Digital History

What Is Digital Technology and How Historians Can Use It?


First published on August 24, 2019. Last updated on February 20, 2021.

Learning Objectives

  • Introduction to digital history and its context within the discipline of history.
  • An introduction to the topics the course will cover.
  • How to prepare for the remainder of the course.

What Is Digital History?

What is digital technology and how can historians use it? The term digital is derived from the Latin digitus, meaning finger or toe. Most people have ten fingers available to count all the way from zero to ten. Most computers literally only have one finger, so they can count from zero to one. Computers can process lots of zeros and ones very quickly. Bigger numbers, letters, images, videos and much more can be represented and processed as groups of ones and zeros. Digital history can be said to encompass all historical endeavors and works that involve such technology. That is a really broad definition. In practice, historians typically focus on a set of tools and technologies.

Examples of Digital Tools

With the advent of powerful computers and other technologies, there are many more tools for accessing existing historical sources, further evidence-gathering and the analysis of history. There are numerous tools used for digital history.

Such tools include those long used for the recording and manipulation of digital information:

  • pencil on paper
  • abacuses
  • clay tablets (which can be sometimes be changed with a little bit of water)

Common desktop software can be used for digital history, either to record or examine documents, act as a simple database or for communication and visualization:

  • Word processors such as MS Word and Apple Pages
  • Spreadsheets such as MS Excel and Apple Numbers
  • PDFs tools such as Adobe Acrobat Pro

There are reference tools such as:

  • Clio (US historical reference site)
  • Mathematical and quantitative fact-finding tools such as Wolfram Alpha

Programming allow you to write your own tools. Examples of programming languages include:

  • Perl
  • Ruby
  • Python
  • Statistical languages and plotting software such as R
  • Graphical languages such as Processing and SVG

There are also specialized application platforms:

  • Geographical Information Systems (GIS) such as QGIS and ArcGIS.
  • Omeka for sharing digital collections and creating media-rich online exhibits.


Recommended Reading

Further Reading


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