the process of making this kind of research possible, digitisation and the internet have helped spirit into being new audiences for history.’

If historians are willing to embrace these changes, then the discipline will become more open and more democratically accessible, helping society to question itself, its principles and its past.

Read more about Tim's research

Professor Tim Hitchcock is a Professor of Digital History and leads the Digital History/Digital Archives research/activity strand of the Sussex Humanities Lab.

The non-academic historian with internet access has at their fingertips more real data than can be found in any single archive or hard-copy library.” Professor Tim Hitchcock
Professor of Digital History

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