Historians must become digital now!

As long as there have been computers, there have been scholars pulling at historians to adopt computational methods, otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant. Already in 1948, Murray Lawson wrote “historians have not been sufficiently conscious of the benefits to be derived from the technological revolution which has transformed contemporary society”, and similar claims are still being made today. Without discussing the extent to which historians have answered or ignored such provocative claims, I’d like to try and collect such claims that warn scholars they will become irrelevant if they do not take up computers or data analysis. Please do let me know any quotes you have relating to historians or humanities scholars in general and I will add them to the list below.

Source: https://xkcd.com/1831/

Like Hamlet, historians have now reached the crossroads of “to be or not to be;” either they accept the challenge and attain to new heights of achievement or else reject it and be swamped by the tidal wave of accumulated and expanding knowledge as was the art savant in “Penguin Island.”

Lawson (1948) [1]p. 149, Lawson, M. G. (1948). The machine age in historical research. American Archivist, 11(2), 141–149.

The historian will be a programmer or he will be nothing

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1968) [2]Quoted on p. 591, Rabb, T. K. (1983). The Development of Quantification in Historical Research. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 13(4), 591–601.

Tomorrow’s historian will have to be able to programme a computer in order to survive

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1979) [3]p. 6, Le Roy Ladurie E (1979) The territory of the historian.
Added thanks to Christian Gosvig

The historian who refuses to use a computer as being unnecessary, ignores vast areas of historical research and will not be taken serious anymore

Boonstra, Breure, & Doorn (1990) [4]Quoted on p. 4 Boonstra, O., Breure, L., & Doorn, P. (2004). Past, present and future of historical information science. Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 29(2), 4–132.

The past leaves its traces. Historians collect them, interpret them and write about our past on the basis of these traces. What happens if these traces – the primary sources – disappear? History – in the sense of “historical sciences” – can no longer be written. The difficulty we have today in meeting the challenge of archiving digital sources is a sword of Damocles threatening historians and historical sciences. […] If our response is not adequate, the historical sciences themselves are endangered.

Clavert (2013)[5]Translated from French using DeepL, original Clavert (2013).  La fin de l’histoire? – pensées éparses (5) [The End of history? Scattered thoughts (5). L’histoire contemporaine à l’ère numérique. http://histnum.hypotheses.org/1248

To reclaim their role as arbiters and synthesisers of knowledge about the past, historians will be indispensable to parse the data of anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, historians of trade, historical economists, and historical geographers, weaving them into larger narratives that contextualise and make legible their claims and the foundations upon which they rest.

Guldi & Armitage (2014)[6]p. 112, Guldi, J., & Armitage, D. (2014). The History Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://doi.org/10.1017/9781139923880

[A]n historian trained exclusively in qualitative methods, with no grounding in numbers, in computation, would be also “woefully deficient.” And this scenario is not hypothetical. It is now a reality

Baker (2016) [7]p. 21,Baker, J. (2016). A History of History through the Lens of Our Digital Present, the Traditions That Shape and Constrain Data-Driven Historical Research, and What Librarians Can Do About It. In J. W. White & H. Gilbert (Eds.), Laying the Foundation: Digital Humanities in Academic Libraries (Knowledge, pp. 15–34). Purdue University Press.
Added thanks to Joseph Koivisto

As history becomes digitized in ever-increasing scales, historians without the ability to research both micro- and macroscopically may be in danger of becoming mired in evidence or lost in the noise.

Graham, Milligan, & Weingart (2016)[8]p. 2, Graham, Milligan, & Weingart (2016) Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. Imperial College Press.

[I]f we do not wake up soon to the new realities of big data, computer scientists will leave us [historians] behind, biting the dust in this road to knowledge.

Franzosi (2017) [9]Franzosi, R. (2017). A third road to the past? Historical scholarship in the age of big data. Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History, 0(0), 1–18. http://doi.org/10.1080/01615440.2017.1361879

References   [ + ]

1. p. 149, Lawson, M. G. (1948). The machine age in historical research. American Archivist, 11(2), 141–149.
2. Quoted on p. 591, Rabb, T. K. (1983). The Development of Quantification in Historical Research. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 13(4), 591–601.
3. p. 6, Le Roy Ladurie E (1979) The territory of the historian.
Added thanks to Christian Gosvig
4. Quoted on p. 4 Boonstra, O., Breure, L., & Doorn, P. (2004). Past, present and future of historical information science. Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 29(2), 4–132.
5. Translated from French using DeepL, original Clavert (2013).  La fin de l’histoire? – pensées éparses (5) [The End of history? Scattered thoughts (5). L’histoire contemporaine à l’ère numérique. http://histnum.hypotheses.org/1248
6. p. 112, Guldi, J., & Armitage, D. (2014). The History Manifesto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://doi.org/10.1017/9781139923880
7. p. 21,Baker, J. (2016). A History of History through the Lens of Our Digital Present, the Traditions That Shape and Constrain Data-Driven Historical Research, and What Librarians Can Do About It. In J. W. White & H. Gilbert (Eds.), Laying the Foundation: Digital Humanities in Academic Libraries (Knowledge, pp. 15–34). Purdue University Press.
Added thanks to Joseph Koivisto
8. p. 2, Graham, Milligan, & Weingart (2016) Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. Imperial College Press.
9. Franzosi, R. (2017). A third road to the past? Historical scholarship in the age of big data. Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History, 0(0), 1–18. http://doi.org/10.1080/01615440.2017.1361879

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